‘Obsessed with Islam and Tommy Robinson.’ This is how Nigel Farage describes a cohort of Ukip activists he encountered at the party’s Birmingham conference earlier this year. Gerard Batten, the tenth leader of Ukip, has openly courted such elements in his calculated lurch to the farther-right. He has recruited as an adviser Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, better known as Tommy Robinson or St Tommy of the Uncollapsed Trials, the free speech martyr vilified by the establishment purely because he keeps imperilling court proceedings against Pakistani grooming gangs. Batten has called Islam a ‘death cult’ in which ‘they believe in propagating their religion by killing other people and martyring themselves and going and getting their 72 virgins’.
Now Farage has quit the party that he made a household name and took to the pinnacle of its electoral performance. His decision was spurred by a picture of Batten and Yaxley-Lennon in a planning meeting for a pro-Brexit rally this weekend. The Sunday Telegraph reported that one of the other men in the photograph has a conviction for attempted kidnapping. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Farage says: ‘My heart sinks as I reflect on the idea that they may be seen by some as representative of the cause for which I have campaigned for so much of my adult life.’
It must be gut-wrenching to watch a party of decent racists be taken over by unsavoury racists, the sort of people you wouldn’t want to share a pint and some reminiscences about golliwogs with. Ukip has gone from a party for second-hand Jag drivers who even worked with a coloured lad once to the home of statist schemies eager that the ‘rapefugees’ not eat into their share of the benefits pot. Batten may yet be vindicated. Ukip is doing better in the polls of late and may be able to lay claim to ‘Brexit betrayed’ voters and those motivated by right-wing identity politics. Flirting with fascism is no longer grounds for electoral expulsion. The Labour Party broke the cordon sanitaire around anti-Semitism and making common cause with extremists and paid no price for it. The acceptance of radical prejudice in the mainstream has created breathing space for the fringes to expand into more taboo territory. Ukip’s association with the extra-parliamentary right might discomfit Nigel Farage but it might also give them a new life as a nationalist-culturist party along the lines of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally or Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party.
Keenly may we feel Nigel Farage’s anguish at all this for he spent many years dog-whistling prejudices that his successor simply booms out. Farage was a skilled injector of poison. He talked around rather than about race, lamenting how ‘in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable’ and describing a rush-hour train journey from Charing Cross in which ‘it wasn’t until after we got past Grove Park that I could actually hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage’. He did slip up now and then, such as his contention that ‘the basic principle’ of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech was ‘right’ and his assertion last year that ‘the Jewish lobby’ was one of the ‘very powerful lobbies in America’. (Farage is Old Right rather than alt-right and never finessed the pretence of being Zionist and philosemitic as is now de rigeur among European nationalists.)
Whether Farage’s move now is intended to destabilise Batten, allowing him to rejoin and retake the crown, or whether he is eyeing up an opening in the market for a new populist party, he will have to confront the appeal of Tommy Robinson and unvarnished ethnic chauvinism to the kind of voters he is after. Now the Pandora’s Box of ‘identitarianism’ has been sprung open, the forces unleashed are not about to file back into place and behave themselves. If Farage wants to lead Ukip or Newkip, he will need answers to these questions. He once warned us of a ‘breaking point’ and for his brand of politics that moment has come. Farage cannot lead the far-right of tomorrow if he still thinks and talks like yesterday’s man.
Since the foregoing has been uncharitable to Farage, let’s end with one observation in his favour. Whatever his strategic calculations, when the party he loves became too extreme for him, he withdrew his name and his coin. He did not vainly present himself as a saviour battling to rescue its ‘soul’ and nor did he make us endure snot-and-sniffle recollections of what his old dad would have made of it all. He did the only logical thing you can do when an organisation you are a member of democratically and overwhelmingly opts for extremism: he refused to go along with it. Nothing in the conduct of his resignation elevates him from the bar room rabble-rouser that he is but he has underscored the moral cowardice of Labour members and backbenchers. When his party went after Muslims, Farage walked away. When their party went after Jews, Labour MPs went along with it.