Grin and bear it: the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, in Essex in February 2015. Photo: PETER MACDIARMID/GETTY IMAGES
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Planes, pains and automobiles: the memoir-manifestos by Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage

New autobiographies by Nigel Farage and Caroline Lucas get a kick out of calling themselves "outsiders". The truth? They want your votes.

Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change
Caroline Lucas
Portobello Books, 281pp, £14.99


The Purple Revolution: the Year That Changed Everything
Nigel Farage
Biteback, 305pp, £9.99

I always get a kick out of the way that politicians love to brand themselves as “outsiders”. Hating the Westminster bubble is almost a professional qualification now and this year, with two-party politics in crisis, anyone who can get away with being an outsider has declared themselves to be one. This includes the authors of these books, Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage, who rarely appear in a sentence together, much less a review.

But they asked for it. It seems that memoirs are the new mini-manifestos, providing personality politics with a bit of policy (or, in Caroline’s case, rather too much) thrown in. First, let me burst their bubble. They are not outsiders. Lucas has been a member of one parliament or another since 1999. Farage has been an MEP since the same year. They are, for all their claims of maverick status, institutionalised politicians. They just think they are not.

Let’s also be frank about why these books were written. They want your votes. If there wasn’t an election this year and they weren’t candidates, they wouldn’t have decided to over-share with us. Their books are, in essence, leaflets, just with more pages. Both contain direct pleas. “It would be a privilege to achieve one more ‘first’,” writes Lucas, “to be the first Green MP to be re-elected.” The last sentence in The Purple Revolution is: “So over to you, dear voter. It is all down to you now.”

It’s a strange reason to write a book about yourself – to get elected. I’m not sure that they have thought this through. By the end, inevitably, we know too much. In terms of how they want to be seen, they divide quite neatly. Lucas, for all her protestations and humble boasts, comes across as something of a saint: principled, fighting for truth and justice, arrested in her quest against big energy, earnestly trying to reform everything in parliament that is not nailed down. Farage is thrilled to be cast as the sinner.

Here, then, we have the devil and the deep, blue-green sea. There is no doubt which book is the easiest to get through. The Purple Revolution would be an absolute hoot, if only it were parody – and I do think that it should be filed in the “humour” section of bookshops. Farage gives us a potted history, telling us nothing we did not know about his early years in Kent and at Dulwich College. He is rhapsodic about his days in the City, eulogising the smoke-filled rooms where he bought and sold metals, only to go to lunch and, sometimes, stay there. He claims a “typical Farage lunch” went from 12 noon to 12 midnight. “I would get up at the crack of dawn and work flat-out until lunchtime and lunch would just, well, carry on.”

He is very funny about a recent trip to the US (he loves Rand Paul, whom he describes as his “political doppelgänger”), where he had meetings all morning. “Steve suggested that we break for lunch – a comment that really perked us up,” he writes, “until Steve followed the suggestion with the horrific phrase: ‘I’ve ordered some sandwiches.’”

In general, this is politics as food and drink. It overflows with pints, glasses of wine, dinners and lunches. There’s an amazing chapter entitled “Car Crash, Plane Crash and Cancer: Seeing Both Sides of the NHS”. This starts on Boxing Day in 1986 when he went to work (the US markets were open) and was desperate to get home to the village of Downe in Kent before closing time:

 

I walked into the Queen’s Head and ordered a pint. All of a sudden, an indescribable pain shot through my
left-hand side. It was so acute I nearly collapsed. It seemed to go from somewhere near my left kidney, through my abdomen and into my groin. I was in absolute agony. But I tried to grin and bear it and ordered another pint.

 

As you do. Thus begins a tale that leads to the eventual diagnosis of testicular cancer. By the end of this chapter, we know rather a lot about Nigel’s left testicle. We then are told about his car crash the previous year: he’d been drinking steadily throughout the afternoon and went home. “I did not see the car that hit me,” he notes.

Then, in 2010, on the day of the general election, he was in a plane crash as he attempted to fly a Ukip banner above Buckinghamshire, where he was standing against the Speaker, John Bercow. The chapter continues with details of his back surgery and the sad story of the plane’s pilot who, after threatening to kill Farage, ended up committing suicide.

It’s too much, this chapter, in every way. But what Farage does is take these personal and random events and turn them into a political philosophy. “I have now had three near-death experiences and I’ve seen the best and the worst of the NHS. As such, I am better qualified to criticise and defend the NHS than most politicians,” he announces, adding: “The real elephant in the room on health is the effect of an expanding population in Britain . . . No one from the three main parties will talk about how the NHS is so overstretched due to the massive increase in the number of people arriving at our shores.” Here is the difficulty of writing a memoir as a political manifesto. The National Health Service is more complicated, in every way, than this. Anecdotes do not make for good policy.

The Purple Revolution lurches on. One of his favourite words is “surreal”. His book is certainly that. By the end, Farage seems a touch paranoid. He believes that he and some other Kippers have had their phones tapped. “The Tories were getting very scared,” he writes, “and with it very, very nasty indeed.” It’s like a bizarre spy story with candidates adopting disguises and everyone buying pay-as-you-go mobiles.

The apt word for Caroline Lucas’s book is a dread one: “worthy”. This is the story of her time as an MP and she invites the reader to marvel at the outdated ways of Westminster (where MPs get a pink ribbon to hang their sword on in the cloakroom). She is the Green revolutionary, tunnelling out from the inside. Honourable Friends? is stuffed with good intentions and very little drama.

Thank God for her arrest, protesting against fracking, at Balcombe in Sussex. On the night after her release, she was met by her family, including her son Isaac. “He had thoughtfully brought me what he knew I would want most of all at that moment: a small bottle of tonic water, thoughtfully diluted with gin.” I think this may be her only personal reference to drink in the book (although there are some disparaging remarks about the “moral myopia” of champagne sales at Westminster rising as austerity cuts were voted in). It’s about as far from the bibulous Nigel as can be.

There is no love lost between these two. Indeed, Farage takes the trouble to predict that Lucas will lose her seat. However, the reality is that both politicians, in writing these books, are relying on the idea that the more we know about them, the more we will want to vote for them and their parties. I, for one, am not convinced.

Ann Treneman is the parliamentary sketchwriter for the Times

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times