If you know nothing about Nigel Farage, a good place to start would be this video of him telling EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy he has “the charisma of a damp rag,” or this one of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker telling him in no uncertain terms that he will not be missed, to thunderous applause. Who is this man who inspires such hatred? What does he stand for? And how did he get there in the first place?
Nigel Farage is one of the Members of the European Parliament (MEP) for South East England, and until recently, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP)– the key force behind the British Exit from the European Union. These two roles tell two parallel, yet tightly intertwined, tales of the politician.
Farage’s career with the UKIP began in earnest in 1999, when he was among the three members of his party elected to the European Parliament from the United Kingdom. At the time, the UK Independence Party was little more than a nationalist single-issue soapbox, advocating for the the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. When UKIP elected Nigel Farage as its leader in 2006, he set about trying to rebrand the party, and expand its platform. Farage reshaped the party into the right-wing populist movement it is today, driving a low-tax, anti-Europe, and hardline anti-Immigration platform, often crossing the line into racist and xenophobic territory. He brought in a strict disciplinarian ethos to rein in an “amateurish” group of politicians that had been the focus of a half dozen investigations in as many months (though this spectre would never quite leave the party, with MEP Janice Atkinson expelled from UKIP over her chief of staff’s attempts at fraud).
In 2009, Farage stepped down as party leader for a year to focus his energy on a bid for a seat as a British MP. UKIP had grown substantially since 2006, winning a number of local-government positions, and Nigel saw the chance to pivot his attention back from the Continent. He was a man who only wanted to be back in London, to foment for a British Exit from Westminster, who saw no bully pulpit in Strasbourg; a man who tried, and fell short, often: Eastleigh in 1994, Salisbury in 1997, Bexhill & Battle in 2001, Thanet South in 2005, Bromley and Chislehurst in 2006, Buckingham in 2010, and Thanet South again in 2015. Nigel, and his growing, but still-small UKIP, were penned in by the UK’s first-past-the-post Parliamentary elections. Even today, UKIP struggles to get a party member in Westminster; today they have only four members in Parliament, three of whom are lifetime peers in the House of Lords.
Farage’s UKIP has always fared better in the UK’s European Parliament elections, with a system of proportional representation, allowing UKIP to build a sizable coalition of MEPs with electoral percentages that could never compete for an outright plurality. Today, Farage leads 22 UKIP MEPs in Strasbourg, all advocating against the very institution they speak in.
22 MEPs, though a sizable contingent of the British delegation, can only ever have a limited impact in the EU’s 751-member parliament. Nigel Farage, however, as managed to cobble together a number of like-minded parties from other European countries, most notably Italy’s anti-Euro Five Star Movement, into the fragile Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD). This grouping gives the members greater access to committees, millions of Euros of funding, and puts Farage on the Conference of Presidents, a group of the other party heads and power brokers in the EU Parliament. His spot as co-president of this group, and his driving support of Euroskepticism, led to Politico ranking him as #5 on their list “The 40 MEPs Who Actually Matter.”
The remarkable thing is how Farage cements this ranking. He does not write resolutions or fine-tune treaties, he has submitted two written declarations in the past decade and a half. Beyond the Conference of Presidents and a few stints on the Committee on International Trade, he has mainly served on the Committee on Fisheries. In fact, he barely votes, participating in only 38.5% of roll-call votes, 746th out of 751. What Farage does, however, is speak. He has spoken hundreds of times in front of the European Parliament, often derailing debate, always fighting against the Union.
But now Farage is retiring from the leadership of the UKIP,2 and once the UK initiates its Article 50 withdrawal from the European Union, he will be out of a job in Strasbourg. He leaves having played his part in separating the UK from Europe, his work’s ambition complete. Yet the same discord and instability that has settled onto Europe has also gripped the people and parties he leaves behind. Without his leadership, and Britain’s UKIP politicians, Farage’s EFDD Group will be gutted, the loose Europhobes left in the European Parliament likely picked up by Marine Le Pen’s authoritarian Europe of Nations and Freedom, and the center-right Europe of Conservatives and Reformists will crumble once the Tory MEPs head back to Britain. On the home front, he leaves Diane James the monumental task of holding together the decaying party, splintered by public infighting. Even his own aide has sounded the horn of the mass exodus of UKIP voters to the Conservative party. He leaves with no clear indication of what he plans to do next, other than a promise: “From now on I am really going to speak my mind.”
In many ways, this is the fitting end, if not the epilogue, for this figure. As much a man of this political moment as Donald Trump or Geert Wilders, Farage can also find himself in the long line of politicians that tried, and often succeeded, in tearing down the institutions that surrounded them. He leaves behind him wide swath of rubble, with no plantings for the future. The anger and nativism that he tapped into is waiting to fill the void, and knowing what he said when he apparently was not speaking his mind, it will find a ready accomplice in Nigel Farage.