Politics & Policy

Mr. Farage Goes to Washington

Farage at the European Parliament following the U.K.’s Brexit vote, June 28, 2016. (Reuters photo: Eric Vidal)
He delivered neither Brexit nor Trump’s win, but he’s surfing the populist wave.

If Brexit has a face in America, it is the chinless Cheshire-cat grin of Nigel Farage. He is the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a British anti–European Union party that shares some characteristics with the populist movements on the march across Europe.

Unless they were paying close attention to June’s referendum on EU membership, most Americans probably first caught sight of Farage in late August, when he shared the stage with Donald Trump at a rally in Mississippi. Backstage, Trump heralded Farage as the original “Mr. Brexit,” telling aides, family members and other guests what an amazing job “Nigel” had done in the EU referendum.

After Trump’s very own amazing job, Farage was the first foreign politician to meet the president-elect. The image of an overjoyed Farage posing with a tie-less Trump giving a thumbs up in front of doors so shiny that they could only be on one of the more oxygen-starved floors of Trump Tower dominated the next day’s front pages in Britain. In the weeks since that photograph was taken, Trump and Farage have indulged in considerable feather ruffling, with the former tweeting, for example, that the latter would make an excellent British ambassador to the United States.

Unfortunately for Farage, the British government is perfectly happy with the job being done by Sir Kim Darroch, the current ambassador. But, like many an ambitious Brit before him, Farage remains determined to make it stateside. His airtime as a pundit on American television news seems to grow and grow, and next year he will embark on a speaking tour of the United States. Farage’s inclusion on the shortlist for 2016’s Time Person of the Year confirms the international standing of a politician not long ago considered a sideshow in British politics.

Given that America will, whether she likes it or not, be seeing more Mr Farage in the months to come, it is important to understand who he is — and who he is not.

Nigel Farage is not “Mr. Brexit.” U.S. news anchors regularly introduce him as “leader of the Brexit campaign,” “architect of the Brexit vote,” or some other formulation that makes it seem as though the vote to leave the EU was his single-handed achievement. (One Fox News presenter went as far as describing Farage as the “British opposition leader.”) On no sensible definition of leadership could Farage be described as having led the Brexit campaign.

The coalition that campaigned for Brexit was fragmented and, from day one, almost fatally distracted by infighting between its various factions. One of the earliest decisions made by Vote Leave, the official campaign group for the Leave side, was to have as little to do with Nigel Farage as possible. Polling from the years leading up to the referendum showed an undeniable correlation between a rise in support for UKIP and a fall in support for Brexit, the party’s founding cause. In other words, the more the case against EU membership came to be identified with Nigel Farage, the less popular it became. The New Statesman even gave this phenomenon a name: the Farage paradox.

Leave campaigners understood that there is a difference between a 15 percent rabble-rouser and a 50 percent statesman. When it came to galvanizing support in a homogeneous corner of the electorate, Farage was more effective than anyone in British politics. He took UKIP out of the doldrums and into a position where they won 3.8 million votes in the 2015 general election, putting the party third in terms of the popular vote. But a Brexit vote meant winning a the majority of the population to the idea of leaving the EU. To do so, the cause desperately needed a leader with nationwide, cross-party support. They got that in February, when Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and now the foreign secretary, announced he would campaign for Brexit.

Although a late convert to the cause, Boris — that he is invariably referred to by his first name is a clue his widespread, if baffling, appeal — was the most visible Brexiteer during the referendum campaign, touring the country in a giant red bus. Other mainstream politicians took a leading role, too. Michael Gove, the former education secretary, was prominent, as was Gisela Stuart, a German-born Labour member of Parliament who in television appearances assuaged concern among voters that a vote for Brexit would be a vote for inward-facing Little Englanders. After the referendum, even Farage conceded that Leave would have lost without Boris.

While Leave strategists could exclude Farage from the official campaign, they could not, of course, stop him from campaigning for Leave altogether. He toured the country in a bus of his own (this one was UKIP purple, with a giant image of his face on the side), making a more provocative case for Leave, focusing on immigration almost to the exclusion of everything else.

If Farage deserves credit for his role in Britain’s voting to Leave, it is for securing a referendum in the first place, not delivering victory in that vote. Soon after taking over as UKIP leader in 2006, he made hay from the discontent about the scale of immigration into Britain and from the growing distrust of the political class in Westminster. From 2010, with the euro-zone crisis was in full swing, British Euroskeptics, the noisiest among them Farage, could point across the English Channel to an institution so obviously incapable of effective government.

To equate Brexit with support for Farage’s worldview, complete with his hard line on immigration, admiration of Putin, and isolationist foreign-policy instincts, is a disservice to the British people.

Farage was relentless, never missing an opportunity to link the anxieties (for which he has a better ear for than many of his rivals) of British voters to the country’s EU membership. This soon paid off for UKIP, which surged in the polls. The prime minister, David Cameron, started to worry that this right-wing insurgency would drain Conservative votes away and cost him the 2015 general election. A commitment to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership, followed by a referendum he was confident he would win, he thought, would placate Euroskeptic Conservatives flirting with switching to UKIP. And so, in January 2013, the British people were promised a vote on EU membership. We now know that Cameron’s concern was unfounded; UKIP appeals as much, if not more, to the traditional working-class Labour vote, meaning that the political case for a referendum was without foundation.

After the referendum pledge, UKIP, along with Euroskeptic Conservative members of Parliament, played their part in making sure Cameron did not break his promise. That significant, but by no means decisive, role in the Leave result is surely not enough Farage to have earned the sobriquet “Mr. Brexit.”

Next time you see Nigel Farage on your television screen, keep one thing in mind: Whatever he may say, he does not speak for all Brexiteers. His Trumpian brand of Euroskepticism may have won some voters to the Leaving side, but it likely put just as many off. To equate leaving the EU, an idea that the majority of voters backed, with support for Farage’s worldview, complete with his hard line on immigration, admiration of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and isolationist foreign-policy instincts, is a disservice to the British people.

#related#If Farage has shown a talent for rewriting history in the wake of the Brexit vote, he appears to be stretching the elastic limits of the truth after the U.S. presidential election. While the political and demographic parallels between Brexit and Trump are doubtless there, they are greatly exaggerated. Talking to a British audience recently, however, Farage took the argument one step further. “In this amazing, transformative, and in many ways revolutionary year of 2016,” he said, “it is Brexit that directly led to the establishment getting beaten on November 8th and Donald J. Trump about to take the presidency.” In other words, there was a causal relationship between the two.

Just as Farage did not deliver Brexit, Brexit did not cause Trump’s victory. Never forget that Nigel Farage, like Donald Trump, is surfing the wave, not controlling the tides.

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