Luke de Pulford is Director of the Arise Foundation.
Hard to stomach, but Nigel Farage is easily the most effective political campaigner of his generation. No one did more to to bring about the stupefying events of the 24 June. It is Farage who bears most responsibility for reframing the national debate on Europe, Farage whose popularity forced Cameron to put the question to the nation (anyone who campaigned in a marginal seat in 2015 will remember how effective the ‘only the Tories can give you a referendum’ line was on the doorstep), and, ultimately, Farage who handed defeat to the entire political establishment . Without the UKIP Leader, it simply wouldn’t have happened.
So, boastful and crass though it was, his ‘you’re not laughing anymore’ speech to the EU Parliament was accurate. An in-out referendum was utterly, totally unthinkable ten years ago. Hell, it was unthinkable five years ago. And politicians from all over the world did indeed laugh at his expense, often in his face. That Britain will now leave the EU against all odds represents a dizzying, unrepeatable political achievement, and for that Farage can claim a lot of the credit.
But he did so by popularising an ugly brand of politics barely seen since in Britain since the time of Peter Griffiths, preying on people’s vulnerabilities and stoking the embers of xenophobia. Leavers like me watched with horror, and not a little guilt, knowing that we wouldn’t have had a referendum without him – torn between our dislike of UKIP and a desire to see a change in the UK’s relationship to the EU. No one wants to admit it, but the Eurosceptic triumph owes a lot to Farage and his rancid politics. So if you were wondering why so many Brexiteers have gone to ground post-23rd, guilt by association has to be up there.
Which must hurt. Farage could have been forgiven for thinking that attaining his lifelong dream on a wave of 17 million votes would bring with it a little social or political acceptance. Not so. The ink on our ballot papers was barely dry before Boris Johnson had distanced himself, insinuating that Farage was an extremist ‘play(ing) politics with immigration’. And leaver MPs have since been scrambling to escape the toxic aura of his rhetoric. Blame for the spike in hate crime has landed squarely in his lap, and the tone of his speeches and loathsome imagery have been universally condemned. Things are so bad for Farage that remainers aren’t even allowing him the ignominy of taking the blame, with flocks of Twitter haters choosing to evacuate on Boris instead. His place as the unacceptable face of the campaign to leave the EU is secure.
And what of Farage’s future? UKIP is predicated on a now-irrelevant single issue. Having secured the longed for divorce, they have to figure out where they go from here. Broadly, there are two options: maintain raison d’être by claiming that UKIP’s principal aim is now to prevent a Brexit fudge, in which we don’t really leave the EU; or, try to grow support around new policies. The latter option is much harder and less likely to succeed – there’s simply no space in mainstream British politics for the UKIP brand of rightism which, stripped of its Eurosceptic cladding, looks too much like Smethwick in 1964. The former option is highly likely, and, if left unchecked, will fuel UKIP for years to come. The messier the fudge, the more likely that UKIP will remain a serious political force. One reason among many why Theresa May is right to say that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Anything less is grist to the UKIP mill.
Wherever you were on the great referendum, the people have spoken, as nobody seems to tire of saying. If the government respects the result, UKIP will die, and scores of Tory defectors will return. But on the contrary, if Conservatives in the tradition of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine prevail in their attempts to overturn Brexit by the back-door, they will succeed not only in offending democracy and eviscerating trust in their party, but in keeping the UKIP flame alive.