Eighteen months ago Britain’s Nigel Farage was a political curiosity, head of a fringe party, gadfly member of the European Parliament, an ex-commodities broker who never went to college—dismissed as a nutcase by ruling elites in London and Brussels. Today he’s being touted as a future prime minister.
“Our Nige,” as his supporters call him—personable, chatty, good-looking, beer swilling, chain-smoking—wants Britain, not the European Union, to run British affairs. To flip a quote from his hero Winston Churchill, he has none of the virtues they despise, and all of the vices they admire.
Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP officially, “kippers” to critics) has been rolling like the nascent Labour Party a century ago, which displaced the Liberals and dominated political thought until Thatcher’s time. UKIP is now 21 years old—Labour formed its first government at age 23.
In 2013’s local council elections, kippers finished third. Last May, UKIP became the first party since 1906 to out-poll Labour and the Conservatives nationwide, sweeping the European elections, gaining 24 of Britain’s 73 seats in the rubber-stamp EU legislature.
This October UKIP elected its first member of Parliament and nearly ousted a Labour member in a “safe seat.” In November it’s likely to elect another MP. It’s at 25 percent in national polls—a political tsunami suggesting UKIP may hold the balance of power after the general election next May. Their price if they get it: an immediate referendum on leaving the EU.
Farage insists he isn’t against trade or immigration—he simply wants national control back. “Right now, we have an open door to 485 million Europeans. … Iceland, with 350,000 people, has a free-trade agreement with China. You’re telling me 63 million Brits can’t do that?” He wants more trade with the “Anglosphere”: the U.S., India, and “the Commonwealth we so shamefully deserted.”
Nothing fazes Our Nige, a razor-sharp debater who blasts joyfully at the “ghastly” EU bureaucrats. The 2009 appointment of grey eminence Herman Van Rompuy as “President of Europe” was just so much red meat: Instead of a giant global figure, Farage said, “all we got was you…And I don't want to be rude, but you know, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.”
That earned him one of many fines, which, typically, he laughed off. “If I’m fined another 63 million times I personally will have paid the entire Euro bail-out fund.” A UKIP tea towel with Van Rompuy’s image now proclaims, “genuine Belgian damp rag.”
Now UKIP is surging on a libertarian agenda: lower taxes, an end to limitless debt and extremist environmentalism, drastic reductions in enterprise-stifling regulation, and military actions without a clue what the endgame is: “What have we to show for our support of rebels in Libya, Syria, Egypt?” he asks. “In Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re achieving, let’s be honest, nothing. I’m extremely tired of the UK joining overseas adventures where we never really think what the endgame’s going to be.”
With an understanding of reality American conservatives might emulate, Farage realizes that you can’t win big with a narrow base. He’s purged UKIP of extremist full-mooners, resisted the easy charge of racism. It paid off. UKIP has an Indian-born Brit who says how hard it is to run a small business, and a Caribbean-Brit who sounds like Adam Smith. In the 1980s there were Reagan Democrats; now in Britain there are Labour kippers.
Asked to advise Americans, Farage is careful: “I’m a guest in your country. [But] we both want personal liberty and the responsibility that goes with it. Yet your public finances are no better than the Eurozone’s.”
During the 2012 presidential debates he did suggest what Romney might have said: “Look, Barack is a nice chap, but he’s proved he’s not up to the job. I have been successful in business….I’ve run a company, I’m the man you need…And let me tell you, it’s going to be tough. There’re going to have to be some very big cutbacks in the size of the state. But if you follow me, we’ll get this ship steady again.” One wonders when we’ll hear a Republican campaign like that.
Farage is now a target. The frightened establishment—“they’ve never held a job outside politics; they’re social-democrats, indistinguishable from each other”—is resisting. Recently, charges surfaced of Farage dallying with an attractive staffer—hotly denied by both.