The Alarming Return of Nigel Farage
One of the embarrassing consequences of Britain missing its intended departure date from the European Union is that the country has been forced to hold elections for the European Parliament. European elections have never quite worked in the United Kingdom. Turnout is low, and no one really understands the rules. Every five years, newly elected British M.E.P.s go off to the E.U.’s vast, seven-hundred-and-fifty-one-member legislature, which sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg, and are rarely heard of again. Theresa May, the Prime Minister, was desperate to have the U.K. out of the E.U. before this year’s elections, which take place on Thursday, because of the ignominy and chaos that would be caused by removing Britain’s seventy-three M.E.P.s partway through the electoral cycle. But British politics has been all ignominy and chaos for a while now. The Conservative and Labour parties have decided that the best way to approach this year’s European elections is to pretend that they are not happening. This has created a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. But Nigel Farage loves them. On April 12th, Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and Donald Trump’s chief British outrider, launched the Brexit Party, a new nationalist party, to compete in the elections. Brexit Party is now five weeks old and about ten points ahead in the polls.
Last Thursday evening, I went to a Brexit Party rally a few miles outside Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands. Around sixty per cent of voters in the region, which was once the center of Britain’s metal-working industry, voted to leave the E.U. in 2016. Earlier in the day, May had agreed to resign after presenting her Brexit deal to the House of Commons one last time, in early June. Boris Johnson, her former Foreign Secretary, and the country’s best-known, and perhaps shiftiest, Brexiteer, is now likely to succeed her. “I’m going to go for it,” he told an interviewer. “Of course I’m going to go for it.”
The Brexit Party meeting was held at a former municipal baths in Willenhall, a town that used to have a large lock factory. A clutch of protesters from a local union stood outside, chanting, “Farage is a racist. Save the N.H.S.” The pointlessness of this year’s European elections has made them only a more perfect window into Britain’s unhappy soul. Inside the venue, under a ceiling lit with pale green light—the color of the Brexit Party—the room was full. The crowd was largely white but socially mixed. There was tweed. There were tattoos. The largest bloc of pro-Brexit voters were middle-class Conservatives. Someone had brought a large Union Jack, which he waved from time to time. The man next to me was a middle-aged local business owner, who was at his first political event. He used to vote Conservative. “The E.U. doesn’t work,” he said. He was almost too furious to talk about it. When I asked him if he trusted Farage, he replied, “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.” Every chair had a white placard on it that read “CHANGE POLITICS FOR GOOD.”
The Brexit Party has no political program. Its only stated aim is to remove Britain from the E.U. without a deal, an outcome that is likely to crash the economy and interrupt the country’s food and medical supplies. The Party’s chairman is Richard Tice, a property investor and one of the self-styled “Bad Boys of Brexit,” who, along with Farage and Arron Banks, the principal funder of Leave.EU, led the populist, anti-immigrant wing of the anti-E.U. campaign in 2016. In Willenhall, Tice introduced a video of Farage standing in a cloth cap next to a barbed-wire fence, with the cliffs of Dover behind him. “Britain needs the Brexit Party, and the Brexit Party needs you,” Farage said.
“How are we, Brexiteers?” Tice asked the crowd. The room cheered. The Party is running seven candidates as M.E.P.s for the West Midlands, and, for the next forty-five minutes, they took to the stage, delivering stump speeches that invoked a vague, disaffected English nationalism. Rupert Lowe, a former soccer-club chairman, said that he liked individuals and floating currencies. Martin Daubney, the former editor of Loaded, a lad magazine, thanked his mum and dad and railed against “that bloody lot in Westminster” and people who “go to dinner parties.”
The rally booed the names of Tony Blair, Theresa May, and Gary Lineker, a former star striker for England’s national soccer team, who is now the BBC’s main sports commentator and is known to have Remain views. It would be funny if it weren’t so casually destructive. Speakers inveighed against the Confederation of British Industry, the county’s largest business lobby, and the civil service. A candidate named Andrew Kerr, whose middle name is England, promised, “We are going to fight corruption.” Kerr had a message for the E.U.’s “unelected bureaucrats,” whom he was seeking office to work alongside: “Go find a taxidermist.” When another candidate asked what should be done about the “flip-flops” in Westminster, the man in front of me murmured, “Lock them up.” Occasionally, someone in the crowd would shout, “Traitors!” It was Trumpism in British accents and, after a few experiments, you could feel people beginning to sense its potential. The penultimate candidate, Laura Kevehazi, whose Twitter bio describes her as an “ex Dental Surgeon, Inventor, Tennis fan” said, “Brexit is our generation’s Battle of Britain!” The room rose to its feet and clapped.
Farage entered the hall just before 8 P.M. There was a brief, spontaneous chant of “Nigel! Nigel!” Farage, who has tried seven times to be elected as a British M.P., has earned his living as an M.E.P. for twenty years. He started warning of a betrayal of the Brexit vote in November, 2016, five months after the referendum. In Willenhall, Farage rehearsed the familiar, alluring origin story of the Brexit Party—of his initial euphoria at Britain’s newfound independence after the referendum, which was followed by a growing sense of unease and finally by fury at the country’s entire political establishment when Brexit failed earlier this year. “They don’t get it,” Farage said. “We want to be free.” Farage has a slow, deliberate delivery, which, after a while, had the crowd almost supplying the words before he said them. He drew cartoon villains: Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief Brexit negotiator, was “Monsieur Barnier.” May’s Brexit deal was “a new European treaty.” The BBC was fake news. In 2016, the Brexit campaign largely focussed on external enemies; in 2019, Farage is on the hunt for the saboteurs closer to home. As ever with Farage, who recently described Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, as “the future of Europe,” the mood cheerily menacing. “We are lions led by donkeys, and it is time we did something about it,” he said. “And we will. We will.”
There is no point countering Farage with reason. At the rally, there was no mention of the fact that May’s most implacable opponents for the past two years have been the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party and right-wing Conservatives. If it weren’t for the plotting and resistance of arch Brexiteers, such as Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Party’s anti-E.U. faction in Parliament, there is a good chance that Britain would have left the E.U. by now. (Rees-Mogg’s younger sister, Annunziata, is a candidate for the Brexit Party in the East Midlands.) There was also scant mention of people’s livelihoods. Wolverhampton is still home to a distribution center for British Steel. Last week, the company, which employs more than four thousand people around the U.K., was seeking financial assistance from the government because of “Brexit-related issues.” The day before, Honda, which has built cars in Swindon, in Wiltshire, for thirty years, announced that it would be closing its factory, which will mean the loss of three thousand and five hundred jobs, in 2021.
After his speech, Farage had a cigarette behind the hall. “We’re kind of like a six-year-old kid,” he told me. “A huge bar of chocolate has been put in front of us and then taken away, and we’re not having it. We’re just not having it.” I asked Farage if he ever gave any thought to how the country can be put back together, after the trauma of Brexit, and he repeated a line from his speech. “For democracy to work, the loser has to accept the result,” he said. “If we just get on with it, we can get on with the rest of our lives.” When I pointed out the likely economic damage of a sudden exit from the E.U., he compared the ructions of Brexit to the ending of the slave trade, or the passage of the Corn Laws, in the nineteenth century. “Those with power, those with money, never want change,” Farage said.
The chaos of the past three years has suited him well. If the Brexit Party wins this week’s European elections—as it seems certain to do—both of Britain’s main political parties will become only more afraid of Farage, of the feelings that he is able to elicit, and, by extension, of the people who are drawn to him. But politicians can run away from their voters for only so long. Once May steps down, the pressure for a British general election will grow and the Brexit Party will be waiting. “We’re getting ready for it,” Farage said. Then he chuckled, amazed at how swiftly, and how easily, the power has come back. “You’ve got to laugh, in a way.”