“You have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
– Oliver Cromwell, addressing the Rump Parliament, 1653
Yesterday’s high court ruling on Brexit has led to calls for Nigel Farage, the perpetually outgoing leader of Ukip, to lead a new peasant’s revolt against his country’s ruling class. The examples of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade not being especially propitious (still less those of Braveheart, Owen Glendower or Wolfe Tone), he may be forced to model himself on the Lord Protector himself, Oliver Cromwell.
The problem, from Farage’s point of view, is that the enemy is no longer what he sees as the old, corrupt House of Commons – a democratic irrelevance that he regards with true Cromwellian disdain – but the rule of law, applied with strict reference to the very constitution that he has pledged to uphold and defend.
Destiny calling or destiny denied: it could go either way.
It was Farage who led the People’s Army that fought the old regime to a standstill, with the referendum of June 23 standing in for the Battle of Naseby. Until yesterday, in the aftermath of that bloody conflict, he was content to preside over follow-up operations, showing no mercy to traitors and conchies. His principle focus had turned to his own future as a highly-paid columnist, memoirist, broadcaster and public speaker. What he didn’t know was that a second civil war was about to get underway, one for which his forces were wholly unprepared.
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Three months ago, Jean-Claude Juncker inspired rare laughter in the European Parliament when he rounded on Farage, languishing in his usual front-stalls seat, complete with Union flag, a week after June 23. “Why are you here?” the Commission president wanted to know. “You were fighting for exit. The British people voted for exit. So why are you here?”
It was a reasonable question to which only the high court provided the answer. “I worry that a betrayal may be near at hand,” Farage announced within minutes of the ruling. “I now fear that every attempt will be made [by MPs] to block or delay the triggering of Article 50. If this is so, they have no idea of the level of public anger they will provoke.”
What can he possibly mean? Should we now fear a time of tumult and the possibility of the kind of protests not seen since the miners’ strike or the Poll Tax riots, leading, perhaps to a second Orgreave, fought out between police and marchers on Palace Green? If so, Farage will need to acknowledge that the power of the state, with the courts at its heart, is not yet exhausted and that while millions might support his rebellion, millions more would demand that it be put down with all necessary force.
It may not come to that, of course. Parliament itself could well choose to opt for compromise, exchanging a pledge of support for Brexit in return for enhanced scrutiny of the process and a chance to attach its name to whatever deal is reached by the Government and the EU. There could even, as some have suggested, be a general election that would clear the air and, one assumes, give the Brexiteers the parliamentary mandate they currently lack. What a campaign that would be! Or the Supreme Court could strike down the High Court ruling and adjudge – the people having made their choice – that the Prime Minister and her Cabinet can indeed stand in for Queen and Council without need for a Commons vote.
There is much to play for, and Farage, who until yesterday was being talked of mainly in the context of Reality TV, has a lot to think about. If there is a general election, will he stand? And if he does, and ends up with 50 or more fellow Ukip MPs, would he demand a seat in a grand coalition directed not only against the EU, but the backsliders and traitors he perceives in our midst? Alternatively, what if he stands and loses – again? Would he then accept that he is fated to be the Moses of the New Jerusalem, able to glimpse the Promised Land but prevented from entering its glory?
More to the point, if the mob is restored to English politics, will he lead it, or will he shy away? It’s one thing to address a mass rally and present a petition to Downing Street, it’s something else entirely to take up Jack Cade’s cudgels, targeting not only ministers and MPs, but the judiciary, with the real possibility of blood on the streets.
But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The game is afoot and with a cut-down Cromwell on the charge, anything is possible. Something tells me, though, that good sense and compromise are the most likely outcome of the struggle in the weeks and months ahead. How Nigel Farage deals with that mundane possibility is anyone’s guess.