It’s not hard, watching the two debates over future British membership in the European Union, to see why Nigel Farage, the leader of the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is such a successful politician.
In the last of two debates with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Farage asked voters in his closing remarks to ‘join the people’s army and topple the establishment that got us into this mess.’
British viewers apparently agree — in an instant Guardian poll following the debate, they believed that Farage won the debate by a margin of 69% to 31%. The debate precedes the May 22 elections to determine the United Kingdom’s 73 members in the European Parliament.
If former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was the British answer to US president Ronald Reagan, Farage (pictured above) is its answer to Newt Gingrich in his ability to lead an anti-establishment political revolution. In the same way that Thatcher reshaped the Conservative Party in the anti-government, pro-market mould of the US-style conservatism, Farage is reshaping the way that Britons conceive the debate over EU membership, just as Gingrich rewired the nature of political debate in the United States — by attacking the consensus of a longstanding political elite through a simple, compelling message that scrambles the traditional lines between left and right.
Farage is doing to ‘Brussels’ exactly what Gingrich did to ‘Washington.’
Farage’s performance has been so smooth, it’s tantalizing to wonder just how well he might do in a four-way televised debate in the campaign for the May 2015 parliamentary elections alongside not only Clegg, but also Conservative prime minister David Cameron, and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband — or how effective Farage might be leading the ‘no’ campaign in the pending 2017 EU membership referendum, a vote that Cameron was forced to promise to hold (if reelected next year) largely as a result of UKIP’s rise in popularity over the past two years.
Here are just three examples from Wednesday’s debate that show just how effective Farage can be — he manages to argue against EU membership as a champion of greater globalization, of protecting minorities and the working class, and of greater world peace.
You don’t have to buy what Farage is peddling in order to acknowledge that he’s devastatingly effective in framing the UK-EU debate in uniquely new and powerful ways.
It’s no longer an academic point.
A March 26-27 YouGov poll for The Sun shows a three-way race in the European elections: Labour wins 28%, UKIP wins 26% and the Tories win 24%, leaving the LibDems far behind at 11%. Nearly one in two Conservative voters from 2010, and nearly one in five Labour voters, plans to back UKIP. Among the most likely to vote, UKIP leads with 30%.
Watch how effectively Farage plays the happy warrior against the European Union, while painting himself as a proponent of even greater globalization:
Why focus on Europe when there’s a whole world out there with which Britain should be engaged, Farage asks, establishing an ‘and/or’ binary that tries to force a choice between Europe, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other hand.
Most economists and policymakers would agree that’s a false choice, but that doesn’t mean that voters won’t necessarily buy Farage’s zero-sum vision, masked in the kind of modernizing ’21st century’ rhetoric you might otherwise expect from Cameron or from former prime minister Tony Blair.
One of Farage’s biggest gripes about EU membership is the deluge of immigrants from southern, central and eastern Europe that take jobs from British citizens:
Farage claimed immigration had led to a cut in real wages of 14% since 2007. “It’s good for the rich, because it’s cheaper nannies and cheaper chauffeurs and cheaper gardeners, but it’s bad news for ordinary Britons.” He highlighted a report by the anti-immigration group MigrationWatch that raised the prospect of 130,000 EU immigrants arriving in Britain every year. He said: “I fear there is going to be a very big migratory wave from the Mediterranean … It [immigration] has left the white working class, effectively, as an underclass and that, I think, is a disaster.”
Farage frames the debate in terms you would expect to hear from some of the more progressive members of the Labour Party, with a compassionate edge that softens what would otherwise be an anti-immigration posture closer to Marine Le Pen than to Ed Balls.
His further remarks are even more astounding:
It is the duty of government to make sure that its own citizens have got the best chance for advancement that is possible. I mentioned the white working class. I could have, of course, in London mentioned the Afro-Caribbean community, 50% of whose youngsters are currently unemployed. I can understand why Big Business supports you, because what you have done has given us a cheap-labor economy. That’s been very, very good for Big Business, very good for rich people to take on servants, but it has not been good for the people at the bottom of society, and we need to find a way to give people at the bottom of society, and to give our young people, jobs. And we will not do that with an open-door immigration policy.
It’s astounding, really — Farage, the one-time Tory, as the champion of racial tolerance and equality, Farage as the champion of the working class.
But Farage’s most amazing point comes when he argues that the European Union is advancing an aggressive foreign policy. He makes an anti-war, pro-democracy argument that turns the prevailing wisdom about a feckless, disunited European foreign policy on its head:
As Ian Traynor writes at The Guardian, Farage’s version of the EU foreign policy is far from accurate:
Europeans do go to war, of course. The French and the British in Libya. Again the French campaign in Mali. But it is not the EU that is spoiling for a fight. Rather it is the nation states of Europe, Farage’s Gaullist ideal, in the form of David Cameron, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande who make the decisions about war and peace. Brussels is a bystander. The usual criticism of the EU is the opposite of Farage’s – that there is no European foreign policy, scant European defence or security policy – a condition that Britain has done much to entrench and perpetuate.
Clegg slammed Farage for appearing to back Russian president Vladimir Putin, and he inveighed not only against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, but also against Putin’s role in the Syrian civil war. He tried to match Farage in demagoguery by arguing that Farage is spinning conspiracies, that the US moon landing was fake or that US president Barack Obama is not really a US citizen.
But it’s hard to deny that Farage is making strong points on foreign policy. Three years after the largely Anglo-French intervention into Libya, the country is conceivably more unstable today. The anti-Assad rebels in Syria are a mixed bag of fighters, some of whom represent the worst of radical, jihadist Islam. While former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich was corrupt and imperfect, it doesn’t change the fact that the Euromaidan protesters toppled a democratically elected president.
It’s brilliant demagoguery — Farage is deploying otherwise valid arguments about British foreign policy to disparage a largely imaginary European foreign policy.
On the facts, Clegg is right more often than not. Of course, the United Kingdom would face huge difficulties outside of the European Union and outside of the European single market. It would take years to renegotiate bilateral agreements with all the countries with which the United Kingdom currently enjoys free trade — and on the same terms. Clegg rightly notes that with 75% of British trade flowing to Europe, pulling out of the European Union would harm the United Kingdom much more than it would harm Europe.
When Farage inveighed against a European superstate structure that dictates 75% of British law, Clegg scrambled to correct the factual record that EU law comprises something more like 7%. No matter, the damage is done.
When Clegg confronted Farage with the point that Switzerland and Norway have been largely forced to conform to EU law, despite having no input on EU law as non-members, Farage effectively had no answer.
And so on… most economic or political analysis would conclude that the United Kingdom is far better inside the European Union, even as one of its most cantankerous members, than outside it.
But Farage’s performances in the two debates with Clegg should be a warning to Cameron — even if he’s reelected, and even if he wins more policy concessions from Brussels (and Berlin), there’s no guarantee that he and the pro-EU forces within Britain would win a referendum in 2017.
That might be especially true if, after that other referendum this September, the referendum is held in the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.