Trumpism is coming to Britain – and Nigel Farage is leading the charge | Politics News
On an unseasonably chilly May afternoon, Nigel Farage looks out at the rows of empty seats at Fylde AFC, a Lancashire football club, the site of the latest of his Brexit Party rallies (eight and counting).
He knows the stands will soon be filled with over 1,600 paying punters who will come to cheer, to jeer and to hear not only from the man himself – now nothing short of a political folk hero – but a full slate of Brexit Party candidates, including Ann Widdecombe, a Tory of five decades’ standing.
Mr Farage is pleased with his latest signing. Chuckling, he reflects to me on some of the lessons he’s learnt during his shortish sabbatical from the political fray: “I’ve spent a lot of time in America recently. They’re always a few years ahead of us over there. It’s certainly taught me that politics should be far less drab.”
The still nascent Brexit Party may be many things, but drab it is not. I have written before about the quality of its branding and social media output, the shrewdness of its operation, the foresight of its strategy. But what became clearer to me, standing in that football stadium, is the pedigree of its politics.
I’ve never been to a Trump rally – but I imagine, from everything I’ve seen and heard – that what I experienced on the Fylde wasn’t a million miles away.
The vocabulary and pall of its supporters are the obvious signifiers: I was assailed repeatedly by the crowd for being part of the “fake news” media.
Several attendees told me our political leaders should be prosecuted or worse; many said they were traitors and that they and their supporters in other parties were not “true patriots”.
At the mention from the stage of Mrs May’s name, a smattering of simultaneous “lock her up!” calls spontaneously emerged. The anger was real; the nervous sadness and bewilderment over the state of country too, ubiquitous. Many of the hallmarks of recent American political culture there for all to see.
But the Brexit Party follows in the wake of a politics as set by the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in more subtle and substantial ways too.
Much ink has been spilt over the past three years which says that Brexit was the harbinger of populism in the UK, indeed the precursor of a wider populism across the West.
I wonder whether if, when the history of this period is written, the referendum itself might be considered as mere prologue to the main populist act; that ultimately, the referendum will be best understood as the apotheosis of a eurosceptic battle, not as the populist war itself.
After all, euroscepticism has long been a deep vein of British political life. Brexit wasn’t, as the lazy caricature so often goes, a populist revolt of the working classes. It was a narrowly won but solid rejection of the European Union by leafy Hampshire and Surrey commuter towns along with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire pit villages – a rejection which was based on accumulated decades of political activity and sustained suspicion towards the union’s political legitimacy among the general population.
It was not so much people versus elites but a clear coalition of wealthy and poor, connected and isolated, northern and southern. Far from an outsider clique, its campaign leaders were senior cabinet ministers.
Moreover, it was if anything an expression of faith in the strength and durability of the British political system and in its leaders.
Voters were certain that their wishes in the referendum would be carried out without too much difficulty: I lost count of the numbers of voters who, during the referendum and since, dismissed concerns about our withdrawal, not only from the EU but of its myriad political, economic and social auspices, with a variant of the following reply: “I’m sure they can sort it out.”
In other words the Brexit vote, as well as a cri de coeur for Westminster to listen, was also an affirmation of faith by the British public in the fundamental competence of the British state to prosecute even the most difficult political outcomes.
Contrast that with the malaise of today. Remainers and Leavers alike despair at the paralysis which has enveloped our political system. Faith in our democratic institutions and its custodians has never been lower. In the maelstrom of the last few months, virtually every organ of British politics has been completely discredited.
The opposition, the usual beneficiary of democratic discontent is considered as culpable as the government. A substantial proportion of the population believe that those same institutions in which they put their faith in 2016 have been knowingly sabotaged: that democracy itself is being subverted for nefarious ends, and worse, the perpetrators have done so as the world watches and in so doing humiliated a once great nation.
In other words, the conditions are ripe and the stage is set for the biggest backlash imaginable. Britain in 2019 is a petri dish of populism – prime for a revolt as big as that seen in Washington three years ago and much bigger than the British referendum result just before.
The Brexit Party’s message is simple and familiar: they took your country from you, now they’ve taken your democracy too. And “they” are the elites, those who hate the culture of the people, the values of the people, the democracy of the people.
Person after person at Brexit Party rallies volunteer that word to me when I ask why they’re there. Given every political actor is tainted, those people need a new vehicle to restore it.
Enter Mr Farage, who is telling that story but also one even more potent and appealing to a country bruised and battered by its newfound political impotence: that it isn’t the inherent difficulty with the decision the public took which is the problem, but rather the people carrying it out.
That is potent – and potent because no one else is telling an alternative which competes. In other words it is this: the carnage to our democratic institutions that Brexit has wrought and elites’ handling of it, not the referendum itself, which promises to auger a new age of British Trump-esque populism.
It is this battle which Mr Farage believes can reshape British politics and British voting intentions and threaten to destroy the grip of the two main parties on Westminster. Indeed, it already is.
How else can a working class crowd of voters on the Fylde, in Newport, in Durham, cheer figures once associated with the economic and Thatcherite right, like Farage, Widdecombe and multimillionaire Richard Tice? These are people for whom such places would once have had nothing but contempt. But now they are cheered as the true and authentic voice of ordinary people, of “real” people; politics is regearing along new, jagged and unpredictable axes.
And that is why if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn genuinely believe that the answer to their problems is a deal hatched between them, then they are deluded. For a proportion of the British public, to believe in Brexit is now to believe in country, to vote for the Brexit Party is to vote for country; the harder the Brexit, the greater the victory for country.
Any deal will be an example of the very humiliation which drives them. There is no way that Mrs May’s deal, or a deal cooked up with Mr Corbyn, will assuage that anger or nullify Farage – nor will it have the necessary legitimacy in the eyes of the public, to create a new and enduring settlement. It might have done in January – it would not now.
Indeed, now it would serve only to illustrate this movement’s basic beliefs and vindicate its message: that politics is an undemocratic cabal. As one woman said to me, calmly but firmly: “If they do that, we will have a peaceful revolution in this country. You’ll be seeing me, seeing all of us in the House of Commons.”
Mr Farage has shown that he understands this new age of fury better than anyone. Ten years ago, I spent time in Washington DC; I saw the anger of the then fledgling Tea Party, I remember thinking how visceral and coarse American politics seemed. I reflected then how different things were back home; no longer.
The Brexit Party is capturing the force of this new age of anger, it is stoking its heat, it is riding its energy. As I stood in that windy football stand, I could only conclude that this wasn’t the end of something, the dying throes of the Brexit story, but rather its beginning.