I never really liked Nigel Farage. He seemed like a guy I’d dislike if I met him in person. But as leader of UKIP, I believed that he believed what he said about sovereignty and about democracy. I didn’t see this evil being that the political left portrayed him as – instead I saw this man who was standing up to politicians who were obviously not listening to their voters because of a first-past-the-post system that doesn’t reflect the people’s views.
The word “politician” is almost synonymous with “dishonest”. You need only say “She’s a politician” to convey much more than that simple job title. You imagine a person in a suit, tolerating the plebeians when having to speak to those who would vote for them. You imagine Gordon Brown muttering about a bigoted woman. If you think of a politician you imagine an identikit person who looks like Al Gore, Tony Blair, and Adrian Pasdar in Heroes.
Unfortunately, politicians too often accept the role they are given as someone to be entrapped by an interviewer. They learn, through trial and error perhaps – or perhaps through media training – that if they say what they think, a media circus will ensue and that they will lose votes.
Nigel Farage and Donald Trump showed politicians that that was incorrect. It is easy, with hindsight, to put those two names in one sentence. UKIP had issues with racist membership, as do all parties. The Conservatives have had to disavow candidates, as have the UK’s Labour Party. Labour promoted someone many would describe as anti-Semitic to party leadership. I am wary of being too quick to describe someone as anti-Semitic because in some circles describing Israel as apartheid can be considered anti-Semitic even if the person doing it is a science-loving, liberal humanist.
I supported Brexit in 2016. I, like many I am sure, looked at New Zealand’s agricultural subsidies (or lack thereof) and remembered the EU’s butter mountains, remembered that France will veto any reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. New Zealand lamb and butter can be transported around the world for less than EU farmers can produce it locally. If New Zealand can do it cheaper without subsidies, maybe Europeans could do that too? But because the EU included 27 democracies, there was no way to separate the electoral wishes of one country from another. There was no way for a Briton to vote to get change made at an EU level.
This frustration, which I probably should write a whole thesis on, rather than a single throw-away paragraph, explains why British voters voted for Brexit, in my opinion. It wasn’t a racist fear of foreigners and it wasn’t because of freedom of movement. It was because the EU is insufficiently singular in its structure: It allows a minority of voters to frustrate the will of the majority. It is exactly the frustration that Americans have with their system where the only real changes to laws come from Supreme Court rulings (e.g. gay marriage, abortion rights). Why on Earth would Briton’s vote for that?
The obvious reasons that EU membership are beneficial, of course, are trade and stability. Stability has been achieved for Western European countries through trade and through being mature democracies. The EU describes itself as a source of peace, but I would argue that is post hoc ergo propter hoc. It definitely has not hurt peace in Europe – freedom of movement made Gibraltar and Spain, and France and Germany, much less at odds – but I would argue that it did not cause the peace. More important, though, it definitely didn’t hurt peace and the inconceivable nature of a European war that did not involve Russia or another non-EU state is testament to this strength of the EU.
Free trade is better than restricted trade
Economics should not be dismissed – we know that free trade is better than trade barriers. Restricting international trade increases the cost of raw materials and reduces the common interests of vying nations. But from a 2016 perspective, there was no reason for British voters to imagine that an exit vote would lead to restricted trade. Trade barriers have been getting less onerous over the long-term, and there is no reason to imagine that the remaining EU countries would want to be unkind to their former member. Britain was a stone in the shoe of ever closer union and so they should have been grateful to be rid of their most irritating of members. With the UK outside of the Union, and with frictionless trade between the two economies, everyone would be skipping, holding hands, and throwing flowers.
This isn’t how it worked out, but that’s 20-20 hindsight.
But Nigel Farage.
After the election of Donald Trump, and after Brexit, Nigel Farage publicly supported Donald Trump. Donald Trump who, though relaxed and friendly in many videos, promoted Supreme Court Justices who have failed to stop partisan gerrymandering, are likely to gut protections for women’s reproductive healthcare, banned transgender people from the military, arguably tear gassed peaceful protestors for a photo opportunity, and incited an insurrection when he didn’t win a second consecutive term in a free and fair election. It’s easy, when seeing him be a human, to forget that he ignores truth, science, and justice whenever it suits him. Is he candid much of the time? Yes. Is that what voters want? Yes. Is he a good person? No.
Trump is a human being in his presentation, but a terrible, heartless, stupid, and bigoted person in reality. Didn’t we want to get away from politicians who presented themselves one way, but then acted another? Well, in Trump (and Britain’s Boris Johnson) we have in one way. There’s no spin, there’s no political expertise, just get-what-you-see buffoonery. Boris Johnson is supremely intelligent, but his ability to manage a country have been shown severely wanting since his election. The political left can and should learn from this ‘authentic’ presentation, because Biden, Keir Starmer, and (to a lesser extent) Ed Davey are all terrible showmen, even while they are infinitely better people ethically.
I was misled by Nigel Farage. I thought he was a person who I agreed with in limited senses, but who wasn’t willing to play the political and media game that so many other politicians learn, and which then makes them unknowable to their voters.
Instead, Nigel Farage supported a racist, economically illiterate, homophobic, misogynist without so much as a blush. Some in the media seemed to know this in advance but didn’t put it in so many words. Articles like the following made him seem like a genuinely reasonable person, albeit not someone with whom I would agree politically:
Though he was never a particularly good classical liberal (despite the first link above – he opposed gay marriage, for example), he didn’t seem hard right. Now the media is willing to say what it didn’t say before. Now he is “hard right”. Where was this in 2013 when the left-wing Guardian was fawning all over him? How are voters supposed to know what someone is really like if even the unpolished “say it as it is” politicians are not faithfully portrayed?
Personally, I am heartbroken I ever leant UKIP my vote, even if I still think the EU is the worst of both worlds: It is a federal country (except it does not describe itself as a country) which fails to fully center power in the electoral processes that would lead to a Head of State and a truly powerful parliament. I would happily join an EU which was a super-country – a democracy like France or Britain, with an elected executive etc. But I think the ability of conservatives (with a small ‘c’) to frustrate progress in both the USA and the EU is part of the problem of these supranational organizations. Change is hard for some people, and without change – as the Greeks learned from the Egyptians – civilizations stagnate.
The EU is, in my opinion, a great mechanism to frustrate change, as is the USA’s federal structure. Farage was the mouthpiece that made independence from the EU possible. But those on the Left (where I truly feel like I belong – see below) think that any vote for Brexit was a vote against progress and a vote for the extreme-right.
What do you think? Is there room for nuance here? To see the Brexit vote as a liberal decision with negative consequences, instead of part of the Trumpian trend of populism? Or do you think Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and Russian interference won hearts over minds?
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