Guilty as Charged

Nigel Farage’s Legacy

Brexit will turn three on the last day of January, over six years since the 2016 referendum kickstarted Britain’s race to the bottom.

Reduced to squirrel hunting: Nigel Farage.

We’re now deep into the nightmare of the United Kingdom’s post-EU future, and one only man can be said to have done more to get it done: Nigel Farage. 

Love him or loathe him, Farage is the most influential right-winger of his generation.

No one has ever had such an impact without holding real power. 

Nigel Farage’s only elected office was in the European Parliament as the MEP for South East England, a seat which he held for over twenty years.

Farage’s victory was a cultural coup, not a political putsch. 

He didn’t seize power so much as seize airtime on the BBC. Farage became a regular panellist on Question Time and later had his own LBC show.

Most people woke up on the 24th of June to Farage giving his “independence day” speech. It seemed like a new era in British politics. And it was. 

But it wasn’t an era of greater democracy and prosperity. The fantasy of national rebirth vanished long ago. 

Today, everyday life is defined by a crippling cost-of-living crisis. The UK economy has the worst growth rate of the G7 countries. 

It’s not all down to COVID-19, the global supply chain crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war, though these factors should not be disregarded.

Canada, France, Germany and the United States are all doing much better. Even the stagnant Japanese economy is outperforming Britain.

The Conservative government has imposed a special supply chain crisis on the country with its hard-right Brexit deal. 

This is on top of the economic devastation of the pandemic.

Waves of inflation are just one part of this picture. Battles over wages and jobs are another part. 

The glaring lack of a growth model in British politics is more obvious than ever.

However, it’s a mistake to think that Nigel Farage’s pitch was about economic dynamism. He may have claimed that the Brexit project would result in greater growth, but the core of his appeal was much different.

The case for Brexit was really about sovereignty, but not popular sovereignty. 

It was about repatriating powers from Brussels to the Westminster system. It was about the British political class, not the British people.

We’ve traded one democratic deficit for another in the hopes that purified British elite governance would be more meaningful somehow. 

Thankfully many people realise the enemy was closer to home all along.

The Politics of Guilty Men

No doubt Farage will be familiar with the 1940 pamphlet Guilty Men. It was a scathing polemic against the pro-appeasement politicians of the 1930s. 

The so-called guilty men included Neville Chamberlain, Ramsay MacDonald, Lord Halifax and Stanley Baldwin.

All of them stood accused of paving the way for Hitler’s war machine by trying to appease the Third Reich. 

It was a damning indictment of the British establishment, which had tried to find a compromise with Nazism.

Guilty Men was written frantically by someone going by the name Cato. But its pseudonymous author was, in fact, three people: future Labour leader Michael Foot, former Liberal MP Frank Owen and Conservative journalist Peter Howard.

It’s now possible to imagine someone writing Guilty Men of Brexit with Farage, Arron Banks and Dominic Cummings as key figures. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove would definitely make the cut as well.

Guilty Men is a classic polemic and it wouldn’t be the first time the title has been repurposed or mimicked. The subject of guilt can be deployed for many different ends.

Right-wing journalist Peter Oborne borrowed the title for his Eurosceptic book published by the Centre of Policy Studies. He was making the case that the Eurozone crisis had vindicated British Euroscepticism.

Oborne later got cold feet about Brexit in 2019. This was the height of the political crisis over the UK’s departure from the EU. 

The spectacle of a seemingly endless quagmire was too much to bear for this lifelong Tory.

The problem with this framing is that guilt is all about responsibility. 

It’s about the ‘what if’, the possibility of a better outcome and how you might have been able to make it happen. It’s about self-acknowledgement of a misdeed or a failing.

Farage has no such compunction. He answers to no one, certainly not the public. Yet this is not unusual for Britain. 

We so rarely hold public figures to account. The record speaks for itself.

British society systematically rewards corruption, failure, incompetence and misconduct. 

That’s how people like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss become PM. And some people are deluded enough to believe we’re a meritocracy.

We’re supposedly governed by the best and brightest, and we supposedly have an ingenious constitution guaranteeing strong and stable government. Just look at our long history of steadiness and ignore all the years of disarray.

So it’s at least consistent that we can find Farage on GB News. 

Herr Brexit has two formats: either hosting an ale-soaked talk show or complaining bitterly about the arrival of refugees on the shores of Dover.

It’s forgotten that Nigel Farage once supported granting Syrian refugees safe passage to the UK. 

A couple of years later, Farage was using photos of Syrian refugees crossing Europe on billboards to mobilise the Leave vote.

And now Nigel Farage is the voice of anti-migrant sentiment in the country, channelling voters’ anger against refugees arriving by dinghy. 

This is a selective rage. Not anger about the number of people dying in the English Channel. Nor anger about the racist backlash. 

Not anger about the millions displaced all over the world by climate breakdown and war. Not anger about the impoverishment of the global south.

It’s not even Britain that matters to Farage. It’s a certain part of Britain and a particular idea of Britain’s role in the world and its history that matters to him. 

The reality of the financier class, the fantasy of British power and prestige, the anger of the petty bourgeoisie.

Remainers were always going to be disenchanted with Brexit, but Leavers didn’t get the future they wanted either. 

The country’s future belongs to financial spivs and border watchers now. This is Nigel Farage’s Britain.

Photograph courtesy of Duncan Cumming. Published under a Creative Commons license.