Alex Massie: Understanding Nigel Farage’s success

NIGEL Farage plays ‘misery’ card to up the ante ponders Alex Massie

Farage enjoys a pint of beer in a pub after last weeks elections. Picture: Getty

To understand Nigel Farage, and Ukip, it is first necessary to read Saki. Specifically, his great short story The Lumber Room. A young boy named Nicholas is in disgrace. At breakfast he has refused to eat his bread-and-milk on the “seemingly frivolous ground that there was a frog in it”.

All the “older and wiser and better people had told him that there could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk and that he was not to talk nonsense”. Yet he continued to insist upon this nonsense, not least because the “dramatic part of the incident was that there really was a frog in Nicholas’s basin of bread-and-milk”. He had put it there himself.

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“The fact that stood out clearest in the affair” Saki writes, “was that the older and wiser and better people had been proved to be profoundly in error in matters about which they had expressed the utmost assurance”.

A trip to the beach is hastily organised from which Nicholas, being in disgrace, is excluded. Since Nicholas has no desire to go to the seaside he is left at home, happy and free to act as he pleases.

It should be clear, I think, that Farage is Nicholas and the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties play the role of all the older, wiser and better people confounded by the stout logic of a young boy.

“You can’t do that”, Farage is forever being told. “But I just did” he says, smirking, “and what are you going to do about it?”. Parental disapproval merely confirms that Farage was right; punishment only cements his feelings of grievance. Ukip’s politics shouts “It’s not fair” and no amount of patient explanation can diminish the sense of injustice that animates his resentment.

But there is more to it than that. Ukip’s rise is also a revolt against the managerial spirit of the age. Farage is a leader (of sorts), not a manager. Better still he does not even pretend to be a manager, far less the kind of politician who has detailed answers to complex problems. Ukip’s 2010 manifesto, he cheerfully admits, was “486 pages of drivel” and “a nonsense”.

Far from denting his credibility, this kind of admission reinforces the impression only Farage will call the game as he sees it.

We are not like other parties, he says, and every loony, fruitcake or racist uncovered by the newspapers only highlights that. It reinforces Farage’s unique selling point: we are different. We reject the rules; we refuse to play the game. We only wish to poke you with our sharp and pointy sticks; we just want to hear you squeal.

There has been plenty of squealing. Paradoxically Farage has been unwittingly assisted by the triumphs of both left and right. The former has prevailed in social policy; the latter in economic affairs. The consequence has been to create room for a party of protest to suck votes from both left and right.

What Farage understands better than all his rivals is the psychology of the little man. Ukip is a party for the left behind, the dispossessed, the cheated. A party for anyone who wonders just what the hell is going on.

Its supporters need not actually be cheated or left behind, they need only feel themselves to be dispossessed. In that sense Ukip’s support transcends divisions of class or political affiliation at the same time as it capitalises on the weakening of those once determinative divisions.

Farage might be a wealthy member of the City of London’s elite but he proffers a kind of politics pitched at people who think they are losers. That helps explain why Ukip’s thundering warnings about the deleterious impact of “uncontrolled” immigration actually prove more persuasive in areas that have seen relatively little immigration than in those parts of England (especially) that have become a Ukip voter’s nightmare.

Most of London rejected Ukip in part because Ukip’s misery message is contradicted by the observable realities of everyday life in Europe’s most dynamic, successful city. But elsewhere, the fear Ukip might be right – the fear change is coming – proved more persuasive. Precisely because it hasn’t happened. Yet.

The parties remain distinct but, even after Ed Miliband’s tilt left, their differences are more of degree than kind.

If the liberal right prevailed, broadly speaking, in economics, the left’s version of liberalism triumphed in social affairs. From multi-ethnic Britain to gay marriage, the country changed and did so remarkably quickly. Hang on, Farage says, when did we agree to all this? We don’t mind what you are unhappy about, Ukip say, the important thing is that you are unhappy. Here’s a torch, bring your own pitchfork.

That sense of loss – justified or not – is equally acute in the European arena too. It is hardly a coincidence that other populist parties (of varying degrees of nastiness) have flourished as the EU’s ambitions grew ever larger. From Finland to France via Hungary, Italy and the UK parties have emerged to shout “enough is enough”.

It is a form of politics that depends upon powerlessness to succeed. The game is rigged and no-one will listen to you. The only thing worse than a grievance unsatisfied is a grievance satisfied. It is a kind of resentment that takes advantage of a passionless age.

For in the end Farage’s politics relies upon weakness. “Listening” to Ukip voters is a fool’s errand since, really, Ukip’s voters do not want to be listened to. It is more comfortable to rage against the elites. If it’s not the EU or immigration it will be something else because, ultimately, Ukip prefers to wallow in impregnable victimhood. You said there couldn’t possibly be a frog in my bread-and-milk. But there is. «

Twitter: @alexmassie