Nigel Farage’s Grand Tour of Sabotage: The Paypal of the People Rides High
He is all about being the romantic saboteur. He is destructive, hates the business of a steady vocation, and the idea of being desk-bound. Little details trouble him; an indignant bigger picture is enthralling. Bomb throwers tend to be of such ilk, taking shots at the establishment, courting potential voters over a pint, and railing against non-representative elements in politics. But Nigel Farage and his recently arrived Brexit Party can unimpeachably claim to be vote-getters.
Along with others, some of whom have been resurrected in the stagnant pools of Brexit - take the near-dead and now very revived former Conservative MP, Ann Widdecombe – he has animated the corpse people and zombie faithful keen to attack the satanic heart of the EU. Last month, in Peterborough, he told some 1,500 Brexiters about the broader mission at hand. “This fight now is far more than just leaving the European Union. This is a full-on battle against the establishment.” This battle has also struck a Trumpist note, with Farage reserving special salvos for the BBC.
So far, the attack mounted by the collective that is the Brexit Party has worked; with a four-month-old entity, Farage forged ahead in elections held by the very same entity he despises. In doing so, he also convinced many from the UK Independence Party, the right-wing anti-immigration party he used to lead, to join in. In the European elections last month, the Brexit Party won a stonking 29 seats against the Liberal Democrats with 16, Labour 10, the Greens seven, the Tories four, the SNP three, and Plaid Cymru and the DUP with one each.
Farage put the successes down to an elementary theme: “With a big, simple message – which is we’ve been badly let down by two parties who have broken their promises – we have topped the poll in a fairly dramatic style. The two-party system now serves nothing but itself.” Despite doing well, Farage was careful to avoid drawing attention to another result: 40 percent of the UK European vote went to parties who are against Brexit, with 35 percent favouring it.
The reading from Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable was bound to be at odds with Brexiter enthusiasts. For Cable the result showed that there was “a majority of people in the country who don’t want to leave the European now”.
As William Davis notes pointedly, “The Brexit Party is a mixture of business startup and social movement; it serves as a pressure valve, releasing pent-up frustration with traditional politics into the electoral system.” In contrast to the more ramshackle, rough outfit of Ukip, which had a lower ceiling of appeal, the Brexit Party has been described by the Financial Times as “slick, with a mix of celebrities”.
It thrives in an environmental of pure factionalism, and simplifies, accordingly, the complex array of requirements and processes required to achieve their goals. Farage cares little, nor is even aware of the actual issues concerning an effective divorce deal with the EU. Any claim that a no-deal Brexit is bound to work with splendid effect is precarious, placing Britain at the bottom of the trade negotiating table. There is no freedom to trade as a rule, and World Trade Organisation system must be navigated. But these are technical sticking points that find no platform, let alone voice, in the Brexit Party’s world.
The business startup reference by Davis is apt. Farage had been shadowed by events after 2016. The wrecker had done his job in seeking Brexit, only to retreat to the margins in sullen contemplation. His UK Independence party disintegrated even as its former leader starting to milk the lecture circuit and cosy up to US President Donald Trump. But the continual delays and prevarications on leaving the EU stirred the saboteur into a return.
The Brexit Party has attempted to adopt the language of cool and chic marketing. For one, it is winning the social media battle. London-based online content and social media consultancy 89up revealed last month that Facebook posts linking to the Brexit Party website had been bountiful in the sharing department, exceeding those of every other party combined. A survey of 1.5 million public Facebook pages by the consultancy found a staggering gulf between the portion of shares generated by the Brexit Party (125,035) and the Conservatives, with 26,400. UKIP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party came in with a limping figure of 6,000 shares.
As with anything to do with Farage, its best to look past the plumage and shine. The Brexit Party image comes equipped with rumours on how it is receiving its funding. This can hardly surprise: Farage has been known to be rather liberal with his finances, happy to attack the EU as he receives its funds, and shy about declaring how he has used them. Budgets have never been his thing.
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is one sensing an Achilles heel in the Brexit Party, suggesting that the party has been the recipient of “undeclared, untraceable payments”. At an event in Glasgow last month, Brown suggested that democracy was “ill served, and trust in democracy will continue to be undermined, if we have no answers as to where the money is coming from.”
The UK Electoral Commission feels there is enough to go on, demanding that the party “review all payments, including those of £500 or below, it has received to date.” This comes after the Electoral Commission’s conclusion that the “fundraising structure adopted by the party leaves it open to a high and ongoing risk of receiving and accepting impermissible donations.”
The views of Brown have had little traction with Farage supporters and the broader Brexit milieu, a point evidenced by the good showing in the European elections. Efforts by critics and opponents to refashion the Brexit Party as a financial surrogate for the corporate interests of one man rather than citizen values is not something that has worked. Brown has tried, rather bravely claiming that Farage was “not going to be remembered as he wants, as the man of the people – he’s going to remembered as the man of the Paypal.”
Political realities are often different from financial ones. As former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg admitted, “It was obvious there was a strong English, anti-European anti-immigrant movement waiting for someone to articulate it.” Farage may well be the man of the Paypal, shoddy with party finances but he remains an identifiable voice, with anti-EU cadences that continue finding agreeable listeners across Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]