Nigel Farage has been (and remains) one of the most divisive figures in British politics of the post-war period. He is a hero to many, and a villain to many others. Very few would claim to have a neutral opinion of Farage, his values, and his impact on the UK.
Whether his contributions will be considered a blessing or a curse will largely depend how his crowning achievement plays out over the coming decade. Those who think of Farage as a hero will want to see Brexit succeed, whilst those who see him as a villain will want to be proven right that Brexit was a mistake.
But one of the key questions is whether we have heard the last of Farage since he announced his intention to retire from frontline politics. Over recent years we have got used to seeing Farage as the leader of UKIP and later the Brexit Party.
It was clear what he aimed to achieve, and how he saw the UK’s future outside of the European Union. So his retirement may suggest a complete departure from the public eye, which for some will be a matter of celebration, and for others a moment to mourn.
However, it is highly unlikely we’ve seen the last of the divisive leader – partly because Brexit represented an expression of discontent at issues that continue in Britain today. For example, the sense of disconnect and discontent with political authority is as strong today as it was when UKIP rose to significance following the financial crisis.
Mainstream politicians remain subjects of controversy over issues of competence and ability to demonstrate effective leadership. Also, the crisis of national identity remains as questions over the future of the United Kingdom linger, and it’s not clear if the UK will even exist a decade from now. This all creates a sense of anxiety and uncertainty.
Internationally, the overarching question since the winds of change and the decline of the Empire also remains: put simply, what is Britain’s place in the world?
When this question was last posed, the UK’s place was uncertain because of the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as global superpowers and a new international makeup that eschewed the Empires of the pre-war years. Membership of the Common Market (and later EEC) appeared to present an answer to this question.
However, the end of the Cold War, and the changing dynamics of global politics more broadly, means the independent UK is re-entering the world with an entirely different international context again, in which the power of the US has been questioned by a rising China and India, and a Russian state seen as neither ally or enemy.
In the post-Brexit world, Britain’s place will likely be driven by a preference for the anglosphere alongside demonstrations of soft power to exert diplomatic influence. Moreover, it is likely the UK will want a close relationship with European sovereign countries.
But it is unlikely Farage himself will be a feature of these international relationship(s) – but he will be remembered as a key figure who helped bring about the circumstances that facilitated them. Put simply, Brexit has moved the UK into this new position and so it is now one for others such as the Foreign Office to manage.
So this raises the question of how we may continue to feel Farage’s influence. Succinctly, it is in the emerging ‘culture war’ where Farage’s voice will likely be increasingly heard. For this, he doesn’t need to win an electoral test, nor does he need the vehicle of a political party. He has no need to be in Parliament to be prominent.
Rather, all he needs is a recognizable image and a dedicated support-base that he can rely on to repeat and amplify his arguments. Needless to say he has both of these, following a long decade of prominent and visible media campaigns. But what role could Farage play in this new battle?
Put simply, Farage is likely to adopt the role of chief advocate of freedom of speech within a broadly libertarian framework.
This would mean a rejection of ‘hate speech’ as a justification for intervention in controversial debates, whilst celebrating opinions and perspectives that challenge progressive orthodoxies as well as pushing back against the increased sensitivities caused by vocal protest movements.
Within this context any harm caused by speech or offence taken is not sufficient to prevent an individual expressing an opinion, no matter how controversial. For Farage and advocates of libertarianism, this would be an ideal environment across society in which all speech is permitted.
So, on reflection, we are unlikely to have heard the last of Farage. For him, there remains a significant battle ahead on what the UK after Brexit looks like. It is a key moment that will texture the kind of norms, values, and conventions that the independent UK places at the heart of its politics.
Given all we know of Farage and his ability to motivate audiences through his emotive rhetoric, it is highly likely he will be as effective in this new ‘culture war’ as he was over Brexit. A significant difference, however, comes in defining ‘victory’.
During the Brexit referendum, victory was quantified as an electoral result. In this new battle, how victory is conceptualized will be less clear. Regardless, it is unlikely to be declared until Farage believes it has been achieved.
By Dr Andrew Roe Crines, senior lecturer in British politics, University of Liverpool.