The most striking thing about Farage’s reinvention of the Brexit Party as an anti-lockdown movement is the proposed new name: Reform UK. Hinting slyly at both progress and a return to older and better things, it’s a formula that captures a deep paradox at the heart of Farage’s coalition.
It’s a notable feature of modern conservatives that their views often unreflectingly embrace core progressive assumptions that conservatism might be imagined to oppose. As our erstwhile Tory Chancellor George Osborne put it: “Change in a progressive country is constant and there’s no point in resisting it”. This belief is so widespread it’s nigh-on invisible: change and progress are unavoidable and generally good, and humans can and must move forward. The only topic of debate is what constitutes the best way to make progress.
Even for conservatives, anything that disturbs these positive connotations of change must be discarded. This seems to be the case even for the Brexit Party, which drew supporters heavily from groups that appeared to have been ‘left behind’ by the ineluctable progress (as embodied in the EU, among other things) celebrated by George Osborne.
So while many Brexit Party supporters may yearn less for reform than the kind of political reaction embodied by Tory-turned-Brexit-Party-leader Ann Widdecombe, it’s near impossible to imagine Nigel Farage calling his party ‘Reaction UK’. Because in this contemporary framing, ‘reactionary’ just means ‘bad’.
This tension between the reactionary longings of Farage’s base, and a universally progressive elite value-system, creates a conflict of interest that’s dogged Farage and Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice since the Brexit days. Farage’s campaign united ‘Global Britain’ Brexiters, who sought limited regulation and more international trade, with the ‘Little England’ Brexiters who wanted (far more protectionist) pre-Thatcherite Britain back.
The choice of ‘Reform’ reveals him still riding this reactionary populism while keeping the door ajar for ‘progress’ in the form of Right-libertarianism. For we see the same unstable alliance of reaction and Right-libertarianism in the anti-lockdown movement. On the one hand, here are cultural conservatives horrified at the harm anti-coronavirus policy is inflicting on the organic structures of society such as congregations, families and small businesses. They’re joined by libertarians appalled at the state imposing curtailing individual liberty and sidelining personal responsibility, in the name of ‘safety’.
It was clear even during the Brexit Wars that ‘Global Britain’ would eventually come into conflict with ‘Little England’. These (chlorinated) chickens are now, gradually, coming home to roost as the detail of our divorce from the EU gets hammered out. But the same paradox is at work in the anti-lockdown coalition of cultural conservatives and Right-libertarians.
For now, the pursuit of ever greater freedom remains yoked to those who would see a re-imposition of order and limits, within the vague term ‘Reform’. But take away the Faragist bogeyman of a ‘LibLabCon establishment’ dedicated to enforcing its liberal vision of progress, and things may change.
Should Farage’s new venture gain any kind of wider traction, the fragile Reform coalition between reactionary and Right-libertarian factions may yet become a conflagration.