There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:*
Nigel Farage’s political career ended on the 23rd June, 2016 though the finale only came on the 4th July. Unlike David Cameron’s career, his didn’t end in tears. Both Farage and his political party, UKIP**, have been the most successful single issue pressure movement that Britain has seen for a century. Their sharp focus on disengaging from the EU (Brexit as it’s called by the media) and especially from the free movement of labour, has connected with many British people. Indeed in the referendum a narrow majority agreed with Farage and he has therefore achieved his lifetime goal. But where does victory leave him and his party?
An unambiguous success doesn’t look like the Brexit referendum result. That result left 48% of the British population in diametric opposition to the 52% who were victorious. Brexit was about different things to different voters: sovereignty, trade, national identity and immigration. The two great predecessors*** to Brexit won unambiguous victories. The Anti-slavery Movement had a two phased success in 1807 and 1833. The Suffragette Movement also had a two phase success in 1918 and 1928. Everyone knew precisely what victory was. The British Empire banned slavery, women got the vote, no ifs, no buts. But this isn’t the outcome of the 2016 referendum on British membership of the EU. It is ambiguous and fraught with opportunities for a nuanced fudge, which is the antithesis of a ‘normal’ pressure group victory.
Farage is an adroit politician but the undemocratic nature of the British electoral system has frustrated his ambitions. In the 2015 General Election, UKIP’s 3.8 million votes won only a single seat in parliament. That undemocratic outcome is outrageous but apart from the Liberal Democrat party, there is no appetite for proportional representation in British general elections. The political dice are stacked against UKIP. Farage would have continued as a marginal political figure if there hadn’t been a referendum. The referendum empowered the disenfranchised (Farage is their talisman) because their vote is aggregated across the entire country. There are no wasted votes in a referendum. Given all of this he rightly concluded that he had no future in British politics though astonishingly decided not to resign his seat in the European parliament.
The undemocratic nature of British politics extends to media coverage. Minority parties face excruciating challenges when they try to ‘get their message across’. This reinforces the hegemony that is (was?) British politics****. Fringe politics are virtually invisible in Britain and their devotees are almost entirely true believers who aren’t interested in compromise. This inability to have a nuanced political approach is both a strength and a fatal weakness. The 24th June, 2016 brought a narrow win for Brexit but there was no agreed policy platform for the Brexiteers. They firmly believed what they were voting against but were very flaky about what they were voting for. So what?
Knowing what serendipity looks like is critical for voters. They need to know what the fruits of victory are. Unfortunately the Brexit victory is subject to exegesis as I write (July 2016). For those who vote in a binary situation this is profoundly worrying. The Suffragettes knew what they’d won, they’d won the vote on exactly the same terms as men. But Brexit is multi-layered. The anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP is impossible to fulfil as it appears to be based on the illusion of isolationism. Farage quickly understood this and resigned as leader of UKIP nine days after his triumph.
Farage has led a brilliant campaign for decades. He’s shaped the political agenda providing the drive and focus that the best single issue politicians do. The result of the referendum changed all that. Now Farage’s single issue politics have been subsumed into mainstream politics. Farage’s politics has had its day in the political sun. He is excluded from the ‘corridors of power’ and power-brokers will interpret the referendum result within their understanding of the best interests of Britain. Farage has succeeded like Wilberforce and the Pankhurst’s before him and has accepted his new role as yesterday’s man.
*Ecclesiastes 3: The rest of this Biblical poem is very worth reading https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3
**United Kingdom Independence Party
*** The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787) led that campaign and the two principal Suffragette organisations were the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (1872) and the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (1906).
****The SNPs triumphant obliteration of the Labour party (2015) in Scotland illustrates the collapse of the British political hegemony.