An arch Eurosceptic who promises to liberate the UK from the EU with Brexit, Nigel Farage has managed to upend the British political establishment, but who is this chain-smoking, beer-drinking everyman?
“I’ve got a feeling you will go down in history, whether it's for fame or infamy, I can’t tell.” So said Nigel Farage’s teacher to the then graduating high school student. To which Farage replied: “As long as I go down in history sir.”
Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and current leader of the Brexit Party, could go down as one of Britain’s most significant post-World War II politicians if Britain manages to leave the EU.
The making of the man
Taught at Dulwich College, one of Britain’s most elite private schools, the former stockbroker built his political career by seemingly opposing the establishment, but not without the help of the establishment itself.
While at Dulwich College, Farage joined the Conservative Party at only 14 years of age, even campaigning for the party. He was an admirer of the late Enoch Powell, a controversial British Conservative politician who once delivered what was called the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, warning about immigration and the mixing of the races.
A lifelong Eurosceptic, Farage even admitted to voting for the environmentalist Green Party in 1989 due to its “sensible” Eurosceptic policies. In 1992, however, he left the Conservative Party due to the then Conservative government’s signing of the Treaty of the European Union which locked the UK into a process of further political and economic integration.
It is this relationship with the EU that has been the defining feature of Farage’s political evolution. His slogan for the last 25 years has been "We Want Our Country Back" - a reference to what he sees as the UK’s loss of sovereignty to the EU, an “undemocratic” and “corrupt” behemoth.
A politician in the making
Since Farage entered politics he has often portrayed himself as a man of the people, unbridled by the political correctness of other modern politicians, with their controlled speeches, slick PR managers and talking points.
Farage, the straight-talking guy speaking from the gut, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, his everyday image played well in cultivating the image of an outsider telling voters the truth the elites don’t want them to hear.
UKIP, the one-party issue
Farage joined the UK Independence Party in 1994 — a Eurosceptic, far-right party founded in 1993 on the single issue of taking the UK out of the EU. Farage, with a small group of allies, unseated the founder of the party Alan Sked to become the leader in 1997.
This would prove to be a turning point for the party, an indication of Farage’s political nouse and a precursor to the wider political ambitions that he harboured for himself and the party.
Under Farage’s leadership, the party sought to broaden its appeal by, amongst other things, discussing immigration, which for many of the main political parties did not feature on their political radar. It was something that Farage recognised and would ultimately use to his political advantage.
After a previously unsuccessful run, in 1999, Farage was elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), a seat he has successfully defended for more than 20 years.
It is not until Farage entered the European Parliament that he was really able to expand the popularity of his party.
Farage’s speeches in the EU Parliament, often speaking to a near-empty chamber were less about the audience in the room and more about the audience that would see his speeches on the internet.
One such popular exchange was in February 2010, when he played on the idea of ordinary Europeans having no idea of the inner workings of the European Union by greeting the recently appointed President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, with the comment: "I don't want to be rude... Who are you? I'd never heard of you, nobody in Europe had ever heard of you."
Farage’s nationalist chest-beating made for good entertainment, his combative verbal battles have garnered millions of views. However, far from being just a form of entertainment, it exposed millions to Farage’s ideas.
The UKIP leader successfully utilised his platform at the European Parliament to expand his political base and generate the exposure that the mainstream media would not provide. It is on the back of the videos that the mainstream outlets took notice, but even then as a form of comedy.
UKIP’s breakthrough in British politics came in 2014 when it finished first in the EU parliamentary elections and captured more than four million votes. From that point on, Farage has undeniably changed British politics beyond recognition. His opponents have had to play on the political ground that he has campaigned for all his life: to take the UK out of the EU.
The Conservative Party, then led by Prime Minister David Cameron, took fright at UKIP's victory and in a moment of panic reacted, promising a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. A referendum Cameron did not want to have.
The Brexit campaign that followed in 2016 saw the political scene blown up by Farage’s Eurosceptic politics. He carefully understood that issues around immigration, identity and sovereignty would resonate with voters - issues that had long become taboo or politically incorrect to discuss amongst Britain’s political class.
‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’
As the Brexit campaign went into full swing, Farage used controversial posters of Syrian refugees to highlight Britain’s migrant challenge. That rhetoric resonated with rural voters that felt they had long been ignored by the urban elite.
Farage, an unlikely man of the people, led the revolt against the British establishment, its media, academia, and won.
As Britain has struggled to accomplish Farage’s dream to leave the EU, a process that has now dragged on for almost three years, the semi-retired political leader came out looking to deal the British establishment one more blow.
Soon after the Brexit victory of 2016, Farage resigned from UKIP and consecutive leaders took the party even further to the right. In March of 2019, anticipating that Britain would not be able to leave per the agreed deadline of March 29, making it increasingly likely it would compete in the EU elections, Farage created a new party, the Brexit Party.
As if to reinforce Farage’s impact on British politics the party established an early lead with its straight forward message: Britain must leave the EU. Britain’s traditional powerhouses, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, dithered.
On Monday 27 May, Farage made history, becoming the only political leader in British history to lead two different parties to victory when he achieved first place in the European Union elections.
Data showed that Farage was able to divide the Conservative Party vote in half. Again he has been able to set the political agenda in Britain. However, this time instead of taking aim at migrants, Farage has lasered the discontent of millions of voters at the British establishment and the Conservative Party.
Farage has often preyed on his opponent’s underestimation of his political nouse.
“When I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead the campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me, you are not laughing now,” said Farage at the EU Parliament, shortly after the UK voted Brexit in 2016.
Farage, as well as earning his place in the United Kingdom’s history books, just might well earn one in the European Union’s.