In the May issue of GQ Magazine I wrote a lengthy profile of UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Now that the issue is no longer on sale, I am posting it on the blog...
Being leader of a political party which stands a snowball’s chance in hell of ever achieving real power is not a very rewarding occupation. You need the patience of a saint, the hide of a wildebeest and the tenacity of a Duracell bunny. Luckily for his party, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party possesses all three, and if Oscars were awarded for optimism in the face of adversity, Nigel Farage would sweep the board.
In his two and a half years in the post, Farage has given UKIP a profile they had previously only attained during European election campaigns. He has aggressively courted the media and to some effect. He is the only recognizable face of a political party previously dominated by old fogies but now being dragged kicking and screaming into the new media age. Farage’s personal profile has engendered bitter jealousies from those who believe he is using UKIP for his own ends. His enemies accuse him of personal vanity and far worse. But he is unrepentant. He knows that any modern day politician’s success or failure is largely defined through the prism of the media.
So who is this man who his critics decry as a ‘Little Englander’ and his supporters believe could be the saviour of British sovereignty?
Nigel Farage was born 45 years ago in the village of Downe, near Sevenoaks in Kent, where he still lives. Down is famous as the birthplace of another famous man who rebelled against the conventional wisdom and believed in the survival of the fittest, Charles Darwin. But there, the similarities end. Farage is a chain smoking, hard drinking, pin-striped loving, Fedora wearing father of four with a German wife, and who bears an uncanny likeness to the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.
Farage went to the local prep school and then attended his father’s alma mater Dulwich College. He was in his element there. “I loved the tradition of it all,” he explains. “I couldn’t have been more involved in the life of the school if I had tried.” He was in the Army Cadet Force, the politics society, the cricket club, the rugby club – everything. He loved to challenge what he was taught and delighted in being argumentative, especially with the kind of teachers who he refers to as the ‘Bob Dylan set’. He had far more time for the more traditional schoolmasters who had had a good war and drifted into teaching. “I adored them and responded well to them,” he reflects. “They thought nothing of doing nets with you three nights a week. It was a vocation for them.” But even at school, he was obsessed by the issue of Europe according to his then classmate Nick Owen. “He chuntered on about Europe and everyone thought he was barking mad. He’s still chuntering on about Europe…” Owen recalls that even at school, the young Nigel Farage was into making money. “He ran a shoe shining business. He paid the juniors to clean shoes and then skimmed a commission off the top.”
Farage determined very early on that he did not want to go to university, a decision which caused anguish among his family. “It was the early 1980s. Exchange controls had been abolished. The City was exciting and it was where I wanted to be. It was partly lifestyle and partly because I wanted to earn serious money.” Farage Senior was a successful stockbroker, but Farage Junior decided it was the London Metal Exchange that had more appeal, and it neatly avoided the risk of being permanently in his father’s shadow. “I loved it, I was good at it and was good with clients. I knew within six months it was the lifestyle I would enjoy,” he recalls. His first employer was the aggressive Wall Street investment bank, Drexel Burnham Lambert, which collapsed in 1990. Farage recalls that the company motto was “no guts, no glory”, an epithet which might equally be applied to his own political career.
But at the age of 21, things started to go wrong for Farage. He was seriously injured after being run over by a car and spent four months in hospital. But worse was to come. Less than six months later he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer. “It was an horrendous experience,” he recounts. “There was an overwhelming feeling of it being so unfair. I hadn’t done any of the things I had wanted to do.” After the operation he was told by doctors that the cancer had spread to his stomach and lungs, with the clear implication that there was no hope of recovery. Two days later he had a Cat Scan and was given the all clear. “Those two days were like torture,” he says, his voice riven with emotion. For the next six months he had to go to London Bridge hospital twice a week for blood tests to see if, as he puts it, he was “allowed to leave the building or not.” He describes it as “psychologically worse” than having chemotherapy. But he emerged from the experience with a determination to seize the day, rather than worry about the future. It explains a lot. He’s known as one of life’s bon viveurs and is quite open about his love for – and over indulgence in - good wine and good food. “No one who’s been through what I went through could ever say that it is out of their mind totally. I’m very much a fatalist. Life’s for the living. You’ve got to follow your heart and I won’t pretend that didn’t shape my decision to leave business and enter politics.”
In his late teens Farage joined the local Tory Party but took no active part apart from delivering a few leaflets at election time. But over the course of the next few years Farage fell out of love with the Conservatives, firstly over the Anglo Irish Agreement but later over Europe. His split with the party came over Britain’s entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism in October 1990. “That was the big moment,” he recalls. “I fulminated with rage against the economic idiocy and proceeded to bore everyone to death predicting disaster and gloom.” By chance he then saw a small advert in the London Evening Standard for a meeting held by the Campaign for an Independent Britain. He went along, and the rest is history. Within a year he had become a founding member of the Anti Federalist League which turned into UKIP in 1993. In early 1994 left his job to go self employed and set up his own business Farage Futures. This gave him the time to pursue a political career. He stood in various by-elections, at the 1994 European elections and the 1997 general election, but it was only in 1999 that he succeeded in getting elected to the European Parliament, after the government introduced proportional representation. Three years later, time constraints led to him closing down his business and concentrating on politics full time. Those who knew him well thought it was inevitable he would end up leading UKIP. “It was written in the stars,” says one ally. “Everyone knew Nigel could take the party to the next step; it was a matter of how long it would take the party to realise it.”
And in the autumn of 2006, his chance came when its somewhat charismatically-challenged leader Roger Knapman stood down. After a fairly bitter campaign, Farage emerged triumphant and immediately set out to transform UKIP into a major political force and enhance the fortunes of the Independence & Democracy Group in the European Parliament, which he now chairs.
In his thirty months in office, Farage has attempted to turn UKIP from a ramshackle, rather shambolic operation into an election fighting machine. He has been conscious that the Party has been easy to pigeonhole as predominantly male, old and of the ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ tendency. He’s recruited former EU whistleblower Marta Andreasson to be a candidate and attempted to ensure that some younger and female candidates appear on the ballot papers. Hehas also headhunted a professional campaign manager - ex Tory candidate and Adam Smith Institute policy wonk Kenneth Irvine - for the Euro elections and appointed an aficionado of the political blogosphere, Tim Worstall, as UKIP’s Head of Press. In January they opened a new campaign office in the heart of Westminster and have geared up for a real push with an eight strong campaign team. But the spectre of financial overstretch is constantly present. They face having to pay back a donation of more than £360,000 from Alan Bown, after it was found he wasn’t on the electoral roll. The dispute has been rumbling on for two years and is now awaiting an appeal date. If they do have to pay the money pack, the party faces financial ruin over an oversight not of its own making.
The European Elections on 4 June present Farage with the toughest challenge of his political career yet. In 2004, UKIP achieved a record 16% vote share (beating the LibDems into fourth place) and elected no fewer than 12 MEPs. This time it may be very different. Despite having a much more impressive line-up of candidates than five years ago, UKIP’s performance may well depend on how far they can attract two types of voters – those who wish a plague on all politicians from the three main parties and those Conservatives who feel so strongly about the European issue that they will continue to lend their vote to UKIP in European elections. This is a sizeable group, which continues to view David Cameron’s various Eurosceptic policy initiatives with increasing scepticism. It is this part of the electorate which may determine Nigel Farage’s fate.
Most political pundits think 2004 was a high watermark for UKIP and that they will be lucky to be left with enough MEPs to fill a telephone box in June. If that happens, Farage says he will walk the plank without having to be ordered to do so. “If we win fewer than ten seats, that’s a failure and I will resign,” he says with the refreshing candour which mainstream party politicians find so difficult to emulate. “Quite clearly, if we do badly, then I’ve tried my hardest, and that’s that. It will be time for someone else to do it.” By even talking that way in advance of the elections, a psychoanalyst might draw the conclusion that he’s had enough and may well quit anyway. There’s an air of resignation in his voice when he says, “I have tried to change the party, to modernize it, change the attitude and outlook,” but he knows also that the knives are out for him in his own party come what may. Even if they achieve a higher vote share and more MEPs than they currently have, there are plenty of people within UKIP who would gladly see the back of Farage.
Since he became leader he has been subjected to the most vicious character assassination imaginable. He has had death threats, his staff have been abused and threatened and journalists have received anonymous tipoffs about his drinking habits and alleged eye for the ladies. At times, his life has been made hell. Some of his colleagues are increasingly jealous of his high media profile and accuse him of operating a quasi autocracy and running roughshod over the party. Farage is unrepentant. “Some people have been a big disappointment – people I have given jobs to and when it doesn’t work out they behave badly. You just think, would I behave like that? God, I hope not.”
He readily admits that a good result on June 4th is a prerequisite for him carrying forward his own agenda. “I do need a mandate,” he says. “I will have the impetus to change it further.” But to do that he has a number of enemies to see off, both from within his own party and outside it, not least the British National Party. The BNP has tried, so far with little success, to infiltrate UKIP and take it over from the inside. They have a number of, what Farage calls, “useful idiots” who have adopted the tactics of the old Militant Tendency who tried to take over parts of the Labour Party in the 1980s. However unsuccessful they have been, Farage knows how bad it looks for the letters BNP and UKIP to appear in the same sentence. “The most damaging thing ever written about us was that we were the BNP in blazers,” he concedes, although he believes those days are behind them. When the BNP’s membership list was leaked recently, UKIP analysed it and found only two of their own members on it. The sighs of relief emanating from UKIP HQ were almost audible, but Farage is far from complacent.
“I wouldn’t compare myself to Cameron, but he tried to change the image of his party, to make it more acceptable to a broader range of people, and that’s the journey I’m on.” He cites the recruitment of an increasing number of ethnic minority members as evidence that the party is heading in the right direction. So, no longer the party of “fruitcakes and closet racists”, as David Cameron once memorably described them. “If we are successful in June, we’ll have a new slate of MEPs, they’ll be much younger, with a prominent woman, and we can go out into the media with a new image, without giving the impression that it’s just me doing it,” claims Farage. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of his current colleagues, but he’s a realist.
Since Farage became leader of UKIP in the autumn of 2006, he has tried to turn the party away from being a single issue, anti European Union pressure group and convert it into a normal political party, with a policy on virtually everything. He tasked his deputy, David Campbell-Bannerman, with coming up with populist policies on public service reform. A belief in selective education is possibly the most eye-catching of the policies announced so far, but again, it plays into the perception that UKIP really does represent ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ rather than Mr & Mrs Average whose two kids go to the local comp.
UKIP’s success in June may well be determined by to what extent the electorate wants to punish the two main parties. Traditionally the LibDems have been the main recipient of the so-called ‘dustbin’ vote, but in the 1989 Euro elections it was the Greens who surged forward, with 15% of the vote. Indeed, Nigel Farage himself was a rather unlikely Green voter in that year. “I was still a Tory Party member,” he recalls, “and it was my first rebellion against the Conservative Party.” Election campaigns are all about momentum, the so-called ‘Big Mo’. Last time UKIP had the temporary boost of Robert Kilroy-Silk joining them and giving them a huge amount of extra publicity. “It was a risk worth taking at the time,” says Farage. “I still believe that.” It proved to be a mixed blessing in the end, but it’s difficult to see where that kind of boost will emerge from this time. Farage is relying on Eurosceptic Conservatives to lend him their vote again, but he’s also keen to point out that internet campaigning will recruit new supporters from all over the political spectrum.
“If we do badly in June, and that means curtains for me. It won’t just be UKIP that has a problem. It will be the whole anti EU movement that has a problem.” He believes there is a clear and present danger that UKIP might then indeed be taken over by the authoritarian right, rendering less of a political party and more of a narrow political sect. “It could set us back by over a decade,” he warns. It’s hardly a war cry, but it demonstrates what’s at stake both for him personally and the Eurosceptic movement in general on June 4th.