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Black Sky Thinking

UKIP's Bizarre Howl & Why 'Peak Farage' Is A Long Way Off
Phil Harrison , May 13th, 2014 07:10

Phil Harrison looks at the insatiable appetite for the UKIP leader, despite his party's incoherent policies, and discusses his dangerous appeal to the public

Earlier this year Ed Miliband proclaimed himself "not very interested" in Nigel Farage. It was probably meant to be gently dismissive, but now that quote sounds both patronising and complacent. The media and the electorate, after all, were becoming very interested indeed. Presumably Miliband is interested now because indifference is no longer an option. Have we reached Peak Farage yet? We wish. From now until the General Election at least, this isn't going to stop. So allow your heart to sink for a moment, gather yourself and we'll try and move forward. How did we come to this?

Nigel Farage's relationship with the media is peculiar, fascinating and instructive. The media doesn't know what to do with him and that's both self-evident and part of his appeal. He represents a longing for old certainties; when Britain's isolation was stubbornly glorious, when you could drive home after a couple of lunchtime sharpeners, when Twitter and Tumblr and Michael Crick couldn't make or break a politician's career. As such, he and his cohorts are allowed to stumble slightly when faced with baffling, prissy, nimble modernity. In fact, that apparent lack of slickness might even be part of the nostalgia trip.   

But ultimately, the media is a problem for Farage too. He's not quite sure what to do about them either. For how much longer can Farage complain about smear tactics before sounding like a maverick outlier who's becoming petulantly annoyed about finally being taken seriously? To what extent can he afford to play the game without losing his USP and becoming simply the leader of another tribe of pigs with their snouts in the trough?

It's possible to glimpse these contradictions every time Farage or one of his merry band appear on television. How they manage this tension may well be the key to the forthcoming political year.

Witness UKIP's Communities Spokesman Suzanne Evans's recent Question Time appearance. As long as you didn't think too hard about what she was actually saying, she seemed the soul of reason. But that isn't what the supporters want, is it? UKIP is essentially a tantrum; a bizarre howl of pain from the over-entitled who - despite manifold generational and circumstantial advantages - fear they aren't getting what they deserve. UKIP's underlying irrationality is the basis of its success and that means it's taking a huge risk by playing the game - if its representatives start eschewing and decrying the racism, the homophobia, the misogyny, the general madness underpinning their party, they'll be just like everyone else. And what good is that? Evans on Question Time could easily have passed for a mildly off-message Tory. Is that enough for the rabid hardliners?

Farage himself can just about straddle these contradictions because paradox and inconsistency is his essence. He takes pride in being an old-school throwback; a politician from before the post-ideological, managerial, media-savvy age. He quite consciously evokes someone like John Gouriet - one of those abrasively militant, edge-walking 1970s Tories who reacted to industrial strife and the apparently looming Red Menace by plotting the breaking of strikes and the formation of private militias during grouse shooting trips in the Highlands. But actually, in many ways, he's supremely modern. Because what is Nigel Farage if not a triumph of style over substance? Say what you like about him but he has the gift of the gab and is supremely comfortable with TV's various political formats. John Gouriet by way of Peter Mandelson? A heady, slightly terrifying brew.

But Mandelson loved and understood the media and that was his secret. He was essentially part of it. Farage's relationship is more ambivalent. At the launch of UKIP's European election campaign, standing proudly in front of one of those ugly anti-immigration buses, Farage declared his intention to "ruffle a few feathers among the chattering classes". This innocuous statement goes right to the heart of Faragism; both its appeal and its fatal flaw. What a bewilderingly pointless aim for a man apparently intent on creating a political earthquake. But also, what an unequivocally modern and tellingly frivolous one.

Who are these ‘chattering classes'? The London media set, obviously. A self-appointed confederacy of political and cultural tastemakers. And what would Nigel Farage do without them? He needs these people to listen to him, just as he needs his supporters to hate and distrust them. It's simultaneously a mutually abusive and mutually beneficial relationship. Because without them he'd fade away into nothingness. For now, the Westminster village media types adore Farage, presumably because he's disrupted the three-party tedium. On The One O'Clock News in early May, the BBC's Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith positively glowed while describing having a couple of pints with Farage and hearing all the gossip. But that can't last. At present, Farage and the media are engaged in a carefully calibrated pas de deux of suspicion and need. But it's a precarious arrangement, and already Farage's edges are fraying. Furthermore, if UKIP's current upward trajectory continues, sooner or later the likes of Smith are going to have to start dealing with the other ones. The ones who think that women are to blame for rape, Lenny Henry should go back to Africa and gay people cause floods in the West Country.

Still, for the wide but shallow support (or ‘fanbase' as - since they've fallen in love with Farage not his party or policies - they're probably better characterised) this kind of wanton offensiveness remains a fundamental part of the offer. The UKIP phenomenon is of a piece with a wider culture war; a railing against ‘political correctness' which has been bubbling under for years. It's worth considering another emblematic recent incident which has seen Jeremy Clarkson lumbering into the zeitgeist. Like an idiot who's finally got the rest of his village onside, Clarkson has discovered that actually, in these craven, cowardly times, it's ok to use offensive racial epithets on prime time national TV. Would the BBC's response have been so supine but for the widespread stamping of male, white, Middle English feet that Farage has so powerfully orchestrated? If not, shame on them. Actually, shame on them anyhow. But it's indicative of the extent to which Farage is currently making the weather.

Indeed, for all of his rather theatrical persecution complex, the one major examination of Farage that's made it to our screens recently could hardly have been more sympathetic. Channel 4's documentary Nigel Farage: Who Are You? was the handiwork of the reliably preposterous Martin Durkin - a man with a history of making pointlessly tendentious documentaries which have variously advocated the health benefits of breast implants, railed against environmentalism and suggested using the financial crisis as an opportunity to lower taxes and miniaturise the public sector into near-invisibility. Believe it or not, Durkin and Farage got on famously. Ultimately, the film felt like a self-reflexive attempt on C4's part to be anything but the metropolitan media of Farage's nightmares - to play devil's advocate while playing the game; to have their cake, eat it, shit it out, smear the resulting excrement all over the front room in a spectacular but self-defeating dirty protest and pretend that was the point all along. A bizarre business, all told. But Nigel Farage can clearly do funny things to people, and this documentary was yet another manifestation of the confusion and unease he's engendered.

So where does this all leave us? The Clegg/Farage debates weren't exactly Frost/Nixon. But they were Farage-in-excelsis and accordingly, maybe the quintessential political events of the year to date. Because they were shrewd but empty stunts masquerading as pieces of meaningful dialogue. They prided themselves on authenticity. They looked like debates and sounded like debates. But really, they weren't anything of the sort. The combatants cruised on parallel lines, gliding almost frictionlessly alongside one another in their peculiar tryst of desperate interdependence. Did Farage win? That was beside the point. The debates were sound and fury, signifying nothing - a political version of the Blur and Oasis spat; the kind of events that can momentarily seem epochal but which generate more heat than light and are almost instantly forgotten. In the aftermath of these less-than-imposing verbal jousts, it's tempting to imagine that this isn't going to last. Surely sooner or later, someone's going to seriously interrogate UKIP's actual policy; the nuts-and-bolts realities about withdrawal from the EU, their malign intentions towards the NHS, their absurd ideas about taxation? But for the time being, don't bet on it.  

Farage has been on Question Time fifteen times in the last five years which, even he must surely admit, is a remarkable degree of representation for the leader of a party with no MPs. He was on again on May 8th and his blaring foghorn of a voice framed the whole debate. Once again, the battle was fought on his terms with the first forty minutes devoted entirely to the single question of Britain's membership of the EU. He's riding a wave of anger and being allowed to use that anger as a means of sidestepping all serious analysis. While the other panellists looked rattled, Farage was in clover. Whenever someone tried to drift towards UKIP specificities on any other issue, Farage simply shouted over the top of them. And, because that's what most British people feel like doing at the moment; to politicians, to broadcasters, to everyone who serves them up timidity, hypocrisy and failure, superficially it played out well for him. Nigel Farage is proving that voters and broadcasters alike sway easily in stormy weather. Whether Ed Miliband takes him seriously or not, we're in this for the long haul.