Nigel Farage Is a Liability for Those Wanting to Leave the EU

I have a theory about why leaders fail. We want leaders who will ruthlessly seize destiny and shape it, but they fail when they begin to believe their own mythology. Mrs Thatcher did not fall because of the poll tax or Europe. They were merely catalysts. Although she claimed she was “not for turning”, in her early years she was skilled at the execution of a necessary political u-turn. Her demise became inevitable when she abandoned her instinctive caution, and started to believe she really was ‘The Iron Lady’ of legend. Carefulness became recklessness. She set in motion the circumstances for her dramatic fall.

I am not saying that sincerity is a vice. Merely that there is a certain amount of froth and bubble to political life. The enduring popularity of figures such as Kenneth Clarke and Alan Johnson stems from the fact that they recognise this absurdity. I suspect that for all his blokeish bonhomie Nigel Farage has lost this ability. To put it crudely, the attention has gone to his head. When he derided the other leaders during the general election campaign there was a superiority to his criticism. He leads a self-styled “People’s Army” as if the 86% who did not vote UKIP are somehow a lesser species. It reminds me of Sarah Palin’s invocation of “the real America” as if those who lived in more liberal New York and California were somehow unAmerican.

The UKIP leader has tapped into a similar dark vein of populism with his focus on freedom of movement across Europe. The immigration debate is coloured by misinformation and everyday hypocrisy which Farage has stoked for his own political success. In the face of economic difficulties he used fear and borderline racism to propel UKIP to first place in the 2014 European elections; his ignorant attack on immigrants with HIV during the leader’s debate consolidated his support. UKIP was successful but there was a cost. Farage now turns off too many voters to muster a majority electoral coalition.

Yet last week he launched the UKIP “Out” Campaign. His belief that he and his party are best placed to win a referendum is perhaps the best thing that could happen to those who want to remain part of the European Union. Alongside his unpopularity Farage, flushed with past success, is also intent on narrowing the appeal of the anti-EU case to appeal to the disgruntled UKIP demographic. To adapt Wodehouse, it is never difficult to distinguish between a Kipper with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. They are far from representative.

Farage is allowing pro-Europeans to fight a broader, more positive campaign

That he sees immigration as the issue which will win the referendum might be a curious blessing. For too long politicians have spoken with forked tongues about the subject: they have been afraid to confront the electorate’s anxieties. Yes, politicians must reflect the public’s views, but they must also shape them. The reaction to Aylan Kurdi’s terrible death shows how complicated, even changeable, are our attitudes are to issues of immigration and asylum. I suspect they long will be. Aylan's death does demonstrate an underlying potential for compassion. It is sad that it takes such loss to shift perspectives but to err is human. There was always a danger that the “In” campaign, like the “Better Together” campaign in 2014, would win the referendum by presenting a dry, economic case: Project Fear Redux It would win but it would be a soulless victory. Farage is allowing pro-Europeans to fight a broader, more positive campaign.

the more Farage parades his prejudices and isolationism, the more I incline towards pro-EuropeanismEven if he does not lead the official “Out” operation Farage will suck the oxygen from its campaign. By making the debate about a negative identity he will only suffocate more reasonable Eurosceptic arguments.  Believing himself to be uniquely placed to persuade the British people, he will only damage the cause. The government is already trying to prevent accusations of bias, he will further deprive himself of any victory in defeat. Instead of the referendum campaign being one about jobs and investment, it could become one about Britain’s place in the world, our place as an outwardly-looking democratic nation, the world’s fifth largest economy and a mid-sized power, which can be a force for good with Europe, in Europe and beyond. A campaign won on such terms could not be accused of betrayal. It could not be re-fought.

I am not a starry-eyed European. Nor do I believe in a European destiny. There is much in the EU’s centralism and elitism to dislike but I do overwhelmingly believe that we are best served by remaining in the EU. Like all political animals, I respond emotionally: the more Farage parades his prejudices and isolationism, the more I incline towards pro-Europeanism. It is no coincidence that since 2011 support for the EU has risen most among women, Londoners and Scots, fewer of whom see the Farage appeal. Euroscepticism is a potentially great challenge to the status quo. But not with Nigel Farage near its centre. Respectable Eurosceptics can see this. He cannot because he believes his own mythology. It will be his downfall. And one from which he will not be able to unresign.

A lot could happen between now and the referendum. We do not yet know when the vote will be, or even the terms of David Cameron’s renegotiation. But it could be that Nigel Farage will save the country… Just not in the way he intends.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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