British Politics

Seaside Donkeys: The Many Humiliations of Nigel Farage

Bristling with gossip, a new biography tells the story of a man who incarnated a national cliché and stumbled his way towards a successful insurgency, only to have his credit stolen by an even greater snake-oil salesman. 

In Nigel Farage, the British public found someone who resembled that most seductive and knee-weakening
character in the national canon: the quintessential English eccentric. – Luke MacGregor/Alamy Stock Photos

What is it like to savour the adoration of millions, to cradle the weight of victory in your palms? Most of us, with our small lives and modest hopes, will never know that feeling. Regardless of how much we struggle, how much sweat is spilled, the horizon never comes. Nigel Farage knows. Standing above the chill in Parliament Square, silhouetted grandly against a scaffolded Big Ben, he proclaimed Britain’s independence from the European Union on January 31, 2020 – the goal to which Farage devoted himself for thirty years, the only thing he ever truly cared about. Clutching his prize and blushed with pride, he declared it “the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation.” He grinned wickedly as the Union flags twirled in admiration at his gall and bravado. The honour was all his. 

But by then the feeling was already becoming ash and turning bitter in the mouth. Farage also knows what it is like to discover a dream curdling and turning gangrenous. Behind Farage’s immense triumph lay a wreck: a life littered with petty squabbles, betrayal, scorned women, wheezing with fag-smoke and the heaviness of hidden failure. Farage has released two self-serving memoirs (Fighting Bull in 2010 and The Purple Revolution in 2015) though they are hardly reliable nor the fullest measure of a life. The first attempt to tackle the man in his messy entirety can be found in the veteran television journalist Michael Crick’s new biography: One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage. Bristling with gossip, from its pages rises the pungent whiff of downed port and spilled scotch, and the story of a man who stumbled his way towards a successful insurgency. 

In an early review of One Party After Another for the Guardian, David Runciman tried to sum up what made Farage such an apparent success, describing his career as “marked by generous helpings of luck.” Well, it might look like luck to someone who recently inherited his father’s viscountcy. What in fact aided Farage the most, what took him to the electrifying precipice of power, was his mendacious ruthlessness. Put simply, he fought harder and fought dirtier than anyone else. He had charm and the skill to use it, and an unappreciated instinct for the openings and opportunities that history sometimes allows. 

True, Farage was intensely fortunate that the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith died only a few months after his newly-formed and lavishly-funded Referendum Party routed UKIP in the general election of 1997. Nigel’s nascent and hardscrabble outfit was therefore gifted with an engorged public profile and an onrush of fresh members. At all other moments, however, Farage burnished his own reputation, driven by a hound-like gift honed on the trading desks of the City for the quick score and the easy break. Fond of appeals to democracy but not democracy itself, Farage nonetheless lapped up the chance presented in 1999 when Tony Blair introduced proportional representation to decide the makeup of Britain’s seats in the European Parliament. From then on he drank deeply at the trough of the very institution he pledged to destroy. Instinct and a good nose pointed him to the sun-kissed visage of Robert Kilroy-Silk in the mid-2000s and another opportunity to boost the party’s maverick appeal. That relationship fell apart in a welter of jibes and scorn. Most of Farage’s relationships end this way. 

Yet by guile and by merciless determination, he endured, endured long enough for his singular political observation – the EU and non-white immigration could be twinned in a potent instrument of fear – to take on a dangerous virility. Often his opponents were too stupid or too arrogant: no one aided Farage more than David Cameron, who tried to vanquish the Eurosceptics within his own party using the worst possible tactic – a public referendum – at the precise moment when the Mediterranean refugee crisis was reaching its apogee. 

Farage was using the slogan ‘Take Back Control’ years before Dominic Cummings claimed credit for it, and though Crick describes him as an “awful organiser,” the early history of UKIP demonstrates an aptitude for the boring gruntwork of building local branches, for turning people out to town halls on rainy Tuesday nights. Never mind that those town halls were often solely populated by crusty retired colonels. One vote is the same as any other. Unlike most politicians he seems to enjoy the flesh-pressing and has the conjurer or con-man’s gift for allure and sparkle: he can look anyone in the face and tell a bawdy joke, trusting they’ll laugh along rather than spit in his eye. At least in the early days that was true. 

On the other hand, like the best politicians Farage is obedient and pliant for fat-pocketed donors, ignorant of policy, distrustful of the truth, and more than happy to drive a hundred miles in any weather to appear before a camera; a sucker for the media’s attention, whether they liked him or not. Farage was above all right to say that “Every pub’s a parliament.” His accomplishment was summed up by the leading Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan: Farage could tolerate the “fruitless arguments” with “nutty people” and still manage to wield that “inchoate force” into an electoral machine. 

There are certainly times when Farage put his life in the hands of fate. It turns out that sound medical care came to his rescue more than providence. In 1985 his left testicle ballooned to the size of a lemon; the cancer was quickly caught and cut out. In the same year he escaped with only a bludgeoned leg and tinnitus after bumbling boozily into an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle (not the last time he’d be left bruised by a German). Famously in 2010, Farage was hauled bleeding from the wreckage of a two-seater plane which ditched nose-first into a field during a campaign stunt. His first thought on escaping with his life, with aviation fuel spilling from the crumpled hulk, was to light a cigarette.    

And it was genes rather than luck which saw Farage afflicted with the look of a vaguely shocked amphibian. It was ancestry which made his shut-eyed tooth-bearing smile contagious. When Farage’s face (“the complexion of a used teabag,” Camilla Long once observed) was placed alongside those of his plastic and poll-fattened competitors like Cameron or Nick Clegg, it was very easy to see who had genuine charisma, who was the more naturally skilled at speaking, who had the feted ‘common touch’.

The vision of Farage on television was a relief and a release from the drudgery of a politics with all the blood drained out of it. Mired in austerity, treading water, fearful of the future, at least a quarter of the country found amongst this rogue’s gallery someone who resembled that most seductive and knee-weakening character in the national canon: the quintessential English eccentric. 

Crick dwells quite a bit on Farage’s time at Dulwich College, in one of south London’s leafier neighbourhoods, because it is bracingly and embarrassingly revealing. The Nigel Farage shtick, it turns out, is more fabricated than authentic. Even as a child he exemplified the sacred duty of anyone coming from a lower-upper-middle class background: to get as close as possible to those a few rungs above. Back then, in the late-70s, the teenaged Nigel still pronounced his name ‘Farridge’ (Crick gives us no clue as to when he began putting the exotic topspin on it) but was well on the way to transforming himself into a suburban gentleman. He became a semi-skilled golfer and huddled with a transistor radio to hear the latest scores from Lord’s. At one point he modelled himself on the dapper Flytes and louche Ryders of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, strolling the grounds of Dulwich in colourful boating blazers and oxfords polished to military grade, clutching a rolled-up umbrella, an “old-fashioned cane,” and a snuff box. It was the 1981 television miniseries of Brideshead which inspired him, mind you, not the book; he wasn’t a particularly good student, doesn’t seem to read books, and is quoted by Crick at one point sighing “I don’t understand words.” 

All adolescents are prone to rule-breaking or flights of fancy, to indulge in what Crick calls a “rebellious streak.” Yet the portrait provided here is rather more serious than juvenile frippery, more sinister than the “wind-up merchant” Farage describes himself as being. It is at school that Farage first begins his tender, successful, and long-standing love affair with racial hatred. On this subject Crick is far too judicious, preferring the he-said-she-said method of documenting what the young Nigel may or may not have done, in effect letting him off the hook for what is obviously a consistent standard of behaviour. Indeed, Crick tells us that “Farage is always extremely upset when people accuse him of racism.” On several pages we find him turning puce with rage when confronted with quips from his own past, or the pasts of close friends and party members. When David Cameron sagely described UKIP as “a bunch…of fruitcakes, and loonies and closet racists”, an indignant Farage threatened to sue. 

Yet for someone who doesn’t like being called racist, One Party After Another shows Nigel Farage spending a lot of time being, well, racist. The chapter on Dulwich is brimming with the stuff: nasty, degrading, and intended only at shallow level to be jokey. In Crick’s biography we find Farage, aged eighteen, in the halls chanting the name of the British (National Socialist) Movement: “BM, BM, we are British Nazi men.” Within earshot of Jewish pupils, he liked to exhort “Gas them all, gas them all.” Farage was apparently tickled that his own initials were also those of the National Front. Most alarming of all is the letter (first revealed in 2013 and published in full here) written by a teacher at Dulwich who heard of a Combined Cadet Force camp organised by the school during which “Farage and others had marched through a quiet Sussex village very late at night shouting Hitler youth songs.” The use of “marched” here is telling, and despite the British education system’s best efforts at burdening students with modules on the Second World War, last I checked Hitlerjugend ditties weren’t part of the curriculum – not even at public school. One has to seek them out, in other words. One has to learn the tune and the lyrics, and know precisely what is intended by doing so. 

Farage is well known for being a booster of the adoring cult of Winston Churchill, kneeling devotedly at the bulldog’s altar. On several occasions he lovingly hung Churchill’s portrait in his campaign offices. Surely this is a contradiction? Not so says Richard North, a minor figure on the Eurosceptic right and author with Christopher Booker of The Great Deception, who pops up occasionally in Crick’s biography as the man most skilled at distilling Farage to his quintessence: “He was a racist in a Churchillian sense,” North observes, “a white supremacist on a King and Country basis…He would have made a wonderful subaltern in the Indian Army, that was his demeanour.” Imagine Farage’s deep and painful disappointment that he will never be called sahib by a troop of cowed Punjabis; the best compensation he’ll ever get for this historic anomaly is his treasured membership to the East India Club, a plush barracks on St James’ Square founded as a hideout for the empire’s dutiful civil servants. 

This imperial fantasy has another connection. Farage may be descended from a line of cops, typists, and stockbroker’s clerks (with no provable hint of the Huguenot heritage he’s claimed to have) and may have been birthed and raised within the confines of a staid and traditional southern English Conservatism, but he is actually the pure-born child of Enoch Powell: his greatest inheritor, admirer, and emulator. Farage was “dazzled” by the falcon-eyed bastard in his youth, and counts Powell as amongst the most important influences he’s ever had.  In 1993, Farage was tasked with chauffeuring the ailing Powell from London to Newbury to speak at a proto-UKIP rally – one of his last public appearances – though apparently Farage couldn’t bring himself, over the course of the long drive, to say a single word to his “hero.”

Like Powell, Farage prefers to think of his wealth and talent as self-made, and having attained a loftier station in life, feels entitled to turn around and explain how the world works to those he’s left behind. Like Powell, he believes that the English have been somehow robbed of mystical and ancient liberties, that nostalgia for the empire can now be recrudesced into a virulent nationalism. English identity, in so far as it exists at all, can only be strong if it sets itself against the amorphous and threatening mass of foreigners somewhere out there. These are all illusions, of course, the window-dressing on a deregulated, exploitative, alienating state. Because lurking behind the banner of ‘Take Back Control’ was a bargain made with what remains of the old working class. In return for ‘having their voices heard’ (as it’s put these days), the toiling mass of the nation would be expected to return to their status as the pampered serfs of a new economic feudalism, forever splintering, forever being pushed down, embraced and caressed by false promises.

Not that this can be easily intuited from One Party After Another. It is a journalistic biography to a fault: truthful and full of judiciously selected facts, but empty of ideas, philosophy, or a conception of politics as being more than just hustings and campaigns. Getting at anything deeper means plucking the slough and scabs of Farage’s personality. Crick also misses the story sometimes. He titillates us with mention of Bill Clinton’s famously grubby fixer and bagman Dick Morris, as well as the smut-purveyor and convicted predator Max Clifford, both of whom aided UKIP’s ‘brand’ in the early 2000s, but does not explain further, preferring instead to recount the dull saga of a call centre in Kent. 

Strangely, Crick doesn’t give us any clue as to the origins of Nigel Farage’s hatred of the European Union. In trying to unpick the life of a man devoted to removing Britain from Europe’s clutches, we do not learn where that impulse came from. There are only two clues: Farage’s love for Powellism, and the fact that he traded in the late 1980s for RJ Rouse, a company owned by a French bank whose executives apparently didn’t much like the tendency of City boys to plaster themselves silly during work hours. How sad, how funny, how petty would it be that Britain left the EU because Nigel Farage was once told off by a Frenchman for getting sozzled at lunchtime. 

Then again, perhaps it might have been better if Crick called his biography One Humiliation After Another. For every success, for every triumph over the ‘establishment’, for every struggle won against the ‘bureaucrats’, there was an equal number of embarrassments. From its inception to the time of its sad decline, the United Kingdom Independence Party threatened to shred itself apart. Its hardcore membership was made up of too many upper-middle-class gents with too much time on their hands, thus party life was a maelstrom of catty and libellous infighting. UKIP’s public face – their Members of the European Parliament – were fabulously dysfunctional: of the twelve MEPs elected in 2004, for example, two would be jailed on dishonesty charges, one was obliged to repay tens of thousands of pounds in expenses, a fourth retired early, while three others ended up quitting or expelled. 

For a party which badged itself with the illusion of greater democracy, Farage was something of a despot in how he managed its affairs. He threatened anyone who threatened him, broke manifesto and constitutional rules, and could be found at the centre of every intrigue and manoeuvre. As much as Farage loved to go on television, he was more often than not invited on to apologise for or explain away the gaffes and provocations of his members. 

Farage contended parliamentary seats seven times and lost them all – including, as James O’Brien never tires of pointing out, once to a candidate whose schtick was to be followed around by a man dressed as a dolphin. Having cast himself as the mastermind of Britain’s exit from the EU, Farage was devastatingly outfoxed by the cadres around Boris Johnson before the 2019 general election. Farage was supposed to wear the Brexit crown, to take the credit and the applause, living out his days as just another porker reclining on the benches of the House of Lords. But Johnson stole his thunder. Brexit is now synonymous with Boris, and the Brexit Party – the last-gasp successor to UKIP – quickly fell apart. The rally on Parliament Square is one of the purest examples of hubris ever seen. 

The final humiliation is maybe the worst of all. Having failed to ever get a Westminster seat, having had two political parties combust beneath him, having seen his great ambition taken into the hands of someone else, Nigel Farage has at long last given up and become that most dreaded modern creature: a poster. “In effect,” Crick tells us, “[he’s] become a social media junkie…his latest habit and addiction,” obsessed with hits, clicks, and traffic. Recently, he has been reduced to selling his mug on Cameo, a website which allows users to pick from a roster of mediocre celebrities and have them record a personalised message. Late in 2021, some republican genius paid £75 to see poor Nigel holler “Up the Ra!” (the IRA), then released it online. Crick also solemnly tells us that Fortune & Freedom, a new scheme prominently fronted by Farage, is a “free daily investment newsletter,” even though it’s not free and hawks unregulated financial advice to vulnerable pensioners. The only solace is that Farage seems to be keeping GB News afloat single-handedly. But that really would be to damn him with faint praise. 

In the weeks before the 2019 election, as the Brexit adventure edged its way to a climax and as Farage was being savagely side-lined by both Boris and his own party members, the intellectual Pankaj Mishra tried to summarise the politics dredged up by him since the 1990s. Brexit, Mishra insisted, was not a cure for the thrombotic turmoil in the heart of the British state and the English identity. Rather, it was further evidence of “the dwindling material basis of an ex-imperialist country that is unable to break, in a globalised world, with its antique assumptions of power and self-sufficiency.” The crisis only served to return a pretence of sovereignty to a people who had lost it long ago. “The will of the few was passed off as the will of the many,” Mishra wrote. 

Two years on, the upheaval continues. Brexit has not sated Farage nor his supporters. They remain fired by the deceptive dream once pithily put by Catherine Blaiklock, the original founder of the Brexit Party: “I want my country back. I want seaside donkeys on the beach and little village churches.” But the donkeys never left, they’re just more haggard than they used to be. The churches remain, looking every day a little more ruined. The country is still here, but still labouring under an order which will not lapse until the last ounce of blood has been wrung from its exhausted population. Michael Crick closes his biography with Farage in his shorts, standing alone on the prow of a boat in the Channel, waiting for flotillas of foreigners to appear on the horizon. Inside, he still hears the echoed cheers of that last day of January, and is still yearning for a Britain he is quite sure existed but has never seen and will never know. 

Michael Crick, One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage (Simon & Schuster), pp. 608, 21.99£.

James Robins is an award-winning independent journalist and historian based in London.

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