Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has had the best year of his political life. He has seen his party’s polling numbers rise to currently stand at 12% above the Liberal Democrats (YouGov, Feb 20,2014) and has inflicted significant defeats on the ‘political establishment’ such as the Eastleigh by-election win and forcing the debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union into the political mainstream.
It is no coincidence that UKIP and Farage’s rise have coincided with tough economic times. Throughout history when times are bleak people have always sought to become more insular and social conservatism can become rife. Greece, the hardest hit of all EU countries during the economic crisis has seen the rise of the neo-fascist, far-right group Golden Dawn who have engaged in violent battles on the country’s capital Athens. In Italy the comedian Beppe Grillo set up anti-establishment political group to ‘clean up politics’ and found his party winning 25% of the vote in the 2013 general election. In Britain however, in typically British fashion, change is being championed by a man wearing mustard trousers, drinking pints and declaring that the establishment ‘don’t like it up ‘em’.
Farage himself embodies the very nature of the party he leads. Brash, in-your-face, and politically-incorrect, he embodies the antithesis of the political elites (his words) in Westminster and Brussels that his fight is against. He rarely misses an opportunity to be caught on camera smoking or sipping a pint, although considering the constant media circus that follows him around it seems surprising that these are the most extreme behaviours that get caught on film. The media of course is happy to oblige in the photo opportunities knowing that he is always good for a topical sound bite or two. But he doesn’t get it all his own way. During a trip to Scotland he was heckled by the crowd so much that he was forced on police advice to take shelter in a pub. According to some polls UKIP are now the most liked party in the country, with Farage placing second behind Cameron in terms of likeability of leaders (27% to 22%). It is Farage’s charisma that sets him apart from most other modern politicians. He is characterised by his ability to make journalists, commentators and the public like him, despite their political affiliations. He is seen as a sort of lovable rogue, and his quirky brand of anti-establishment rhetoric has come at just the right time to coincide with the public’s apathy for clean-cut modern politics. One of the most obvious examples of his popularity are his continual appearances on Question Time (he has appeared at least 14 times since 2009, the most of any guest) where he time and again bends whatever is being debated to suit UKIP’s anti-EU agenda. He even goes as far as to claim that Cameron is ‘running scared’ of him and that he will be too afraid to face him at election debates (despite the fact that UKIP currently have no MPs sitting in Westminster so arguably have a less legitimate claim to be involved in any election debate than the Green Party who have one). Shrinking violet he is not.
The ‘man in the pub’ stereotype plays well with UKIP’s core vote who have packed out church halls, working men’s clubs and pubs up and down the country to see Farage on his ‘Common Sense’ tour where he rallies against the three main parties arguing that perhaps if Nick Clegg’s third way didn’t work, his forth way will. However, as with many controversial characters, all is not what it seems. Far from being the average bloke his public image aims to represent, Farage was educated at Dulwich College, a public school in South London, and then went on to trade commodities for various brokerage firms. He was recently forced to admit that he had set up an offshore trust fund in the Isle of Man (although he claims that he has since closed it at a loss) and has also declared that he has used around £2m of EU money to promote UKIP’s message. Arguably these are not the actions of the average, ‘common-sense’ bloke Farage likes to portrait himself to be.
The focus on Britain’s relationship with the European Union has enabled the party to side-step direct accusations of racism, such as those that stuck like a limpet to the British National Party, by pointing out that they were focused on the fight against specific institutions and not specific peoples. Farage himself is very keen to be seen to push against the more extreme elements of his own party, continually pointing out during the recent controversy over the restrictions of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants being lifted that he understands why people would want to come here and that his parties policies were designed to enable ‘controlled immigration’ (in contrast to UKIP’s 2010 manifesto which pledged to stop all immigration for five years). He has also recently stated that Britain should accept its fair share of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, although quickly appeared to adapt his stance after negative feedback from some members of his party, stating that Britain should focus first on helping Syria’s Christians. Farage’s arguments show signs of tactical development as well. Realising that he could not win the overall economic argument for restrictions on immigration he has changed tack and questioned whether people would be willing to sacrifice some economic prosperity for cultural preservation and stability, ‘wedging’ his opponents and forcing them to defend a position which he knows his core vote disagrees with.
There have always been small but vocal sections of the electorate with outlandish views which up until now have been largely ignored by the mainstream. Farage’s real political skill lies in pulling UKIP out from the wilderness and ‘de-toxifing’ the brand (in a similar vein to Cameron’s removal of the more extreme elements of the Conservative Party). Unsavoury characters still remain in the party, a quick look at the UKIP Facebook page or the comments posted on any of Farage’s speeches on YouTube will tell you that. There are left-field members of many political persuasions, but UKIP faces real problems in terms of public faces that are palate to the electorate. Godfrey Bloom, the MEP for Yorkshire and Humber had the whip removed last year after a series of gaffes in which he declared foreign aid was going to “Bongo Bongo Land”, referred to a group of female delegates at the UKIP political conferences as ‘sluts’ and then hit journalist Michael Crick on the head when questioned about the lack of diversity in the party.
Even as they have more and more spotlight thrust upon them due to their successes, Farage’s canny ability to weave his way through the obvious flaws in UKIP policy is keeping the party amongst the big players. When questioned by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics on policy details including UKIP’s policy on abandoning Trident, deploying the army to disperse riots and a compulsory uniform for taxi drivers, Farage declared that none of his party’s 2010 manifesto stands today and that all of their policies will be re-drawn after the European elections in the spring. It is almost unimaginable to think of any other party with UKIP’s polling numbers being able to completely abandon all of its manifesto principles but perhaps that’s where UKIP’s strength lies. Arguably UKIP are not a party based on ideology but rather based on a feeling, a sense that government now has little to do with the little man and that an old fashioned, back to basics, common-sense approach would sort the country out. Local and European elections are generally a time for people to register dissatisfaction for the status quo and often the incumbent government takes some losses, which is exactly where UKIP’s successes have come. Mounting a general election campaign is a different beast altogether. For UKIP’s supporters the attractiveness of the party may not lie in the specifics of its policies (beyond getting out of the EU) but in its charismatic, anarchic, anti-establishment leader. Much like Boris Johnson, who became mayor in a London which traditionally votes Labour, Farage is a character whose greatest strength is his controversy and uniqueness in a bland political landscape.