LISTENING to Ukip leader Nigel Farage deliver a rather flat speech to his party conference on Friday, it was easy to understand why Euroscepticism has come to be seen as a right-wing ideology.
Farage, the archetypal little Englander, embodies a rather harsh politics of identity, where the weaker are to be despised, the different to be feared.
Farage has taken a small party and given it a voice. He has made it a legitimate political force
Under its current leader, Ukip has provided a happy home for many whose opposition to the United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the European Union is about immigration and nothing else. Arguments about the economic benefits or otherwise of EU membership, if ever they do come up, seem more like window dressing than the stuff of belief.
Farage was so pleased with his party’s messages on immigration during this year’s general election campaign that he told his audience on Friday that Ukip had owned the issue. Other politicians, one feels, will be quite happy to let Farage take sole credit for the “shock and awful” outburst during a leaders’ debate when he complained about the cost of HIV drugs for immigrants.
That particular moment was explained away by Ukip spinners as a necessary message for the party’s core support which, of course, suggests the party’s core support is pretty rotten.
But while he won applause at conference for “owning” immigration, Farage also told members that victory in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership would only be won by those who want out if they delivered a positive message.
It was all terribly contradictory. And highlighted the problem Farage and the wider Eurosceptic movement face as they campaign to sever ties with Britain’s European neighbours.
Farage, after all, has taken an argument that could have won greater support from across the political spectrum and made it a matter for extremists.
Ukip was not always the party of choice for the insular and paranoid, though it didn’t take long for that to become the case.
Its founder, Alan Sked, a former Liberal Party official and a current professor at the London School of Economics, held a principled opposition to EU membership, based on opposition of Britain signing up to the Maastricht Treaty – which gave the European Commission greater authority – in 1992.
Sked – and I make no claim that his was a mainstream concern – argued that Maastricht was undemocratic. He did not argue against “the other” or talk about the right and wrong type of immigrant.
In fact, Sked was so appalled by the way Ukip was quickly taken over by extreme right-wing elements that he denounced the party in 1997, four years after its formation. Ukip, he once said, was even less liberal than the British National Party.
There have, of course, been left-wing Eurosceptic organisations. Sked formed – and then quickly disbanded – the New Deal party in 2013, while the late Bob Crow, left-wing general secretary of the RMT union, was a leading figure of the “No to EU – Yes to Democracy” movement which fielded candidates in the 2009 and 2014 European parliamentary election.
And we can’t forget the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who just a few weeks ago refused to rule out campaigning for divorce between Britain and the EU (he has, of course, since “clarified” his position, which is that EU membership is desirable).
But the left lacks loud Eurosceptic voices these days. Instead, Farage is the de facto head of the campaign to quit Europe. He and his colleagues may claim they are part of a wider movement and they may deny Farage is their leader. But it is an indisputable fact that his is the dominant voice of Euroscepticism in Britain.
It would be churlish – wrong, in fact – to deny that Farage has proved himself a capable political leader. Ukip won more votes than any other British party in the last year’s European elections, ending up with 24 MEPs. Meanwhile, more than four million people voted for the party in this year’s general election (though ended up with only one MP).
But Farage’s successes, such as they are, do not demonstrate the ability to bring more than half of the country to his cause. Farage has taken a small party and given it a voice. He has made it a legitimate political force. This he has done by saying many unsavoury things, aimed directly at those on the fringes of politics.
Farage’s strategy made perfect sense, especially when there was no prospect of an EU referendum on the horizon. He played up to those obsessed with immigration and added in a splash of anti-establishment rhetoric for those voters in England who felt that mainstream politicians had forgotten them (in Scotland, those anti-establishment voters prefer the SNP, of course).
Many of us may have shuddered to hear some of Farage’s more extreme pronouncements but he still speaks the language of a substantial number of voters of the “it might not be politically correct but” variety.
Farage has brilliantly won over a sizeable minority of British voters.
The downside for him is that, in the course of achieving this, he turned off many more. Few things will unite Labour, SNP and even Tory voters, but repulsion at some of Farage’s rhetoric seems to manage to do just that. His politics are as despised by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson as they are by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Those who know Farage best insist that he is not the monster that his more extreme rhetoric might suggest. He is, they say, saying what is expected of him by his members.
That may be a sensible thing to do when it comes to elections, but when he needs to bring more than half of Britain behind him in the EU referendum, it won’t work. For all those who believe him a great statesman, there are more who think him a lout in a pinstripe suit.
Nigel Farage pandered to those with extreme views in order to build support for his party, but I believe that strategy will play its part in ending his dream of a UK outside Europe. «