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What does Nigel Farage read? Like a true populist, he is wary of citing political influences which may later prove unhelpful. Left to conjecture, allow me to pitch in with a suggestion: the best available anatomy of Faragism is provided by The Letters of Henry Root. These record the political awakening of one Henry Root of Elm Park Gardens (London, SW). Energised by the rise of Margaret Thatcher – and with the resources of his wet-fish business behind him – he sets about putting the country right in a blizzard of correspondence with prominent people. The result is a brilliant portrait of a self-made man overflowing with blithely subjective and often contradictory solutions to the nation’s problems.
The essence of Rootism is trusting in his own robust common sense over experts (“Intellectuals are very handy with words – less so, in my experience, when it comes to a bit of direct action!”). Alongside this sits his belief in optimism – “Let’s go!” – and its power to overcome technicalities. He freely admits to “no relevant experience” when putting himself forwards as manager of a football club because “the name of the game is motivation and psychology – and that I know about!”
As a self-identified Thatcherite, he espouses the free market when it’s making him rich – but isn’t averse to a dose of protectionism when its waters lap too close to his door (“Yours for the market economy within reasonable limits!”). Free speech – “however obnoxious” – is a must when it comes to National Front rallies but soon meets its limits when it threatens public morals. The public sector should be slashed – except, of course, for the police (“Soon the thin blue line will become the thick blue line!”). Regulation is necessary for society as a whole but shouldn’t impinge on the buccaneering spirit of Root and his kindred spirits (“I’ll get straight to the point,” he writes to Major General Wyldebore-Smythe of the Conservative Party. “What’s the price of getting an honour?” Rebuffed, he attempts to bribe the Liberals instead). These double standards collide most brilliantly when writing to offer condolences to an MP who has been “burglarised while out advocating for greater initiative among the Working Classes”. Britain, he writes, should be a “free country to those who can afford it”.
Like today’s populists, Henry rebounds happily into the arms of foreign authoritarians whom he perceives as bastions of a lost conservatism. “Pay no attention [to the liberal press],” he writes to General Haq, military dictator of Pakistan. “Most of us realise that a backward people such as yours needs, and appreciates, the smack of firm government.” Addressing his letter to “The Strong Man”, he receives a reply thanking him for “certain very pertinent views”. One wonders how many similar replies Nigel Farage has in his bottom drawer.
With the exception of General Haq, Henry Root regards abroad with some suspicion. He writes to the Greek Ambassador, asking if the activities of a certain Greek masseuse represent the cultural inheritance of “Plato the Great & General Alexander”. Yet he remains sensitive to any slights against Great Britain. To defend the national honour from jokes at the expense of British Leyland, he suggests renaming it “Japanese Leyland” following a manufacturing agreement with Honda. “There’s a long way to go until Britain once again rules the world,” he laments to General Haq. Until that moment comes, Root himself stands guardian over the embers of British exceptionalism. These he seeks to fan into life by means of a self-penned stage work, The English Way of Doing Things. What better subtitle could there be for the Brexit-Party rally on 31st March 2019, which saw soggy renditions of Jerusalem echo around Parliament Square?
Whereas Henry Root relied on the Royal Mail to drum up support, his modern contrarian heirs have access to social media. Yet he too adopted replies from celebrities as a force-magnifier, co-opting any interaction for the purposes of further profile-building. Jimmy Goldsmith attained lifelong status as Henry Root’s “very good friend” by generously forwarding his letter to a book-publisher. Denis Thatcher became ensnared by an enquiry relating to the Royal Cinq Ports Golf Club. Twitter nurtures a similar partisanship, allowing enthusiastic amateurs on both sides of the Brexit fence to climb to prominence by hurried retweets and replies from large accounts. Even EU Supergirl is, in her own way, a minor heir of Henry Root.
The letters are shot through with moments of odd prescience. He pitches The Free Trade Association with a demonstration outside Westminster including “traditional, right-wing, two-nations activity” such as bellowing Latin insults at the children of miners. With the self-described “One-Nation” group having been ejected from the Tories, leaving the party in control of just such a classically-educated clique, he would surely be proud. At one point, he outlines a sociological project to “hop incognito through the door [of a ladies sauna] in a pair of ballet pumps and take unusual photos before ejection”. This is not far off the experience of Canadian users of ladies’ saunas in the era of Justin Trudeau. Yet for all his misdirected enthusiasms, at the heart of the letters is the reactionary paradox: he opposes more things than he supports. The most eloquent statement of his beliefs is found in a one-sentence letter to the Evening Standard: “I wish to protest most strongly about everything.”
Henry Root was not, of course, real; being instead the creation of expert misanthrope Willie Donaldson. But there is nothing unreal about Nigel Farage’s misanthropic desire to “protest most strongly about everything”. What better slogan could there be for a party claiming to unite people as disparate as Claire Fox and Anne Widdecombe? With each successive victory – from securing a referendum; to winning it; to mainstreaming No-Deal; to insisting on No-Deal – Farage has propagated a new crop of grievance from his etiolated store of nationalism. Now he dangles the sword of Damocles over any Brexit by threatening to split the Tory vote. With the unreflecting venality of Henry Root, he is likely demanding a peerage or ambassadorship as the price of his patriotism. If the pound of flesh doesn’t weigh heavily enough, he too will take his custom elsewhere. Like the bungling tradesman in satirical song The Gasman Cometh – who sets off a chain of events which eventually necessitates him repeating the same job the following week – Farage seems happy to return to the first tee of his political career, assisted by a stab-in-the-back myth directed at everyone but himself. If that happens, this latter-day Henry Root may find the Brexit movement has a new thing against which to protest most strongly: him.