Friday, 31 May 2019

Post-Farage Politics

Nigel Farage quickly identified two key opportunities in British politics in the first decade of this century. The first was that in an era of party hegemony and popular disaffection, with New Labour so secure in government that general election turnout declined from 71% in 1997 to 59% in 2001, the field was open for an insurgent. The traditional assumption that any successful insurgency would come from the centre of the political spectrum was in abeyance because the centre was in power, and Euroscepticism offered a unique selling point that while marginal for most voters was not inherently rebarbative in the way that the immigration-focus of the BNP and other far-right groups had been. By emphasising federalism and sovereignty, along with traditional populist tropes about excessive bureaucracy and state interference, UKIP was able to build an insurgency on the right that was sufficiently respectable to justify access to the public forum.

The second opportunity was the media's attraction to a colourful character lacking a content-filter, both as a goad with which to irritate the message-managed main parties and as a provider of reliable clickbait in a rapidly changing media landscape. So long as the racism and bigotry was deniable, at a time when both Labour and the Conservatives were happy to indulge "legitimate concerns" and similar dog-whistles, Farage could present himself as a normal guy who channelled the views of "the patriotic, decent majority". The dynamic nexus of these two opportunities was in low-turnout elections covered by the national press. In general elections, where hyperbole was common and policy substance important, UKIP could only ever be a marginal protest vote. In European Parliament and local government elections, where the established parties went through the motions or were deliberately uninspiring, UKIP were able to provide both a more compelling protest for voters and greater entertainment for the media.

The rise of UKIP between 2004 and 2014 was all about elections, including internal leadership contests. Farage famously resigned as party leader in 2009 and then re-stood for the same role in 2010, and the "will he/won't he" of his ongoing relationship with the party would remain a fixture of press coverage after 2016 until his resignation as a member in late-2018. Though Farage has decided to dispense with the need for internal elections in the Brexit Party, it is clear that this is because his personal brand is now so well-established that he no longer needs the contrived jeopardy of an internal power-struggle to maintain his profile. He can rely on the BBC to invite him onto Question Time or Today regardless of his official standing or audited support. Last week's European Parliament election was not simply a triumph for the Brexit Party (insofar as 32% of a 37% turnout can be considered a triumph), it was a triumph for the Farage political playbook.

The greatest evidence for this is ironically to be found among the "remain alliance", which notably failed to formally ally but is insisting that it really won the ballot with 40% of votes cast "against Brexit". Not only did they turn the election into a single-issue opinion poll, but they ran a campaign heavy on visceral emotion and light on policy: "Bollocks to Brexit". The similarities are also institutional. Though plenty of people have contrasted the slickness of the Brexit Party and the incompetence of Change UK, both outfits are member-sceptic, framing politics as passive consumption and relying on centralised fund-raising to substitute for social embeddedness. Some of this reflects wider trends - the business firm model of party organisation, the turn to populist rhetoric, the increasing reliance on social media etc - but a lot of it is specific to the UK and in particular to the influence of Farage. While it is legitimate to accuse him of importing the American right's political "grift", Faragism is at heart a native development intimately bound up with the internal tensions of the Conservative Party and the dynamics of the UK media.

One thing that Farage has helped popularise is the idea of elections as a free-hit. You can think of this either as an unserious preference for the gestural or as a cynical belief that elections change nothing. There's always been an element of this in the Liberal Democrat proposition, particularly in respect of by-elections, which famously blew up in their faces over tuition fees when they discovered they were expected to honour their expressive promises, but Farage has made no bones about his unwillingness to take responsibility for his own actions, insisting at various points that it is for the EU or Conservative Party to react to "the will of the people". It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that, if the Brexit Party stands at the next general election and wins some seats, it could find itself in a fragile coalition with the Tories, but it is hard to imagine Farage & co playing anything other than a destructive role. Insofar as the Brexit Party will have any policies for government beyond Brexit itself, they will likely be reheated Thatcherism: a disaster capitalism in which every disaster demands more capitalism and less state.

Part of the attraction for Farage's supporters is that he promises them the luxury of a defence of principle that is free of consequence. This is the inverse of the traditional "I'm not a racist, but …" stance, where consequence (GP queues, housing) was held to override principle (anti-discrimination). Now a metaphysical sovereignty is held to trump all real-world considerations, leading to the paralysis of politics. Much of what was subsequently derided as "unicornism" in 2016 centred on this type of cognitive dissonance, in which predictable outcomes were blithely dismissed as unlikely or of no consequence. For example, that we could stop EU migration without leaving the Single Market, or that exiting the EU's political project would have little bearing on our future trading relationship with the bloc. The current advocacy for no-deal rests on the idea that it won't really make much of a difference - that "project fear" has been overblown and "WTO rules" are a more than adequate substitute - which implies that staying in the EU wouldn't make much difference either.

This style of reasoning has infected the remain side of the argument too, with many now insisting that Brexit should be resolved through a binary choice between no-deal and revocation on the grounds that we're facing no-deal by default in October and, presumably, on the calculation that many leavers would reject no-deal or abstain. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it is that a prospect as calamitous as no-deal can be normalised by a combination of insouciance and a truculent desire to piss-off the other side. The result is a recklessness on the part of many remainers that puts Cameron's decision to call the original referendum in the shade. That so much of the contemporary remain campaign's focus is on virtue - Boris Johnson's "lying", Alastair Campbell's "persecution", the Brexit Party's opaque funding - is both a reflection of their unconvincing case (whether a return to status quo ante or the delusive aspiration of "remain and reform") and a tribute to Farage's demagogic example.

However Nigel Farage's political career ends, whether in ignominious defeat or elevation to the House of Lords, British politics will bear his imprint. This will be seen less in the party formation than in the attitude of the public towards elections. Voters have become more disaffected and promiscuous over time, but that is a trend that predates Farage and is the result of neoliberalism (as outlined by political scientists such as Peter Mair and Colin Crouch). What Farage has done is convince voters that elections can be used as proxy referendums. Despite "never again" reactions after 2016 and the ongoing tension in Scottish politics, the establishment will probably employ referendums more in order to avoid polluting the parliamentary system. The trick will be to manage them better than the Tories did under Cameron, hence the popularity of citizens' assemblies and similar managerialist constraints in centrist thinking. The legacy of Farage may be greater popular democracy, and one consequence of that may be a growing intolerance for the House of Lords, in which case his hopes of a peerage may ironically be dashed at the last.

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