The Gaurdian- “It looks like remain have won,” Nigel Farage said as the polls closed on 23 June. To concede defeat on the brink of victory was one of the outgoing Ukip leader’s more erratic actions. Another was the decision to stand down over the party’s weak showing in the 2015 general election and then, days later, retract the resignation. The implication was that Ukip could not survive without Mr Farage but also that Mr Farage could not imagine life after Ukip.
He must be glad that he waited another year before quitting again. He now leaves bathed in the glory of a referendum result that he strived for years to achieve, while washing his hands of responsibility for the consequences. He gets invited to appear as the exotic support act at a Donald Trump rally. But he does not have to resolve the question of Ukip’s purpose now that its best-known mission has been accomplished. That task falls to his successor, elected over a two-week period beginning on 1 September.
Nevertheless, the need to ponder the party’s place in post-referendum Britain has not been a feature of the Ukip contest so far. Petty factional bickering has instead been the dominant motif. The victor seems likely to be either Diane James, currently an MEP, or Lisa Duffy, a Cambridgeshire councillor. In policy terms, their pronouncements have been unremarkably Faragist. James praises Vladimir Putin; Duffy decries intrusions of Islamic faith into public space.
Whatever the outcome of the contest, the trajectory of Ukip is towards more aggressive fomenting of rage, paranoia and xenophobia. The practicalities of Brexit will demand some compromise by the government, against which Ukip will rail. Yet even a thorough severing of relations with the continent will not end migration from overseas, reverse demographic change established over decades or transform economic opportunities for people currently without the qualifications or skills to find security in a competitive labour market.
So the economic and cultural drivers of Ukip support will not be removed by any form of Brexit, while the proxy of blaming everything on Brussels will be less available. So new scapegoats will be found. A narrative of Brexit betrayal will take hold. And Euroscepticism is likely to congeal into more pungent nationalism. How far that project can go depends in part on the skill of the leader. At the top of his game, Mr Farage had a knack for packaging poisonous messages in media-friendly banality. He was dangerous because he knew how to push incrementally at the boundaries of tolerable discourse, smuggling far-right idiom into the mainstream. He was also lucky to have David Cameron as a foil – a Tory leader who was distrusted by many of his party’s core supporters and who yielded to Europhobic pressure whenever it was applied.
Mr Farage’s successor will have an equivalent opportunity to capitalise on Labour’s turmoil. In the 2015 general election, Ukip came second to Labour in scores of seats, many coinciding with areas of high support for Brexit. A dysfunctional Labour opposition, perceived in its former heartlands as soft on immigration and queasy around patriotism, could be savaged by a well-organised nationalist challenger under shrewd, charismatic leadership. Judging by the Ukip contest thus far, that is mercifully not imminent.
There is some potential for Faragism to grow stronger in Britain without Farage. There is also a chance that Ukip will implode in acrimony and slink back to the fringe. The best-case scenario is one in which the parties of the mainstream develop strategies for addressing the resentments that give succour to virulent illiberal reaction. Although the referendum result expressed a depth of grievance with the EU, it would be naive to think that EU membership was the root cause or that Brexit will dissipate all of the pent-up rage against “establishment” politics.
Referendum victory has disoriented a party that was fuelled by perpetual frustration. Referendum defeat would have better fitted Ukip’s familiar modus operandi. The future was clearer as the victim of a conspiracy than as the victor with nothing left to say. A party of perpetual protest that gets what it wants has to find other things to protest against. Ukip will now seek to reboot its campaign against liberal values, tolerance and diversity in Britain. That project can only succeed if other parties indulge and accommodate the new leader, repeating the mistakes that gave Mr Farage’s tenure the happy ending even he hadn’t dared to expect.
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