Nigel Farage is a curious character. Amiable, yet bellicose; seemingly conservative, yet actually rather radical and possessor of a campness that contrasts oddly with his laddish penchant for cigarettes, booze and, on occasion, strippers. These contradictions help make him hugely entertaining, allowing him to sit comfortably in both the political arena and alongside the likes of Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You.
They also explain how he manages to generate so much media coverage. Although it doubtless doesn’t do any harm that he produces rather lovely soundbites – professional politics is “the bland leading the bland” whilst UKIP versus the coalition a battle of “rhetoric versus reality”, it is still surprising just how recognisable and popular he is as representative of a party perceived to be single-issue. He seems to be regarded in a similar light to Boris Johnson – charming us into forgetting his foibles.
And yet, just as with Boris, it is all too easy to dismiss him as an amusing but largely irrelevant jester in the court of British politics. As I talked with him it gradually became clear that beneath the humour, beneath the friendliness, lies a man just as willing to scheme as the career politicians he so derides.
As Farage noted, UKIP’s recent success in the Barnsley Central byelection comes at a time when they’re gaining support from the Lib Dems in the crucial 18-24 demographic. Although it is unlikely that UKIP may, as Farage claims, usurp the Lib Dems to become the third party of British politics, it seemed this was his reason for agreeing to an interview – it was an attempt to evangelise to new found supporters. He repeatedly stressed how attractive UKIP was to students – “we believe that if the local pub in Oxford wants to have a smoking room out the back they should be able to do so” – and was keen to emphasise UKIP’s libertarian strand.“We’re the only party in British politics which genuinely wants the state to play a smaller role in our lives, and I do think that the libertarian element of UKIP is what’s attracting younger voters”.
His other explanation for UKIP’s recent success was more conventional, arguing that the EU has sparked a “sort of backlash, people are feeling more British, and they are certainly feeling more English too. Nobody really called themselves English 25 years ago and now they do.”
But he appeared willing to do more than just preach to attract students, he seemed willing to change his message. In a 2009 interview, asked by The Guardian who his political hero was, he replied Enoch Powell. Yet when I asked a similar question he claimed Margaret Thatcher, who, although not a student favourite, is certainly less toxic than Enoch Powell. And he went on to deny that UKIP were working in the legacy of Thatcher. “I don’t think we can characterise UKIP as a conservative party as such,” he insisted. “I think what we call UKIP now is a radical party of opposition in British politics”. This was a man determined to appeal to his new-found supporters, to ensure he didn’t alienate those who once voted Lib Dem.
In fact, the only time Farage seemed remotely roused was when I posited that their recent success was a result of student anger at the Lib Dems. “Every time UKIP gets a good vote we’re told it’s a protest vote,” he thundered, “the Lib Dems have been nothing more than a protest vehicle for donkeys’ years, and they’ve built themselves up.” The contradiction is revealing. Although he later insisted that not everyone who “votes UKIP is a Mr. Angry… a lot of people vote for UKIP because they see us as offering positive policies, they see us actually believing in things,” he appeared to have let slip the true UKIP aim – to use the protest vote to build themselves up into a serious contender in the British political scene.
This would be a much easier task if they weren’t so focused on Europe. Whether talking about banker’s bonuses, his confrontational style or the budget, Farage always found a way to manoeuvre the conversation back to the EU. Although understandable – euro-scepticism is UKIP’s raison d’etre – you feel that if Farage is to achieve his aim, if UKIP are to overtake the Lib Dems and not just exist as a protest vote (at least in general elections), then he’ll have to widen their focus.
When they do stray away from Europe, UKIP appear unconvincing. A flat tax rate, the abolition of inheritance tax, scepticism over anthropogenic climate change, and defence of the banking industry are unlikely to sit comfortably with the electorate. However much Farage may want to have the media focus on other elements of UKIP’s policies, he is lucky they don’t, since they are not the populist crowd-pleasers the public have come to expect from the party.
None are as passionate about Europe as Farage, or as willing to constantly challenge the status quo. The desire with which he wishes Britain were “not stuck in some backwoods of a European Union run by people like Herman Van Rompuy” is unquestionable, as those who have seen clips of him attack Mr. Van Rompuy can attest. Although some are dismayed by Farage’s pugnacious style representing us in Europe, he is unrepentant: “Surely when your democracy is being given away, when everything your country has ever stood for is being given away, is being trampled on, surely it’s quite right to stand up and say you’re not happy with this?”
This belligerent rhetoric typifies Farage’s approach to the EU. To him, Europe are our rivals not our allies. He views international affairs through a historic paradigm, proposing that “through organisations like the Commonwealth, we still have a role to play in the world”. And he applies a similar approach to that mythical notion of ‘Britishness’, which he proposes lies very much in our culture, sourced from “the independence of our judicial system, the basic principles as laid out in Magna Carta, and developed over time, and the fact we used to believe in democracy so much we were to die for it.”
And yet as much as Nigel Farage is a man very much in love with an idealised past, he is also clearly at home in the present. A smarter politician than his convivial demeanour makes him appear, he is trying to shape UKIP into a more rounded political party, to allow them to seize the opportunity offered by the Lib Dems’ current decline. Whether he succeeds, only time will tell, but however unlikely it may appear, one thing’s for sure: just like his idol, Farage is not for turning.