The division between self-indulgence and self-denial is the key fracture within Euroscepticism. Do you do what what appeals to your base instincts and voter base, making you feel good about yourselves but not actually winning, or do you do what works, helping you win but requiring some discipline? As I’ve argued before, this was really what caused the split between Leave.EU and Vote Leave. Indeed, having claimed at the time to have been running a serious campaign, since the vote Arron Banks now openly discusses the fact that self-indulgence was his driving motive – he and his team were “bad boys” for whom it was all a bit of a giggle.
Nigel Farage is a fascinating figure when looked at in these terms. His rise to dominate UKIP, and his Party’s subsequent surge under his leadership, were founded on his often utterly ruthless commitment to putting what worked first. He took out people he perceived as dead weight or disruptive, adapted not just his persona but his whole life to try to meet the demands of the media (often at great personal cost), and, while talking cannily of his Party’s commitment to “speaking your mind”, ruled with a rod of iron when it came to trying to force them to be a bit less fringe and a bit more appealing to voters. He wasn’t slavish to the demands and expectations of others, but he was canny enough to know that self-denial was necessary – without him realising that at the right time, his Party might well never have done as well as it did.
And yet by the time the referendum came, he had allowed self-indulgence to creep to the fore. A politician who had spent more than 20 years considering every angle of how to get and then win a referendum on EU membership, who knew full well that while it couldn’t be won without UKIP it also couldn’t simply be won by UKIP, ditched all his strategic sense and simply demanded that he be put in charge. Having not been put in charge, he proceeded to not simply campaign to turn out his base – which was necessary – but to campaign in a way that he surely must have known threatened to deter the floating voters whom Leave required in order to win. From the infamous posters to his leap at the chance to debate Cameron on ITV (which delighted Downing Street and Remain, who knew their best chance was to paint Leave as being personified by Farage), what worked went out the window, replaced firmly by what felt good.
Mercifully, Leave won anyway. Eurosceptics might have been forgiven for hoping at that point that Farage would now prioritise turning the result into reality. Perhaps he might realise, at least in private, that all the attacks on Vote Leave that implied they couldn’t – or even didn’t want to – win had been mistaken. Unfortunately, he continued down the path of indulgence, starting mere minutes after the close of voting. The signs were there from his early concession of defeat, paired with an unwise comment that a narrow margin did not make a mandate, and then his insultingly clumsy victory speech in which he seemingly forgot about Jo Cox’s murder by declaring Britain would leave the EU “without a single bullet being fired”.
Since then, we’ve heard him in full indulgence mode. Endless declarations of a ‘stab in the back’ betrayal of Leave voters, repeated accusations against those actually getting on with the job of Brexit, and now a flirtation with the prospect of a second referendum. His public complaints about his lack of a knighthood (which he totally doesn’t want, but would like to remind you the Establishment has still not given to him) are harmless if a bit pathetic. The interventions which seek to whip up a sense of grievance among Leave voters are somewhat worse, but they could at least be explained as seeking some kind of partisan gain, albeit at the cost of harm to the national interest.
His outing on Channel Five’s Wright Stuff yesterday to talk about a second referendum, however, was pure attention-seeking. Ironically, his cohorts at Leave.EU spent ages during the referendum accusing Vote Leave (incorrectly) of betraying Brexit by supporting a second referendum, but here he was toying with the idea simply to demonstrate that he still matters. He is not stupid – he knew that Continuity Remain would leap on and take heart from such comments, as they duly did, and his subsequent retreat was as cosmetic as the original sally forth.
This was self-indulgence with bells on: a man willing to damage what he still says was his life’s work, just for the benefit of proving to himself that people still care about what he says in his retirement.