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Cartoon by Ralph Steadman
On arrival at the UK Independence Party’s shabby London headquarters on the fourth floor of an unremarkable building, in a part of Mayfair that resembles nothing so much as one great construction site – the clamour and clatter of the machines of the agents of the global plutocracy plundering the city’s property market – I am greeted by a pleasant, middle-aged woman called Lizzie. “I’ll make you a nice strong cup of builder’s tea,” she says. Lizzie used to be a supporter of Jimmy Goldsmith and campaigned for his anti-EU Referendum Party, the so-called Party Party, which put up hundreds of candidates in the 1997 general election. She joined Ukip because she wanted to “wipe the synthetic smirks from the faces” of the Westminster politicians she so despises. She runs her hand across an imaginary whiteboard, as if cleansing it of impurities.
Lizzie is courteous and charming yet her politics are fierce. Like many Ukippers, she is motivated by contempt.
I am shown into a small “boardroom”. The air is stale and one is reminded of walking into a hotel room where someone has been smoking: the urge is to throw open the windows. Nigel Farage, smiling, purposeful, strides in, accompanied by his senior adviser Raheem Kassam, a former managing editor of the right-wing website Breitbart, whom he calls “my man”. Farage is not wearing a black or brown shirt. We chat amiably for a bit about cricket – Farage used to love visiting the Oval, in the days when the wickets there had “pace but also turned” – and then we move on to politics. Farage looks at me directly, his throaty, well-modulated voice quickening, and says: “I’m coming after Labour voters.”
The Ukip leader is cheered by how well his party is performing in many of Labour’s old northern English heartlands and makes claims about its popularity in Cornwall as well as Wales, where it has scarcely campaigned. “The real surprise is Wales,” he says. “There was an opinion poll the other week that had us in the lead. In Wales! There’s something happening in Wales that I don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s to do with devolved powers and Labour seeming to have failed badly, as they have.”
Farage says that Ukip, which he once described as a mere pressure group but which is now the insurgent party of British politics, is attracting “old Labour voters and non-voters” as well as, of course, innumerable disaffected former Conservatives. He expects the Tory defector Mark Reckless to win Ukip’s second Westminster seat in the Rochester by-election on 20 November, emulating Douglas Carswell’s success last month in Clacton, Essex. “Rochester really matters . . . given that it was number 271 on the Ukip target list.” He suggests if Reckless wins “other Conservative MPs might join us”. He hints that there are Labour MPs ready to break rank as well, but what’s stopping them is “fear of the consequences”.
Farage is 50 but appears older: he is slim but his skin looks as if it’s been scorched and his eyes seem bulbous and tired. Yet he speaks with immense energy and animation, and laughs often. Unlike many politicians I have met, he is curious. He asks questions; he does not merely wish to assert. It’s like having a conversation with an opinionated bloke you’ve met in the pub – and I guess that is a large part of his act and appeal. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “We need change. There are millions out there who aren’t getting an even break. They’re being done down.”
When Farage speaks of the struggles of the honest, hard-working majority, he sounds not unlike Ed Miliband bemoaning Britain’s “cost-of-living crisis” – except that Miliband wants to reform or remake capitalism through intervention in and direction of markets, whereas Farage wants to liberate markets from bureaucratic control.
“One gets the feeling that, at about the 30 per cent mark, barring more embarrassments from Brussels or whatever it may be, we are nearing the tribal base of the Conservative vote,” Farage says, suggesting that Ukip has peaked when it comes to winning votes from the Tories. “The Conservatives are down to their middle-class core now . . . wouldn’t matter who the leader was, they feel Conservative, and they feel Conservative because they’ve got some assets and a reasonably good life, and they see that as their tribal means of [identity] . . . that will probably erode as the years go by, because the age profile of that dynamic is pretty alarming for the Conservative Party.
“The Labour Party’s different. Everybody thought that people’s tribal allegiance to Labour was as strong, if not stronger, than the tribal allegiance to the Conservative Party. What we’re actually finding is, they don’t even recognise the tribe. They just don’t. You know, the middle class – the middle-class person who doesn’t think about politics very much, but is concerned about where school fees are coming from or whatever it may be – that middle-class person still thinks of the political spectrum that the Conservatives are more on their side than the other one. Increasingly what we’re finding is the people that come from the Labour side of the equation don’t think anyone’s on their side.”
There are similarities here with what is happening in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party and the wider independence movement is gaining most support from the poorest Scots, many of whom have never voted or who had previously given up on representative democracy altogether. In the troubled aftermath of the financial crisis and the Great Recession, identity and insecurity have become the twin destabilisers of British politics. Stagnant wages, the slowest recovery for a century, a sense among the resentful young that the system is rigged against them: people are anxious and are turning inwards. Immigration has become an obsessive preoccupation. The “other” is being demonised. Indeed, throughout Europe, long-established parties are experiencing a spectacular loss of support and respect, and previously marginal or new parties are rising: Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain. The multinational Spanish state, like the British state, is fracturing and ancient peoples are reasserting their right to self-determination. It’s close to being a revolutionary moment.
Farage would say that much of this dissatisfaction is being caused by the elite, anti-democratic project that is the European Union, with its commitment to open borders and centrally imposed austerity on the weaker peripheral nations of the eurozone. You know the arguments.
“I would say from Birmingham northwards, from Birmingham to Hadrian’s Wall, if you vote Tory, you’ll get Labour. If you vote for the challenger party, you might just get a few Ukips elected, and that’s the point I’m going to be making.”
As a self-described former City boy, Farage, who worked as a broker in the metals markets from the age of 18, is one such early riser. This morning, for instance, he was up at 4.30am because “I couldn’t sleep and thought it would be better to get on with some work”.
He reflects with satisfaction on his party’s narrow defeats in the Eastleigh and the Heywood and Middleton by-elections and on Carswell’s triumph in Clacton. “You go to Clacton and then down to Jaywick. It was written off as being one of the poorest parts of Britain. Yeah, OK, the people there haven’t got very much; are they pissed off? Yeah, very. They haven’t even got proper roads. Literally the end of the line, the left-behinds, hacked off with national politics, just as hacked off with local politics. Yes, they’re pissed off but they are coming out in large numbers to vote Ukip.”
These people are motivated not just by a desire “to stick two fingers up” but because “they believe in us, and they’re voting for us because they think it might just change things”.
Farage no longer considers himself to be a conservative, or even to be on the right. Rather, he sees himself as a radical, drawing inspiration from the 19th-century tradition of dissenters and free traders such as John Bright and Richard Cobden, who helped form the Anti-Corn Law League. “There is no left and right any more,” he says. “Left and right is irrelevant . . . We need big change. We’ve got to get back control of our country. We’re in deep denial about how we’ve given away control of almost everything. When you get back control of your country you get proper democracy. You get back proper debate. I mean, who is debating employment legislation at the next election? Nobody. Why? We don’t make the law any more. In the Seventies we scarcely talked about anything else.”
One is reminded of Churchill’s remark on the eve of D-Day: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.” Farage is forever yearning for the open sea.
Farage used to be a member of the Conservative Party. He joined after meeting the Thatcherite politician Keith Joseph, who was a visiting speaker at his old school, the independent, fee-paying Dulwich College in south London. “I signed up because I used to have Sunday lunch with my parents and grandparents and listen to them talking about [how] what they used to think was a great country was going down the tubes.”
His maternal grandmother, from Scunthorpe, was a Labour voter but his parents were “mostly Conservative”, if “not politically active. So I met Keith Joseph and he had this recipe for how we’re going to make Britain modern, how investment was going to come in from all over the world, how we were stuck with outdated ideas. I bought the reform agenda. I look back on that and say, ‘God, I don’t think any of us knew.’ It’s rather like chemotherapy in the early days – you might cure the cancer but the side effects actually kill a few off on the way. That’s what monetarism was like and at the end of it, yeah, a lot of people in the north and Scotland were very, very upset and unhappy. They still are. But we did cure the disease.”
He accepts that what he calls the “Thatcher thing” decisively finished the Tories as a credible force in the north of England and Scotland, which is why it is such a desperate struggle for David Cameron and his despised party to win a majority.
Yet what if we are also witnessing the slow death of Labour in Scotland – if not in the north of England where, as in London, it remains strong? “We are now the only party that can challenge Labour in the north,” Farage says. “The Lib Dems have gone. I think we can come second in every seat in the north of England. The question is: how many can we win? We’re targeting our resources. We’re going to target Heywood and Middleton pretty heavily. And Rotherham. And we’re doing very, very well in Doncaster [Ed Miliband’s seat].”
He recalls visiting a working men’s club 200 yards from Miliband’s constituency office. “I had no problem there at all. My background isn’t particularly posh or non-posh. If you go back a few generations, my family are very modest – they’ve been postmen and so on.” He laughs.
I ask Farage, whose father was a stockbroker (something he shares with Cameron), if he is personally wealthy. “No, no, no, no, no. I wasn’t in finance. I was in commodities. We all think of the City as merchant banks and casino games. It wasn’t like that. A lot of people in the City do house insurance. I was in industrial non-ferrous metals. The London Metal Exchange – fabulous institution. A small business, with just a few hundred people in it. You knew everybody. It was very dog-eat-dog but there was a tremendous code of honour, and remarkable honesty. I went straight in at 18.”
Spend time with Nigel Farage and you begin to understand just how much he was formed by and remains nostalgic for the Seventies – not its old corporatist economics, naturally, but its ethos and lost cultural certainties: the smoke-filled pub, the boozy, blokey, non-PC talk, nearly everyone speaking English. One of the attractions of Farage to some working-class voters, I have been told by Ukip supporters, is that he is unashamedly himself: he knows what he thinks and how to articulate it in simple, direct, accessible language. He mocks Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as insular career politicians, even though he himself is a privately educated former financier whose party is bankrolled by hedge-fund millionaires.
He insists he is different from those he seeks to topple, however, and that his personal story is attractive to those who have come to loathe the career politician and the back-room policy wonk. “As I was growing up, I worked bloody hard – played harder, I suppose my critics would say. The other point about this, the difference, if you look at the lives and career path of the others – and I know that David [Cameron] had a sick child that died and that’s awful, my God, I’ve been very lucky, four who are fit – but you look at their lives: seamless, seamless. Mine hasn’t been seamless. I’ve had huge knocks; I’ve had successes in business, I’ve had failures; I’ve of course had a car crash [at 21], cancer [testicular cancer in his twenties], an aeroplane crash; I’ve been divorced. I’m a very imperfect specimen, and maybe that shapes my attitude towards life, the way I speak, the way I approach things. The other point is, this lot, the only working-class people they’ve ever met drive their cars, and they’re not even very nice to them.”
He seems to be enjoying himself. “I’ve got no hang-ups about class, at all. I also think, and this can work for me and against me, and polarise opinion about me [he whispers], I don’t really care what people think that much. I mean, none of us want to be hated, but does it really worry me that I say stuff that half the country doesn’t approve of? No.”
Many certainly disapprove of Nigel Farage. They think he is racist. They find many of his activists bigoted and repugnant. They believe that fascists and former British National Party activists have infiltrated Ukip, even though Farage insists that no former member of the BNP is a member of Ukip. They don’t like the company Ukip keeps in the European Parliament – such as the far-right, Holocaust-denying Polish KNP (New Right party). “We hear the rhetoric that is being used about people from eastern Europe, and we recognise it as the same language used in the past against the parents and grandparents of people who’ve now been living in our area for decades. We have heard this rhetoric before, and will not stand for it,” wrote Labour’s Chuka Umunna in a recent article.
I ask Farage about Enoch Powell, who also visited Dulwich in the Seventies to address the boys when Farage was a pupil there. “Was Powell right about uncontrolled mass immigration possibly changing areas into areas people felt uncomfortable with?” he asks rhetorically. “Yes. But he genuinely thought it was a black/white issue. He genuinely believed that white and black people would not mix well, and he’s been proved wrong. It’s irrelevant. I don’t think colour is a bar to social cohesion. I watch the younger generation. It’s not an issue.”
He senses my scepticism. “It’s not about colour,” he says with emphasis. “But it is about identity, and it is about community, and all the things I told you that I rejoice in. You know, people mixing together – being different, but mixing together, and having commonality. And I think we’ve made a terrible mess of it. I mean, I still think immigration can be turned around; I think there’s a positive immigration message. I intend to fight the next general election with this party with a positive immigration message, in that I’m going to say it’s wholly irresponsible to have totally open borders to half a billion people, but if you have an Australian-style points system and you control the quantity and quality of who comes, you know, people will sign up for that.”
I ask what exactly it is about eastern Europeans that so unsettles him. He has spoken of how uneasy he would feel if Romanians moved in next door to la famille Farage. “Look, I got into terrible trouble by pointing out that 92 per cent of ATM crime in London is [done] by one nationality. I don’t need to say that any more, but [the Metropolitan Police chief Bernard] Hogan-Howe said it this morning. If the boss of the Met is now brave enough to say it . . . Am I uneasy that we’ve reversed the great reforms of Victorian England? We have pickpocket gangs and child prostitutes being trafficked into London: how do you feel about it? I think we’re all uneasy. Very uneasy. But we shouldn’t be doing it. We should not be doing it. These are very backward social steps that are being taken, and why, why . . . Because we’ve gone into a political union with countries that treat their significant minorities in a way we haven’t understood in Europe for 70 years.”
You mean the Roma?
“I’ve been . . . I’ve seen, I’ve travelled extensively.”
So, in all good conscience, we should invite the Roma here?
“How many do you want?”
Is there an optimum number? If they’re being treated poorly in eastern Europe can’t we open our –
“Well, there’s a limit to what we can do. We’ve always been open to help.”
Would you want none?
“You may well decide, ‘Hang on – why would you be in a political union with a country and then consider giving asylum to members of the country that you’re in political union with?’ You’ve got to have it one way or the other; you can’t have it both ways, it makes no logical sense at all. So those issues have got me into trouble. I did once say I caught a train and nobody spoke English around me, and this again was treated with horror in London, but actually, if you can’t speak the same language, then . . .”
But they probably can speak English; they just prefer to speak in their mother tongue.
“Well, there’s some evidence of parts of the country where the use of English is pretty limited, actually.”
But does that make you feel uneasy?
“Yes, of course.”
But it doesn’t make a lot of people in London feel uneasy.
“Fine, well there we are. Maybe we’re getting towards central London v the rest of the country, maybe [the journalist] Rod Liddle’s right in what he’s saying. I’ve tried not to go down this route, but . . . metropolitan London attitudes, you only go 50 miles from London and you find a different country. There is a big difference between our political set and the commentariat, who are really in the whirlpool of London thinking.
“They haven’t had their wages compressed. They don’t need to apply to the local primary schools because they can pay for private education. You know, you’ve got to put the five-year-old on the bus for 20 miles because there are no primary school places. Or the accident and emergency average waiting time in Boston Hospital is now eight hours for a cut finger, or, come on! We have run, ever since 1945, all through those years of immigration . . . a policy. Numbers. Perhaps 30,000 a year. And now it’s ten times, or certainly eight times.”
Some of those closest to Farage have expressed grave concern about his health. He is a heavy smoker and drinker. He works tirelessly, and sleeps very little. He is so overstretched that he worries he might not be able to spend enough time to secure victory in South Thanet, the neglected constituency in northern Kent he has chosen to contest in May’s general election. “I have a few bodily problems,” he concedes. “If you smash up your frame you have problems. I’ve broken everything. Bits of me are sticking out everywhere.”
He rolls up one of his trouser legs to expose a pale, lumpy length of flesh. “I have got some problems, of course I have, but I’m tougher than anyone you’ve met. I can live on very little sleep. I can live on a very high intensity of work level . . . You know, I go to the oncologist once a year because it makes sense to. I went to Harley Street two weeks ago and I had a really full series of blood tests, and all the tests have come back and they’re terrific. My doctor says to me, ‘You’re in great shape. I don’t think your lifestyle is necessarily the best, but we’re only here once.’ ”
Later on, Farage, wearing his trademark covert coat with velvet collar, Raheem Kassam and I go to (where else?) a local pub. Because Farage and Kassam smoke, we stand outside, drinking London Pride. We are watched from a short distance away by the Ukip leader’s security team, two shaven-headed men in black coats whom he greeted with a furtive nod as we stepped out on to the street.
He talks candidly about how many seats Ukip can win in the general election – Essex, Kent and much of the east coast of England are the defining territories – and how British politics is “in a bigger state of flux than at any time since 1981. The balls are up in the air. I think anything’s possible. I think we may even surprise ourselves.”
Nigel Farage delights in the game of politics and in his role as an insurgent, a man of the people, a new kind of unlikely hero of the working class, as some of his supporters would have it. It’s cold and dry and the lunchtime crowd bustles and swirls around us. People keep approaching to shake his hand – “Keep it up, Nigel”; “You’re doing a great job, Nigel”; “Stick it to them, Nige” – and he receives them with interest and warmth. I ask if he ever grows weary of the attention. “Never. It’s huge fun,” he says, laughing loudly.
A man wearing a turban poses for a selfie with him and then three others in suits join us, one of whom is from Oldham. He talks about how he has fallen out of love with Labour. “See what I was telling you?” Farage says, turning to me. And then he offers his glass to Raheem: “Let’s reload.”
The Q&A: Farage on coalition and his favourite MPs
Jason Cowley Would you go into coalition with Labour?
Nigel Farage I’d do a deal with the Devil if he got me what I wanted.
JC If Miliband said to you, “Look, Nigel, can I have your eight to ten MPs in the coalition and we give you an in-out referendum?” would that be enough?
NF That would depend when the referendum was, and the terms.
JC But you’re not ruling it out.
NF Of course not. There is no left and right any more. Left and right’s irrelevant.
JC So there could be a Ukip-Labour-Lib Dem rainbow coalition.
NF Sounds extremely unlikely.
JC Or a Ukip-Labour coalition.
NF Why coalition? There are other ways of doing things.
JC Tell me how. Confidence and supply?
JC Would that suit you better?
NF To be honest, the way I look at it now, I can’t see Ukip wilfully going into formal coalition with anybody.
JC But you support Labour on confidence and supply . . .
NF Confidence motions and primary legislation of certain kinds, yes.
JC And because there’s no left and right, you’d be comfortable supporting Labour?
NF I’d be very comfortable supporting anybody that gave me an opportunity to get my country back.
JC Do you expect a hung parliament?
JC Who’s your favourite Tory? Is there anyone you admire in the cabinet?
NF If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said Douglas Carswell. [Laughs] Well, I have to be slightly fond of Philip Hollobone, because he and I were in the same year at school together.
JC Anyone else?
NF I’ve always admired Michael Gove, who did me a big favour once that he didn’t need to . . . He was at the Times, and I got myself into a bit of a legal tangle and he mediated . . . I have admiration for Iain Duncan Smith, someone who was almost crushed publicly by politics, went away, studied a subject, and came back with real passion and conviction. Socially, I enjoy David Davis’s company. [Laughs] Share a glass with him and it’s quite fun.
JC Would you enter a coalition with the Tories? What’s your target number of seats?
NF I have no target. Even if I knew a number I wouldn’t tell you. Surely you’ll agree with me that this is in a bigger state of flux than at any time since ’81, ’82? The balls are up in the air. I think anything’s possible. I think we may even surprise ourselves next year.
JC David Davis and Andrew Mitchell would say that Ukip is part of the conservative family.
NF It’s painful to listen to. It just shows you why they’re doing so badly. Look at those blimmin’ figures.
JC So you’re not part of the “small c” conservative family?
NF God no!
JC Whom do you admire from Labour?
NF [Coughs] Can’t name most of them. Don’t know who they are. I mean, they’re just so bland it’s not true.
JC Alan Johnson?
NF Yeah, but he’s out now, isn’t he? Whenever I’ve met him, I’ve liked him. Jon Cruddas is somebody who I think gets it; I think he understands what the Labour Party ought to be . . . Again, if I meet someone like [Douglas] Alexander, I mean, he almost can’t bear being in the room [with me], I’m so lower-order compared to him. But people like Jon Cruddas, they want to talk to you; they can see politics is changing. And Kate Hoey is wonderful, obviously.
JC Do you identify with a historical figure?
NF Radio 4 did a radio programme a few months ago comparing me to John Wilkes, which was very flattering at one level, although compared to his Hellfire Club I’m almost a puritan.
JC So, Wilkes? Shall we say Wilkes?
NF To be honest, that’s overinflating who I am.