Last Sunday, I went to a Brexit party rally in Frimley, Surrey. The venue was the Lakeside Hotel and Country Club complex, well known as the setting for international darts contests. Inside, 1,200 or so people had gathered to hear Nigel Farage and most of the party’s other would-be MEPs for the south-east region. The atmosphere was roughly as I had expected: highly charged, defiant, often strangely celebratory. But what was most striking was the slickness of the presentation: brisk, elegantly structured speeches and warm-up videos, and the clear sense that everyone had been told to lay off subjects that usually buzz around Farage – immigration, chiefly. Instead, they doubled down on the twin themes of Brexit being denied and delayed, and what that says about the people and institutions in charge of the country.
The first speaker was one Robert Rowland, a candidate with the face, haircut and stiff demeanour of a freshly bought Action Man. “If Brexit fails, we cease even to be a democracy,” he said. “The duplicitous professional political class will have prevailed. The last three years have seen Britain’s establishment – the civil servants, the majority of MPs from both parties, academia, the judiciary, and of course let’s not forget the BBC” – at this point, there were loud boos – “do their damnedest to delay, diffuse and dilute Brexit. Parliament has abolished the referendum and declared war on the British people … There might not be tanks on the streets, but make no mistake: this is a coup against democracy.”
Forty minutes later came a candidate called Matt Taylor. “Our democracy is young and we still have to fight for it,” he told the crowd. “Now, they call it representative democracy. And representative democracy means that the representatives can do what they like. I say, no, that’s not democracy. In a democracy, the people are the power.” Soon after, Farage appeared, grinning from ear to ear and bellowing out his super-charged version of the same messages. The chant that greeted him suggested that if some English people have embraced the politics of wild claims and demagoguery, it at least comes with a certain bathos: “Nigel! Nigel! Nigel!”
Not, of course, that anyone should be laughing. There is something very sobering indeed about watching a handful of chancers lay in to the fragile mesh of institutions and ideas that underpin our democracy, and a head-spinning quality in the fact that they do so in the name of democracy itself. It has echoes not just of the current darkness that defines the US and much of mainland Europe, but things that go much further back. Among the many things proved by the history of the 20th century is that once such opinions gain momentum – and fuse with claims of national humiliation and betrayal, another cliche much in evidence at the rally – it rarely ends well, to say the least. [Continue reading…]