Whether you agree with him or not there are good reasons for recognising that Nigel Farage has been the most effective politician of his generation. The organisers of the official Vote Leave campaign might quibble about his constant billing – not least in the US – as ‘Mr Brexit’ but it’s undeniable that for more than two decades Farage fought single-mindedly and, at times, almost single-handedly to achieve his one political objective: to get Britain out of the European Union.
The party which he helped form, lead and grow – the UK Independence Party – was the vehicle by which he pushed that policy. By exerting political pressure at the polls – in EU elections (where UKIP grew to become Britain’s largest political bloc) and at general elections – UKIP forced David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership if he succeeded in returning to Downing Street at the 2015 election. Which of course he did, with results which everybody now knows, albeit they would have seemed fantastical had anyone predicted them at the time (a fact that should make all pundits ponder).
Of all the striking things about Farage’s political career the most striking is that single-mindedness, which his detractors would describe as a monomania. Other issues came and went – issues of foreign policy as well as domestic policy – and although Farage could be called upon to comment on them he never paid any particular focus on any of them. Even the subjects of immigration and domestic extremism were never headline issues for him. He spoke about them and occasionally announced policies regarding them – but only in so far as they related to the EU. He had little or no desire to crusade on any issue other than his principal one. Any muddying of the message was averted, professionally and with remarkable effectiveness. All of which of course leaves his party with a great question hanging over it. With Britain now committed to leaving the EU, what is the point of UKIP?
The party has had a difficult year, with two leaders already in the last twelve months but with the party’s new leader announced today, after what has an unusually bitter leadership battle (even by UKIP’s own standards), the party’s options are essentially two-fold. It could become the party which acts as the guardian – not to say bulldog – of Brexit. It could continue to exist – however low its electoral fortunes may be at times – in order to threaten the British government of the day over any reneging on the promise to fulfil the will of the British people.
Or, having succeeded in its primary purpose (its reason for existence indeed) UKIP could find itself the guardian or champion of some other great purpose. This is where the latest UKIP leadership election has proved unusually electrifying. Anne Marie Waters, who has become the bookie’s favourite to take the leadership, believes that this should be the clear aim of UKIP. She sees the issues of mass migration, terrorism and threats to social cohesion caused by these and wishes UKIP to take up these causes.
Despite having suffered a slew of articles and character-assassinations describing her as ‘far-right’ and even ‘racist’ there is good evidence for Waters being more in tune with public opinion than her detractors might like to think. Poll after poll has for decades shown that the British people want less immigration. And multiple opinion polls have shown that the views of the British public on related issues are far outside the Overton window that exists in Westminster. For instance a poll published by Chatham House in February found that 47% of the British public agreed with the statement “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped”. If Anne Marie Waters is far-right for stating her points then at least half the British people must also be categorised as far-right.
Nevertheless, the question of whether another effectively one-issue party could have any electoral success is another matter. Waters, in tune with other UKIP leadership contenders, has laid out policies on a range of issues. But it is only in breaking the political consensus and existing taboos on issues to do with migration and Islam that UKIP could be said to have anything distinctive to offer.
And whoever pursues such a course, UKIP will still encounter two other huge hurdles. The first is obviously the UK’s electoral system which at the 2015 election rewarded almost four million UKIP voters with only a single Parliamentary seat. It is far from clear how UKIP could surpass that 2015 vote haul or how they could hope to influence the other political parties (as they did over the matter of the EU) without providing a similarly clear electoral danger to at least one of the major political parties.
Beyond that there is the challenge that even parties running on issues that Waters and other UKIP figures would like to run on, in countries with more responsive electoral systems – such as Geert Wilder’s PVV in Holland – have found it hard to find a route to power. Their success should not be minimised. Despite underperforming in the elections earlier this year, Wilders does now control the second largest party in the Dutch Parliament. Nevertheless, for the time-being, such one-issue parties are finding it hard to get beyond second place.
All of this could change. No country in Western Europe is ever more than a couple of major terrorist attacks away from a political earthquake. It is certainly possible that however much fire they will have to walk through in the meantime, any even vaguely credible party which has warned about such issues could be rewarded by the electorate at some point. Last Sunday’s elections in Germany saw a party that was only formed four years ago – the AfD – come third in the polls precisely because it was willing to address these previously un-addressable issues.
There will be people who will hope that these areas of public concern remain unaddressed, or at least unrepresented in the UK. And it may be that they get their way. Or it may be that just as a group of German economists began a political earthquake by coalescing around their opposition to the Euro four years ago, so the remains of a party set up to oppose the EU turns into a party capable of causing a second major political shift in Britain – whether they ever make it anywhere near the political inside or not.
It’s not impossible. After all, Jeremy Corbyn now leads the Labour party.