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  1. Editor’s Note
5 June 2024

The seismic radicalism of Nigel Farage

Liberals and mainstream Conservatives loathe him. But he understands something important about the fractious mood in the country.

By Jason Cowley

Nigel Farage is back. Did he ever go away? Apart from Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Farage is the most consequential politician of the last 50 years, although of course he has never been an MP. He is a renegade nationalist conservative with broad cross-class appeal who is utterly contemptuous of the Conservative Party. A brilliant communicator and relentless agitator, he emerged from the fringes of the hard right to command the centre of the political scene. He understands the power of social media and uses it more effectively than any other British politician. He is an accomplished broadcaster and the star turn on GB News. He created a movement – the so-called people’s army – and two political parties: the Brexit Party and Reform UK, of which he is now leader and chief executive, having ousted Richard Tice. He has possibly learned the art of complete control from Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, the husband-and-wife team who ran the SNP – until they suddenly didn’t. The marginalisation of Tice was vintage Farage. As Ken Livingstone used to say: “There are no permanent friendships in politics.”

***

No one did more than Farage to create the conditions for Brexit, nor did more to undermine the post-Brexit settlement. Why has he come back? Why would he risk humiliation by losing in Clacton, Essex? Because he relishes the game of politics, delights in the outrage he causes and means what he says: the Conservatives have betrayed their voters and the country. The UK’s borders have become more porous, not less, and Rishi Sunak can do nothing about it. Annual legal net migration is double what it was in 2016 (330,000) when David Cameron failed to persuade voters to choose Remain and therefore the status quo. The truth is for many Brexit voters – especially working-class Labour voters who abandoned the party in 2019 – the status quo was already intolerable. Many believed they had nothing to lose by voting out and much to gain. “We’ve got to get our country back,” Farage told them. And people heard him because they felt something had been lost: control. Worse than this, they felt disrespected, scorned and ignored by metropolitan liberals, as I discovered when I visited faraway Brexit-supporting towns while writing my book, Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England.

***

The predicted realignment of British politics after Boris Johnson’s Conservatives routed Labour in many of its old post-industrial heartlands at the 2019 general election never came close to happening. Johnson was a huckster who campaigned energetically but lacked the discipline and temperament to govern well in the national interest, and those who followed him – the lamentable Liz Truss, the amiable but politically inept Sunak – have presided over the collapse of the Conservative Party.

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Labour is on course for a remarkable landslide victory. Farage senses an opportunity to lead the long-threatened revolt of the right while becoming the de facto leader of the opposition to Keir Starmer’s Labour. Under a proportional voting system, Ukip would have had more than 80 MPs after winning nearly four million votes (yet only one seat) at the 2015 general election. There will be no breakthrough for Reform in July. Could Farage one day take over the Conservative Party as he has threatened? That seems unlikely. But his return to party leadership only emboldens the nationalist right and hardens its resolve just as other comparable parties and movements are set to make gains at the European Parliament elections on 9 June. 

***

I first interviewed Farage in November 2014, a week after an Editor’s Note I’d written about the failures of Ed Miliband’s leadership – supported by a report from inside Westminster by George Eaton – had gone viral. Our argument was that Miliband did not understand the threat Ukip posed to the left – especially if it adopted so-called Red Ukip positions on the economy as the far-right Sweden Democrats and Marine Le Pen’s National Front had – and that, unless he changed course, Miliband would lead Labour to defeat. Farage agreed with our reasoning. “I’m coming for Labour voters,” he told me. He described himself that morning as being “neither left nor right” but an anti-system radical. “We’ve got to get back control of our country,” he said. “When you get back control of your country you get proper democracy. You get proper debate.” Dominic Cummings was listening to him: “take back control” became the triumphant slogan of the Brexit campaign.

***

When I interviewed Farage again, in 2017, he was waiting to see how Brexit would play out. “I’ve thought for a long time that this question about Europe and our relationship with it was one that had the potential to realign British politics,” he told me. “In the last few months, I’ve been thinking that Brexit might not be the last earthquake. There might just be another one. There may be something seismic still to come. And it could be the Conservative Party that’s the most vulnerable to it.”

Liberals, the left and mainstream Conservatives all loathe Farage. But he understands something important about the restless, fractious mood in the country, and he is prescient. This is an era of turbulent and volatile politics, of seismic shocks. The earth is moving, and great fissures are opening beneath us. You could call him a kind of political seismologist of our disturbed modernity. Are the Conservatives uniquely vulnerable to the coming political earthquake? This time, Labour is set to be the chief beneficiary of their collapse on 4 July. But if Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves fail, Nigel Farage will be waiting among the ruins.

[See also: A whirlwind tour of Washington with David Lammy]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024