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10 June 2024

Nigel Farage’s very English populism

His new social media campaign is an exhibition of his dynamic cultural contradictions.

By Nicholas Harris

Last week, just as Nigel Farage was announcing his full entry into the general election campaign, the Conservatives released their first full-length campaign video. It was a dour and doom-mongering affair, and made headlines chiefly for showing the Union Jack upside down, a mis-step widely judged as some unconscious signal of surrender from inside Conservative headquarters. As if in reply, later that day Farage’s social media punched out its own video offering. There’s Nigel in the silhouettes we know, brandishing an umbrella in his tweed coat and gold-buttoned blazer. But he’s also been chopped up into a staccato collage and set to Eminem’s “Without Me”. “Cause we need a little controversy…”

The song will reportedly be serving as his electoral anthem, and this was just the start of a social media campaign that is half shooting-weekend joker and half chaotic meme-verse fantasia. Here, for instance, is Nigel in a Barbour the size of a small tent recommending his new Spotify playlist, “Brexit Club Classics”. Elsewhere, here he is in mustard trousers taking selfies to a Tommy Richman beat.

How does this hold together? Partially because Reform must be employing some bunker of highly capable Zoomer edge lords for their online strategy (the party’s own TikTok has three times the Conservatives’ following). But this collision of competing signifiers is also classic Nigel – it’s what made him such a unique politician in the first place.

He’s always liked living life facing both ways – which sets him up nicely for having things both ways too. He keeps a house in Downe, a village dotted just inside the M25, but just outside the “great wen” of London sprawl, where roundabout and corner shop give way to meadow and sky. To his back is the Kentish garden of England, and to his front the hyper-modernity of the metropolis that he seems to be so wary of. Much of his early life was spent on this frontier.

But then the young Farage went to work in the City of London at the time of its greatest upheaval. Swerving university, in 1982 he became a commodities broker, a foot soldier in the economic transformation sweeping Britain. Here, social class was in flux. The relationship between cash and background was beginning to change as the barrow boys and yuppies surged in from Essex to the rip the old boys’ tie from the City’s throat. All the while, Farage surfed between worlds, barking and boozing. By the time he entered politics in the 1990s, the public schoolboy had become equally acquainted with a far more contemporary archetype: the small-state, low-tax, up-by-your-bootstraps entrepreneur.

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The ingredients were all in place for Farage’s coiled contradictions: rural and urban; a traditionalist who came of age in the socially levelled landscape of the Thatcher revolution. And as politics came to overtake business in his life, his rhetorical rhythms similarly called deep into the English past in service of a very contemporary project. His populism is really of a 19th-century vintage: the Victorian radical William Cobbett valorised the “labouring classes” and raged against “the Thing”, an amalgam of the aristocracy, the Church and government finance. The construct is familiar. And once Farage seized the reigns of Ukip, he simply updated the dichotomy: ordinary folk vs the media elite, cheating MPs and Brussels placemen.

And yet, despite railing against this amorphous establishment, Farage’s politics remain firmly on the right. Conservative commentators lined up to praise him as the winner of Friday’s election debate, singling him out for his advocacy of partial NHS privatisation, stop and search, tax cuts and for his net zero scepticism. He cleaves to Thatcher’s synthesis of assertive nation-state abroad, with a deregulated economic state at home. Another dose of this programme is unlikely to improve life in places like Farage’s adoptive home of Clacton.

But Farage is far from the only cultural figure in 21st-century England to have vaulted social handrails and engage a very different constituency to that of his birth. Jeremy Clarkson trod a similar path from public schoolboy to verified bloke (also bypassing university); Boris Johnson’s overwhelming poshness never turned off the everyman voter. In the opposite direction, Jamie Oliver deployed his Essex geezer act in service of the middle-class cause of reforming school dinners. Rather than real social identities, these were guises to be worn in the service of pop-cultural performance.

Now Nigel is back at it, combining the uniforms of the dynamic populist who knows a good backbeat with the trustworthy gent. The tensions are holding for now. But as his boasts of forming the Official Opposition start to look less fanciful, as the persona gets that bit closer to power, there’s a risk that as with Boris Johnson, the joke starts to wear a bit thin. Beyond the world of pure performance, Farage will struggle to maintain the uneasy coalition between familiar reactionary and energetic outsider.

[See also: Want to be a Conservative MP? Come to Scotland]

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