As the general election fast approaches, much opinion-pushing and prediction has hinged on the question of whether the Brexit Party will grab more working-class votes from the Tories or from Labour.
It’s yet another reminder of Nigel Farage’s enduring importance in British politics. The man who forced David Cameron to commit to a EU referendum and arguably blocked Ed Miliband’s path to Downing Street is by any proper reckoning the most important British politician of the twenty-first century thus far.
He is also one of the least understood. Few if any journalists have succeeded in puncturing Farage’s boozy, blokeish facade despite it being clear that it is nothing more than just that. There are precious few instances of Farage appearing on TV hungover or bleary-eyed and the brutal working hours of a populist politician could not possibly allow for a serious alcohol habit. He doesn’t even have a beer belly.
Nor does Farage really fit into the mould of a crotchety right-winger. He was a supporter of gay marriage and an opponent of the Iraq War before either cause was cool, and has repeatedly called for drug liberalisation. A Green voter in the 1980s, he stood in solidarity with Greece’s socialist government against Angela Merkel’s demands for austerity and is something of a cultural Europhile: ‘I love Europe! France is wonderful. It should be. We’ve subsidised it for 40 years…’
The young Farage skipped university and spent his formative years as a commodities trader in the City.
The early eighties were the heyday of liquid lunches and ‘open outcry’ trading on the floor of the London Metals Exchange; a friendly and funny bloke’s bloke like Farage must have been in his element. Then came Margaret Thatcher’s 1986 Big Bang deregulation, which opened City firms up to foreign takeovers and paved the way for global electronic trading. All of a sudden, glorified gentlemen’s clubs like Cazenove and Tullett Prebon were trampled by international giants like JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, and the City became rather more professional and rather less fun. Farage has compared the life of a modern City trader to that of a ‘battery chicken’, lamenting that ‘the people whose working lives are on computers, they’re not as fulfilling as working lives that are actually meeting people doing stuff.’
Shaped by the destruction of a uniquely British cultural and commercial milieu by movements of global capital, Farage was in the 1990s exactly the kind of person fated to be ignored by both a fiscally hawkish right and a faddishly multicultural left. Yet historical forces only acquire their force when refracted through the psychological interiors of human individuals, and it is Farage’s unusual personality which stopped him from becoming another City fossil eulogising the good-old-days.
Whereas Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s private cultural interests offer a gateway into their inner lives, one has no such opportunity with Farage, who has said ‘I don’t listen to music. I don’t watch TV, I don’t read.’
There is certainly a toughness and appealing sense of irony, perhaps arising from his 1986 cancer battle and 2010 election day plane crash. Like the country-lane cyclist Johnson, Farage is something of a loner: his solitary hobbies include night-time shore fishing, Great War battlefield tours and visiting John Betjeman’s grave. It certainly takes someone with no great yearning for the affectionate company of others to spend two decades campaigning for Brexit from inside the European Parliament, in the face of smug disapproval from most of the political-media complex. Not for nothing did Farage once call himself ‘the patron saint of lost causes’.
When recently asked his opinion of Johnson, Farage replied that there are two kinds of people in politics: ‘those who want to do something, and those who want to be something’. It is the interplay between Farage’s self-contained personality and the death throes of the Britain he loves which, for good or ill, has made him more effective at doing things than any of his political contemporaries. Yet his addiction to outsider status has led him into murky territory.
Now that Brexit is government policy backed by a majority of active voters, Farage has, astonishingly, more or less disappeared from the British interview circuit.
He has reinvented himself as the British political class’s only direct apologist for Donald Trump’s grimmest language, and has in the past year endorsed sordid conspiracies about George Soros and the American ‘Jewish lobby’. It’s disturbing to see a congenitally ironic court jester like Farage straight-facedly ape the paranoid style of the American far right. And so Nigel Farage’s odyssey across the fringes of Western politics continues, a mystery to all whom he encounters.