by Shalini Chatterjee, a third year British student reading BA International Relations at King’s College London.
Disclaimer: I voted Remain, and I will not be talking about the referendum too much, not even the result, but mostly how Farage as a political figure has managed to fuel a change in political participation and also made the hidden voices speak out.
This Tuesday, 28th of June, Nigel Farage gleefully stood up in the European Parliament and declared his victory after 17 years. Farage stood tall, victorious and of course, smug and “You’re not laughing now are you” became the major headline on every news outlet in the country this Tuesday. It may be a little too early to start declaring an “aftermath” of Farage, however, we cannot deny that on the 24th of June, Farage finally completed his one political goal and his reason for even entering politics – Great Britain leaving the European Union. From early beginnings at the Conservative party, he built the controversial yet exceptionally popular UKIP up for years to one day truly have the last laugh.
Coming from a commodities trader background, Farage had ties with the Conservative party. However, it was only when John Major signed the Maastricht treaty that Farage felt that it was time to take matters into his own hands. His first step to becoming the face of Euroscepticism was being a founding member of the UK Independence Party in 1993. The one goal of this party – get the UK out of the EU. He then became an MEP in 1999. Attending the European Parliament sessions, he made it very clear from day one; he would lead a campaign to make his country leave the EU.
Various videos of Farage can be found online of him making a furore in his time at the European Parliament. Most notably, the time he called the European President more expensive than President Obama and having the “charisma of a damp rag” in 2010. Blaring at the top of his lungs he questions the legitimacy of president Van Rompuy and repeatedly asks “who are you?”. This kind of behaviour was never to be expected within the European Parliament and even less so from a British MEP. Highlighting British is key here as it is commonly synonymous with words such as “tolerant” and “polite”.
How did we get from a traditionally tolerant and polite Britain to now seeing a surge of hate crimes after (and before) the referendum, increasing support for far right organisations such as the EDL, overwhelming support for UKIP, and finally a decision to leave the most forward thinking, united and strong union in the world?
I place Farage as a key figure in this trend, in fact maybe even the face of it. For many voices suppressed under the tolerance and politeness of our culture, Farage is a hero. He has liberated the ‘common’ man who wanted his “borders back”. Admittedly, we have seen many faces in this movement, most notably Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) or the Britain First marches through local town centres which are heavily populated by migrants. However, what places Farage above Tommy is that Farage is the man in the suit; the educated professional, and also the MEP. Farage here is the figure that is “trustworthy”. If an elected MEP can go to the European Parliament and speak out harshly against the institution, then it must be fair to agree with him. Farage, through his rhetoric and behaviour has normalised speaking out against what is typically politically correct.
Although UKIP existed since 1993, it didn’t gain mass popularity till at least a decade in. We then saw it rise to the 3rd largest party in the 2015 election. UKIP is a party that is most commonly tied to the subject of immigration, a subject that often avoided or dreaded by other politicians in fear of appearing racist or xenophobic. Thus, Farage is seen as a refreshing voice that simply “tells it like it is”. In 2006 Farage took over leadership of the party. His personality no doubt caught the attention of the media, but his unfiltered approach caught the attention of the suppressed common man. From the 2010 to 2013 UKIP’s membership rose from 15,535 to 32,447, the biggest spike in membership numbers the part has seen in the same period. This can be down to Farage’s large media presence and his voicing of popular opinions, which were supposedly not so popular. In the 2015 election UKIP saw the largest vote share change out of all the parties, of 9.5%.
Following this we see Farage taking over every TV screen of the country on the 6pm news claiming that there is a stark difference between having German neighbours and Romanian neighbours out aloud, many louder voices may have even have agreed with him openly. To these people he reveals a truth that others agree with but fear expressing. There may be no specific demographic that associates with this voice, it is not always the elderly, less educated, working class or impoverished. Often it can be the common man who has moderate opinions that were amplified by the movement. These opinions then become justified by one man appearing every day on his screen claiming that his plight would end if lets say the Polish left the UK. After this, rhetoric becomes normalised, the common man is less afraid to believe in it. He has been convinced that it is the wrong type of immigrants that are ruining his country. These “wrong types” have even been highlighted by nationality and generalised as benefits frauds, job stealers and even criminals.
The suppressed man, in the years leading up to the referendum, flips his remote to see yet more shows with eye grabbing titles about immigrants on benefits. He opens a newspaper to see exaggerated headlines that European migrants are the biggest benefits claimers. Moving onto YouTube, he finds an EDL video where he sees violent exchanged between “his people” and “the other”. Ingrained in every news and media outlet is the idea of “us and them”, the “haves” and “have nots” as pointed out by the Leave campaign and those who belong and those who do not belong. Years of this rhetoric surround the common man. He may bring this up and express concern of his nation losing its identity within his social circles, or worse yet he may still suppress his feelings further.
A day of liberation arrives on the 23rd June. Farage has waited his whole political career for this day and so has the suppressed man been patiently, politely waiting with a façade of tolerance. He may not be a racist, bigot or xenophobe, but he’s been told repeatedly by this man in a suit, by the newspaper and by TV that his country is failing due to too many European migrants. The NHS is struggling, children cannot get school places, £350m is going to funding the problem and of course, these migrants have stolen hard working British people’s jobs. He marks his X in the Leave box. Leaving the polling booth, he feels like he has made a choice for Britain, he made a choice for the other voices that could never speak out; he took control.
He is a common man that has been exploited for his lack of knowledge on the issue. Was he aware of the EU common agricultural policy that protects his British farmers? Was he aware of the weekly £5m development funding that would help his fellow Brits who suffer from poverty? Or was he aware of the weekly £20m infrastructure funding that would keep his country running smoothly? The answer simply is no, because the voices of Farage and to an extent Gove and Johnson were louder. Although this information was widely available and the Remain side made it very clear, it did not catch the eye the way a tabloid could. The tabloid gives the common man someone to blame, the immigrant. This was far more eye catching and perhaps easier to comprehend. Inside, after years of hearing the brave words of Farage, he believed he was correct in thinking that European immigration was negatively affecting Britain. Farage had always made it clear that the only way to stop this was to leave the EU.
The country woke up in disbelief on the morning of the results. Even those who voted leave didn’t believe it was true, maybe even Farage didn’t believe it was true. No one would have predicted that almost the whole of England and Wales would have voted to leave. We can say that all vote leavers are poor, uneducated and have no strong values, but can we really argue that 17,410,742 voters fall under these labels?
The Farage effect caught onto many – degree holders and non-degree holders, young or old. The demonization of migrants was far a far juicier headline, than a few boring economic figures from Cameron or the Chancellor. The ease of putting the blame of your plight of not having a GP appointment or a raise, on an immigrant was easier than doing some proper research into what the EU does and what its gives us. Regardless of the outcome, Farage, Gove and Johnson will be fine. But who will suffer the most is the common leave voter, the one swept away by the claims that leaving a single market would make them better off and make Britain, Britain again.
Since the result has been announced we have seen a large surge in hate crimes and assault. The suppressed man is now “liberated”, he can now tell people to go back to their country loud and proud because he has won. He can now claim back his nation from the Brussels bureaucrats that cost £350m per week. He can now say bye to the European migrant that took his job. Farage gave this man a voice and a sense that he was correct in making these claims. Farage also used this man for his political gain. The now liberated man may have his country back, but at what expense? Only time will tell. As for Farage, he may retire from politics knowing he has achieved what he sought for more than 20 years, but he leaves a country divided, unstable, unsure yet “liberated”.