The anti-politics of Nigel Farage contributed to the referendum result, but it won’t help Theresa May take on Brussels successfully
Nigel Farage: A politician who calls his supporters out onto the streets whenever things don’t go their way is not a politician worth listening to (©GETTY IMAGES/MATT CARDY)
It is now ten years since Nigel Farage was first elected UKIP leader. He may be the UK’s most divisive major political figure, but his decade at the top of the party cannot be described as anything other than a thumping success.
Despite the party’s ineptitude at converting votes into Members of Parliament, UKIP’s electoral record during the Farage era speaks for itself. In the 2005 general election, UKIP, led by the long-forgotten former Conservative MP Roger Knapman, won 605,000 votes (2.2 per cent). Just nine years later, they won the elections for the European Parliament. In the 2015 general election, some 3.9 million voters (12.7 per cent) plumped for Farage’s “people’s army”.
Of course, Farage can claim success in a deeper sense: the UK is on its way out of the EU. Seventeen million people voted to leave the EU on June 23 and while his role in winning a majority of voters around to the idea of leaving is moot, he is more responsible than anyone else for squeezing a referendum promise out of David Cameron in the first place. Without UKIP’s noisy ballot-box insurgency, there would not have been a referendum, and without Farage, things would have been decidedly less noisy.
Farage’s long anti-Brussels campaign was so effective because of his keen nose for the mood in parts of the country not reached by almost any other politicians. Beyond his hard-line Euroscepticism, Farage’s views are malleable and he has been able to fold various grievances into UKIP’s ideological mix. The most important ingredient he added was the anti-immigration sentiment that other parties were reluctant to capitalise on. When interviewed for Brexit Revolt, the book my Standpoint colleague Michael Mosbacher and I wrote about the referendum, he pointed out that immigration did not get a single mention in any of his campaign material before 2004. EU enlargement brought with it Eastern European immigration to Britain on a scale that the Labour government failed to anticipate. He added that he had spent the last ten years trying to make “immigration and EU membership synonymous”. It does not take much as the leader of a Eurosceptic party to make political gains from discontent at increased levels of immigration when the main direct cause of that surge is EU membership. (Farage was helped by the Cameron government, which, with the forceful encouragement of the then Home Secretary Theresa May, made and then repeated a pledge to cap net migration, something it could not have control over as long as the UK remained an EU member state.)
But Farage added a second, less obvious, ingredient to the mix, which has played an underappreciated part in his success: the growing unpopularity of MPs, whose collective reputation has yet to recover from 2009’s Daily Telegraph-led expenses scandal. Over time, this grievance metastasised into a more general complaint about overlapping and difficult to pin down categories of people: the Westminster bubble, the liberal elite, the establishment. Anti-Westminster sentiment is so ingrained in the UKIP offering that it is easy to forget how paradoxical its place there is. Here is a party that exists to campaign for a colossal transfer of power from Brussels to the Palace of Westminster, yet much of UKIP’s success can be explained by the widespread hatred of those who occupy the latter.
It is not just UKIP that has capitalised on an anti-politics mood in the campaign to give Westminster more power. The official Leave campaign, which made an early decision to have as little to do with Farage as was possible, avoided discussion of long abstract words like “parliamentary” and “sovereignty”, instead opting for “take back control” as its official slogan, a catch-all phrase that was deliberately vague on who was taking control back from whom. When, during the referendum campaign, Michael Gove said the country had “had enough of experts”, he was, in his own way, tapping into the same well of discontent as Farage.
If events leading up to June 23 demonstrated how much political ground is to be gained with pot shots at the establishment and the Westminster bubble, events since the vote have proven that what won the war will certainly not win the peace. Populism helped deliver the Brexit vote, but it will not deliver a successful Brexit.
Sadly, there is no annual award for bad ideas or asinine comments in British politics. If there were, then my pick (from a crowded field) for the 2016 gong would be Suzanne Evans for her comments in the aftermath of the High Court’s judgment in R (Miller) v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, which reaffirmed the fundamental constitutional principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Needless to say that Evans, a UKIP leadership contender at the time, was not happy with judgment of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. She suggested that it was about time that judges were “subject to some kind of democratic control”. There are two problems with Evans’s idea. The first and most obvious is the erosion of the judiciary’s vital independence that this would inevitably entail. The second is that there already is a form of democratic control on judges. It is called Parliament, and it is responsible for making the law that judges are there to interpret. If the law as deduced by judges is thought to be in some way defective, the democratic solution is clear: Parliament can pass new legislation.
The half-baked ideas of a candidate for UKIP leader may be insignificant in the grand scheme of British politics, but Evans’s comments typify a strand of argument all too prevalent in post-referendum British politics today. She is part of the “will of the people” brigade. They see themselves as mediums who must be consulted if the views of the electorate need to be ascertained. Farage leads this cohort and he is promising a “100,000-strong” march to the Supreme Court on the day it hears the government’s appeal against the High Court decision. A politician who calls his supporters out onto the streets whenever something doesn’t go his way is not a politician who deserves to be listened to, as the government tackles the many thorny questions that come with the Brexit process.
Unfortunately, the “will of the people” brigade do have one thing going for them: the existence of a Remain rump who really do want to ignore the referendum result. Indeed, the hostile response to the High Court judgment (“Enemies of the People” headlined the Daily Mail the next morning above pictures of the judges involved in the case) can in part be explained by the fact that those bringing the action against the government would rather Britain remained in the EU. They are not alone. The SNP has made clear that its MPs will vote against the triggering of Article 50 come what may because Scotland voted to Remain. The Liberal Democrats see an opportunity to woo new voters as an unambiguously pro-EU party. Some Labour MPs are also tempted by this logic. They are entitled to make whatever argument they like; but they should not be under any illusion as to the ammo they provide Nigel Farage and anybody else who makes political capital by persuading the British public that they are being cheated out of what they voted for.
The most important dividing line in the politics of Brexit Britain is not between those who campaigned for Leave and those who campaigned for Remain. It is between those who have faith in the strength of British institutions — the legal system, Parliament, the Bank of England, the civil service, the press — and those who see these institutions as nothing more than obstacles to change. The mistake at the heart of the populist group’s thinking is the idea that everything would be so simple if the establishment didn’t get in the way, as though good ideas (and leaving the EU is a good idea) would automatically become reality if it wasn’t for pesky bureaucrats. This is the politics of the pub bore and should not be taken seriously.
Theresa May has three big Brexit questions to answer: What agreement will the UK reach with EU member states? What relationship will we have with the rest of the world once we leave? And what domestic reforms are needed to make the most of our new freedoms? For Brexit to be a success, she must draw on the strength of the institutions around her as she navigates the uncertain waters in which she finds herself.