The importance of Nigel Farage and other political hobgoblins

2nd November 2020

There are news reports that Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party are re-branding as the ‘Reform Party’ and will campaign on the basis of ‘lockdown scepticism’.

One immediate response of many will be to sneer at and deride him and his supporters.

Just as years ago he and his United Kingdom Independence Party were sneered at and derided.

But this approach is perhaps misguided.

Farage and other political populists should always be taken seriously.

*

Farage is a political hobgoblin.

He appears where there are cracks between the government and the governed, as a purveyor of easy answers.

On the European Union issue, for example, generations of politicians in the United Kingdom failed to make any positive case for membership.

Often, instead, politicians from both major parties competed with each other to sound the most sceptical about the European Union and to secure the most opt-outs. 

Year on year, the crack was widening: there was no political engagement with the voters on the importance – or even the nature – of United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

And so, in 2016, when a government held a referendum on the question of membership, there was not the support in place to carry a Remain vote to victory.

The Leave campaign did not so much as win the Brexit referendum; it was more that Remain lost it – and they lost it because of 40 or more years of political inaction.

Farage and other opportunists merely exploited that political gap.

*

Now there is another broad policy issue where there is a political gap.

The London government is proposing a lockdown for, in effect, the month of November so as to stymie the recent resurgence in Covid-19.

But for a lockdown to have effect, there needs to be be more than laws passed and subsidies offered.

A lockdown is an exercise in public mobilisation: a government is seeking a population to change its ways, to act significantly different for a significant period of time, and to do things (and not do things) that the population would not otherwise do.

Such a public mobilisation needs, in a word, leadership.

There needs to be a sense of legitimacy.

There needs to be an understanding of the evidence and the reasoning on which such a lockdown is based.

Laws – however ‘tough’ – are not enough.

It is not even a question of making laws clear, or resourcing their enforcement.

The broad behavioural change being sought cannot be brought about by coercion alone.

And the irony is that the current pro-Brexit government has become so complacent on the basis of the supposed ‘will of the people’ referendum mandate justifying what they do that they have disengaged with the people.

There is a disconnect.

Legitimacy is an ongoing process, but it can be lost as easily as it is to make a visit to Barnard Castle.

Clarity and transparency cannot co-exist with closed and politicised decision-making.

So there is another political gap.

*

And when there are political gaps, the political hobgoblins appear.

They are an index of the failure of a government to properly explain a complex policy issue and to engage with the public.

The easy answers promoted by the political hobgoblins have little or no merit in themselves, but this does not matter.

The political hobgoblins do not care, for they thrive in the political gaps.

And that is why political populists should always be taken seriously, for they are an indication of political failure.

Political hobgoblins exist to warn us.

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31 thoughts on “The importance of Nigel Farage and other political hobgoblins”

  1. Farage has worked out that political capital is far more valuable than actual seats in parliament. If anything, the fact there isn’t (currently) a general election for another four years means he and his chums can sit on the sidelines being disruptive and gaining support without the responsibility of delivering anything tangible.

    This second lockdown is markedly different from the first, both in its implementation and its framing. While in March there may have been a sense that the lockdown should have come a little earlier, most were prepared to give the Government some slack given that it was unprecedented and we appeared to be working together for a common goal.

    Since then, Johnson and co have thrown so much public good will down the toilet by not following their own rules, voting for kids to go hungry, getting into petty political squabbles, and ultimately demonstrating that they have a broad disdain for the people they’re meant to be governing.

    Almost everyone I’ve spoken to seems to mistrust this government’s approach, and feels like this second lockdown could have been avoided by more positive action. Some are intending to use every possible freedom allowed them, while some are simply going to break the rules on a low level when it comes to seeing friends and family in private settings. There is no real sense that people are seeing this as their responsibility to fix any more, and I think a message which says that lockdowns aren’t necessary – that they’re the symptom of a weak and ineffective government who don’t listen to their own expert advisors – will be very compelling. Especially if we end up facing the real prospect of a lockdown over Christmas.

    Add to that Farage’s natural charisma, his perception as a straight talking man-of-the-people, the positive message that this could all be avoided and we could live fairly normally. Then add the multiplier of Farage automatically appearing regularly on the BBC, especially Question Time, and you have a perfect storm where Farage can be the kind of popular opposition figure that Starmer could never really be.

    1. “He and his chums can sit on the sidelines being disruptive and gaining support without the responsibility of delivering anything tangible.”

      Absolutely.

      If Farage was actually in charge right now his “go ahead and smoke / go maskless / ditch that seatbelt” approach to populist dissent would result in Trumpist-levels of Covid infection, and he probably knows it too.

      But what he also knows is that by staying safely on the sidelines and chirping his dangerously disruptive propaganda he can watch the whole sh*tshow unfold without taking an ounce of responsibility for what he causes – exactly as he did with Brexit.

      “Power without responsibility” – where have we heard that before?

  2. Cracks in the pavement? Remind me how many Brexit Party candidates were elected to Brussels on the only occasion they stood. They got there by engaging with the public who were tired of the EUs nest-feathering. Some pavement. Some cracks.

    1. Roger, talking of nest–feathering, need I remind you that most Brexit Co MEPs had atrocious attendance and voting records, despite drawing down their full salaries? Anne Widdecombe (who was the third highest paid MEP, with 5 Brexit Co MEPs taking places in the top 10 of the list of shame) was the 737th worst attendee amongst all MEPs. Farage only bothered to turn out for 20% of roll-call votes, the 739th worst record of all. Some nest, some feather bedding.

      1. I a man poor in wallet and education and unfamiliar with your percentage spin, am aware of the cronyism that is going on and the financial killing that is being made! While the spirit of the people is broken the river of tears will drown us all.
        Alienbrother

  3. It is tempting to nod sagely at the author’s analysis.

    But I respectfully suggest that he is wrong: England tends to the right wing and the populist, has for as long as I have been an adult (I am now 60) and Mr Farage and his fellow travellers know this and reflect it, (and of course exploit it).

    In this light, isn’t England merely following its natural inclinations? It’s a myth that the populace will, if things are ‘properly explained’ to them, nod theoir heads sagely and do the ‘right’ thing.

    1. But England was (and still is) split as near as damnit 50:50. The failure of Remain wasn’t the People but Cameron idiotically not imposing a 60:40 outcome.

      1. Thank you for your response.

        Tony Blair has a story that he tells about canvassing his constituency in the 1990’s, and talking to a craftsman about his voting intentions one sunny Sunday. The man explained that he came from a Labour-voting family but that he no longer voted Labour – he would vote for whoever put most money in his pocket.

        Mr Blair explained how that encounter influenced his approach to elections, and policy. I recall a Labour agent in my constituency (a traditional coal and factory town in West Wales) remarking to me in 1997 that his leader ‘wasn’t Labour at all’ and hence to all the jibes about Red Tory, etc.

        It was, and still is, the new political reality.

        An FT reader summed it up, for me: “The English are the kings of irony – it’s where the working class votes Tory and the middle classes vote Labour”.

        This, and not being a hobgoblin, is the secret of Mr Farage’s appeal.

  4. A lockdown you say needs “leadership”; but it also needs compliance and trust.

    A lockdown is really an expression of failure on many levels. A failure of self-isolation on a voluntary basis, a failure of “test and track”, the ability to find people who may have been infected, and then to ensure that they do actually isolate.

    The failure of “test and track” is political; the inability or refusal to accept that such tracking and ensuring isolation are best done at a local level, and by a public service rather than wholly inexperienced and ill-equiped “experts”. The inability to provide adequate tests is a belief in the private sector’s ability to do this, and a need for “exceptionalism”.

    In short, it is a failure of neo-liberalism. It’s the primacy of the economy over people. A triumph of hope and belief over evidence.

    1. Hobgoblins are “mischevious” and evil; they are carpet-bagging opportunists. The opportunity here is “failure”, the failure of the UK to care for its citizens, and to properly inform them of what’s happening. Such hobgoblins use the methods of fascism as a way to gain power. (The ideology isn’t so important.) The method includes:

      The identification of “enemies”
      The use of “victimisation”
      The ideas of nostalgia, loss, a mythical past
      Gaslighting, propaganda, and “fake news”

      And ultimately all power resides in the Leader.

      More here: http://www.progressivepulse.org/brexit/fascism-as-a-methodology-rather-than-an-ideology

  5. Shrewd . Farage deserves to be taken seriously for the way he exploits gaps and disconnects. As you suggest he is something of a weathervane . He spots the long unmet need or rumbling discontent which has not found full expression in public discourse and makes it his cause .

    He is also skilled at using the tools available ( Right Wing press cheerleaders setting news agenda and Broadcasters’ ‘balance’) to amplify his tendentious messages

    Media has existential crisis in dealing with falsehood and outright lies – cf PM’s claims about Mayor of London bankrupting TfL . Objectively it is a falsehood . One would be hard put to find coverage on the broadcast media to that effect

    Farage thrives in the interstices between fact and falsehood where collectively we fail to weed out the lies he plants .As yet hardly anyone ( excepting possibly Jacinda Arden) has found a truly effective way of countering populist politicians . Will Wednesday be a watershed moment?

  6. Taking a distant view of your situation in the UK, and it appears that you are now by far the worst affected country of any note in the EU (sic), it is perplexing that at the outset the Covid-19 situation arising was not taken more seriously and masks, when out an about, not made mandatory (as they are in South Africa). This still appears to be the situation as observed on TV despite the worsening situation. It seems that with the Johnson government that there has been a consistent treatment of the pandemic as being “half pregnant” and as a result the country has never got on top of it and is not likely to. Even now your schools and universities are still being kept open for the four week shut down period and transmission will surely leak through this wide open door.

    The South African government has been criticized for many things, and not without good reason. One of them was overacting initially to the virus with an initially overly reactive shut down and then being too slow in easing through progressive steps. This is also coupled with the fact that many of the citizens will wear their masks when in the shops, but their observances outside and in communal taxis, the main form of transport, leaves a lot to be desired. The approach has however apparently paid off and our rate of infection has dropped considerably albeit still on a relatively high plateau. See https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/south-africa/

    The problem is that all people, wherever in the world, and particularly the youth, have grown sick and tired of the restrictions and are knowingly taking chances and many are unlikely to observe fully harsher restrictions, particularly now being imposed in the UK. This is a tragedy for the UK and I can foresee that the current 4 weeks lockdown being extended to at least the end of the year.

  7. You can always tell DAG is serious when the repressed folkslorist comes out – This time, with properly contexualised hobgoblin references

    Trechant analysis as ever

  8. The political mainstream is trying to pander to the stupid portion of voters. They remain isunderstood, reasoning in a non-stupid way. However, they create a conduitfor the faragoes ofthis world to use. The faragoes can and will talk the language of the stupid.*

    +By “stupid” i do not mean the less intelligent, but those removed from the need to make their own opinion on complex issues as they do not evidently correspon with their evryday.

    Deeep respetcs,

    andrej klemenčič, ljubljana, slovenia

  9. Excellent piece. But it gives rise to the question, ‘How do you generate political support for complex issues?’. The answer is surely first to look at how you don’t: by sticking with an antiquated adversarial political system and culture: by organising simplistic, divisive referendums in such a culture. And then to look at what you need in its place: the generation of a political culture that reflects better the complexities involved in managing society, that is based in discussion rather than confrontation (heated though that may become), that accepts the need for compromise and that politics is not a zero sum game.

  10. Once Wednesday’s result is in we will see if the Russians have not won already. Bojo also well on the road to Russification, looking after his own and don’t forget the rest of you are serfs, here to be exploited. The ultimate in alt right?

  11. The hobgoblins have been coming through the cracks here in Spain over the last couple of days, with disturbances in several cities. Lockdown no doubt makes life harder for creatures of the night, such as traffickers of various kinds. I’m guessing they’re only too keen to open the cracks wider and encourage the hobgoblins into the breach. Also, the newish right wing Vox party is slow to condem the disturbances but will then use the chaos to attack the government on ‘law and order’.

  12. Hobgoblin doesn’t really crack it.
    These people are more like the devils in the Old Mystery Plays, pulling the spectator in with their fizzing malevolence, stirring up fear and anger. That’s why the television and newspapers love the, and ‘big them up’.
    Lionel Barber in the FT extract from his diaries last Saturday told how gave a platform to UKIP leader as a party trick to speak at a dinner. More fool him.
    But politics is not a fiction, a play we can walk away from , a book we can put down and forget. The damage these pantomime devils do is real, damage to our economy, to people’s jobs and wealth, damage to our country by inciting fear, anger, division and xenophobia.
    Rather than promoting this ‘new party’ the television and papers should be looking back to what the pantomime devils have done to us, and burying them in the deepest pits of obscurity, which for them would be very hell.

  13. Great as always. I think it’s another example of how high a price we pay for a First Past the Post system and the two party system it leads to. Farage does speak for a constituency of voters who have historically been welded into the Conservative Party (hence the great influence Farage has been able to have on that Party, despite never winning a Westminster seat). Labour is a similarly uneasy coalition as has been plain for at least 30 years. And arguably the 100 year division between Liberals and Labour makes little sense.
    Rationally, were it not for FPTP, there should be (at least) 4 significant parties in England (it would be different elsewhere) i.e. Nationalist-Populist, centre-Right, liberal-Left, and Socialist. That wouldn’t remove ‘hobgoblins’, of course, but crucially it would institutionalise them, by removing the political gaps you talk about, and in the process would require them to make the compromises and take the responsibilities which at the moment they are free to pretend are unnecessary and are able to avoid.

  14. Dare I suggest that Mr Johnson’s natural role (and preference) would be as a political hobgoblin – but he became prime minister, and so has to deal with them (the hobgoblins) instead.

  15. Seeing Farage and indeed populist negationists as a kind of weather vane is an interesting way of viewing them. Without agreeing with you on the ins and outs of the EU I think you are right.

    But what such populists do also is provide a herd cover for the fascists to work within. Here in the Irish state we have seen three fascist parties working with other negationists to provide a common front (though that has been fracturing recently). There are connections to the British Far Right also, for example Farrage and Jim Dowson.

    To come to power, fascist movements need not only to attack the Left, migrants, LGBT and others but also to be seen as energetic critics of the status quo. Of course, once in power, they will replicate and even exaggerate many of the wrongs of the system they have overthrown. But by then their grip on society will be so much greater.

  16. Farage reminds me of Berlusconi and Salvini in Italy. These two monsters just filled the vacuum whose doors the major parties had left wide open.

    As regards ‘legitimacy’, Franco Moretti, the Italian literary historian and theorist, wrote in his book ‘Ways of the World’ (London, 1987) that
    “It is not enough that the social order be legal; it must also appear symbolically legitimate. It is also necessary that as a free individual, not as a fearful subject but as a convinced citizen, one perceives the social norms as one’s own. One must internalise them and fuse external compulsion and internal impulse into a new unit until the former is no longer distinguishable from the latter. This fusion is what we usually call call ‘consent’ or ‘legitimation’. If the Bildungsroman appear to us still today as an essential, pivotal point of our history, this is because it has succeeded in representing this fusion with a force of conviction and optimistic clarity that will never be equalled again.”

  17. I used to share the same view as many people of Farage, as being the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, since he currently occupies no position of strength in any political assembly, his actions speak so much louder. He has taken up the mantle of investigative journalist, spending days and weeks patrolling the coastal seas, largely around Winchester, documenting the nature of the arrival of asylum seekers. He has posted videos showing French Naval vessels repeatedly escorting boat loads from Middle East / North Africa and literally handing them over to UK Border Vessels, often with their transponders off. What does he have to gain from this? No-one in government listens to him or acts on his information. Could it be he is just trying to demonstrate how right up to Brexit, as a nation we’re getting pissed on the rest of Europe

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