DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
How different history might have been. In 1986 a young Nigel Farage narrowly avoided being in one of the most notorious television documentaries of the period. In the Fishing party, made by the BBC’s Forty Minutes minutes team, four City workers were done up like kippers. They were filmed at home, in the City and in Scotland fishing, and shooting seagulls, their prattling about race, class and money intercut with radio reports of famine and poverty. After the programme aired the participants were mocked in the media as representatives of the worst excesses of the Thatcherite era. A reviewer concluded: “Any left-wing playwright would be hard pressed to come up with a juicier collection of right-wing nitwits.”
In my new book on Big Bang and the City revolution – Crash Bang Wallop: the inside story of London’s Big Bang and a financial revolution that changed the world – I explain how Farage had a lucky escape in the mid-1980s. The programme stained the reputations of those involved, and one made a short film later about the horrors of being a media target and regretting the appalling publicity. Farage was too busy that week and at the last moment turned down the chance to take part. If he had been on the Fishing Party it would not have helped him start a political career. Tainted as a total nitwit, would he ever have appeared again? Would he have become leader of his party? Would there have been an EU referendum? Would the UK be leaving the EU without the role played in the last few years by Nigel Farage?
Farage handed over the leadership of UKIP today to his newly elected successor Diane James, at the annual conference of Britain’s Eurosceptic party, with his supporters holding up signs declaring him a “statesman”. They are are quite clear that he was the victor in the referendum. Without him there would be no Brexit, they say, which helps explain why he is so disliked by Remain voters.
But for many other Brexit voters too (a majority of them the polls make clear) Farage is a deeply problematic individual. They do not want to be associated with him or his rhetoric. The appeal of UKIP is by definition narrow, despite Farage’s phenomenal publicity drive in the last decade. Among angry blazer-wearing persons he is the king of the saloon bar. Alienated working-class former Labour voters have also become attracted to his alleged plain-speaking on immigration. Beyond that he is actively disliked by many Britons, even those who want to leave the EU. It should not be forgotten that his appeal was very much to a minority of somewhere between 10 to 15% of Britons.
Even so, there is no avoiding it. It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against Farage (I have criticised him pretty incessantly for his rabble-rousing). On any remotely objective reading, Farage is one of the most influential politicians in British and European affairs in the opening decades of the 21st century, and he succeeded outside parliament in opposition to the established order, cleverly exploiting unrest with Westminster and Brussels, twin centres of Establishment power.
It is easy to forget that less than a decade ago the idea of a referendum on Britain leaving the EU seemed a remote and wacky notion. Farage was elected UKIP leader for the first time in 2006, at the low ebb of Euroscepticism, taking over from Roger Knapman. The following year the attempts to get a vote on the Lisbon treaty collapsed through lack of voter interest. Euroscepticism seemed to be a dying force, with David Cameron dedicated to getting the Tories to stop banging on about the EU in return for power. Plenty of moderate Eurosceptics thought of a referendum as a nice idea that would never happen. Going on about it got you strange looks.
Then the eurozone crisis from 2010 had an enormous and at the time under-appreciated impact in Britain. Not only did it reinforce the message of the financial crisis two years previously, that the global elite had produced a disaster, in the process opening the door to populists. The eurozone’s travails were so severe that it made the entire EU, the wider Brussels club, look like a giant, failing enterprise. Farage hammered this message ruthlessly and with a relentless zeal that started to panic some Tory MPs who already thought their leader unreliable, because of the way in which he had not held a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on the reasonable grounds that it had passed into law by the time he became Prime Minister and there was quite enough going on in terms of trying to get the struggling UK economy off its knees.
Farage’s barrage against Cameron and Westminster was producing gains, including record local election results for UKIP in 2012. Parts of the Tory tribe were in full panic. There was talk of pacts and defecting donors. Throughout, Farage harried and pressurised his opponents. He posed for pictures drinking endless pints of ale, a John Wilkes figure sporting a covert coat and a Rothmans cigarette.
Cameron’s response was a commitment to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU and to put the result to the voters in a referendum after the 2015 general election if his party won a majority, which it did. The game was on. You know the rest.
Farage was an awkward presence during the referendum itself, disliked by moderate Leavers and eclipsed by Boris Johnson. In response his acolytes proceeded to behave appallingly after losing the battle to run the official campaign. At some points their behaviour was so dim-witted, inflammatory and counterproductive that it seemed they might be working as secret agents for the Remain campaign. On referendum night Farage conceded defeat and then a few hours later tried to take the credit for victory. It looked daft and appropriately irrelevant. All the attention in subsequent weeks was on the big time Tories as they produced a Whitehall drama worthy of May 1940. Farage faded.
But none of it – Brexit included – would have happened without someone who (love him or hate him) succeeded in his life’s work. The post-Second World War attempt to enmesh the UK in a Europe-wide political project, reversing centuries of distinct British constitutional development since the Reformation, had looked unstoppable. The referendum which Farage’s agitation helped produce restores the pre-1970s position, fracturing an alliance and changing the direction of European history. The world has changed markedly in terms of trade patterns, regulation and technology since Britain joined, of course. That leaves Theresa May and her ministers with the complex job of creating a new dispensation that reintroduces self-government without disrupting trade too much.
Farage’s supporters predict a comeback at some point, and have posted him as a guard in case of any backsliding on Brexit. But there it is obvious his clout is limited, exhausted even. He does not speak for all Leavers when not even half of the 52% of Leave voters voted for his prescriptive vision of a “hard Brexit”. He speaks for a suspicious minority opposed to any negotiated compromise at all in terms of trade. There is not and there never was a majority in Britain for Faragism. His unique moment was the run up to the referendum, harrying the Tory Establishment into agreeing a vote offering Britons a choice, a fork in the road. Farage is done. He can now go for a pint. As though he needs an excuse.