I have sketched UKIP from its start and have watched with interest as Nigel Farage tried to figure out if he wanted to be a serious politician. Then, in early 2013, it became obvious that he had decided to go for it. I caught him here, with a year to go before the Euro-elections, while he was still rather good fun although you could see that he had his eye on the prize.
From The Times Magazine
2 March 2013
The World According to Nigel Farage
With his party’s second place in the Eastleigh by-election signalling its arrival on the national stage, Nigel Farage talks to Ann Treneman about the rise of UKIP
I meet Nigel Farage in the bar, of course. Well, it is almost 1pm on a Friday, after all. Actually 2pm if you count the fact that Farage, who is fresh off the Eurostar, awoke in Brussels. “I’ve done eight interviews already today!” he crows, keeping one of his cartoon eyes fixed on the pint of Guinness that is being poured by the bartender at the Boisdale of Belgravia restaurant. “Including Bulgaria!”
Farage’s rather glamorous assistant, Annabelle, who is having a glass of champagne, asks what I’d like to drink. I say tomato juice. “Do we allow that?” she asks.
We all head off to meet the photographer. Annabelle delves into her bag and pulls out a make-up kit and starts to dab away at the circles, not quite Guinness-esque, under his eyes. “Too bad it’s not Monday,” he says. “I’ve slept in a different bed every night this week.”
Nigel Farage is very much a man on the move. His schedule is fast and furious. The way he scoots around reminds me of the cartoon character Road Runner, who was always going, “Beep beep!” “I am a workaholic,” Farage admits cheerily. Well, I say, I thought it was more playaholic. He emits a throaty smoker’s laugh. “Either/or. I am a little bit obsessive when I do things and I have been since I was a boy. If I do something I try to do it to the best of my ability. In a way it’s a pity. I don’t want to lose at Scrabble to my daughter! I’m very competitive.” For the record, the daughter he’s referring to is 7, and he is 48.
The thing about Farage that is new, though, is not that he is always on the move but that he, and his party, UKIP, finally seem to be going somewhere. His obsession with Europe, and getting out of the EU, has gone mainstream. David Cameron may have dismissed UKIP as a collection of “fruitcakes, nutters and closet racists” but the Prime Minister has come round to the idea there should be a referendum. For the first time, UKIP is being taken seriously in Westminster. Its poll figures are up, in one case to 9 per cent nationally. There is even talk of Nigel Farage as the fourth man in the TV election debates. When Chris Huhne resigned his seat, there was huge interest in whether Farage would contest Eastleigh. In the end, he decided against it. Was he frit? Some commentators thought so, labelling him Nigel Fritage. But he claims not, saying the timing wasn’t right. But will he stand for a seat at the next general election? “I expect so,” he says, cheerily.
So who is Nigel Farage? When I ask a random selection of people beforehand, it’s clear many think he is indeed almost a cartoon character (“Beep beep!”), with somewhat strident if not odious views. But, live and unplugged as they say, Farage is an engaging, if exhausting, guy. And he’s also lived a life of drama, mostly involving transport of one kind or another. Not many people can say they survived being run over, cancer and a plane crash, not to mention the News of the World exposé in 2006 in which a Latvian named Liga, whom he met at a pub in Biggin Hill in Kent, claimed they had made love seven times and that she had also performed “sex acts with ice cubes”. He denies any impropriety although has admitted he was drunk. But, as Farage has a side to him that is straight out of a saucy seaside postcard, he cannot resist saying, when I ask him about it: “Just ludicrous! I had a lot of phone calls from former [pause] disappointed friends…” He emits one of his dirty laughs.
Boisdale of Belgravia, a Scottish restaurant and jazz club, is a good match for Nigel Farage in that the New Austerity has passed it by totally. The table next to us holds three people who drink, while we are there, four bottles of Taittinger. There is a “cigar terrace”, which Farage visits regularly to puff away at his Rothmans. When I accompany him (we are between courses), he knows everyone up there.
“Nigel!” cries one old boy, puffing away in the corner.
“Ted!” Nigel cries back.
“The dinner is oversubscribed,” cries Ted. It turns out that Farage is to be the speaker at a do for his old school, Dulwich College. Nige, as someone else calls him, laughs yet again.
The thing about Nigel Farage that runs like a thread through our conversation and his life is that he is a Europhobe whose life is intertwined, like a DNA strand, with Europe and the EU. My theory is that Farage is suffering from a mutant form of Stockholm syndrome (where prisoners fall in love with their captors) that I call Strasbourg syndrome. After all, his name is French, his wife German, his MEP salary (not to mention his expenses) from the EU. His anti-EU views have made him famous in, er, the EU. So I’m not surprised to learn that Nigel went to the European Parliament offices in London to watch David Cameron’s Europe speech last month.
I note it was at a ludicrously early hour.
“Not for me,” says the man who rises at 5am.
So what did he think? The good news, he says, is that the country is at last having a discussion about our role in Europe. The bad news is that a referendum depends on a Tory win at the next election. “Which ain’t going to happen. They all know it! I was sitting with Tory MEPs on the train and they have given up already, completely given up.”
I say that I suspect that Farage likes most people.
But do you like David Cameron?
“I don’t dislike him.”
Hmmm, I say.
“I don’t dislike him as a human being. He’s a perfectly nice chap to talk to, who stands foursquare behind nothing in particular. And I admire him – for reversing the hair-greying process. It’s brilliant.”
I say that I am lost here.
“I did notice on the speech there wasn’t a hint of grey to be seen. He was a bit lacquered up, wasn’t he?” Another throaty laugh. “My dislike is of his politics. That speech just dripped with insincerity from start to finish.”
But it was seen as a triumph.
“It was all being done for party political reasons. For Christ’s sake, this is the guy who reversed the Tories’ policy of coming out of the Common Fisheries Policy. The track record is clear. He is very very pro-EU. The sincere part of the speech was probably when he gave us the pro-EU bit. I love the way, at the end, he said this will be ‘an in/out referendum’. ‘OK guys, I’ve done it! I’ve said it. That’s it. You can trust me.’ ”
I had always assumed that Nigel was a Tory before he was UKIP. “No! I was a Thatcherite. Different thing.” It turns out that he did join the party at 14, though he was never active. I must admit that I cannot see him as one of the Tory Eurosceptics lurking on the back benches of the Commons. Does he, I ask, ever watch the likes of arch Euro-obsessive Bill Cash in the Commons?
“Why do you think I’m in UKIP?” says Farage, pulling one of his amazing rubber faces.
He admits, though, that at least the debate on Europe has moved on. “I was out the other week with Winston…” Do I know Winston? “Winston McKenzie! For years they called us racist. Then we got Winston and now we’re homophobes! We really can’t win.”
It turns out that Winston McKenzie is a UKIP member and former candidate and, as you may have guessed, black. Anyway, so Farage was out with McKenzie in Thornton Heath. “There is a proper high street, not full of chains, real people running real businesses…They were telling me about European directives and the impact on their businesses.”
Then, like Road Runner, Nigel’s off – beep-beeping madly about Europe. But can we really leave the EU and be like, say, Norway? “According to Mr Cameron, if we behave like Norway, life would be terrible. I mean, God, we’d all be rich! That would be awful. And you know what? They are even allowed to eat their own fish in their half of the North Sea.”
Farage says we’ve been brainwashed by 40 years of propaganda into believing that we can only trade with Europe if we are part of a political union. There is much more beep-beeping until I finally say: “I know that being against Europe is your life…”
“I’m not against Europe!” he barks. “What a ridiculous idea.” OK, I say, against Britain being part of the Europe. “No! You are using this ridiculous terminology. I question that flag being anything to do with Europe.”
What flag? I look over my shoulder but just see more tartan. “I question that anthem!” beep-beeps Farage.
What anthem? Did I know the EU had an anthem? But Farage is off: “These people have hijacked the concept of Europe. They now claim they are Europe. The Commission, the institutions, they have no legitimacy. I don’t just want Britain out of the European Union, I want Europe out of the EU, too.”
I laugh. “No!” barks Farage. “I really do. I mean it. This has got nothing to do with Europe.” Well, if you ruled the world, what would happen? “It would be more fun in the afternoon,” says Nigel, emitting that laugh again.
No, I say sternly, a bit headmistressy now, I am talking about Europe. Nigel explains how it would be: we’d have a free trade arrangement, reciprocal deals on students and exchanges, “sensible” common minimum environmental standards and, through Interpol, we would co-operate on cross-border human trafficking.
Would the European Parliament exist?
“Oh God, no,” he cries.
So you would do yourself out of a job?
“Absolutely. The turkey that would vote for Christmas. Yeah!”
Yet here’s the rub. Farage admits the European Parliament has been a “wonderful vehicle” for him for the past 13 years. In that time UKIP had been transformed from a “bunch of fringe extremists” and given voice to Eurosceptics everywhere. It’s also made Farage, with his various beep-beeping speeches, a star of YouTube. (His rant “Just Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?”, with around
1.5 million views, is a classic.) It’s quite clear that he revels in all of this. “This is the irony of it,” he admits. “Since 2004, I’ve loved the job in the European Parliament. It has been huuuuge fun. I’m the only one out of 500 million people who sits in seat number 20 with José Manuel Barroso [President of the EU Commission] in seat 21. It’s just magnificent.”
Well, I say, you’d have to give that all up.
“That’s fine. You think I couldn’t survive on Main Street?”
What would you do?
“I could do all sorts of things,” he says.
And, unlike most politicians, I almost believe him. Nigel Paul Farage was born in the Kent village of Herne in 1964. His father, Guy, a heavy-drinking City trader who left when he was 5, seems to have been a role model. After A levels, Farage too went to the City, trading commodities. It was after a quiet day on the tin markets, when he’d spent all day drinking and arguing over the Anglo-Irish agreement, that he ended up getting run over by a car in Orpington, his leg badly smashed, his skull fractured. His nurse, Gráinne, became his first wife, by whom he has two sons, Samuel and Thomas, now in their early twenties. Soon afterwards, though quite unrelated to the accident, he got testicular cancer, from which he recovered fully, with a renewed zest and a mission to live life to the full.
It was during these wild days that he had his Euro epiphany. “Something really major happened in my life the day we joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was October. It was 1990. I’d had a bloody awful day on the zinc market. I’d lost money. I was cheesed off, at a pub called the Wine Lodge on Fenchurch Street with the other traders, bemoaning my fate… Somebody runs in and says: we’ve joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism. I was astonished. The sheer idiocy! I just thought, this is bonkers! This cannot work. And so I became a bit of an ERM bore.”
You do surprise me, I say.
He doesn’t react. “Everywhere I went, I warned everybody: this will be a catastrophe. And then, of course, it was.” It was this that got Nigel into politics: he started attending speeches and, in 1993, he joined the Anti-Federalist League, which became UKIP. I have to say that UKIP is one of the strangest political parties ever (the famous UKIP quote, “7,000 members with 8,000 egos”, seems if anything an understatement). It is infamous for its infighting and larger than life characters.
Then there is the subject of racism. Farage insists, angrily, that he is no racist. Well, I say, why do people think you are then? “Of course they think UKIP is racist. We’ve been told for 40 years that the Union Jack is a disgrace, that multiculturalism and division is good, any defence of historical values in this country is a very bad thing. We should all feel very guilty and isn’t sharia law wonderful.”
Do you really feel that?
“I think it has been drilled into people over several decades that we really should just feel jolly well ashamed of ourselves.”
But what about now? “There has been a big change now, a huge turnaround. The Trevor Phillipses and these people talk real common sense on these issues about society and integration and that’s terrific. All the early attempts to misrepresent UKIP as being a racist party are finished. How could you now?”
Well, I say, you’ve had to ban former BNP members. A lot of people think being anti-immigration is also racist.
“I’ve taken steps to protect ourselves from it,” he says, referring to the ban. “I’ve changed our constitution. Of course, some people accuse me of being too PC.” Too PC? I’ve not heard that. “Well, in UKIP they do,” he says merrily.
So that’s that then. But there is something about Farage that means he cannot leave well enough alone, because then, suddenly, he says: “The thing that shocks me is the language. That’s what shocks me.” Language? “People aren’t speaking English any more.” And he’s off, beep-beeping about how we should all speak English, which would bind us together. Then he adds that he thinks religion is important, too. He’s strongly against the idea of sharia.
If you ruled the world, would burkas be worn in the UK?
“I wouldn’t wear them personally, no.”
But? “I think UKIP got into a mess over this: advocating that you shouldn’t wear the burka walking down Croydon High Street was a mistake. Arguing that we should all be equal before the law, and that we shouldn’t have a society that is divided and we should really strongly oppose the concept of sharia law being established in some British cities, that’s the right place for UKIP to be. Exactly the right place.”
I get the feeling, talking to Farage, that the views of UKIP are somewhat in flux. Certainly, it is against the EU. If Farage ruled the world, our immigration system would be “like the Aussies”: we’d only admit people with the skills we needed. The citizens of Bulgaria and Romania (where he is fast becoming a media star) would not have free movement into the UK next January. The state would be small, the wind farms even smaller. Global warming, and the existence thereof, would be a topic. There would be no gay marriage and Rowan Williams would not have been Archbishop of Canterbury (“the unshaven Marxist!”).
When it comes to people, Nigel has two rules: would he want to employ someone and would he want to have a drink with them. The latter is not an exclusive club. His campaign in the last election rotated mainly around pubs. Indeed, the last time I saw Nigel was over a pint of Old Hooky in Buckinghamshire the day before the small plane he was in crashed, its UKIP banner becoming entangled with the tail fin. The fact that Farage managed to stagger out, his sternum broken, covered in blood, remains incredible.
Did it change your life?
“Well, it hurt me. I’m not as strong as I was. The back is not great. It was a horrible experience. It seemed like a fun thing to do. In retrospect it was a stupid thing to do. It went wrong. There is no point in regret though.”
Nigel Farage plays the quintessentially English golf-club buffoon to something quite close to perfection. He lives in the Kent village of Downe, once home to Darwin. His interests include beer and pubs, cricket and deep-sea angling (he writes a column for Total Sea Fishing magazine). He is interested in the First World War and “bravery”. He is wearing Fighter Command cuff links.
But, at his core, I’m not sure he’s not continental. His second wife, Kirstin, whom he married in 1999 (he got divorced in 1997) is German, and their two young daughters (Victoria, 12, and the Scrabble-playing Isabelle, 7) speak German as well as English. And it goes beyond that. Take drinking. At this Nigel raises a comedy eyebrow: he’s moved onto a rather nice red now. He affects total despair at the attitude in the States. “I used to love going to America. Now it’s pointless. You can’t even go for lunch any more.”
Then there’s the smoking.
“There’s no smoking anywhere. Terrible!”
Farage extols the wonders of travelling across Europe, at the way you can find, within the space of 100 miles, different wines, cheese, cultures. And so we are back to my theory about Strasbourg syndrome. If further proof of this were needed, it comes as we discuss his views of party leaders. He’s already dismissed Dave and now he dismisses Ed Miliband as “so geeky it’s not true”.
And what about Nick Clegg?
“Well, if you asked, of the three of them, which I’d rather have dinner with, it would be Nick.”
What? Nick who speaks five languages? Who is totally pro-Euro?
“Because I served with him in the European Parliament for five years and because I think that he is essentially quite a nice guy. I don’t see any malice in Nick. In fact, apart from his opinions, he’s quite normal, isn’t he?”
I look at him quizzically. Plus, I note, he smokes.
Nigel looks entirely happy now. “Of course!” I rest my case. Nigel Farage, Euro-man. Beep beep!
This piece first appeared in The Times on 2 March 2013 and no reprint of it is allowed without permission.