It would be hard to fault your average voter for being surprised at Nigel Farage’s damascene conversion to the cause of a second Brexit referendum last week. It is also unsurprising that so many Remain supporters so gleefully leapt upon the chance to use his statements as a weapon in their ongoing fight against “Brexiteers”. Nevertheless, I would urge caution; Remain supporters who truly believe in the case for a second referendum (or perhaps even a unilateral parliamentary veto of Brexit) should not indulge the delusions of a narcissist who, robbed of the oxygen of media coverage, is desperately seeking something else to keep himself in the spotlight. This is despite his apparently imminent “retirement” from politics – a retirement which has so far primarily consisted of supporting his political allies in the White House and making vague threats of a return to British politics. Indeed, far from an ally of those campaigning for a second referendum, Farage is their ultimate opponent, backing their cause only for the purpose of inflating his already colossal ego. His true intentions are to put his singularly disastrous political career and ideological aims back at the centre stage of British politics.
To explain the former UKIP leader in his own words, Farage has argued that though he does not “want” another referendum, he sees one as essential to prevent the “sheer dishonesty of our political class” from derailing the Brexit which he believes the British people want. That is, one which prioritises economic deregulation and the repeal of sensible consumer protection rules, and which shuts the doors to immigrants from Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern refugees. Farage further clarified that “I have now got myself mentally ready for the possibility – as happened in Denmark and Ireland… that they’ll make us vote again and we must be prepared”. This is a repeat of the old fear of British Eurosceptics, that they might secure an exit from the European Union only for it to be snatched out of their hands by a conniving political class. In fact, all of this is straight from Farage’s usual political playbook; pitting himself, a career politician who has sat in the European Parliament for the last nineteen years, against the political “establishment”, the mysterious “they” featured so prominently in his paranoid proclamations. Representing his desire to engender a reflexive distrust of politicians in the British people, Farage’s special blend of anti-establishment rhetoric and ultimately vague populist policies use this distant “other” (the “Brussels Eurocrats” or the loathed “Liberal Metropolitan Elite”) as a scapegoat for all the problems which his supporters face. However, his statements on a second referendum also speak to another of Farage’s defining traits: his constant attention-seeking.
Nigel Farage is unrepentantly self-obsessed, and his sudden support for a second referendum is part of the long continuity of his past self-promotion.
From refusing to stand for Prince Charles in the European Parliament in 2008, to accusing Herman Van Rompuy of having “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk”, to flying a plane with the UKIP banner attached in the 2010 General Election and dubbing protesters in Scotland “yobbo fascist scum”. These actions would be provocative enough, let alone his farcical resignation and return to the UKIP leadership in 2015, his third return in 2016 and his stumping for Trump and Roy Moore. All things considered, it is clear that Farage has consistently courted controversy and scandal to inflate his own profile. In Donald Trump, this is recognised for what it is: the symptoms of an extreme form of narcissism, of the worldview of a man who sees everyone else as means to an end of his own fame and fortune. The same characteristics are so visibly found in Nigel Farage. His scandals and gaffes verge from horrifying to ridiculous, but they all serve the same ultimate purpose. What’s more, they have succeeded in bringing UKIP – once a minor party on the fringe of British politics – into the limelight. This is a man who called the first African American President of the United States “that Obama creature” and who sees the white nationalist Steve Bannon as “my sort of chap”. He is not someone who Remain supporters, who supposedly value tolerance, inclusion and diversity, should be siding with in their calls for a second referendum on European Union membership.
Nigel Farage is unrepentantly self-obsessed, and his sudden support for a second referendum is part of the long continuity of his past self-promotion. It is just one of many successful efforts to build a culture of shock and controversy around himself, always trying to make himself central to the political debate. People like Farage and Trump thrive when we give them the attention they seek – it is only when they are cut off from the exposure of the mass media that they lose their power. The electric charge of their unique brands of angry populism can only take root among the disenfranchised and the discontented when we allow ourselves to be baited into talking about them. Yes, of course I recognise the irony in saying this; but after seeing so many headlines like the Guardian’s “Farage’s call for second Brexit vote greeted with glee by remainers”, I felt compelled to act. Those who support Britain’s continued membership of the European Union should not embrace Farage’s latest decrees, but instead recognise them for the vain and unhelpful stunt which they ultimately are. After all, was it not by allowing Farage to ride a populist wave of controversy and scandal that we got ourselves into this mess in the first place?