A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Brexit. At least, that is what other European populist leaders hope, until it is stamped out à la German communism in 1919. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, confirmed this summer that this was to be so: “The chain reaction being celebrated everywhere now by Eurosceptics won’t happen.” A transparent attempt to calm European markets to be sure, but a clear signal that the European establishment simply will not allow any more referenda on the issue.
After proceeding to celebrate anyway, suddenly those such as Beppe Grillo and Marine Le Pen realised their own envy whilst gazing across channel to what Nigel Farage had achieved – a political figure who, like them, shaped his political movement through sheer weight of persona, but was the only one to force a binding plebiscite, enjoy a major political victory and shape the future destiny of their nation in the process.
the story of how the referendum came to be is enmeshed with Farage’s efforts to reform UKIP into, admittedly, a personality cult.
In his resignation speech delivered in July, he proclaimed: “There is no doubt that without us, without the growth in UKIP, there would not have been a referendum.” We know, and the press pack knew at the time, that the monarch robed in purple was using the royal ‘we’.
Thus, the story of how the referendum came to be is enmeshed with Farage’s efforts to reform UKIP into, admittedly, a personality cult. This is why he refused to step down in 2015, and why he severed relations with UKIP’s other big beasts: Douglas Carswell, Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn. A strong figurehead must always be point of focus amidst a movement filled with conflicting, and quite eccentric, political viewpoints.
And now this merry king has abdicated, and closer to home against the backdrop of a Bournemouth enjoying the dying days of summer, today the successor to Farage will be announced. But does it essentially matter who that person is: whether Bill Etheridge, or Lisa Duffy, or, most probably, Diane James?
The answer is no, for the pure reason that a political party who has built its success and capital solely around one towering figure, cannot sustain its own momentum when that leader has vacated the position (for the third time). Yes, there is certainly fertile political ground to occupy in the north of England where a strong Brexit vote and a comparatively weak Labour party conspire to offer UKIP a smattering of parliamentary seats at the next election, but already the limitations become more obvious.
It was Farage who became the most consequent of political figures, who fundamentally changed the rules on how politicians must conduct themselves to win power: not by their own displays of competence, which defined the Major-era in which his political life was born, but by their level of authenticity. Appearing unashamedly authentic was the Farage brand, which for 23 years drove his seemingly unattainable crusade to lead Britain out the European Union and ‘Take Back Control’.
He sought to project all the positive attributes of a right-wing, socially conservative populist, discarding the racialist undertones in the process. In previous interviews, he especially puts emphasis on the similarities, but key differences, between himself and Enoch Powell, thereby disavowing the type of racist politics that may still be found on the Doom Bar soaked lips of UKIP activists in today’s conference hall.
“Powell was brilliant in so many ways – militarily, intellectually…I don’t want be Enoch Powell, do I? I don’t want to be right, but get the politics of it badly wrong.”
Making immigration the hallmark of his personal EU referendum campaign, however much the reader disdained it, was a politically right move. And although not as controversial as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the unveiling of the ‘Breaking Point’ poster clearly struck a chord with the voting public.
But now the brand has gone. Before resigning, Farage said: “During the referendum campaign, I said I want my country back. What I’m saying today, is I want my life back. . . .” This has now come to represent a collective feeling amongst some party members and donors, who have committed to retire from politics satisfied that their movement’s mission statement has been fulfilled, or furtively rejoin the Tories through the back-door.
Undoubtedly, there will come the inevitable backslide when the “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” flood the party as quickly Farage previously quashed them, and I highly doubt a figure such as Diane James will attempt to rid them with the same Stalinist ruthlessness. Sacking high-profile figures akin to Godfrey Bloom, who graced us with his visit to Exeter last year, will only stave off the rot for so long, and before long it will be impossible to break the crippling inability for UKIP to run a successful national campaign.
More than that, if the destiny of UKIP is to be the vanguard party of Brexit, it must commit to becoming more professional. This will be exceedingly difficult given the points already outlined, and glimpses into the mess that was the leadership election – where the clear favourite Steven Woolfe was disqualified and half the NEC resigned – does not offer much hope. One gets the feeling that even Arron Banks, amongst the party’s biggest donors, is pre-emptively setting up the so-called ‘People’s Movement’ for the purpose of offering shelter to survivors of the UKIP implosion circa 2016/17.
Until then, Diane James sets out her vision of leadership which does not shy away from serious policy discussion, and more clearly outlines a position after Article 50 will be eventually triggered – which will be in the New Year if sources are to be believed.
if the destiny of UKIP is to be the vanguard party of Brexit, it must commit to becoming more professional.
“Once Article 50 is invoked, we must probe Europe’s negotiating stance on areas such as ‘passporting’ rights that allow financial services companies to operate in the EU, and on access to the single market more generally – bearing in mind that we will not be paying into the EU budget. Controlling our borders and fishing rights should be red lines in any talks.”
Yet since the likelihood is that Mrs. May will pursue a ‘soft Brexit’ – that is, a Brexit that does not involve Britain opting out of the single market, nor freedom of movement – Farage may return to the fold. It may be only to resume his crusade once more, purple standard gripped firmly in hand. His supporters will love him for it, but secretly we find a man terrified of being consigned a failure: an ale-drinking Alcibiades whose oratory inspired the masses but advocated a doomed enterprise which would ruin the nation.