In the last ten days, it seems that more political heads have rolled than in any time since the French Revolution, and Nigel Farage’s has now joined them, albeit voluntarily. Even many of those reluctant to praise him admit that he, more than any other individual, is responsible for getting the United Kingdom out of the European Union and restoring our liberty and democracy as a self-governing nation. At the final reckoning, his achievements may even eclipse that single if enormous fact: one day he may well be credited with saving all of Europe from itself as the whole rotten project falls apart.
As the saying goes, mountains always look smaller looking back, and it is difficult now to credit just how hopeless and thankless the task of getting us out of the EU once seemed. Disgusted at the Maastricht Treaty and seeing the way the EU was heading, Farage was a founder member of Ukip in 1993. He was the party’s first by-election candidate, gaining just 952 votes (1.4 per cent of the total) in Eastleigh in 1994, narrowly beating the Monster Raving Loonies. That he entered politics out of a genuine desire for public service is indisputable: a highly successful metals trader, even when he became an MEP in 1999, the largesse of the position’s salary and allowances was actually a pay cut compared to his City days.
The route to referendum victory has been a very long one, and often lonely and exhausting: Farage and Ukip have had to battle on many fronts simultaneously. Unless you are a billionaire, setting up a political party is a fool’s errand requiring huge amounts of time and effort. Humiliations will be many and absolute failure almost certain. You will in the process attract a lot of embarrassing oddballs and unsavoury fanatics whom you will have to treat ruthlessly: whatever Ukip’s shortcomings, it is not a neo-fascist party like some of the anti-EU groups that have sprung up on the Continent in recent years, and that is due in no small part to Farage’s determination to build a decent if rather abrasive party.
However, perhaps his two greatest battles were against the very powerful intellectual and cultural currents of recent times. For so long after the post-war period, intellectually “Europe” was the future. It was cool. It was progressive, and most formidably of all, it was inevitable. Until the disastrous euro crisis of recent years, only bigots and backward looking nostalgia-freaks were thought to resist it. Criticism of Europe was not so much out of the Overton Window but over the gate and away across the fields.
Even that intellectual battle pales into insignificance to the one against the cultural zeitgeist: we live in a lachrymose, feminised age that prefers soft platitudes to harsh truths, and Farage’s uncomplicated, Life On Mars style masculinity jarred enormously with the mincing metrosexuality of both much of the establishment and large sections of the electorate. Most of us, even if we hate ourselves for it, adapt ourselves to the tenor of the times: Farage’s price for not doing so has been to receive an incessant torrent of vitriol and disgust.
Well, he won’t have to put up with it any longer: having achieved his lifetime ambition, he has now gone, and like many ‘Kippers I have decidedly mixed feelings. It was good he retired at the top, but how about the future? Yes, against all odds the referendum has been won and a formal sundering from the EU looks very likely. That said, under what is likely to be yet another decidedly metropolitan liberal Tory Prime Minister, the maximum promise of Brexit looks likely to be squandered. So too, perhaps, is the chance of a radical cultural realignment of the country towards social conservatism: we will miss Nigel’s voice holding the establishment to account on both fronts.
Secondly, a valid criticism of Farage’s leadership style is that he failed to adjust Ukip’s management culture as the party matured: he has undeniably been a “Sun-King” leader, ruthlessly chopping down any nascent rival. The culture of purge and counter-purge, perhaps necessary in the early days, may haunt the party for years to come. He has, perhaps, left Ukip under-equipped to exploit the significant political opportunities now afforded it.
However, great men have great weaknesses, and it is not idle hagiography to describe a man thus, who sacrificed much in order to triumph in so great a cause. History will surely judge him very favourably. In his column last week, Richard Littlejohn even suggested there should one day be a statue of him in Parliament Square. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for future generations see him there, pint in hand, his bronzed beaming face and victorious smile turned towards the Commons, eternally mocking the lesser men who sat there while he fought his lonely but ultimately victorious war?