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Opinion: 'The Farage approach would strip the heart from democracy'

The Brexit Party is leading the polls but has refused to publish a manifesto – that approach poses a threat to democracy, writes Matthew Murphy.

Matthew Murphy

WHATEVER YOUR FEELINGS on the man few will disagree that Nigel Farage is one of the most transformative politicians of his generation.

Operating on the fringe of British politics for years, he waged what often seemed like a one-man war on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

He, more than any other person, was responsible for reviving the Eurosceptic cause, pushing it back into mainstream conservative politics, a move which ultimately pressured David Cameron into calling the referendum that would precipitate his doom, in 2016.  

Similar to the way Donald Trump embraced his outsider status in the US Presidential election, the core of Farage’s appeal has always stemmed from his ability to avoid presenting himself as a conventional politician.

He has built a hugely successful political brand from his blokey, bombastic persona.

Rarely pictured without a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the success of Farage and UKIP was almost entirely driven by the sheer force of his personality.

In a system where politicians have always maintained a healthy distance from their constituents, the convivial Farage seemed the sort of bloke you could meet in a pub in any provincial English village.

In truth though, it has always been quite hard to determine precisely what Farage stood for.

Sure, he was pro-Brexit, but what were his thoughts on university tuition fees or the future of the NHS for example?

Beyond vague, brash pronouncements on opting out of the NHS in favour of private insurance, he and his party, were virtually impossible to nail down on any topic that extended beyond the EU – a subject upon which his opinions were often equally nebulous.

To be fair to Farage, the British electorate knew for the most part what UKIP was about.

They were a single-issue party and in such circumstances did it really matter what a hypothetical Farage government proposed to do about esoteric issues like fox hunting? 

UKIP policy positions were vaguely developed at best but at least they went through the motions of setting out what they stood for.

The 2019 version of Nigel Farage, hardened by three years of what he has termed the ‘Brexit betrayal’ is an entirely different proposition.  His new Brexit Party has entirely eschewed the political norm. 

With just weeks to go before the European elections and polling at an impressive 34%, the party has resolutely refused to publish a manifesto.

When challenged on this on the BBC’s The Marr Show – Farage flew into a rage, before responding in a typically grandiose manner. “I never want to use the word manifesto again“, he seethed. 

He brashly announced that “the Brexit Party will never have a manifesto”.

Sadly, this sort of bluster has become the norm in Brexit Britain.

The strategy employed by many politicians is this – avoid offering any concrete solutions that you could be held to later, before proceeding to attack the Prime Minister, or the EU, depending on the prevailing mood of the week. 

After that move swiftly to condemn the lack of impartiality on the part of the  British media.  

It is in this frenzied, toxic atmosphere that the apocalyptic nature of Farage’s comments seems destined to fall on deaf ears.

The Farage approach would strip the heart from democracy.

It would remove rational debate from the political arena, reducing elections to nothing more than emotional reactions.

Rather than winning rational debates on policy, your success becomes entirely dependent on your ability to craft the more emotionally resonant narrative.

Instead of appealing to people by finding ways to make their lives better, you figure out which message is most likely to hit home and that message is almost always one of anger and one that needs a convenient scapegoat.

The kind of election pursued by Farage, therefore, is more akin to choosing the winner of X Factor than picking an MEP.

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It is important to note just how centrally this strikes to the core of what democracy does.

Debate, that is devoid of policy, is absolutely poisonous to any form of effective governance.

When we remove genuine policies from the equation and ask people to vote purely on ‘gut instinct’ we destroy the feedback loop that makes democracy function as it removes the sort of information that a government needs to respond to the vote.

Sure, when a campaign like Farage’s, which is almost exclusively built around the narrative of the great ‘Brexit betrayal’, achieves 34% in an election poll, it is clear that many people are not happy with the direction that the country is going.

But it tells us virtually nothing beyond that.

Apart from Brexit – what do the people that voted for that party want? Which domestic problems would they prioritise? It is impossible to know where they stand on any of the other issues. 

Therein lies the danger of Farage’s new, responsibility-free politics.

It chips away at the core function of democratic elections when the people are asked to determine the future direction of the country – replacing it with a vote that registers nothing more than a nebulous, emotive response.

Worse still, it allows men like Farage the opportunity to use this hazy endorsement as a mandate for whatever suits their purposes on a given day. And that terrifies me. 

Matthew Murphy is a final year law student in Trinity College and is the Opinion Editor of the University Times. 

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