How the populist nationalists hijacked Brexit

At its core, Brexit is about bureaucracy—so how did it become a referendum on national feeling?

September 11, 2019
The complicated effects of Brexit on the British electorate could mean the Brexit party help put Labour in government. Photo: PA
The complicated effects of Brexit on the British electorate could mean the Brexit party help put Labour in government. Photo: PA

Legend has it, many centuries ago, ancient forms of discourse existed in which it was possible to discuss British politics without mentioning the EU. In this Brexit-free land of policy milk and honey, the tales tell, right-wing populism was unheard of, the single market was the preserve of dating sites and people in the political sphere spent their time mulling over domestic policy issues such as taxation and public services.

The sheer scale of our current predicament is not to be under-estimated. In June—before the spike in passions brought by the Boris bounce (and subsequent clang)—a YouGov poll found that a thumping majority of Conservatives care so deeply about Brexit that they would be willing to see the destruction of their own party, “significant damage” to our economy and even the collapse of the Union via both Scottish independence and Irish reunification if it meant the UK—or what’s left of it—could finally leave the EU.

Things are no less surreal on the other side of the debate. At least 34 MPs have ditched—or been ditched by—their parties for not being Remain-y enough (or, as it happens, too Remain-y themselves). Any political Twitter person will testify to the uniquely piercing virtual screeches of the #FBPE crowd. Most Remainers declare that they would be upset if their children dared to take a Leave-voter as a spouse.

As the outer edge of the Overton window has tiptoed further and further towards Remain, the stance of the Westminster Brussels shills has morphed from Soft Brexit into People’s Vote and is now breaching Revoke, with Jo Swinson leading the charge and the entire Liberal Democrat resurgence predicated on unrelenting Europhilia.

In short, we are all very concerned about Brexit indeed. But disentangling oneself from the quagmire of Brexit discourse, zooming out and regaining some perspective soon reveals that for most of us there is little to no reason why this should be the case.

A mere few years ago, few knew the first thing about the EU. On 24 June 2016, the second most Googled question in the UK was “what is the EU?”—beaten only by “what does it mean to leave the EU?”

It is thanks primarily to Nigel Farage that we went so quickly from that point of blissful ignorance to our current state of total submission to the supremacy of Brexit over our political discourse. Farage catapulted himself onto the centre-stage of British politics by hijacking British populism. The right-wing populist wave that produced Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro and countless others did not skip over Britain.

The difference is that our admirably resilient electoral system made a populist insurgency of that kind impossible. So, when Right-Wing Populism plc was expanding across the globe, Farage acquired the sole rights to the UK franchise. He then used his monopoly on British nationalism to promote his pet cause: Euroscepticism.

And just like that, an espousal of nationalistic, patriotic, Trumpian politics was incontrovertibly associated with the notion of Britain quitting the EU. The two became one.

What will be designated by future historians as the Brexit period of British politics began in the Big Bang of May 2014, in which Farage’s UKIP harnessed increasingly mainstream fury to snatch more seats in the European Parliamentary elections than anyone else. What was initially a bog-standard anti-establishment protest vote was then ripe for Farage’s metamorphosis into a vehicle of Euroscepticism, firing the starting gun on an age of British politics revolving around the EU and our government wrangling entirely fruitlessly and very publicly with European bureaucrats—despite the fact that no one knew what a customs union was.

Take away Farage and the populism, and UK-EU relations are agonisingly dull. Judicial jurisdiction, regulatory alignment and the intricacies of trade policy are important but mostly things wonks fawn over—we would never expect them to penetrate The Mainstream. They are certainly not the material for an existential national debate and a complete reshaping of the political landscape.

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran professed that, when we voted Leave, she “spent most of the day crying.” In ordinary times, this would be a starkly abnormal reaction to a potential realignment of British trade policy and a changing relationship with the European bloc.

Yet, just as Trump has polarised American political debate, our national discourse is now in hock to the emotional responses elicited by our identity-defining association with the EU. While electorates across the West go into battle over disruptive new political forces and entire worldviews, we hapless Brits are stuck obsessing over this narrow subcategory of our foreign policy.

Our entire political system is now being torn apart because of the wholly unforeseeable sequence of events Nigel Farage set in motion years ago. That seemingly innocuous protest vote for an apparently insignificant minor party was the shudder at the top of the cliff that eventually triggered the landslide.

Now, we find ourselves covered in mulch, careering down the rockface of our politics, clambering helplessly in mid-air as we watch everything we thought we knew dissolve all around us. We are up the creek without a constitutional precedent.