Britain had voted to leave the European Union, and Nigel Farage was almost speechless with disbelief.
For nearly 23 years, the founder of Britain’s fringe UK Independence Party (UKIP) had been pushing for a referendum on the country’s EU membership. Now, in June 2016, he had gotten that referendum, and the results were exactly what he’d hoped for. “The dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” Farage told UKIP members early on June 24. “This will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.” They had fought against big politics, multinationals, the world’s banks, and any number of detractors, he said—and they had won.
But within a month, Farage would bow out of helping to make his dream a reality. On July 4, 2016, he stood down as the leader of his party, telling reporters that his “political ambition had been achieved,” and faded from the political landscape. “I was looking for a new career and a new life,” Farage said at a rally earlier this month. “It was me, in America, seeking a new media career, which I was looking forward to until Brexit was denied and so I’m back now in politics.”
This past March, when British prime minister Theresa May failed to deliver either a hard Brexit or support for her deal with the EU, Farage fully emerged from the shadows, after months of occasionally showing up to criticize the endless cycle of discussions, proposals, and failed votes. This time, he had a new party: the populist Brexit party, which had been founded by former UKIP economics spokesperson Catherine Blaiklock a few months earlier. (Blaiklock told talkRadio that as a “nobody,” she would simply be facilitating Farage and “doing the donkey work for him.”) Already, Farage had threatened to “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if May did not trigger an aggressive hard Brexit. Stepping forth with his new party was a declaration of war.
In this weekend’s European elections, the Brexit party was the dominant force among British voters, winning nearly 32% of the vote and 29 seats. Its rival, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, won 16 seats, while Britain’s traditional mainstream parties trailed far behind—Labour with 10 seats and the Conservatives with four.
Farage is already setting up new goal posts: Brexit party dominance in the UK’s next general election. “If we don’t leave on October 31,” he told the Associated Press on May 26, “then the scores you have seen for the Brexit party today will be repeated in a general election—and we are getting ready for it.”
In many ways, the ascent of a new hard-right party in the UK seems to be what Farage was always aiming for. It “gets to the heart of what he wants, which is to create a lasting political force to the right of traditional conservative policy that can, if not necessarily win elections, can do well enough to hold the balance of power and to actually influence the levers of policy,” British political commentator Stephen Bush told Quartz. “This is someone who wants to change not just conservative politics, but to change British politics by giving it the thing we haven’t really had.”
Most European countries do have an established hard-right party—France’s Front National, Italy’s The League, Denmark’s Danish People Party, to name a few. These groups regularly command around 15% of the vote, though some—Switzerland’s Swiss People Party and Austria’s Freedom Party among them—rake in well over 25%. In the past five years, the demise of British far-right parties such as UKIP and the British National Party—over infighting and British disdain for unabashed racism—has left a vacuum in the UK, which the Brexit party may now stand to fill.
While the party’s current platform rests almost entirely on its namesake challenge, Farage’s two autobiographies—2011’s Flying Free and 2015’s The Purple Revolution: The Year That Changed Everything—lay out a broader worldview of what might come into play if the party’s success leads to its asserting itself on a wider range of policies.
Farage would like to see the UK operating more like the US: a federation of individual states, given the opportunity to set their own laws according to the desires of their people. (He opposed Scottish independence, however.) “I want to see county councils and individual communities afforded far more power over their own destinies,” he writes in Flying Free. “So, if hunting people have to head for Leicestershire to hunt and smoking people to Monmouthshire to smoke in bars, or the residents of one county can obtain prescription drugs to which another has given a lower priority, what of it?”
Like US president Donald Trump, Farage also rails against “unnecessary regulations and interference,” and forcefully defends his right to say whatever he chooses (hate speech included). “Freedom of speech and belief is not subject to approval by a transitory authority,” he writes. “It is absolute or it is nothing. Such was and remains my conviction.”
Farage believes in English—rather than British—exceptionalism, and calls for an end to postcolonial cringing over Britain’s imperial history. He complains often of what he considers the homogenizing effect of the EU—an assault on pints of bitter, Morris dancing, and the English way of life. “The flag of St George, once exclusive to skinheads, flutters once more above churches and football-grounds. ‘Jerusalem’ is sung with pride by rugby and cricket-supporters. It is about time,” Farage wrote in Flying Free. “No one can explain to me quite why the English have shied away from asserting one of the greatest and most influential cultures in the world.”
As leader of UKIP, Farage played into fears that Britain was, as OpenDemocracy put it, “no longer what it once was, namely white, homogenous, contained and ordered, and a place of certainty with an implicit social compact between the classes.” Even after three years of Brexit infighting, that proposition remains relevant to a vocal and politically active British minority. The Brexit party may also be the most compelling option for Britain’s hard right, says Stephen Bush; its newness makes it “free from the kind of symbols and totems of explicitly racist parties, like the British National Party.”
In all of this, it’s hard to imagine a bad outcome for Farage. If Britain doesn’t leave the EU, he can continue as he has for the past three decades: a stringent campaigner for a hard exit. Any problems within the UK would simply be the ongoing effects of not having left. If the UK does strike a deal with the EU, Farage can blame any subsequent difficulties on the soft Brexit, which he believes the people did not vote for.
But the October hard Brexit that Farage is pushing for may present the most opportunities. “He will of course be able to have a second life off of that,” says Bush. “Anyone who is not the governing party is going to benefit from the governing party inflicting food shortages. Medicine shortages will be very immediate. All of which he will be able to blame on Brexit not being done properly, and at least some people will be receptive to that message.”