Last month, in Al Jazeera, Alasdair Soussi wrote about the rise of the “celebrity politician” honing in on the phenomenon of Nigel Farage. Soussi wrote that Farage “took the British political scene by storm” and within just two years had “fulfilled his ultimate ambition” by convincing the British people to vote Leave in the EU Referendum. While Farage is a celebrity now, this is the fundamental misunderstanding of what happened last year. Pundits such as Soussi continue to reduce politics to caricatures while ignoring grassroots political change.
On the 4th of July last year, in the wake of the Brexit result, when Nigel Farage announced that he was retiring from UKIP he indicated that his retirement was for personal reasons, but also because he had achieved what he had gone into politics for in the first place. Straight away, newspapers and social media commentary ran with the narrative of a rat fleeing a sinking ship. He supposedly attempted to cook a daring meal and wandered off once the kitchen caught fire. The same was said at the time of Boris Johnson and even David Cameron.
What surprises me is that this meme still has legs, and we can see it with the Trump election too. Putting aside the highly questionable assertion of a “sinking ship” or a “house on fire”, it is the idea that political movements are led from on high by demagogues, when in reality it is the other way around.
Last year, one writer for The Independent cried that “Cameron, Farage and Johnson collectively crafted one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of modern British politics”. This idea that “they”, a hand full of politicians, plotted Brexit lets these journalists off the hook from digging down into the substance of what is really going on. Moreover, it exposes a view of politics characterized by ownership and subservience. That we as babies have politics done for us, and to us.
This funnily enough was the reason Britain voted the way it did. The people wanted their own ideas and interests reflected by their own government. That was not possible with distant Eurocrats. In fact, Brexiteers shrugging their shoulders when Farage announced retirement shows the legitimacy of their movement. He and others were not all that relevant besides their role as spokespeople and figureheads. Arguments for Brexit and the passion and persuasion that accompanied them were done in large part by small publications. Conversations were had in pubs, in the gym, on lunchbreak at work. Maybe to a lesser extent on campus, but I digress.
Theresa May understood this as a Remainer and vowed to get on with it. It was a wonderful bringing to life of the famous Milton Friedman line – “The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things”.
By focusing on the personalities of the more bombastic characters — the likes of Trump and Farage — the pundits miss the point. Sometimes they allude to “populism” in that oh-so pejorative way, which is just another typical handwave. But really it is their own desire not to deal with popular ideas that people are reacting to and are rejecting. In football terms, this is “attacking the man” and forgetting about the ball or the space. And if you play this way you will lose and lose and lose again — in spite of working yourself into a frustrated mess.
The fit about Farage resigning should in a circular kind of way remind us why the Brexit vote was so important symbolically. When a political movement originates from the ground up it doesn’t matter so much who is at the helm. Those Remainers who were (bizarrely) fretting about the absence of Nigel Farage, don’t worry, everything is going to be okay. There are 17.5 million Brexiteers from all walks of life, and Remainers too, who are thinking about, and arguing about how this is going to go down. Let’s, as grown-ups, rejoice in politics done as it should be, with leaders as our servants and not as our parents.
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