by Nicolas L. Waddy
Since at least 2014, the most powerful man in the United Kingdom has been someone who holds no noble or royal title, and has never occupied a domestic political office. He is a former commodities broker who took up the cause of reasserting British sovereignty and terminating the country’s membership in the elitist, internationalist, and vaguely socialist European Union. He has earned the unremitting scorn of Britain’s political, cultural, and economic elite in return—and a place in history as the man who upended the two-party system and breathed new life into the world’s oldest and most venerable democracy.
Nigel Farage is the man of the hour in Britain and Europe. Three years ago, he led the successful campaign to convince British voters to embrace “Brexit”: Britain’s departure from the European Union. Believing his work largely done, he retired from political life, only to watch with horror as the British parliamentary elite obfuscated and delayed in the implementation of the people’s will.
Two postponements of Brexit later, Farage took himself out of mothballs and launched the Brexit Party in order to contest the EU parliamentary elections. That was just six weeks ago. And now after last Sunday’s vote, we know that Farage and his Brexit Party were the big winners, taking over 30 percent of the vote and the lion’s share of Britain’s delegation to the European Parliament.
Once again, Britain’s crusty old grandees look to be foundering on the adamantine rock that is Nigel Farage.
Farage beat the establishment in 2014. He beat them again in 2016. Now he has beaten them for a third time in 2019.
It seems incredible, but we have to ask: has the Farage Factor played itself out, or are his mightiest triumphs yet to come?
Consider that by mid-July, Britain will have a new prime minister from the ruling Conservative Party. Thanks to the scare that the Brexit Party just put into the Conservatives, that prime minister likely will be Boris Johnson, i.e. someone who has said he supports Brexit and even reserves the right to take the United Kingdom out of the EU without a deal. That means, in other words, a near total break with the European Union.
Trouble is, while most Conservative voters may support a no-deal Brexit, large numbers of Conservative MPs do not. A Conservative prime minister who was a confirmed Brexiteer, therefore, would face the very real possibility, even the likelihood, that some of his own members would support a no-confidence motion against him. That would produce the fall of the government and a fresh general election.
Anti-Brexit forces seem to hope that a such an election would lead, by hook or by crook, to the cancellation of Brexit. That is indeed one potential outcome.
The other possible outcome, however, is that British politicos have miscalculated once again, underestimating both the British electorate and Nigel Farage. Instead of confirming the domination of establishment, anti-Brexit forces, a general election could lead to a result similar to the one we just saw in the EU parliamentary elections: a fractured contest in which Farage and his Brexiteers command the most votes.
Since Britain’s Parliament is elected in single-member districts, according to a first-past-the-post voting system, the party that gets the most votes generally gets the most MPs. In the recent EU elections, Britain’s two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives, saw their support wither, while the Brexit Party beat its nearest competitor, the Liberal Democrats, by more than 10 points. If that were to happen again in a general election there would be a clear majority in Parliament for the Brexit Party. The leader of the Brexit Party would then become prime minister—none other than Nigel Farage.
There are ways, of course, in which Britain’s current rulers can avoid this sequence of events and can keep Farage far away from 10 Downing Street. The easiest way? Give the British people what they want, and what they voted for in 2016 and 2019: Brexit!
That would mean the establishment would have to swallow its pride and accept the fact that Britain is a sovereign country that can, and should, govern itself. Perhaps they will see reason and make this choice.
The only other alternatives available to the powers-that-be are to co-opt Farage and his Brexiteers via some kind of coalition, or to beat him fair and square at the polls—something that has proven next to impossible up to now.
The smart bet, for those who study and learn from recent history, is that the British ruling class will continue to drift towards self-immolation.
Farage, therefore, had better start thinking of some pleasantries to exchange with the Queen. She may soon be inviting him to Buckingham Palace to offer him the job of prime minister.
A laughable, impossible scenario, you say? That sounds a lot like what people claimed when Donald Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Tower to declare his candidacy in June 2015.
Never say never, especially when history is in flux, as it so clearly is today.
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Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.
Photo “Nigel Farage” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0. Background Photo “Brexit Flags” by ChiralJon. CC BY 2.0.