There’s something about Nigel

For Britain’s political and media classes, UKIP’s Nigel Farage is beyond the pale.

Wilful incomprehension. It was palpable in Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s attitude towards UKIP’s Nigel Farage during their head-to-head TV debate last week. And it has been palpable in the political and media reaction to Farage’s performance. Assorted establishment politicians and pundits just don’t know what to do with Nigel. They seem determined to find him and, more importantly, his arguments irrational. As they seem desperate to see it, Farage is mad, bad and dangerous to vote for.

In the debate itself, Clegg seemed to be under instructions to present himself as the man with the facts – and Farage, therefore, as the man with the fantasies and foibles. ‘We owe it to you [the audience], we owe it to everyone, to ensure that these debates are at least based on facts’, he intoned at one point. At other points, Clegg just acted weary, as if everything Farage said was straight out of Alice in Wonderland. ‘Let’s look at the facts’, he would say.

This attempt to bash Farage into the ground with ‘the facts’, to present him as borderline delusional, as beyond the political pale, continued after the debate. And the principal point of departure for Farage-bashing has been his arguments about the EU’s role in the disintegration of Ukraine, and his comments about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Right at the end of last Wednesday’s head-to-head, Farage said that the British government and the EU had played a ‘shameful’ role in fomenting the crisis in Ukraine. ‘We have given a false series of hopes to a group of people in the western Ukraine and so geed up were they that they actually toppled their own elected leader’, said Farage. ‘That provoked Putin and I think the European Union, frankly, does have blood on its hands in the Ukraine.’

Farage’s argument is perfectly legitimate. Assorted Western politicians, with the EU to the fore, explicitly expressed support for the anti-government protesters. They vocally endorsed what the protesters were doing and, in many cases, visited Maidan Square in Kiev to show their solidarity with those seeking to bring down Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovich. In doing so, Western politicians, cheered on by Russia-baiting commentators at home, helped to destabilise Ukraine, and authorise the overthrowing of Yanukovich. And all too predictably, Putin was forced to respond to what was effectively a threat on Russia’s border.

But Farage’s political-class critics didn’t take this argument on its own terms. They didn’t respond to the anti-interventionist logic (rather than pro-Putin sentiment) at work in Farage’s rather bombastic assertion. Instead, they acted as if he had said something that was as offensive as it was nonsensical.

Clegg claimed he was ‘shocked’ by Farage’s argument. Paddy Ashdown, a former Lib Dem leader, said Farage’s words were ‘extremely dangerous’. And Tory minister Andrew Lansley demanded that Farage withdraw his comments. ‘I think it’s outrageous that UKIP should be behaving as apologists for President Putin.’

But Farage refused to back down or withdraw his comments. In fact, in an interview in men’s mag GQ, in which Farage expressed admiration for Putin’s stance opposing intervention in Syria, he added fuel to the fire being lit under him by merely expressing his views more forcefully. Speaking at another public event, Farage explained: ‘One of the things Putin said [about intervening in Syria] did actually change the debate in this country… I did make it perfectly clear… I said I don’t like him, I wouldn’t trust him and I wouldn’t want to live in his country, but compared with the kids who run foreign policy in this country, I’ve more respect for him than our lot.’

Cue yet more ‘how very dare you’ outrage. Clegg denounced Farage as an ‘extremist’ and a New Statesman columnist accused him of being ‘full of hot air and poisonous gases’. At The Times, one columnist did at least try to explain why Farage had said what he said – alcohol. ‘A recent newspaper profile of a weekday lunch with Mr Farage was an alcoholic drama in three acts’, he wrote: ‘[F]irst he sank several pints, then a whole bottle of red wine and then two large brandies. The detailed goings-on of a faraway land [such as Ukraine] of which we know little must sometimes seem a bit blurry to a small man with a large thirst.’

That’s how the political establishment and their journalistic hangers-on are determined to paint Farage – as extremist, delusional and probably a little sozzled. What he is not is a serious, grown-up politician, pursuing a political programme based on facts, facts, facts – like Clegg, or Labour’s Ed Miliband, or the Conservatives’ David Cameron. Rather, as one commentator puts it, Farage is a dangerous ‘political clown’, drawing on Putin’s insidious brand of populism by railing against a socially liberal metropolitan elite, with all their money and their progressiveness, from the uncomfortable position of the disenfranchised and estranged many. ‘In the Cold War, the Lib Dems’ accusation that Farage was “taking his talking points straight from the Kremlin” would have been a body blow’, he writes. ‘Now, it seems, to be a Kremlin fifth columnist is a political badge of honour.’ Er, right.

This refusal to take Farage and his arguments on their own terms, with too many preferring to demonise and to ridicule, is telling. It shows that too many members of the UK’s political class are unwilling to step out of their Westminster comfort zone. They’d much rather just refuse him entry to their world, rather than respond to the questions his relative popularity asks of them. Yes, Farage may at last have been allowed to share a stage with a senior member of Her Majesty’s Government, but, with his arguments and positions eagerly dismissed as mad, bad nonsense, he was still effectively being No Platformed. You are here, but you are not part of the debate, he is being told. It seems that a proper political engagement with Farage, and all of that popular resentment and estrangement that he embodies so well, from his fags-and-beer liberalism to his anti-cosmopolitanism, is still to come.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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