He’s a tolerant man, Nigel Farage, a devotee of John Stuart Mill, a cricket-loving happy warrior, an “accidental politician.” The leader of the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP), and, since 1999, a member of the EU’s Potemkin parliament, he is standing expectantly at the bar of his local, the George & Dragon (of course) in Downe, a friendly low-ceilinged Kentish pub as English as its name. I’m ordering the beers. There’s a traditional, brewed-by-two-yokels county bitter for him (of course) and for me an industrial, vaguely Teutonic lager, bitte. “Euro-piss, I see.” Mock shock: Live and let live. Later on we share a bottle of good red wine. French.
We met up earlier at a railway station in a spot where the countryside emerges from London’s shadow. As we drove past tall hedgerows and stark winter trees, the late-fortysomething Farage proudly played guide: “I’ve always lived around here.” There’s landscape, history, old graveyards to inspect, English Shinto. Up there (he gestures) are the remnants of the oak where William Wilberforce resolved to launch his great anti-slavery campaign, and over here is the splendid pile where Pitt the Younger once lived. I point out Biggin Hill, an RAF redoubt during the Battle of Britain. Replicas of a Hurricane and a Spitfire stand guard. “They had real ones when I was a boy.”
Farage feels the past in this place. He’s a history buff, a battlefield maven, just finishing reading a book on Allenby of Great War fame. We stopped off at the small town of Westerham to inspect a statue of its most famous son, General Wolfe, conqueror of Quebec. Nearby, a restless-looking Churchill seems ready to leap out off the chair on which his sculptor sat him. The last lion’s last den — Chartwell — is nearby. Then on to the George & Dragon, just past the house of another Farage hero, Charles Darwin: The woods where the great scientist wandered are “just as they were . . . almost.”
But to believe, as many critics like to suggest, that Farage and his party are golf-club xenophobes wanting their country back as it was (. . . almost) is to subscribe to a very partial version (in both senses) of the truth. To be sure, there is a trace of the 19th hole about them; oh, what a horror. And is the idea that the country has gone to the dogs imprinted in UKIP’s DNA? Maybe, but the country has gone to the dogs. Claims of xenophobia, however, are difficult to reconcile with reality, in ways both small (Farage’s second wife is German; their two young children are being brought up to speak the language) and large: UKIP is a defender of de Gaulle’s Europe des patries, fighting the bureaucratic drive to remold the continent into a homogenized administrative unit in which history has been sanitized, tradition reduced to decoration, and difference regulated away.
If there is an era for which Farage is nostalgic, it’s more likely to be the 1980s, a time when big government was in retreat and big opportunity was round the corner. Not the most diligent of students, he skipped university and went straight into the City, London’s financial center, just as Mrs. Thatcher’s reforms were transforming it from an entertainingly seedy, mildly run-down club into today’s chilly international hub. It was “like a gold rush,” as we both recall. And there’s still the hint of an Eighties trading desk about Farage, an engaging, quick-witted risk-taker (a survivor of testicular cancer, he still enjoys his Rothmans) with a taste for a good time that has sometimes got him into trouble. Rick Santorum he’s not. Smart, direct, and impressively fluent, he speaks in paragraphs, punctuated with one-liners: He has a way with words, and he knows it.
If you doubt that, just check out the way he welcomed Herman Van Rompuy to the European Parliament shortly after that discreetly sinister Belgian had taken the EU’s top job at the beginning of 2010. Farage’s speech was brutally iconoclastic, rudely funny, and, in its warning of the threat that this official with “the charisma of a damp rag” posed to European democracy, deadly serious. It created uproar across the EU and made UKIP’s leader a YouTube star. Check it out, and you will see why.
“You’re a bit of actor, aren’t you?”