David Cameron appeared to hope that he could be the hero of the referendum campaign, but that accolade definitely goes to the much maligned then leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage. This referendum was what Farage had been working towards since 1993 when he and several other Conservative Party members combined with the small eurosceptic Anti Federalist League to turn it into the United Kingdom Independence Party. Farage would have been the dominant personality of the campaign even if the electorate had voted to remain in the European Union, because Cameron was holding a referendum that he felt forced into through the rise of euroscepticism as was evidenced by United Kingdom Independence Party winning the 2014 European Parliament elections. That was the first time since World War One that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour had won a British election.
Nigel Farage went to school in Dulwich College, a private school in London whose most famous old boy was the author of the Jeeves and Wooster series, P.G. Wodehouse. Farage has something of the larger than life establishment characters that peppered Wodehouseís works, but the public warmed to him despite that privileged background. Farage was an iconoclast and showed his independence at school when he took inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to avoid the normal establishment route of an Oxbridge education and instead went straight to working as a City broker. His affection for the Conservatives was broken by Thatcherís successor John Major, who faced down opposition from his own party to sign the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Many Conservatives left in protest, including Farage, and many joined him in 1993 as Alan Sked converted his eurosceptic Anti Federalist League into the United Kingdom Independence Party, with the bolder aim of taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The party was quickly overshadowed by the Referendum Party, which was set up by billionaire James Goldsmith in 1994. He died shortly after the 1997 general election, but his moving a referendum on the European Union onto the mainstream political agenda was a major boost to the United Kingdom Independence Party, who had its first electoral successes in 1999 when Farage and two others were elected to the European Parliament. When those seats were taken up Sked resigned as the longstanding policy had been abstentionism: fighting the European election, but refusing to give the parliament legitimacy by taking up the seats.
Farage was elected to represent South East England in the European Parliament in 1999 and continues in that post. He was not to become the party leader until 2006, just one year after Cameron took over the leadership of the Conservative Party. By that time the United Kingdom Independence Party had increased its representation in the European Parliament to 12 seats (in 2004), but at the first European election led by Farage they increased that total by just one seat to 13. Farage then resigned to attempt to win a seat at Westminster when he went against political protocol by standing against the Speaker of the House of Commons. He came third behind another independent candidate and the effort nearly killed him as a light aircraft he was in on the day of the election crashed. Farage survived, but his injuries continued to plague him. His successor as party leader did not enjoy the role and stood down, allowing Farage to win another term of leadership in 2010. He led the party in a successful local election campaign in 2013, when the party won 25% of the vote in the seats they stood in, they in 2014 came the seismic shock of the United Kingdom Independence Party winning the European Parliament election.
The 2014 victory spooked Cameron, who was now fearful that a general election surge for the United Kingdom Independence Party could upset his hopes of winning a parliamentary majority in 2015. Farage claimed that he had forced Cameron to promise an in out referendum on European Union membership, although Cameron had promised that in January 2013 and it probably had more to do with setting clear blue water between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. In fact the idea of re-running the 1975 referendum was a Liberal Democrat idea, as they first proposed it in 2008 at the time when Cameron merely wanted a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Farage may not have forced Cameronís hands on promising a referendum by the end of 2017, but he was instrumental in how Cameron planned and lost his campaign. Cameron sought to use Farageís reputation outside United Kingdom Independence Party as a racist to engage in pariah politics: scaring voters off voting leave by stating that it would put them in league with racists like Farage. That policy backfired because Farage was careful to avoid being racist, although some of his party were not so successful on that front, but more so because Cameron undermined the strategy through his own xenophobia. In the meantime Farage had lost another Westminster parliamentary election in 2015 and he resigned as leader again, however the national executive rejected his resignation on the grounds that he had led the party to win 13% of the vote, although they won only one seat, despite going into the election with two MPs. It was also felt that Farage was best placed to the lead the party in the referendum that Cameron had promised.
Farageís reputation as a racist was evident when he went to Scotland to campaign against independence in the 2014 referendum and demonstrators forced his meeting to be stopped and he needed to remain in a pub for his personal safety. If Cameron hoped that such an attitude would help his remain campaign in 2016 he seriously miscalculated and Farage successfully made the case for non xenophobic control of immigration, while Cameron supported an Islamophobic campaign against the Labour candidate for Mayor of London. Farage used his supposed pariah status to enhance his status as an anti-establishment figure and to lure the remain campaign into a false sense of security about their campaign strategy. In other words he used his unpopularity to secure the popular vote in favour of leaving the European Union.
Nigel Farage was one of the first members of UKIP elected to the European Parliament, which represented a break from the partyís founding principle to never stand in a European election. Although the party sought an exit from the European Union it was in the European elections that it has proved most successful, winning the last election in which United Kingdom candidates are likely to stand.
In 1993 Farage was a founding member of UKIP when the many Conservatives leaving the party over the Maastricht Treaty merged with Alan Skedís two year old Anti Federalist League to form a new party. They were overshadowed and out funded by Sir James Goldsmithís Referendum Party, but it faded away after the 1997 general election that saw a much more Europhile Labour Party coming to power under Tony Blair. In 1999 Farage was one of UKIPís earliest electoral successes when he was elected as MEP for South East England, a seat that he has retained ever since.
Farage caused controversy by standing against John Bercow as Buckingham MP. This was controversial because Bercow was Speaker of the House of Commons and by tradition were unopposed. There was also an independent standing against Bercow and Farage could only manage third place. He made news when a plane he was in was brought down by the UKIP poster it was flying. Farage survived, but was badly injured.
Farageís replacement as party leader had not taken to the post and resigned, which paved the way for a return to the leadership. He won the leadership election and continued leading the party for a further five or six years. The length of time is uncertain as he resigned after failing to be elected MP of Thanet, but the UKIP National Executive Committee rejected his resignation. Despite his personal disappointment Farage had led UKIP to become the third party in British politics, pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. Unfortunately, this was achieved by finishing second in a lot of seats and while UKIP had entered the general election with two MPs from by election victories it won only one seat in the 2015 general election despite winning 13% of the vote.
A year after his rejected resignation Farage fulfilled UKIPís stated political purpose of being instrumental in bringing the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Political parties were not technically campaigning as even the cabinet was free to campaign for remain or leave, but as UKIPís raison díetre was to leave the European Union it did not have a remain wing. Media coverage of the referendum was driven by political correspondents who covered it in exactly the same way that they covered party politics and so they focused on the party leaders, plus Boris Johnson. Farage received coverage well out of proportion to the influence of UKIP or the unofficial leave campaign he fronted, Leave.European Union, because he was the larger than life candidate that the media was used to following on Eurosceptic matters.
Farage presents the image of a man of the people, while at the same time not hiding his background as a city financier. He has not espoused views as xenophobic as some of UKIPís lesser lights, but he is viewed as sufficiently toxic for him to be sidelined in the leave campaign and for Bob Geldof to organise the harassment of the Thames flotilla of fishing vessels. This toxicity was evidence in the response to his Breaking Point poster that depicted a line of asylum seekers marching towards the Slovenian border. He was rounded condemned for racism, even though the poster was portraying the asylum seekers as among the European Unionís victims. The poster was anti Angela Merkel, but the presumption that Farage was racist was so deep rooted that no other interpretation was allowed by media or politicians, including those on the leave side.
Farageís behaviour after the referendum polls closed was distinctly odd. He almost immediately conceded defeat on the grounds that friends from the City had revealed to him that their private polling had indicated a strong remain vote. Yet as the results came in Farageís concession quickly looked foolish and before victory was confirmed he held a victory press conference outside the Houses of Parliament. In that victory speech Farage had declared that the day of the referendum was Britainís independence day, so it was appropriate that he chose the American independence day of 4th July to resign the leadership for a third, and he says final, time.
Farage continues to lead the UKIP group in the European Parliament and intends to do so until the United Kingdom has exited the European Union and fulfilled the primary purpose of the party he has led three times.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved