Monday, July 04, 2016

The Resistible Rise of Nigel Farage.

"The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don't rejoice too soon at your escape -
The womb he crawled from is still going strong."
― Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Nigel Farage has resigned. He has been, undeniably, the best leader that Ukip is ever likely to have. Imagine, if you can, Paul Nuttall or Godfrey Bloom pulling off his showmanship. As for Douglas Carswell, there is a Sherlock Holmes lookalike contest with his name on it - but he is too fundamentally principled to be an effective demagogue. And with its primary political objective achieved - a break with the European Union followed by a shift to the Atlanticist hard-right in the Conservative Party - the party is likely to begin a slow diminuendo.

This heteroclite assortment of racists, conspiracy theorists, eco-denialists, eugenicists, homophobes and closeted fascists has been the most dynamic force in British politics since 2013. It was the major force shaping the 2015 general election, pulling the agenda to the Right so that Cameron didn't have to. Farage did the job of any good outrider, by driving immigration up the agenda so as to keep the Labour leadership on the defensive. And even if he was condemned for campaigning against "foreigners with HIV" in the last weeks of the campaign, doing so helped harden up* his support base, and he gained 4 million votes for his trouble, or 12.6 per cent of the total.

Because many of those votes came from former Tories, BNPers and English Democrats in Labour heartlands - Ukip effectively becoming the official opposition in these areas - the geographical spread of its support prevented it from gaining much representation. However, it came second in 120 constituencies, and a proportional system would have awarded it some 83 seats.  What Farage calls the Ukip "people's army," a coalition between the batshit, the blue-rinse, the bomber-jackets and the bores, was subsequently integral to winning the EU referendum campaign.

It is important to register just how improbable all of this is. Ukip began as a small group of random Tory defectors led by Alan Sked of the Bruges Group and the British American Project. The doctrine of this group was essentially that articulated by Thatcher in her Bruges speech in September 1988, ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level’. The 'Anti-Federalist League,' as the new group was initially called, was clearly pinioned to the hard-right, leaning on support from Enoch Powell and rousing old nationalist themes about Blighty being under threat from a new Hitler. In this embryonic phase, the AFL certainly adverted to a growing schism within Conservatism, but it was by far its least important manifestation. Generally polling fewer votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party, it had to relaunch as the UK Independence Party in 1993.

The terrain was not promising. While euroscepticism was as common as anti-migrant attitudes, Europe was way down the list of popular priorities, as was immigration. The Tories were cracking up in the post-Cold War world, their old unity against the militant left, the IRA, the ANC and Moscow having given way to a major strategic divide over Europe - but the Tories (and Ukip) were the only ones obsessing about this. Ukip thus sought to broaden its agenda, linking opposition to the EU to a range of traditionally rightist concerns, such as immigration controls and the promotion of a nationalist education system.

But it is the emergence of Nigel Farage as a key player that begins to change everything for Ukip. Farage was a former Conservative activist and City trader, who had something more of a feel for politics than the academic dogmatist, Sked. Farage was shrewd, and energetic. He was the only Ukipper to keep his deposit in the 1997 election, in which Ukip performed badly. He came to lead party's group of MEPs. And having played a canny and leading role in ousting the Sked leadership, he was central to Ukip's nuptials with Sir James Goldsmith's vehicle, the Referendum Party, which resulted in there being only one significant eurosceptic party in the UK. They were able to attract more members, more voters, a leading Tory donor named Paul Sykes, and a former Tory minister Roger Knapman, who became the party's leader in 2002. They adapted well to the 'war on terror' climate, somehow simultaneously playing off Islamophobia while positioning themselves as a 'libertarian' opponent of excessive New Labour authoritarianism.

The next episode in which Farage would play a key role was when Ukip recruited the betangoed broadcaster and Islamophobic columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk - a sort of Trump avant la lettre. Kilroy, with all of his customary subtlety, embarked on an attempt to depose the Knapman leadership and argued that Ukip should stand against all Conservative MPs whether eurosceptic or not. At this point, this struck experienced Ukippers as reckless adventurism: the idea had always been to convert the Conservative Party to euroscepticism. Farage and his allies saw him as a loose cannon, crushed the attempted coup and forced Kilroy's resignation. The short-term loss of membership and donor funding was vindicated when Kilroy's new group, Veritas, cruised to an undignified and terminal splat in 2008.

Farage was rewarded for his loyalty and ability when he won the leadership in 2006. This came at an opportune moment, as the Tories had just bet everything on a centrist, media-friendly leadership, thus accelerating the alienation of the party's traditional hard-right. Farage's leadership saw the party's rightist agenda broaden, with a focus on climate denial, tax cuts and support for traditional grammar schools. He began to attract a new layer of Tory donors and businessmen such as Stuart Wheeler and Lord Young. And it was under his leadership that Ukip began to consolidate itself into a party challenging for power, rather than a pressure group.

And yet. Farage, for reasons which remain obscure, chose this moment to step down from the leadership - supposedly to focus on contesting the Buckingham seat of the liberal Tory John Bercow. Whatever the reason, he ducked a punch with uncanny precision. The 2010 general election was a terrible one for Ukip. All the movement in that election was to the centre. Even the BNP, which had been surging for years, saw its first signs of decline in that election. Meanwhile, Ukip's standard 'free market' pitch was unappealing in the era of the credit crunch. Lord Pearson, an old Etonian of the Cold War Right, and a bit of an anti-Muslim obsessive, was an unlikely populist. Moreover, his willingness to campaign for eurosceptic Tories brought him into conflict with a lot of the party faithful, and with the official slogan which invited voters to 'Sod the Lot'.

When Farage returned in August 2010, he couldn't have anticipated the explosions that would create such a convivial atmosphere for Ukip. Certainly, the disintegration of other far right parties, above all the BNP, suggested that there would be plenty of spare votes for Ukip. But it was the authoritarian racism unleashed by the England riots which really broke the stalemate of post-credit crunch politics and demonstrated that all the anxious, pent up energies would be canalised to the racist Right. Ukip thus pounced on a series of moral panics with alacrity - the Rotherham paedophile rings in 2012, the anti-Romanian and anti-Bulgarian scare stories in 2013, the 'Operation Trojan Horse' conspiracy theory in 2014, the halal meat food scare and the Scottish threat to Britishness the same year, and so on. All of the fears that had been incubated in the previous era, in part thanks to New Labour's own policy thematics, exploded in this one. Farage smelled out the angles with appalling keenness of perception and a sociopathic lack of restraint: child abuse, he said, was a result of Labour's "sacrificing the innocence of children" on "the altar of multiculturalism". There, he invoked the classic racial trope of white childhood sullied by dark-skinned savagery, without explicitly mentioning race. Through interventions such as these, Ukip became the effective official opposition across a series of northern cities.

It has become a media mainstay to claim that Ukip assembled mainly the votes of white workers and those 'left behind' by globalisation. This was Farage's greatest spin. By claiming that he was parking his tanks on Labour's lawn, and that Ukip was not about right and left, but "right and wrong," he tapped into the worst fears and the dumbest electoral cliches of social democracy. With Miliband and his allies desperate to rebuild Labour's working class vote, and altogether too confident in their belief that workers are fundamentally a bit racist, the Farage offensive ensured that Labour would waste their time trying to placate anti-immigrant racism rather than challenging it. This is not to say that Ukip didn't win over a lot of Labour voters; it is to say that this wasn't their main source of support. It is also to say that Ukip's support, according to most research, is far more spread across classes than that of most parties, and certainly isn't restricted to the 'left behinds' of globalisation. But for Ukip to position itself as an 'anti-establishment' party, rather than as just a particularly hard-right Tory party, it was necessary that it should persuade the media and other political parties to talk about it in that way.

Farage's greatest achievement as party leader was his media persona. Unlike just about every other conceivable spokesperson, bar Carswell, he has managed to articulate Ukip-style bigotry with a pat 'frankness', and without so obviously reeking of old school racist battiness as to put off potential converts. He has positioned himself as a constant presence in the media, as an oppositional advocate, someone who speaks up for the rights of provincials and suburbanites and seaside dwellers to enjoy their traditional British racism without the condescension of metropolitan elites. He has willingly toned down his pro-privatisation, pro-market views where necessary, and even been willing to appear to attack Labour from the left on issues like NHS charges. And of course, as I have repeatedly argued elsewhere, he has very effectively turned the issue of immigration into a morality tale, one which expresses exactly how it is that the governing elites have been captured by a cosmopolitan, liberal, internationalist bureaucracy, remote from the common sense of the 'British people'. Restoring Britishness, beginning with a withdrawal from Europe and 'sending them back', would allow the people to 'take back control'. The reptilian cunning with which Farage consistently hit the racist sweet spot without ever losing his ability to connect to broader audiences is a tribute to his political marksmanship.

Ukip has always had a certain inherent fragility. The feuding between Farage and Carswell factions merely expresses in its own ways the ambiguous nature of a project that tries to be both populist and free market, both anti-politically correct while formally within the bounds of acceptable liberal-democratic politics, both pro- and anti-big business, both Thatcherite and somehow beyond left and right. Farage's abilities as a politician enabled Ukip to navigate these contradictions more or less efficiently. I'm not convinced that anyone else could have done that job. And so, he is an object-lesson in how much individual leadership can matter, particularly when the entire political terrain is structured around the spectacle, and when the traditionally dominant forces are in decline.

At the end of my Socialist Register article about Ukip last year, I pointed out that Ukip's chances of success had a certain time limitation on them. "as a disproportionately ageing, white, male party, Ukip has the disadvantage of being associated with a generation and a bevy of values that are on the decline.  It also finds a natural opponent in a younger generation that is socially egalitarian. ... Whatever ‘Britishness’ means to them, it doesn’t mean cultural and demographic autarky." The EU referendum result was probably their last hurrah. There have been, since the outcome, numerous large and almost spontaneous protests against Brexit. At the base of this is a pro-immigrant, anti-racist, anti-Tory politics. Those carrying pro-EU signs, however much one may regret their enthusiasm for the institution, were not demonstrating for Angela Merkel and continent-wide austerity. And they are probably the Britain of ten years hence. It is not necessary to collapse into demographic determinism to understand how difficult it will be to sustain these forms of politics over a long period of time.

So in the short-term, Britain is likely to be an increasingly nasty and hateful place to live, thanks in no small part to Farage's accomplishments as a politician; in the long-term, Farage was very much a product of his moment, that spasm of backlash on the part of declining socio-demographic layers still steeped in a colonial culture, which is unlikely to be repeated. With Farage at its helm, Ukip operated adroitly on the accumulating dysfunctions and crises of British politics, finally convoking a popular bulwark that pulled Britain further to the right than it has been since the 1970s. And in the next few years, the reactionaries will seek to use their victory to achieve maximum damage, maximum reversal on all fronts. And there will be other sources of reaction in the coming decades. Yet, Farage's resignation signals the looming end of this end of the pier show. Even if Britain survives as such, this Britain is finished.

*polysemy intentional.