UKIP’s leader, MEP, Nigel Farage has all the humour and comedic facial contortions of a camp Mike Yarwood but when it comes to politics, he’s nobody’s fool
Once dismissed as fringe players and described by David Cameron, in a quote that has truly come back to haunt him, as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, UKIP is fast becoming the one the PM has to watch.
And as Twitter went into overdrive last week with the prospect of a by-election in Eastleigh following the Chris Huhne debacle, it was Farage’s name that was being tweeted as a serious contender.
The man himself was less excited by the prospect than the press and while characteristically teasing the media with a coquettish, ‘I’m thinking about it’, he really had decided that that seat, one which has historical resonance for UKIP, being the first seat it ever fought back in 1994 when Farage beat Screaming Lord Sutch by 169 votes, was not the one for him and while UKIP will undoubtedly field a candidate, Farage has other things to focus on.
Two weeks ago, David Cameron lit the blue touch paper on the European debate when he announced that he would hold an ‘in/out’ referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017 if the Tories are returned to power in 2015. Transparently, the move was to appease an increasingly disgruntled rump of his party backbenchers unhappy with the increasing encroachment of rules and regulations from Brussels and, more importantly, was an attempt to stave off the growing threat from UKIP, which has undoubtedly taken support from the Tories on the European question. It was, by any measure, an attempt by DC to save his own political skin but what it did do was not only inadvertently fuel the Scottish independence campaign [more of which later] but also stepped up Farage’s own attempts to bring down the PM whom he describes to Holyrood as the “sort of chap who stands four square behind nothing in particular”.
Until recently, the PM’s withering assessment of UKIP as a band of one-issue weirdoes was one pretty well universally shared, a view aided by individual one-offs like the overly tanned television presenter, Robert Kilroy-Silk who became a UKIP MEP and used it to champion his own ego. The end came when Kilroy-Silk described UKIP as “Right-wing nutters” and Farage responded with a memorable line describing Kilroy-Silk as a “vain orange buffoon”.
But times have changed and in the six years since Cameron made his remark, UKIP has gone mainstream, support has doubled and they are pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place in byelections that they may previously have hoped to win. Ask him what UKIP myths he would most like to dispel and he reads from a long list.
“That we are little Englanders and backward looking no, sorry, we are the ones with the bright new approach. That patriotism equates to nationalism which then equates to extremism, wrong. That to discuss immigration is racist, not true. That that unless you are a member of the EU you can’t do business with the French or Germans – that is the biggest myth of all in British politics, just rubbish, we trade all over the world without being part of an economic union. I always say that UKIP is a patriotic party but spelt with a small ‘p’. We are not flag-waving jingoists but nation-state is what we recognise and what we want to be part of.” And whether you buy all that or not, the party has an appeal. With its strong views on immigration, crime, Europe, the Nanny State and wind farms, UKIP taps into a certain Daily Mail zeitgeist and with more than half of Britons reportedly keen to pull out of the EU with things like the economic crisis helping to fuel an unprecedented high euroscepticism, there’s an opportunity for Farage and UKIP to exploit.
Indeed, the 20,000-strong party once derided by Cameron is on a roll. It has managed to reach 16 per cent in polls down south and in the last general election, the party secured nearly a million votes. At the Corby by-election, UKIP won 14.3 per cent of the poll – its highestever share and then weeks later, topped that in Rotherham with 22 per cent.
And it is Farage, with all his quirky ways that has helped steer the party into respectability. For while he and UKIP clearly hold opinions that capture headlines, they also plug into a particular political deficit which has left some on the far right and some on the old Labour left feeling left behind and under-represented. He may always have a grin on his face but Farage sees UKIP as a serious political force. The party’s constitution has been rewritten to exclude supporters who may have once belonged to extremist groups like the BNP or hold sectarian or racist views, it is making conscious efforts to attract more women – Farage, interestingly, describes existing female members as ‘of a certain type’ who will be ‘bosses in their own homes’ – and it also recently suspended and later barred a council candidate from running under the UKIP banner who called for an NHS review to look at compulsory abortion of foetuses with Down’s syndrome or spina bifida, in a bid to cut the national debt.
Farage readily admits that some of the more colourful UKIP supporters of old have not helped the cause but he also believes that UKIP has been brave enough to raise issues like immigration that other parties found too toxic to touch.
“When you challenge the status quo, whether it is in politics or science or in business, automatically the status quo will gather around and decry you as mad, bad and extreme,” he says. “We had that on the European question and when we started talking about immigration as a party there were murmurs from people saying that only the BNP was doing that but we thought ‘to hell with that’. This should be a respectable mainstream debate and we are making it. On climate change or to be more precise our efforts to tackle climate change, again, when we first plunged into this six years ago we were written off as crackers but now it’s a mainstream debate. We are very good in UKIP at taking arguments on and going out ahead of the pack and being right about things…
“And interestingly, even when you look back, we actually had hardly any odd people and the reality is that all political parties attract all kinds of genuinely odd people and that’s hardly a problem unique to UKIP. I am sure the SNP will have had nightmares in their development with all kinds of weirdoes, in fact, I know they have.
“I have said from the beginning that we are a non-racist, non-sectarian party but what did damage us was the constant attempts to make connections to us and the BNP but to anyone that understands politics it was laughable; we are broadly libertarian – they are authoritarian, we are free traders – they are protectionists and the list goes on. Attitudes are changing but it has been difficult.” Despite Farage’s chummy persona and his vociferous protestations about clearing UKIP of some of the oddballs it has attracted, undoubtedly, he still has a way to go to convince people of his credibility and his party’s mass appeal. UKIP struggles to shift the seemingly indelible stain of it being a home for extremists and a lot of people simply don’t like Farage. For some, he is seen as brash and vulgar, a bit ‘usedcar- salesman-like’, too familiar, too flip, he likes a drink, a gossip and a good time. He smokes heavily and has the gravelly voice to prove it.
In action, he’s like a one-man Carry-On film, complete with flailing limbs, smart one-liners, innuendo and suggestive facial expressions and he is unremitting in his criticism of the EU from where he, ironically, makes a tidy living as the MEP for South East England. He is, frankly, good, engaging company but can he be taken seriously?
We sit down days after Cameron’s EU speech.
His diary is packed, he’s been followed for the last few days by the world’s media and is on typically ebullient form. He is also eyeing up the Scottish tablet he suggested I brought for his diary secretary, has already eaten my cookie and his, and has a boozy lunch to squeeze in.
Farage is not a man to limit his taste for excess; he smokes, drinks, eats what he likes, visibly recoils when I tell him about my running and he does nothing in half-measures. “What’s the point of worrying about whether you should have another bottle or not,” he says, just when others might worry about another glass. But this is a man who has had three near misses with death: fi rst, when he was run over by a truck after a ‘long lunch’ when he was just 20 and a City trader, then a year later, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer which had spread to his lungs, and thirdly and most memorably, when the plane he was in crashed on the day of the general election. In typical Faragian style, he walked away from the scene and lit a fag while still covered in aviation fuel. He tells me that these things have helped defi ne who he is and how he acts and agrees that that is ‘devil-may-care’.
Farage lives for the day.
I ask him if he feels vindicated by forcing Cameron’s hand over an EU referendum.
“Vindicated is not the word… it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for UKIP and it won’t happen if we were to disappear so I just feel satisfi ed. UKIP posed two threats to David Cameron; one was a direct electoral threat but the second one is an intellectual threat, a psychological threat in that we have been pushing buttons that many members of his own party feel. Yes, I am satisfi ed that those years of long toil have now taken us to this point where the EU membership, which was previously beyond the pale in that kind of don’t frighten the horses, not in front of the children, not to be discussed, kind of way, and we’ve helped make it a completely respectable choice in mainstream politics and I am very satisfi ed with that.” Farage’s contempt for the EU is deep-seated – he’s been arguing about it for 20 years or more – but old arguments are perhaps worth rehearsing given the current debate for whether he is deriding the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, as having “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”, describing Belgium as a “non-country”, telling Angela Merkel that it’s time for a divorce or saying Barroso has no legitimacy – to his face, he makes his distaste for the EU perfectly clear.
“I would have said fi ve or six years ago that it was just plain undemocratic but it is worse than that, it is anti-democratic, set up to be a state where the key players and people that hold the powers will never be directly accountable to the people. It has ambitions of empire and since 2005 has shown itself incapable of reform and refuses that to its member states. But worse, it is now sending hundreds of thousands of people into poverty and misery and so now I would say everything is wrong with it.
“In the beginning, was it wrong to think that the idea that you sit warring enemies around a table to discuss the way forward, of course not, how could it not be a good thing and you only need to visit the coal and steel areas of northern France over which the First World War was almost entirely fought to understand some of this stuff but just as communism started off as a well intentioned idea and fi nished up being ruinous, the idea of a happy harmonious Europe has been ground into the dust, it just doesn’t work.
“Th ere are bigger questions about what kind of Europe we would like because obviously with a group of disparate countries living within the same time zone there are some obvious things you would want to cooperate on, trade being the obvious one, a sensible degree of reciprocity, whether it is about student exchange or workers would again be sensible, and the argument that you would want some sensible common environmental standards given we are sharing the same piece of geography and land, again, makes sense but beyond that, do we want a political union, I would say no just not from my perspective but from the perspective of most of the peoples of Europe.
“I would have no European Commission, no European Parliament, no European Court of Human Rights and go back to something like the Council of Europe which still exists, I think, for about 47 countries. So go back to the idea of the 1940s where there would be a cooperative structure and we work out a sensible way forward based on that model but being very careful not to become bureaucratised and learning from all the things that went wrong before. It’s a bit like when Th atcher abolished the GLC, we knew we were never going to have London without a government of some kind for ever but not repeating old mistakes and that is the same thing I see for how we work together in Europe.” With such clear contempt for the EU, why be an MEP and risk the accusation of hypocrisy?
Does anyone even talk to him there?
“I don’t go to the canteen at lunchtime, I just don’t mix with them,” he laughs. “I don’t go to their cocktail parties every night drinking free, warm champagne with terrible, boring people, God, no. Brussels is amazing, the buildings are grey, the people are grey, the sky is grey, it’s almost like 50 shades of grey. Th e whole place is just grey and ghastly… Yes, I take the money.
Absolutely. You don’t tell the SNP not to go to Westminster. Parnell and the Irish Nationalists came to Westminster and clogged the whole thing up with fi libustering… oh, how I wish I had been in at that parliament… and I did the same in Brussels. I went through the rule book thinking, how can we wreck this place and they just kept changing the rules.” Far from believing his work is now done given that Cameron has pledged to hold an EU referendum, Farage says UKIP’s next job is to put massive pressure on the Labour vote, particularly in the north of England where he believes the party already has a resonance on Europe, immigration and Britain’s place in the world.
“Miliband’s mistake last week following Cameron’s referendum pledge was just to turn his back. Old Labour was fi ercely patriotic and did not want to even join the Common Market back in the 1970s and has suff ered more because of the excesses of open-door immigration and by opening up the door to Bulgaria and Romania next year, to yet more unskilled workers is not helping working families in this country.
“You ask me what is UKIP’s immigration policy? Simple, Australia’s. We want people with skills, with no serious criminal convictions and haven’t got life-threatening diseases, we want good people.
“I think both north and south of the border the potential to pick up the old Labour vote is much greater now with the EU question opened up.
“When you talk to old Labour about the Commonwealth and so on, they do have their own feeling about our role in the world and what being patriotic means and the next time I see you, I want you to be congratulating me for forcing Labour into a referendum and that will happen, I promise you.” But it isn’t just Labour supporters that Farage has in his sights. Despite poor performances in previous Scottish council and parliamentary elections, UKIP is making eff orts to capitalise on the European question among Scots.
His party is in process of selecting candidates for Europe and the Scottish Parliament and will be holding a conference and fundraising dinner in Scotland later this year.
“We have stood in elections in Scotland and battled away and we have found it very, very hard and the reason is that independence does mean something different in Scotland to what it means in the UK. The SNP argument of Scottish independence trumps any argument about Europe and frankly, the Scots haven’t had a European debate because they are having their own argument about their relationship with the UK and that has meant in electoral terms up until now, Scotland has been a graveyard for us but that is all changing now, thanks to Mr Barroso.
“I think there was a prejudice that UKIP was an English party and why would they want to be in Scotland but not only do we have one of the Welsh MEPs, we are the only national UK party represented in Stormont in Northern Ireland. Yes, we would now expect to get UKIP MSPs and also as European representatives.
This weekend just gone we have had our best team up in Scotland interviewing Scottish candidates and I had a report last night that we had some very good, business candidates, free thinking type people coming forward. Quite a lot of them are disaffected Tories who look at the Scottish Tory party and say it has just given up but we are also getting interest from old Labour, which is a trend that will continue.
Scotland didn’t really go for the ‘smart-suits’ of New Labour like down here.
“We have established as a party that we are not against devolved powers but discussing the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster is, frankly, irrelevant when half our law is made across the sea anyway.
“The real European debate in Scotland has just begun and the floodgates have been opened and the Salmond proposition about an independent Scotland in the EU is, frankly, a logical inconsistency within that.
“People say that the Scots are all in favour of the EU as if it’s some proven truth but it’s rubbish… we have just touched on fishing [Farage favours Scotland having a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone which he says would bring tens of thousands of jobs] and we’ll talk about wind turbines in a moment where Scotland is suffering more of a blight than any of us. Scotland in particular has a problem with far too many Scots living in very, very strained economic circumstances and through electricity bills paying the Earl of Glasgow or whoever in subsidies all to fulfil EU emission targets. It’s insane and I’ve listened to Salmond on this and it stretches credulity that an intelligent man could believe that building these bloody things could make any difference anyway.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think he is a terrific politician and connects with ordinary people, is quick witted, and has a sense of humour and he makes the rest of the Scottish politicians just look like dross – he is leagues above them but I also admire him because he surprised his own party by standing down as leader so he can be unpredictable and I like that.
“In a way, the wisest comment on this was by Denis Healey in the 1970s who said politicians need to have a hinterland and Salmond and I do have a hinterland and we have hobbies and interests and things we have done before, friends and a social circle outside politics. This lot over here [in Westminster] all go to the same school, all go to Oxbridge, all marry each other’s sisters, they don’t even collect stamps, they just do politics and they sit around on Saturday and Sunday nights sipping wine in the country, talking about politics and as a result, we have ended up with an incredible boring bunch of people here.
“I judge people by two criteria, the Farage test; one, would I employ them and number two, do I want to go out for a drink with them.
What better test of whether you like or admire someone is there than to say ‘let’s pop down the road for a couple of jars and talk about life’? Am I going to walk into a boozer with Ed Miliband? I don’t suppose, apart from a photo call, he’s ever been in a pub or even met any real Labour voters, for that matter, and that is my feelings about the political class but Salmond has cut through and he is non geeky and oh, Lord, yes, I would go for a drink with him…
“I admire Salmond in many ways but my problem with him has always been this independence thing within the EU which is rubbish. If you want to be like Iceland then that’s great but make that argument.
“What I have found during my trips to Scotland is that amongst the grassroots of the SNP, a lot of them agree with UKIP on this European question which is even bigger than the internal arrangement within the UK and I am surprised that Salmond has got away with this because if I was a grassroots SNP member, by definition, I wouldn’t want to be governed by Westminster or Brussels so that will be interesting to watch.” Would he welcome Scotland becoming independent?
“I would be personally saddened but if that is what the Scottish people want then yes, of course I would because I think natural selfdetermination is really vital. If you look at the world since 1945, we have gone from what, 50 countries, to now 230. All over the world countries are breaking up into smaller blocks based on all sorts of different criteria all of which makes what is happening in Europe even more bizarre because it is going against a global trend.
“They see Scotland as a soft touch over there [in the EU] and they believe that Scotland would want the EU dream and that she would want the euro and when Angela Merkel came to the Parliament in November and I got my chance to talk, I finished up by saying, ‘Angela, wouldn’t it better if we just got divorced, the marriage isn’t working’ and she shot back saying the UK should stay and the leader of the European People’s Party said the sooner the UK is gone the better but he added, ‘we want to keep the children’, by which he meant Scotland and Wales.” Farage is the shock-jock of politics; surprisingly coherent, clearly intelligent but what sometimes comes out of his mouth is unexpected and forces you to consider things that he himself identifies as once being taboo.
I wonder though, if he was embraced by the body of the kirk, would it all lose its attraction?
“That’s a very interesting question and I do wonder myself that if I become respectable, will I pack it all in? I have always questioned everything all of my life since I was about 10 … but the notoriety – so called – is relatively recent. From 1999 to 2005, I was a member of the EU and I said we would behave like gentlemen but it all changed in 2005 when the constitution was voted down by the French and they changed the rules, rebranded it as a treaty and that is when they became really bad people and now I don’t want to just get the UK out of the EU, I want to get Europe out of the EU.”