So who takes the credit for the Leave vote in the referendum? Or, depending on your taste, who should we blame?
Obviously David Cameron is partly responsible for having called the vote in the first place. Jeremy Corbyn has also attracted a lot of criticism, allegedly for not motivating Labour voers. And then there’s Boris Johnson, whose careering course through the campaign looked at times like a mad gamble doomed to end in disaster, but who can now dream about which guests to invite to Chequers for Christmas dinner.
Apart from them, however, there are three men who really deserve to be recognized for their part in the success of Leave.
The first name is the most obvious. Nigel Farage ended up on the media more than almost anyone else during the campaign, and it was he who delivered the first victory speech early on Friday morning, grabbing the headlines as he had done so often in the preceding weeks. Yet his very ubiquity over the last decade means that sometimes he’s not given the credit he warrants.
Pause for a moment and consider. Because this is a truly extraordinary politician. He’s been the leader of UKIP since September 2006, apart from a twelve-month break in 2009-10, and to all intents and purposes, he is the party. He didn’t found it, and he’s by no means the only leader there’s been, but you’d have to be really very committed to the study of political trivia to recognize the names of the six others.* For everyone else, UKIP is synonymous with Farage. Nobody else counts.
Certainly it’s been he who’s made UKIP’s electoral fortune; without him, it was purely marginal. In the 2005 general election, the party secured 600,000 votes (2.2 per cent of the share). In 2010, during his break, it edged up to 920,000 votes (3.1 per cent). In between those two came the 2009 European Parliament elections, when Farage led the party to second place with 2.5 million votes. Some assumed that this was merely protest, and that it couldn’t be replicated in a Westminster poll. But then, last year, Farage finally got to lead UKIP into a general election and you could see the difference: 3.88 million votes (12.7 per cent), no longer a fringe folly but the third biggest party in the country.
Now he’s gone a massive step further even than that. His popularity was sufficient to panic the prime minister in 2013 into promising a referendum that most people (including me) thought would end with the status quo re-affirmed. Instead, the biggest-ever endorsement in the history of British democracy has seen Farage emerge triumphant. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the rest of the official, establishment-recognized Leave campaign are trying to claim the victory, but we all know that really it’s Farage’s finest hour. Single-handed, he has transformed UKIP from a party of crackpot protest to an agent of power.
Much of what he says and does is seen by many as being divisive and disreputable. Just in a mild way, for example, it was uncomfortable hearing him say this was a win for ‘decent people’, as though the 16 million who voted for Remain were beyond the pale. But simply as a political operator, he deserves the utmost respect. His only rival in recent years has been Alex Salmond, but where Salmond lost his referendum, Farage has won his. He is the most impressive and important politician the country has seen since Margaret Thatcher.
But the conditions had to be right for UKIP to achieve its breakthrough. And the person most responsible for creating those conditions is surely Tony Blair.
In particular, Blair did three things. First, in 1998 he rejected Frank Field’s proposals for reform of the social security system. This was, in terms of domestic policy, the biggest missed opportunity of the New Labour government. Everyone knew that reform was essential and Field, a man who knew his subject and who represented the best of the old traditions of self-help and collective endeavour, produced a Left programme at a time when the nation could afford the upfront costs.
But his ideas were turned down by Blair and by Gordon Brown, and the initiative was left for the Tories to pick up and hand over to Iain Duncan Smith.
The consequence was that more people were cut adrift from the mainstream of society, abandoned to subsist on benefits, left vulnerable to cost-cutting governments when times got tough. And many of the working class, including many of those who were in employment, turned away from a Labour Party that didn’t seem to care about their concerns.
This fed into Blair’s second contribution to the Leave vote last Thursday: the decline in voting. In the 1992 general election, won by John Major, 23 per cent of the registered electorate didn’t vote, a proportion in line with recent years. By 2001, that had risen to 41 per cent; for the first time in the post-war period, the number of those who didn’t vote was greater than the number of those voting for the government. That proportion has fallen slightly in subsequent elections, but it has never fully recovered: 39 per cent in 2005, 35 per cent in 2010, 34 per cent in 2015. Those are people who don’t feel represented. It wasn’t until the referendum that we got back to a pre-Blair level of turnout.
Third, and most important of all, was the spectacular rise of migration under Blair’s government. The figures most often quoted are those for net immigration, but they don’t tell the real story, since they conflate arrivals and departures, and blur EU and non-EU. Here are the official statistics from the ONS:
That huge rise in non-EU immigration from 1997, followed by the sharp increase from Europe in 2003, combined with record levels of emigration by British nationals – that’s the fertile ground that allowed Faragism to grow and flourish. The New Labour years transformed this country, and no explanation was ever offered as to why it was happening.
The flak directed at Jeremy Corbyn in the aftermath of the referendum is understandable but misplaced. Admittedly, he has failed to address any of these issues, but then he was never going to: they weren’t his beef with Blair. There is a growing gulf between Labour’s London leadership and its traditional heartlands, but it didn’t open up on his watch. The fact that many of the party’s supporters and former supporters voted Leave wasn’t primarily his fault; it was more to do with the leader who inspired that sense of deserted desperation in the first place.
And finally, the man who was truly vindicated by this referendum result: the late J. Enoch Powell.
Through most of his career, Powell had three great obsessions in terms of policy, all of them deeply unfashionable at the time, all of them since proved to have been prescient. First, there was his economics. ‘He has an arid and austere gospel, a theory that the Labour Government is ruining the country by printing money,’ wrote the Sun‘s Jon Akass in 1970. ‘I do not think that this proposition will win many votes.’ But his belief in shrinking the role of the state and in monetarist theory went on to become orthodoxy in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
The other two obsessions – a deep dislike of the European project and an objection to mass immigration – came into devastating alignment last Thursday, and the aftershocks will be felt for years to come. Nearly half a century on from the ‘rivers of blood’ speech that ended his front-bench career, Powell has never been more important to British politics.
The upswing in his standing began in the early 1990s. It was a time when Tory backbenchers were defending the Thatcher heritage by rebelling against John Major’s government on the Maastricht Treaty, and many looked to Powell as the great martyr of Euroscepticism. In 1974 he had left the Conservative Party in protest over Europe and cast himself into the outer darkness of Ulster Unionism, putting patriotic principle above ambition, above party. It was the great romantic story of modern Toryism and a new generation were prepared to emulate their hero. Around the same time, two major biographies, by Robert Shepherd (1996) and Simon Heffer (1998), helped reclaim his reputation.
The faith wasn’t spoken of openly – under David Cameron’s leadership, you could be sacked as a candidate for uttering the forbidden mantra ‘Enoch was right’ – but it lived on in secret, an ineradicable strain within the Hard Right.
Powell died in 1998, but even in his last years, he was still arguing his case against Europe. In 1993 he went to the Newbury by-election to speak on behalf of Alan Sked, who was standing for the Anti-Federalist League. The man deputed to drive him to and from the engagement was a 29-year-old commodity broker, who was later to cite the encounter as the reason he decided to devote himself to full-time politics.
That driver, of course, was Nigel Farage, Enoch Powell’s last gift to British politics.
And so we end where we began, with the man of the moment. He’s never been elected to parliament, despite repeated attempts, and he’s even at daggers drawn with the one MP that his party has to its name, but right now, Farage can claim to have transformed the nation’s fortunes in a way that neither his hero Powell, nor his enemy Blair, ever managed.
* Alan Sked, Craig Mackinlay, Michael Holmes, Roger Knapman, Jeffrey Titford, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, since you ask.