Dr Neil Ewen
Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Winchester.
He is co-editor of First Comes Love: Power Couples, Celebrity Kinship and Cultural Politics (Bloomsbury, 2015) and of ‘National Populists: Celebrity Right-wing Politicians in Contemporary Europe’, a forthcoming special edition of Celebrity Studies journal (Routledge, 2017).
Section 6: Parties
- The triumph and tribulations of Conservative Euroscepticism
- Celebrity politicians and populist media narratives: the case of Boris Johnson
- ‘Tuck your shirt in!’ It’s going to be a bumpy ride: Boris Johnson’s swerve to Brexit
- ‘Conservative party future?’ Party disunity, the media and the EU Referendum
- Cameron and the Europe question: Could it have ended any other way?
- The Liberal Democrats: the EU Referendum’s invisible party
- The Durham miners’ role in Labour’s culture wars
- The immigration debate: Labour versus Leave in the battle to win public trust
About twenty minutes into the BBC’s live EU Referendum result show, David Dimbleby paused, touched his earpiece, and delivered the first big news of the evening: “We’re hearing that Nigel Farage has conceded and has said that Remain has won”. This must have been pure music to the ear of a broadcaster desperate for content to fill the chasm until the first declaration. And so, for the next twenty minutes, Farage’s comment was the main topic of studio discussion. Then, Dimbleby touched his earpiece again. “We’re now hearing that Nigel Farage has unconceded – if that’s a word”, as the camera cut to the UKIP leader addressing a crowd of supporters and reporters, saying that he was revising his initial assessment. Minutes later, television coverage of the most important British political event in at least a generation was still firmly focused on Farage. He was, as usual, playing the media like a fiddle.
a feeble Prime Minister … promise(d) a referendum he didn’t want but, in the event, never dreamt he’d lose. This epic misjudgement will cement Cameron’s reputation as a hugely inept and disastrous leader. Farage, meanwhile, will be judged by history as a central character amid an increasingly disorientated post-imperial British society.
In light of the referendum result, it is no exaggeration to rank Farage as one of the most significant figures in modern British history. His has been an extraordinary rise. In 2006, two months after Farage assumed its leadership, David Cameron described UKIP as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. In the decade since, Farage has stamped his authority on his party, professionalised the outfit, and become a celebrity politicianwhose image as a supposed anti-establishment man of the people is constantly lapped up and spat out by a media with endless airtime to fill and a desperation for novelty in an era dominated by bland, career politicians. Even before the 2015 General Election, in which UKIP garnered nearly four million votes, Farage’s power was such that he had exploited Labour’s retreat from the working class, the dissolution of the BNP, and the historic split on Europe in the Conservative Party: the latter forcing a feeble Prime Minister to promise a referendum he didn’t want but, in the event, never dreamt he’d lose.
This epic misjudgement will cement Cameron’s reputation as a hugely inept and disastrous leader. Farage, meanwhile, will be judged by history as a central character amid an increasingly disorientated post-imperial British society. By channelling the insecurities about precarious working conditions, stagnant wages, and high rents, and focusing them on a specific target – the ‘strain’ on the UK’s infrastructure from immigration for which he blames the EU, rather than on neoliberal austerity and Western foreign policy – Farage has taken his place among a wave of right-wing populist politicians across Europe (Le Pen, Wilders, Orban, Petry) and beyond (Trump) who inspire popular revolt by manipulating the media and appealing as much to emotion as to reason. To this, Cameron – with the full backing of the British state, and the huge collective weight of myriad establishment figures behind him – had no effective answer.
Ironically, until the ballot boxes closed, Farage had endured a hugely problematic referendum campaign. With UKIP split along pro- and anti-immigration lines (with Douglas Carswell, its only MP, in the former faction), Farage’s Grassroots Out was usurped by the Johnson-Gove-Carswell coalition Vote Leave as the designated official ‘out’ campaign. In response, Farage ran a parallel campaign with Leave.EU: one defined by increasingly provocative episodes. First, they released a video showing images of riots across Europe voiced-over by Donald Trump reading a poem about a supposedly injured snake that bites and poisons the person who had rushed to help. Then they released a photo of ISIS fighters accompanied by the message: “Act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity…” in reference to the homophobic mass killing of 12 June. And then Farage thought it appropriate to be photographed in front of the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster featuring refugees fleeing Syria, on what turned out to be the morning of the heinous murder of Jo Cox, MP. Under pressure, Farage later apologised for the timing but not the content of the poster. For this, Farage was widely condemned; though he had yet to bottom out. On the morning of June 24, in his ‘victory speech’, he wondered at the historical achievement of Brexit occurring ‘without a shot being fired’ – forgetting (perhaps) the injuries to which the 41-year-old former Batley and Spen MP had succumbed.
Despite realising his own dream, Farage may now find himself personally vulnerable. He remains the ultimate ‘Marmite’ politician, repulsing as many as he attracts, and, though the media won’t leave him alone, his popularity with the public may have hit a ceiling. His hold over his party is becoming increasingly tenuous, and, indeed, the very raison d’être of UKIP post-Brexit is rather unclear. That said, as a figure that changed the course of British politics, and as an icon that embodies the coarsening of public discourse in the neoliberal era, Farage’s place in history is now secure.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Kate Hoey on board a boat taking part in a Fishing for Leave pro-Brexit “flotilla” on the River Thames, London.
Picture by: Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire/Press Association Images.