Lite-Wing: Mellowing The UK Right For The Masses

IT’S just after dusk, ahead of a harsh winter’s night in Westminster. I’m inside Europe House, the European Union’s “embassy” in London, and Nigel Farage, one of its more controversial tenants, is late.

People with gravitas rush into the building, en route to a discussion of doubtless importance, on something about Europe’s future. But Farage, Member of the European Parliament and British politics’ New Big Thing, is not among them. He’s in the pub.

The mission’s sleek surrounds belie the fact that Europe is damaged. Britain is re-thinking its engagement with Europe and the world, and all reports have it that Farage, leader of the rising United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), believes the only direction the European Union is heading is down, and fast. Forty years after Britain joined the European Economic Community, predecessor to the EU, Farage reckons Europe is bust and wants his beloved motherland to be shot of it — and Britain’s porous immigration policy with it.

“All that happened is that we got cheaper labour, which is very good, but it’s not very good for the unemployed British people.”

And yet, since 1999 he has served in Brussels’ parliament in Strasbourg, as MEP for South-East England. You might expect an ideologue so virulently anti-Europe to choose, on principle, to be a million miles from its well-lubricated apparatus, but Farage the Euro MP seems to confirm the adage that it’s best to keep friends close, and enemies closer. His press officer Gawain Towler says: “We use the devil’s money to do God’s work in a sense. We stand in all elections. In the case of the European Parliament we stand because it is there, to not do so would be a dereliction.”

When Farage emerges from the gloaming, dapper in fedora and coat and trailing a fruity tang of beer and fags, I ask him what the meeting is about, that everyone has been hurrying to.

He neither knows nor cares, and his loathing is palpable. “They are always meeting about something or other, that’s pretty much only what they seem to do,” he says, adding a spiky “appalling lot!” that contradicts his otherwise hail-fellow-well-met joviality.

As Farage settles down to talk to The Global Mail, alongside the feisty Towler, he doesn’t mind admitting that he’s had a few quiet ones in the local. Now in the company of an Australian, he’s happy to talk about The Ashes and John Howard, the former Australian Prime Minister, whom he recently met with and much admires for having been tough on immigrants.

It all rather recalls that real or imagined country that the UKIP was formed to preserve, some 20 years ago: all Times and Telegraph and comfort food — well, maybe the occasional curry house; and good chums, preferably waspy regimental types, sharing a pint in cosy pubs by foreigner-free village commons where cricket and golf are sportingly enjoyed, the cream teas tended by womenfolk in sensible shoes, and nary a pinko in sight.

<p>Matt Cardy/Getty Images</p>

The first UKIP meetings, back in 1993, could always be identified “by the number of Bomber-Command ties in the room,” says Farage, a founding member. “This was the WWII generation who saw the Maastricht Treaty as a complete betrayal.”

Farage wants to change UKIP, to move it beyond a vent for protest. Mid electoral-cycle, he’s working hard to cement the party into the electable mainstream alongside the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats and give it a winning chance in 2015, when the next British election is due.

The UKIP battleground is Europe and immigration, which he sees as directly connected. Two decades on, and two years since he became UKIP leader for the second time, the populist Farage has deftly manoeuvred his party into the heart of this divisive debate. Europe’s economic eclipse, two British recessions in five years, even Margaret Thatcher’s recent death have all intensified the Eurosceptic tone, and Farage is flogging his newfound relevance for all its worth.

It also helps that Britain will soon be compelled under EU rules to open its labour market to arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria, who are among the poorest EU members, and now a useful bogey to exploit. On this point, UKIP has resorted to what many regard as scare tactics. The party recently sent an MEP, with the popular press attached, to Sofia, to tour some of Bulgaria’s appalling orphanages that house many Roma children. The implication was that the next stop for the poverty-stricken Balkan citizens, if they can make it over, is Britain.

“We think quite a lot might come,” he says. “The other side thinks nobody will come, but none of us know whether we’re right so why take the risk?

“We’re not just saying to people you can come and work. We’re saying, under EU rules, you can come and claim our benefits.”

“We want an Australian-style immigration system where we ask, ‘Have you got a skill to give us? Are you self-sufficient to a certain degree? Do you have a long-term, life-threatening illness? Have you got a serious criminal record?’ ”

But Farage is anxious to elevate UKIP above being a fringe single-issue protest party of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”, as British Prime Minister David Cameron once famously described them.

“This isn’t a single issue… this is the biggest, most important constitutional question Britain has faced in 300 years. This is about, do we govern our own country or not? Already 75 per cent of our laws are made somewhere else.”

Farage — he prefers the à la française ‘farahzh’ pronunciation of his surname to the more Anglo ‘farridge’ — is particularly chipper after UKIP’s showing in the recent Eastleigh by-election in the English heartland of Hampshire. It polled 27.8 per cent of the vote, running a close second to the incumbent Liberal Democrats, and relegating the Tories to third.

Now Farage’s every move is documented by the national media — and by his political opponents too — and he rather likes the attention. He’s also getting international oxygen. His interview with The Global Mail is wedged between appointments with The Washington Post and Fox News.

“Things have changed a lot,” says the Kent-born former City commodities trader (among others, Farage worked for the notorious Drexel Burnham Lambert, infamous for its junk bond felon Michael Milken). “Five years ago, nobody in the national media would’ve picked up our point. They’d have thought we were away with the fairies,” says Farage.

No longer. On March 25, post-Eastleigh, PM Cameron made a tough landmark speech on immigration. Farage was duly quoted on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News as observing that the PM’s proposal to restrict entry had less to do with curtailing immigrants and all to do with UKIP’s poll numbers. Farage’s party has polled as high as 17 per cent nationally over the past month, pushing Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners into fourth position, behind Labour and the Tories.

“It’s remarkable that Cameron gives a speech on this major subject,” says Farage, “which he thinks is bold and tough and taking a risk. And it just bombs.”

Labour, too, has noticed, as have the LibDems. A week after Eastleigh, Labour leader Ed Miliband virtually apologised for Labour’s relaxed immigration stance during its 13 years in power. LibDem leader and deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, then floated that “some migrants” from “high risk countries” could pay a £1,000 security deposit upon entry to the UK, a sum reimbursable on departure.

“They are all on the run,” Farage smiles, reflecting on his years at the obscure reaches of the political wilderness. “They’re scared and they’ve now all decided to come and join me on the football pitch. Oh, I do laugh to see them flailing around.

“They are in a state of hysteria about us,” he says, adding that “a large element of our vote in Eastleigh came from people who hadn’t voted for 20 years. That is a re-engagement.”

Labour-force mobility around Europe is a basic EU tenet, part of Brussels’ effort to equalise its 27-nation union. But the commotion stoked over Bulgarians and Romanians is similar to that of 10 years ago, when Poles, Czechs and the EU’s other new Eastern European members were first allowed entry to work in Britain.

A decade on, Polish builders and plumbers, Czechs serving lattes at Starbucks, and couscous at the Tate Modern are as much a part of the fabric of middle-class Britain as the sub-continental Patels and Iqbals, who opened corner stores that supplied Sunday papers and milk, became in the 1980s.

Moreover, Britons have discovered that the sun still rises over their elysian fields regardless of whether ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is tilling them for discount wages. And it’s an oft-heard refrain in England, that “Brits won’t do the menial jobs.”

Farage’s predecessor as the Brits-first UKIP leader, Roger Knapman — who, like Farage, is another Tory refugee — knows this only too well. In 2006, it was revealed that Knapman had hired Polish workers to cheaply renovate his historic Devon pile. Knapman claimed no British builders were available. Job-seeking British builders begged to differ.

“If pre-2004, [you thought] that the cabbages rotted in the fields and no plumbing got done, I would say rubbish,” says Farage. “All that happened is that we got cheaper labour, which is very good, but it’s not very good for the unemployed British people.”

He claims British youth unemployment was 600,000 when Poland joined the EU, “and today it’s a million. The correlation is very, very clear. You would struggle now in Lincolnshire to get a job picking fruit as an Englishman.”

Farage and UKIP are often portrayed as if they’d like nothing more than to march immigrants to the airport while billing them for the passage home. But he insists he is not anti-immigration. “I want a balanced, sensible immigration policy which takes account of the fact that in the last decade, we have absorbed more people than we have for 100 years.

“We should take people with the necessary skills and qualifications to fit in well with our society. Speaking English could be useful here, you know.” At this point, press officer Towler chips in to describe how his Australian doctor girlfriend, who is of Indian-Fijian descent, applied to work in Britain’s National Health Service and was forced under EU rules to take an English-language test; the test was conducted by a Pole who had lesser linguistic skills than Towler’s Commonwealth-raised and trained girlfriend. Farage shakes his head in disbelief.

Channelling former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, Farage says, “we want an Australian-style immigration system where we ask, ‘Have you got a skill to give us? Are you self-sufficient to a certain degree? Do you have a long-term, life-threatening illness? Have you got a serious criminal record?’… I mean they’re the questions we should be asking.

“Ours is, ‘if you come from anywhere in Eastern Europe, come on down. You’re a career criminal? That’s fantastic, we’ll give you social housing. You commit crimes repeatedly? That’s alright, we’ll give you a few weeks in prison here and there but please stay, please go on committing crime…’

“We can’t say anyone can come, we have to apply some sense of balance… [be] rational, logical,” he adds.

Migration Matters Trust recently calculated that halting net migration, as UKIP demands, would cost every British taxpayer £137,000 extra over their working life. “We would turn into Greece.”

Farage pleads UKIP’s “liberal-democrat principles” in saying “this is not about scapegoating groups of people. I don’t blame them. Because of our commitment through the European Union, we can decide who comes here from Pakistan still, but we can’t decide who comes from Romania from next year. And that is insane.”

What is as insane, says immigration advocate Atul Hatwal of British cross-party thinktank Migration Matters Trust, is if Britain closes its doors to immigrants. He says UKIP is “whipping up panic” over immigration. “It simply captured an angry mid-term protest vote, nothing more. We see it time and again in politics, people pissed off with the main parties and lashing out to send a message.

“The immigration debate is solely seen through a negative prism, tapping into that fear of the other,” he says. But Hatwal himself is not beyond a bit of scare-mongering to get attention. He says Britain needs its current rate of immigration to keep the basic economy turning over, and to pay for the “demographic time bomb” of an ageing nation.

Citing the government’s own data, Hatwal’s MMT recently calculated that halting net migration, as UKIP demands, would cost every British taxpayer £137,000 extra, over the period of their working life. “We would turn into Greece,” he warns.

With UKIP support surging across Britain, Farage claims the clichéd white, 60-year-old ex-military chap is no longer typical of the party’s membership. Today’s UKIP champions, Farage says, are self-employed tradespeople, families from the lower-middle classes worried about their jobs and future, and angry that the established political parties don’t speak for them.

Farage describes UKIP’s “changing” membership as “most eclectic”.

“If you go to the bar at a UKIP conference, you’re likely to have the Duke of Rutland buying you a beer as you are a dustman from Gloucestershire.”

He claims that during the last European elections, UKIP had more candidates who were gay and from ethnic minorities than other parties. “We don’t separate groups,” says UKIP press officer Towler, “It doesn’t matter…”.

But if UKIP has reformed its “Bomber Command” profile, as Farage insists, this is not reflected by its 11 members elected to the European Parliament; these are all men, all white, and with an average age of 61. Towler says, “Those selections were made six years ago, a lifetime in UKIP years. Even so, at the time we had two women and the only ‘out’ lesbian elected.”

Farage says he sees little evidence of Islamophobia in UKIP’s support. He agrees there’s an element of Italy’s Beppe Grillo-style protest about their vote — “but not much”.

Indeed, Farage can sound at times more like an Occupy-movement-Grillo hybrid. “Big Business, Big Banking and Big Politics very actively works to defend itself and to defend a model that is failing. We are seeing a wholesale rejection of the career political class. We’re not just taking on the Tories, we’re taking on the entire establishment.

<p>THIERRY MONASSE/AFP/Getty Images</p>

“No, our enemy is over the road here,” he says, referring to the Tory-led government, “These gutless, chinless wonders who all go to the same school, the same Oxford colleges, none of them have ever done a proper job in their life, they’re career politicians. They’ve got no hobbies, no interests, they married each others’ sisters and these are the people running the country.”

I quip that they speak well of Farage too. He smiles. “I couldn’t give a damn. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got the bland leading the bland. It’s almost as if our politics is dead, on really big issues. It is irrelevant who gets into Number 10 Downing St.”

David Cameron is a “catastrophe” as PM says Farage, who adds that it’s presently a ‘score draw’ between Cameron and Edward Heath as to who is the worst post-war Conservative leader. He also doesn’t think Boris Johnson, London mayor and increasingly Cameron’s presumptive heir as Tory leader, will become PM.

As senior Conservatives fret about support leaking to UKIP, with some calling for rapprochement with the ex-Tory Farage, he doesn’t rule out an alliance with his old political cohorts, saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But UKIP can’t quite shake the tag that it is the “lite-wing” of the extremist right British National Party, or “BNP in suits” as it’s frequently derided. Farage says “there’s not much of a meeting of minds with the BNP. They’re protectionist, we’re free trade, they’re island, we’re libertarian, they’re authoritarian, they’re socialist, we’re free market.”

Although it’s drawn from the right of the political spectrum — UKIP’s membership is littered with disaffected Tories like Farage — he also blanches at comparisons to the US Tea Party and its campaign to transform the Republican Party. “We’re not religious, we’re not a pressure group within a party to change a party,” he objects.

He likes his own comparison, that UKIP might be the new Reaganite-Thatcherites, with its appeal reaching across to the aspirational blue-collar vote. But that seems wishful thinking. UKIP’s surge has thrilled Britain’s Labour opposition — for its purposes, what could be better than a party whose 24,000-odd members see themselves as the truer heirs to free-market Thatcherism than Cameron’s ‘caring’ Tories? The Labour Party is polling at around 38-42 per cent to the Conservatives’ 28-30 per cent and though Farage is keen to spin it otherwise (claiming that the party is also drawing support from the Labour heartland), UKIP’s support comes primarily at Tory and LibDem expense.

He blanches at comparisons to the US Tea Party and its campaign to transform the Republican Party. “We’re not religious, we’re not a pressure group within a party to change a party.”

Under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, UKIP doesn’t hold any parliamentary seats and is unlikely to win any nationally if support remains at current levels. Though doing well in mid-term opinion polls, Farage knows UKIP needs to move on from being a protest vent, lest voters decide come election day that a vote for UKIP would be a waste. Despite his contempt for most things European, Farage would like to have a more continental-style – he favours Germany’s – voting system, of the kind that elected him to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, even though changes to Britain’s voting system were recently rejected in a referendum.

Britain’s system, which continually delivers government with less than half of the national primary vote, has fallen into disrepair, he says. “There is a big disincentive for people to vote at all.” Farage chose not to run in the Eastleigh by-election; to do so would’ve meant giving up his European seat — and its perks. “The irony is I’ve got a much greater reach where I am” as an MEP. “But we’ve got to break through under the first-past-the-post system,” he says.

As he prepares to embark on a whistle-stop campaign for the May 2 English county elections, leading into the European elections next year, he reveals he also intends to run in the British poll in 2015. “I’d have to,” he says.

Farage has worked hard to clean up UKIP and push it into the mainstream. UKIP’s constitution now forbids membership to supporters who have been associated with the BNP, the National Front, the English Defence League or other extreme nationalist organisations.

But UKIP can’t quite shake Cameron’s loony-right tag, and perhaps for good reason. One of Farage’s more prominent UKIP colleagues in the European Parliament is Godfrey Bloom. Over his years as a public figure, Bloom has claimed that the early onset of the European ski season is evidence that climate change is a furphy; he has grumbled that women “don’t clean behind the fridge enough”, and has claimed that he was elected to Strasbourg “to represent Yorkshire women who always have the dinner on the table when you get home”. He has admitted that he often frequented brothels when he worked as a businessman in Hong Kong; claimed that most prostitutes “do it because they want to”; and stated that “no small businessman with a brain would employ a woman of child-bearing age”. Oh, and he once had to be carried out of the parliamentary chamber by an intern after delivering a speech fuelled by a few strong refreshments.

One of Britain’s leading Europeanists, Richard Corbett has published a forensic examination of UKIP on his website. A long-time Labour MEP until he lost his Yorkshire-based seat in 2009, Corbett is now an advisor to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, or ‘Rumpy-Pumpy’ as Farage calls him. Corbett has crossed swords with UKIP more than once, notably via his “25 Things You Didn’t Know When You Voted For UKIP” — a pamphlet that UKIP has unsuccessfully tried to shut down.

It’s a damning indictment of the party’s historic links with Holocaust deniers, the extreme-right National Front and the British National Party.

Such old friends can be unwelcome when a party is on the make. When the far-right racist English Defence League endorsed UKIP last week and urged Britain’s nationalist parties to lie doggo to give UKIP clear electoral air for the collective cause, Farage quickly distanced UKIP from the “abhorrent and stupid” EDL.

“There is no global warming. And there hasn’t been since 1995, so we have to get some sense and perspective on this.”

His press officer, Towler, is another divisive figure among some of the UKIP membership, who think him a loose cannon. He told The Global Mail that he was a fan of Australian Liberal leader Tony Abbott. But Towler’s admiration for prominent conservatives didn’t extend last year to the then co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim and only the third woman to run the Tory party machinery. While making a guest appearance during the BBC’s local election coverage last May, Warsi mused that the rise of UKIP support might be linked with the decline in electoral appeal for the far-right British National Party. Towler was quick to tweet “Warsi **** off. How dare you. Bitch” to his 1,700 followers, which set off a storm around Westminster and the Twittersphere.

As many called for his head, Towler apologised for his quickly deleted “out of order” tweet that Farage casually dismissed as much-ado-about-little. “One of my press officers said something he perhaps shouldn’t have said, but hey — anyone who watches The Thick Of It knows in politics bad language does get used,” he said. Towler told The Global Mail,My head is still attached to my shoulders, and she [Baroness Warsi] has been demoted, as you are aware.”

Farage may also have to rethink some of UKIP’s international party alliances in his push for the centre. UKIP is part of a Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy bloc in the European Parliament. Its Dutch partner is the Bible-based Reformed Political Party, a hardline theocratic party which until recently opposed female membership in its ranks, and which closes down its website on Sundays. UKIP’s Slovakian ally is the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party, often described as fascist and notorious for its attacks on Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarian and Roma communities. The Italian partner is the Lega Nord, Silvio Berlusconi’s erstwhile coalition partner, while its Bulgarian associate is Euro MP Slavcho Binev, who featured in a WikiLeaked cable, “Who’s Who in Bulgarian Organised Crime”, that was written in 2005 by the US Embassy in Sofia. It said Binev, who was a keynote speaker at UKIP’s annual party conference in Exeter in March, controlled a group whose “criminal activities include prostitution, narcotics, and trafficking stolen automobiles”. For his part, Binev told a Bulgarian newspaper he regarded the people on the embassy list as “blossoms” who were helping Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism.

He describes it as “a delicious bloody irony” that his London office is housed in what, for him, are the very familiar surrounds of 32 Smith Square, in the stately shadows of the Palace of Westminster. Since 2010, Number 32 has been Europe House, but for 45 years, until 2003, it was headquarters of Britain’s Conservative Party — Farage’s political mecca until he defected in disgust from the “dreadful” Tories after Maastricht, and joined UKIP on its foundation a year later.

As a European MP, Farage avails himself of official Europe’s many conveniences. The post provides Farage with an office close to Westminster, where his real work is done. Indeed, the generous European taxpayer-funded perks, privileges and pensions provided by Brussels to its MEPs, on top of a €91,980 annual salary, add up to a benefits package which one watchdog group has calculated to be as much as £1m over a five-year MEP term.

But for a man of such self-stated conviction, 49-year-old Farage seems nothing if not pragmatic. A supporter of press freedom, Farage’s communications were hacked by Rupert Murdoch’s journalists — he was one of thousands of Britons to have been targeted. “I didn’t like it, I wasn’t up for it… it wasn’t right,” he says. But where many other victims of phone hacking have contempt for the Murdoch regime and have been actively campaigning to rein in its command over British public life, Farage chose to dine with Rupert Murdoch at his Mayfair flat last month. The invitation came after Murdoch tweeted approvingly of UKIP’s second-place showing in the Eastleigh by-election, and of “new leaders emerging”. Farage described Murdoch “as a remarkable bloke” who he “enjoyed meeting enormously”. Indeed, he met Murdoch and John Howard in the same week. “It wasn’t bad, was it?” he laughs.

He says if Britain withdrew from the EU, it “would become Greater Switzerland — we’d just boom”. He points out that London is the world’s biggest foreign-exchange clearing house for euros despite — he says it’s because — the fact that the UK is not a member of the Eurozone.

“We need appropriate regulation… not an almost neo-communist attitude to free markets. These idiots in Brussels think the reason the euro is in trouble is because of evil speculators in New York and London. It’s all baloney.”

A ‘Brixit’ (British Exit) from the EU, he says, would also mean Britain could be free of Europe’s “excesses of this global-warming lunacy. We are directly closing down British manufacturing and sending them to India… because we’ve signed up to the [EU’s] 20/20 package”, which has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2020, among other initiatives.

“There is no global warming,” Farage insists. “And there hasn’t been since 1995, so we have to get some sense and perspective on this.

“I’ve always said I’m agnostic on whether CO2 emissions lead to global warming, although the more the years go on, the more I’m not sure I see the link with this.”

But Farage is most exercised by Europe. “I can’t really explain what it is about this whole European question,” he says. “Back in the ’90s… my business colleagues — people at the pub, at the golf club — they all thought, ‘Has he gone bonkers? What’s he been smoking?’… but right from the start I just knew I was right [about not joining the EU].

“My views have changed in one way,” he says. “When I was elected in 1999, dark-haired, shy” — at which point he laughs and adds, “and if you believe that you’ll believe anything” — “I took the view that Britain was a square peg in a round [European] hole.

“But where I’ve changed personally is that I used to think, ‘If south of Calais that’s what they want, they’re welcome to it.’ But I now don’t just want Britain out of the EU, I want Europe out of it too.

“Their flag, their anthem, and [European President] Herman Van ‘Rumpy-Pumpy’ — they’ve hijacked Europe, they’re claiming ownership of a continent and they haven’t got the consent or the legitimacy to do it.

“The EU is bust, not just financially but morally as well. I now believe that this is a project that is run by extremely dangerous people.”