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19 June 2024

The plain-speaking appeal of Nigel Farage

Voters are turning to the Reform leader because he tells a story that chimes with their lives.

By John Gray

No one can any longer imagine that this is a normal election. Rishi Sunak’s D-Day debacle was no mere campaign gaffe, however large, but the end for a political class that governed without understanding those it ruled. We are witnessing a historic collision between technocratic government and political legitimacy, still not clearly perceived, since Labour’s shipwreck is yet to come.

The recent YouGov survey showing the long-dreaded “crossover”, with Reform 1 per cent ahead of the Tories, was the moment technocracy hit the rocks. Rule by technocrats means bypassing politics by outsourcing key decisions to professional bodies that claim expert knowledge. Their superior sapience is often ideology clothed in pseudo-science they picked up at university a generation ago, and their recommendations a radical political programme disguised as pragmatic policymaking. Technocracy represents itself as delivering what everyone wants, but at bottom it is the imposition of values much of the population does not share. A backlash was inevitable.

Populism is, among other things, the re-politicisation of issues the progressive consensus deems too important to be left to democratic choice. Immigration was one such issue, climate policy another. Both have stormed back into the political realm. The next will be the declining free market model to which all mainstream parties are committed, and the unlikely agent of its destruction could turn out to be Nigel Farage.

Part of the reason Farage evokes such horror in polite society is that it has forgotten how traditional politicians used to behave. More like Ken Clarke in his prime than Donald Trump, Farage addresses people in a language they understand. No one knows what Keir Starmer means by “mission-led government”, or remembers the five – or is it six– points of Sunak’s “clear plan”. More to the point, no one cares.

Voters are turning to Farage because – like Thatcher, and Blair before he began rhapsodising on the wonders of AI – he tells a story that gels with what they feel about their lives. Despite his family’s inspiring history, Sunak presents only an amorphous blur of dubious numbers. Starmer’s vapid tale of how he used his experience as a legal bureaucrat to change Labour is of no interest to the mass of the population, and his maudlin allusions to his working-class roots evoke groans or guffaws.

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Farage is speaking to a section of the public – Brexiters who aim to punish the government for reneging on the promise to take control – that he is using to exact his own revenge on the Tories. Beyond this group, he is reaching many who are exhausted and angered by their daily battles to get by. The economic policies set out in Reform’s manifesto are unserious and undeliverable, but they connect with the inchoate sense of a hard-pressed multitude that the market-liberal regime is foundering.

It is at this point that the contradictions of Faragism emerge. The Brexit most Leavers wanted was not the one Farage – along with the Tory right – offered. Few dreamt of global Britain. It was shelter from global markets they yearned for.

Farage is caught between a neo-Thatcherite inheritance he shares with the Westminster elite he rails against and the economic nationalism of his friend Trump. Since he must mobilise anti-Tory tactical voters with no attachment to free markets, the rational strategy for him is to tilt to protectionism. His opposition to the Chinese fast clothing giant Shein listing on the London stock market suggests he grasps this logic. If Farage wins in Clacton, it will be a signal that Thatcherism is finally over.

He is not alone in speaking to the disaffected. George Galloway’s blend of old-fashioned socialism and cultural conservatism attracts white working-class voters as well as Muslims focused on Gaza. Jeremy Corbyn’s economic programme resonates with many who lack his fondness for Britain’s enemies. Neither of them has Farage’s finely attuned antenna or his charisma, but like him they articulate a pervasive resentment against the Westminster uniparty.

In functioning democracies, technocracy rarely works for long. Relying on scraps of academic detritus, its practitioners struggle to keep up with events. Even when their theories are sound, they do not legitimate their policies. Anthropogenic climate change is a scientific fact, but science cannot tell you what to do about it. Conflicting values are at stake, some of them involving major losses. What entitles a caste of bureaucrats to make these tragic choices for the rest of us?

While the populist revolt is gathering momentum, Labour is going all in for technocratic management. Rachel Reeves proposes to give the Office for Budget Responsibility a greater role in approving fiscal policies. The recent record of the Bank of England does not inspire confidence in such bodies. In times as uncertain and clouded as ours, devolving the powers of government to rule-bound institutions is a fast route to ruin.

If this is no normal election, it is because voters do not trust their rulers to navigate the treacherous waters that lie ahead. In power, Labour will be sunk by the same forces that are submerging the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Starmer’s Titanic steams on.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s promise of stability will come back to haunt him]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation