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Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage resigned his position as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party yesterday. He is in a position to request applause for his astonishing success. Under him, a party that holds only a single seat in Parliament not only moved the Tories to hold a Brexit referendum, but has done what only men like Farage used to want. This man is, in short, the only successful populist of our times and he says that his career is now over, though he will retain his job MEP through the Brexit process.
There is much to learn about the problems of British politics by looking at Farage’s strange successes and failures. I flatter myself that I predicted the end of Mr. Farage’s career, but I am not a man who makes predictions. My purpose rather is to display with some care political conflict as what it is and how it emerges.
Mr. Farage is a former Tory, but he decided long ago to abandon the natural party of businessmen and, instead, to start an anti-EU party. What pushed him over the edge? The 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which created the modern EU and was the first opportunity for its democracy-mocking way of ignoring votes it didn’t like and insisting on those it did.
Farage has failed to win a sit in Parliament for some 20 years now, which required his resignation — an unwise campaign promise — in 2015. For all that, the party lovingly insisted on rejecting that resignation, so he retained leadership of the party.
For all its tactical failures, UKIP managed, in 2015, something comparable to the rise of Labour a hundred years before. Farage’s party won 12.7 percent of the vote with 3.88 million votes, slightly more than the combined total of the next two parties, both of them lefty-loosy. The Liberal Democrats who got 2.4 million votes and were nearly annihilated after five years of playing foolish junior partner to the Tories. The other, the Scottish Nationalists, are taking the new anarchist Left’s model of wannabe tax-collector for the welfare state to the new low of wannabe tax-collector for the EU. The SNP is now in possession of about 55 seats in Scotland, while the Lib-Dems hold a mere eight of the fifty-something seats they held only a few years ago. British politics is about to become uglier and more serious.
I speak now without authority: UKIP cost the Tories more votes than Labour in 2015, so it cut into the Tory majority while putting pressure on them so far as Brexit was concerned. In the future, Farage seems to recognize, UKIP must become an enemy of Labour, competing for its working-class constituency, and turning into a true populist party.
Brexit was hardly the first time Farage or UKIP has won an election. Since 2014, his party holds the plurality of the British delegation to the EU Parliament, giving institutional form to the anti-EU sentiment in Britain. Farage himself has been one of these representatives since 1999 — and has been re-elected twice — where he has made a habit of humiliating the leaders of the EU, including his own countrymen. It may have been useful to Britain to have such a man doing such a job, which no one else publicly will. Unfortunately, his harangues and his cussed orneriness are insufficiently popular in Britain. He is a self-appointed tribune of the plebs and his smoking, drinking, vulgar joie de vivre is one of the finer spectacles of British politics.
Farage shows the successes and failures of British populism. The party system as much as guarantees that the political class is isolated from voter revolts — this is an essential part of parliamentary democracy, as are the safe seats controlled by the party — and they are as legitimate as anything in Britain. But UKIP has quadrupled its share of vote in-between 2010 and 2015, which has forced the Tories’ hand. I have no doubt the Tories would rather lose much or little to destroy UKIP for good, but that is not now an option. How to deal with an anti-UKIP Tory party is not clear, but it starts with marginalizing Farage. He was never going to be the future of Britain; but his time is over now. Farage’s new job is to destroy the relation between Labour and the working classes. This is, you guessed it, my next concern, and the ugly truth we have to face about our treasured science of economics.
By the way, here’s his resignation from last year. He hates first-past-the-post system.