Last week I was in Amsterdam, where I joined civil servants and diplomats for a discussion on refugees. At one stage the subject of Geert Wilders came up, unsurprisingly since this far-right populist holds a commanding lead in opinion polls despite going on trial for inciting hatred against minorities. Some officials mused they might be unable to work for a government led by such a divisive character; others insisted they had a democratic duty to respect the wishes of voters.
It was a fascinating chat. Inevitably, the rise of the Nazis in neighbouring Germany was invoked. Wilders has never hidden his desire to lead the Netherlands. Yet five years ago he was acquitted of making anti-Islamic remarks after comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf and calling for a "towelhead" tax. Now he is accused of asking supporters if they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in Holland, then pledging to "take care of that" when they chanter "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!" in response.
One in 50 Dutch people has Moroccan heritage, yet the man heading a party that has surged into the lead in opinion polls called them "scum" on television. Like many populists, the peroxide blond politician courts controversy, despite living under 24-hour police protection. Typically, he exploits the latest terrorist atrocities by demanding the Dutch Prime Minister resign over failures to heed Turkish warnings when one of the Brussels bombers was deported to Holland. I was relieved to hear a consensus that other parties would refuse to join government with his party for Freedom.
Arriving back in Britain, I found our own right-wing populist party doing its best to link the Brussels attacks to Brexit. This left Nigel Farage defending himself against criticism over using mass murder for political advantage after claiming Brussels was lawless and "the jihadi capital of Europe". It was the Ukip leader’s latest attempt to heat up his rhetoric and grab attention. But his crass comments were overshadowed by the suspension of Suzanne Evans, one of the party’s few appealing faces who has fallen out with her leader.
The two stories show why Britons should give thanks for Farage. Obviously, like most voters, I do not want to see him and his absurd views anywhere near Downing Street. As Ukip leader he gives reactionary voice to those disenchanted by modernity, disgruntled by globalisation and fearful of foreigners; it was good to see his party flop in the general election. Yet look at the likes of Wilders and other far-right demagogues inflaming the anti-political mood across Europe, and then take another look at Nigel with his pints, fags and ready quips.
Farage comes from a recognisable strand of British conservatism, a successor to the satirical Sir Tufton Bufton beloved of Private Eye yet infused with irreverent spirit that plays well in modern media. For all his faults, his flirting with Islamaphobia, his fulminating over refugees and some of his unpleasant fellow travellers, he is far from a neo-fascist.
Indeed, the rise of Ukip played a key role in destroying the British National Party by offering refuge for many of those voters angered by Westminster. Even Marine Le Pen, the supposedly-moderate Front National leader in France, has faced hate crime charges after comparing Muslims praying to the Nazi occupation.
Perhaps even a prejudiced populist such as Farage reflects well on Britain’s moderation and reputation for tolerance. He shows that this remains an essentially decent nation despite alarm over immigration, fears over jihadist terrorism, rising job insecurities and concerns for the next generation. This seems to be a place that prefers a joker to a hater when challenging the status quo, a country whose people will not accept an angry racist bigot playing a serious role in the political process unlike some neighbours.
Last week we saw also the flip side of Farage, offering another reason for our gratitude. For once again we saw evidence that he is a self-serving egotist who will do anything to protect himself from pretenders to his throne. The presentable Evans is just his latest victim, sacked first as deputy chairwoman then suspended for "disloyalty". (Evans failed in a High Court bid on Tuesday to overturn a six-month suspension from the party for "bringing it into disrepute". She dismissed the claims against her). Evans is, remember, the person who wrote Ukip’s manifesto last year, and who Farage himself suggested as interim leader during his strange, short-lived resignation.
The Ukip leader’s allies suspected Evans was part of a group planning a coup. Many others have felt his sharp elbows, from party founder Alan Sked to more recent leading lights such as former Tory Douglas Carswell, its solitary MP, who seems marooned in Ukip. Another recent high-profile recruit, former political journalist Patrick O’Flynn, quit last year as economics spokesman after saying Farage had become a "snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive” man who made Ukip appear like a “personality cult". It was a rare chance for voters to hear in public the sort of things said by his colleagues in private.
This civil war weakens his side, as seen again with the infighting Farage provoked in the bickering Brexit camps in his determination to ensure prominence. So let us celebrate the Ukip leader. Yes, he posses toxic views and is obsessed with protecting his own back. But we could be confronted with so much worse, as seen in places such as Holland, while for all his undoubted flair for publicity he is corroding his cause with his rampant ego. Long may he remain their party leader.
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