National Security & Defense

Nigel Farage Bows Out

Farage at the European Parliament following the Brexit vote, June 29, 2016. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)
UKIP’s leader quits while he’s ahead.

Another day, another resignation.

This time, it’s Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, who has taken the back door out. It is the sunset of a political career that was full of ups and downs and plenty of uncertainty before it culminated in the greatest of victories: the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. Farage will keep his seat in the European Parliament at Strasbourg — no doubt continuing to gleefully castigate European legislators with his silver tongue — until Brexit becomes reality. But after that, he’s done.

One of the hazards of the political business is that politicians can’t do anything without incurring vast amounts of criticism and mockery. Farage’s resignation is no different. Farage’s erstwhile nemesis, Jean-Claude Juncker — president of the European Commission, and thus the face of the anonymous European bureaucracy Farage so reviles — wasted no time in attacking the UKIP leader. “They are, as it were, retro-nationalists. They are not patriots,” Juncker said of Farage and his Leave compatriot Boris Johnson. “Patriots don’t resign when things get difficult; they stay.”

It’s true that Farage’s resignation does little to ameliorate the public perception of Brexiteers as rudely cynical politicians eager to con the public into voting for Brexit but quick to run for the hills when presented with a chance to actually carry it out. Farage, perhaps more than anyone else, played a critical role in Leave’s victory; it was he who banged the drum of separation for twenty long and lonely years. So why won’t he stay on as UKIP’s leader to see out his life’s project? For his critics, the answer contains a nefarious truth: He is an irresponsible man, they say, interested in campaigning but not in governance, and unwilling to clean up his own messes. He wants all the fun of political combat without any of the tough compromises politicians must make after they win.

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This argument hits all the right buttons. To the extent that cleaning up your own messes is a virtue we all can appreciate, Farage seems reckless and irresponsible at best, selfish and destructive at worst. Still-bitter Remainers see him as the man who wrecked their country, unleashing the ugly furies of racism and xenophobia and then sitting on his hands as those furies reached their nadir. The criticisms of David Cameron that circulated after he resigned from his ministry and of Johnson after he declined to run for the Tory leadership sounded much the same: They got us into this crisis, but they won’t bother getting us out. They’re liars, political con men who never wanted anything but personal aggrandizement to begin with.

Some of that may well be true for Cameron and Johnson. Cameron is the prime minister; it is to him that the health and well-being of the nation is entrusted, and his decision to stand down and delay invoking Article 50 seemed a dereliction of duty. Likewise Johnson, the ever evasive, impossible to pin down, public face and de facto leader of the Leave campaign, seemed more than a little irresponsible when he declined the chance to guide Britain through the new political reality he helped create. Maybe those two should have stuck around; maybe they should have, after coveting the highest office in the land for so long, stayed to aid the post-Brexit clean-up efforts.

#share#But Farage has never harbored the same aspirations to 10 Downing Street. He enjoys the rough-and-tumble of campaigning — the jocularity and extemporaneity, the debating and jousting with journalists and, yes, the demagoguery. (Let’s not pretend he didn’t relish unveiling that infamous “BREAKING POINT” poster.) He plays best behind the eight-ball, as an underdog, when his side has an uphill battle to fight to gain even the most meager scrap of recognition. He entered politics two and a half decades ago with one goal: to secure Britain’s departure from the European Union. He has worked tirelessly in pursuit of that goal for years, in Britain and Brussels alike. From practically nothing, he has constructed a grassroots movement that originated within UKIP but extended far beyond: a motley coalition of economic libertarians, the economically and culturally disaffected of the northern conurbations, and the sovereignty-obsessed unreformed Powellites of the Tories’ Eurosceptic wing. The story of Farage’s political career is a truly remarkable one, unthinkable in American politics and still a marvel in the British context. By a certain metric the former banker is one of the most successful politicians in the world.

Farage is a campaigner, not the statesman the party needs if it hopes to stand a chance of governing. He surely knows as much.

Success begets change, however, especially when it’s an anti-establishment party that succeeds. The party Farage built has undergone a deep and profound transformation in recent years, one made all the more concrete by victory in the referendum late last month. Having far outgrown its origins as a fringe party challenging the political establishment from a position of weakness, UKIP can now consider itself a serious electoral force. It stands a real chance of gaining dozens of Labour constituencies in northern England in the next general election, whenever that should occur. Farage is a campaigner, not the statesman the party needs if it hopes to stand a chance of governing. He surely knows as much.  

And there are those in the UKIP ranks capable of filling the role he can’t: Douglas Carswell, the party’s sole MP at Westminster for instance. Carswell has already branded Farage’s rhetoric on immigration “morally wrong” and “electorally disastrous”; perhaps he can be the figure to lead the moderate, decent anti-EU party the nation so desperately needs. UKIP isn’t going anywhere, at least not for the foreseeable future, and, from a certain perspective, Britain will be better off moving forward with someone other than Farage at the helm.

#related#Perhaps Farage also deserves a bit of admiration. It’s not often you see a politician do what he did over the weekend, stepping down just at the moment of his greatest accomplishment. Politicians have a way of hanging around far past their expiration dates. (See Bill Clinton.) Farage could have done that. He could have spent the next five years or more going about the messy business of making UKIP into a party of governance, rather than protest. He could have worked to win power — the one thing he has never known in his career — for himself, as so many politicians do. But he has chosen not to, and in doing so has retained a measure of dignity. Cincinnatus he is not, but his decision to quit while he is ahead displays that rarest of political virtues — humility.  

“I now feel that I’ve done my bit, that I couldn’t possibly achieve more,” Farage said in his resignation announcement. This is his apotheosis, and now he stands aside. The United Kingdom’s future might have been made in his image; instead, it will forge ahead in his shadow.

— Noah Daponte-Smith is an intern at National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally mistakenly identified Daniel Hannan as a member of UKIP. In fact, he is a member of the Conservative party.

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