First published online by Tim Adams.
A recent psychological study suggested that survivors of shipwrecks and lightning strikes tend, after a short period of post-traumatic stress, to be possessed of an unusually positive outlook on life, with enhanced self-esteem and far lower levels of anxiety than they previously experienced. It is as if their cheating of fate has offered them a powerful surge of joie de vivre, even a slight sense of invincibility. Sitting in the back of Nigel Farage’s Volvo, as we are driven from a long lunch in Tunbridge Wells to a town hall gathering in Windsor, at which the UK Independence party (Ukip) leader is due to speak, I’m struggling to dispute any of those findings.
Farage’s election-afternoon aircraft crash in 2010, from which he memorably emerged doused in petrol, bleeding from a head wound but with his Ukip rosette intact, seems among the most plausible explanations for the apparently irrepressible optimism that has since fuelled his restless crisscrossing of the home counties and beyond, spreading his cheerful gospel of European doom. At one point, musing on this crusade, he talks of the thrill of “Billy Graham moments”, in which suburban doubters are spontaneously converted to the cause; his zeal for all aspects of the mission overflows.
In the car, Farage’s earlier enthusiasm for our pub lunch of local roast lamb, a couple of pints and a bottle of rioja – “I have to say I am enjoying this enormously,” he announced several times as he tucked in – is now matched by the palpable pleasure he seems to take in the passing hedgerows, drenched in summer rain. As we crawl towards the M4 in Friday night traffic in a car driven by his aide-de-camp, Ray Finch, a Liverpudlian former Labour activist and prospective Ukip MP, Farage gestures delightedly toward the landscape. “Have you ever seen England looking quite so green?” he asks, with the kind of ardour that might move younger men to verse. Or: “Look at that! Everything is just growing almost before your eyes!”
Having read Farage’s autobiography, Flying Free, you could begin to believe that the politician has received almost a dangerous dose of the psychologists’ theoretical survival euphoria. He has, after all, walked away from not one act of God, but many; Farage is the insurance broker’s worst nightmare made flesh. His crash was the latest in a series of near-misses that included a spell in intensive care aged 21 after being thrown in the air by a car, only to fall to earth on his head; a battle with cancer a few years later, to which he lost a testicle; not to mention the innumerable scrapes and reversals that have characterised his political career. By the time, in 2006, that he had to rescue the party he had helped to invent – after the ill-fated membership of Robert Kilroy-Silk – by taking emotionally to the conference stage to claim the leadership, he already looked a lot like the last man standing.
As a boy, Farage attended Dulwich College, south London, not far up the road from where we are driving, and he mentions how he was raised on the tales of Ernest Shackleton and PG Wodehouse, both alumni of the school. From the explorer, he seems to have gleaned a rare instinct for self-preservation; from the writer, a keen sense of the absurd, not least in relation to his own life.
You don’t have to spend long in Farage’s company to realise that he possesses that profoundly useful political weapon shared with Boris Johnson: he is unembarrassable. A discussion of the Leveson inquiry – Farage’s phone was inevitably on the list of those apparently hacked – leads him to groan dramatically at some of the headlines that resulted from invasions of his privacy – “They are not good stories – but I was young!” he says, in mock defence. (He denies in particular, the claims made to the News of the World in 2006 by a 25-year-old Latvian woman named Liga who allegedly took him to her home, staggering drunk, from a pub in Biggin Hill where, she claims, they made love seven times after which Farage was “snoring like a horse”.) Having long been accustomed to being the butt of other politicians’ jokes, however, Farage is relishing what may yet become the last laugh. Unlikely as it sounds, the future, he has begun to believe, could well belong to him.
This spring and early summer, as the desperate news from Brussels and Strasbourg escalated, and bailout followed crisis summit followed austerity package, Ukip’s poll ratings have proved as fecund as the inundated English countryside. Some soundings have placed Farage’s party third in the UK, ahead of the Lib Dems, with a projected 13% of the national vote should an election be called. All have given Ukip at least a 6% rating, more than enough to make David Cameron’s Conservatives, from whom they are taking most of their support, unelectable.
In discussing the implications of these figures, Farage, a former commodities trader, wears the look of a man who knows he has cornered the market for good news. The worse the political scenarios are painted in Europe, the stronger his party’s stock grows. In a political circumstance in which all three main parties find ways to resist a promised referendum on Europe, which a majority of the population might arguably demand, his position can only strengthen. As he says, with no particular pleasure: “The current European story can go on a long time, barring a total disaster, because there is still such a will to prop up both the euro and the union. What will kill it in the end, in my view, will be the huge and growing differential between the French and German economies, those at the core of the project. In the end, that will fracture, but it could take years and years of agony for everyone else.”
Farage is astute enough to know that in the meantime he has a chance to seize his political moment. He is, however, also acutely aware of the two main obstacles he faces in that ambition: a sense that his party is a single-issue pressure group (a fact he seeks to challenge by offering a range of policy ideas on everything from defence to education) and, more pressingly, the impression that it looks increasingly a one-man band (which other Ukip candidate can you name?).
This evening’s event, he says, one of more than 1,000 such meetings he has addressed in his time in Ukip, is part of a campaign to overcome those issues. Last night, he had a sparky crowd of 200 in Eastleigh, near Portsmouth (potential by-election territory depending on the fate of Chris Huhne); Monday sees him in a social club in Dudley (where supporting British jobs for British workers will no doubt be a theme).
“It’s like Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour,” I suggest, though arguably Dylan might balk at sharing a bill with ventriloquist Roger De Courcey at Aylesbury rugby club, the scene of one of Farage’s livelier recent outings. “I had no idea it was going to be me and him,” Farage recalls. “But he was amazing. He did a stand-up routine and only then did he produce the bear. The bear gave him licence to say anything. And he did so!”
Even without a stuffed dummy on his knee it would be fair to say that Farage himself is not shy of forthright observation. His conversation is punctuated by occasional broadsides against the media in general and the BBC in particular, which he perceives as institutionally Europhiliac. Social media, and especially YouTube, have proved far more reliable allies in his quest to spread his insurgent message. One aspect of the generally ludicrous rules of debate at the European Parliament is that speeches are restricted to exactly a minute or two of rhetoric, a timeframe perfect for viral video. Farage, who leads a Eurosceptic group of 35 MEPs in Strasbourg, has become a master of the two-minute tirade.
His interventions into the generally anodyne flow of Eurotalk take aim at everything the union stands for and are generally delivered with gusto to a comic backdrop of urbane and disbelieving faces. Farage’s speeches have gained a strong following in countries across the continent where the emperor’s clothes are looking particularly translucent. As Ray points out from the driver’s seat: “No sooner has Nigel sat down after a speech than they are on to me in Slovakia or wherever about the translation.” For a recent dismantling of Spain’s President Rajoy (“the most incompetent leader in all of Europe – and that is saying something”), Farage claims more than 1m YouTube hits in Spain alone. Though my search puts the figure at closer to 250,000, few other MEPs could claim comparable impact.
Farage got into his rhetorical stride in 2004, when he greeted the new Commission by discrediting each of its unelected members in turn. This one a convicted embezzler, that one a former communist apparatchik. Traditionally, such British dissent has brought looks of weary resignation; of late however, as the edifice seems more rickety, and Farage angrily warms to his themes – of an Italian government having to borrow at 7% interest in order to bail out the Spanish government at 3% interest (“You couldn’t make it up!”) – a greater unease has crept in.
Farage explains the prevailing consensus among European politicians as an example of “the natural thing for human beings – to want to be popular with their peers. No one wants the whole class to hate them; it’s just about our biggest fear in childhood and it’s the same with politics”.
What makes him different? “I was never scared particularly of being out on a limb,” he says.
There is something seductive, too, about being a contrarian, particularly, you imagine, when you have grown up as stubbornly conventional as Farage – the son of a stockbroker who followed his father into the City. At one point, inevitably, we discuss his favourite characters from the golden age of sitcoms, a land from which he sometimes seems to have emerged fully formed; “Margo and Jerry [from The Good Life] really were so real, weren’t they?” he suggests. “Dad’s Army works for every generation. And I confess I am an ‘Allo ‘Allo! fan. Can’t beat it really… “
Although Farage is not above making the odd politically incorrect reference to Poles and Greeks, he studiously stops short of being beastly to the Germans, not least, you imagine, because he is married to one, Kirsten Mehr, a former bond dealer. What, I wonder, does his second wife and mother to two of his four children make of his insistence on divorce from Europe? “Well,” he says, “like most Germans she thought it was a good thing for example that East Germany was reintegrated and they looked at their pay packets each month and thought, ‘We are not going to complain too much because these people have been through a rotten time.’ But then just as you have finished that process you are being asked to make the same sacrifices for the people of Greece and Portugal, with whom, to be perfectly honest, you have not much in common at all.”
It would be easy for Farage to make cheap capital from German expansionism, but he tends, to his credit, to resist arguments based on tribal fears. “The German political class are the dominant masters of Europe,” he says, “and I don’t think ordinary Germans want them to be. They have spent 65 years wanting to be liked again and all this is seen to be reversing that process. The Germans have come to this highly reluctantly. It was never a grand plan.”
Farage’s problem is that for all this nuanced analysis, many of his flag-waving supporters are less libertarian optimists than simple Little Englanders. They hear what they want to hear and sometimes he seems to encourage them to do so. In his book, he offers an unapologetic paean to Enoch Powell, one of his political heroes. Questioned about that passage, he suggests that “though Powell was clearly wrong on race, he was right on so many other things”, a distinction he does not make anything like so directly in print. Farage is adamant in his assertion that the “multicultural experiment has failed” but equally so in his belief that “Ukip’s potential with the black vote in this country is huge”.
“In Brixton market they still believe in the Commonwealth, they think there is something of value in the relationship between Jamaica, or wherever, and the UK, and do you know what? I do too!”
If he dances this fine line between nationalism and something more extreme among supporters at home, the difficulties become even more complicated in Europe. “A big danger we face,” he suggests, “is that Euroscepticism across the continent will now move sharply to the left and to the right. So you will have Eurosceptic parties that are also Islamophobic or antisemitic or totally anti-free markets and broadly communist.”
He has to be extremely careful whom he chooses to befriend. “I am enormously friendly with the guy from Finland, Timo Soini [of the True Finns]. But elsewhere,” he admits, “it is not so certain.”
Has he had overtures to align with the Front National in France?
“It’s a good example,” he says. “We have never had any truck at all with the old man [Jean-Marie Le Pen]. We are libertarian, not authoritarian. But then Marine Le Pen comes along, who I think is very different…”
In what way?
“I don’t think she brings any of that stuff with her. She is much more socially liberal. Her father damaged her election campaign enormously… but still, we have no allies in France…”
He has spoken to Marine Le Pen?
“Oh absolutely. I’ve sat down and talked to her to understand who she is. Of course I have. What pleases me, though, is that in the big magazine articles lately about the rise of the far right in Europe, they list all sorts of parties, but they don’t list Ukip. Ten years ago, they tried to. I think that has been a bit of a success for us.”
Is he still conscious of that extreme element in the party? “No,” he says. “It isn’t there. When we started out, we picked up all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. But then if we walked into Tunbridge Wells Conservative Club now and sat down, we would likely find views there far more unpalatable than anything you are likely to hear from our supporters…”
Farage was never a Conservative – “I am much more of a radical economic liberal” – though he was an admirer of Thatcherite policy, if not her “brutal” style. Of late, he has been struck by the emergence of unlikely fellow travellers; Tony Benn has always shared his distrust of the undemocratic fundamentals of the European project, but in recent TV debates Farage has been surprised to find himself apparently in league with the likes of Bob Crow (the rail union leader) and Ken Livingstone. On the issue of Europe, he believes he can attract supporters from across the spectrum, but the thrust of his wider policy – pro-grammar schools, pro-hunting, anti-defence cuts and also anti-war – seems tailor-made for disaffected Tories.
He is sentimental, above all, for the steadfast, mythologised Britain of Keep Calm and Carry On. For several years, he took a group of friends – “Farage’s Foragers” – on bibulous holiday expeditions to the battlefields of France and Belgium. He is already planning a 100th anniversary trip to commemorate the retreat from Mons back to the Marne.
Will they do it on foot?
“No,” he says. “The plan is to drive between nice little country chateaux.”
Farage resists too much deep introspection, but reading between the lines of his memoir you would guess a lot of this military yearning is rooted in a tense relationship with his father, a drinker and president of the local Territorial Army, who left the family home when Farage was five.
Was he ever tempted to join the TA himself?
“Of course I was tempted,” he says. “But I had started in the city, the hours were extremely long, at the time I was still playing quite competitive golf and you just can’t do it all…”
Damaged vertebrae from the crash have put paid to his golf, so his recreation these days centres on sea fishing. The last couple of Sundays, he has gone out late in the evening to favourite beaches between Rye and Dungeness.
What does he think about?
“No thoughts, total and utter fanaticism about catching that fish, and 40 years of doing it.” He applies that kind of mindset, he suggests, to his campaign for a referendum. Can he imagine 20 more years of it?
“No. But I would think in the next four to five years we will either win the big question as far as we are concerned, or we will succeed in realigning a segment of the British political scene.”
An alliance with sceptical Conservatives?
“It’s not completely impossible there will be some SDP-type moment, a coming together of different people over this one issue. Eventually, this question will have to be resolved.”
Somewhere between Chertsey and Runnymede, he gestures outside again. “The wildflowers this year are just astonishing aren’t they? The poppies! Whole fields of crimson! Some of these seeds can stay dormant for 50 years and then they get rain like this and up they come!”
In Windsor, at a hotel opposite the castle, Farage is greeted by an audience of perhaps 150, a surprising number of whom are in their 20s and 30s. At the back of the hall, they are doing a brisk trade in Herman Van Rompuy tea towels in homage to Farage’s infamous YouTube denunciation of the president of Europe as a “man with the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk … and the question we all want to ask is: who are you?” (“Google him and you get me!” Farage says with a snort. “I’ve ruined his life!”)
The role of Roger De Courcey this evening is taken by a dapper young Ukip councillor, Tom Bursnall, who recently caused a stir in Windsor by “crossing the floor” from the local Tories. Bursnall knows his audience and gets them in the mood with a few quips about the European Court of Human Rights and a proposed quota of traveller sites that Brussels wants to impose.
Before you can say Dale Farm, Farage is then into his stride with a speech that mixes comedy with righteous anger and hits all the local hot buttons: wind farms (a nonsense), restrictions on trade (an outrage), cuts in defence (unpatriotic) and dwells on some of the more egregious hypocrisies not only of “Rumpy Pumpy” Van Rompuy and his pals, but also those of David Cameron and his Notting Hill cronies.
Farage, in his element, plays his audience like the angler on the Dungeness beach and eventually reels them in with an unashamed appeal to finest hours and the bonds of Commonwealth. His first question, as if on cue, comes from the secretary of the local Conservative party who, while acknowledging that Farage has just iterated everything in which most Tories believe, wonders why he cannot make his points within the party rather than without. This allows Farage to extemporise on tribalism and the new politics of dissent, to present himself in his favourite role as the rebel in a blazer, before having to bat away further questions about travellers and Dale Farm.
He ends the evening surrounded by his people, signing tea towels, grinning from ear to ear and discussing the coming European meltdown with all the passion of an evangelical preacher. Farage is not naive enough to imagine that he should be preparing for government any time soon, but he has survived enough crash landings to know that out of catastrophe comes opportunity.