Farage, Brexit and the anti-Enlightenment

13 minutes to read
Dieuwertje Schipper

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has had a rather interesting and successful campaign to show the public what he wanted for the United Kingdom. This article analyses his campaign and how the message that he sends through the media can be seen as anti-Enlightened.

An anti-Enlightened nationalistic view

Nigel Farage is the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the British political party that is seen as the instigator for the referendum on Brexit. He founded the party in 1993 and has been campaigning against the European Union ever since. After a 20-year-long campaign, that carried the slogan ‘I want my country back’, he stepped down as leader of the UKIP after reaching his goal: the UK leaving the EU (BBC, 2016).

That he stepped down after reaching his goal shows that his political career can be seen as a campaign to get the UK to leave the EU. This is the one thing he fought really hard for. He wanted the UK to be independent: ‘I always believed that we should govern our own country. I always believed we should be free to reach out and make our own deals with our own friends in the world.” (LibertyPen, 2017). This statement shows that he thinks that the UK should be able to make its own decisions. This was not possible as a member of the European Union,which is one of the reasons he was such a firm opponent of the EU.

As shown by these quotes, Farage can be described as a nationalist, although he calls it ‘nationism’. He says that he believes in the nation state and that the nation state is the unit that you should identify yourself with (LibertyPen, 2017). “It is what we are prepared to fight for. It embodies our values, our families, our communities, our heritage and our identity.” These are the words that Farage uses when talking about ‘nationism’. His points of view are strongly nationalistic, which has become apparent duing his 20-year-long Brexit campaign.

Metaphors like 'open door immigration’  make people believe that border control is insufficient and that it is easy to come to the UK as an immigrant.

This particular nationalistic view - that sees the nation as one community with one identity and one sets of values, that is as natural as our own family - is the prototypical discourse on the nation used in the anti-Enlightenment tradition. This goes against the more common European belief that we live in Enlightened societies. Enlightened values like democracy, racial and sexual equality and full freedom of thought are praised day in and day out.

These values were created in the eighteenth century, the age of the Enlightenment. People started to break with the Ancien Régime, because they no longer believed in the formerly accepted religious and moral absolutes (Zakai, 2006). Therefore, they created their own values, which were based on reason. This radical Enlightenment has shaped the Western world as it is now (Israel, 2009). At least, that is what we are told. Europe and all its nations - we are supposed to believe - are examples of Enlightened thought on the good society. But if we are contently living with Enlightened values, why would we vote for an anti-Enlightened politician?

The anti-Enlightenment movement is as old as the Enlightenment itself. There were philosophers who also believed that the people should break with the Ancien Régime, but they believed that the Enlightenment was not the right way to do so. This movement can therefore be seen as a counter movement against the Enlightenment (Maly, 2016). It is an intellectual and ideological revolt against the fundamental values of the Enlightenment. Anti-Enlightenment thinkers want a different type of modernity (Maly, 2016). Characteristics of anti-Enlightenment thinking include a nationalistic view on the world, being against social equality, anti-universalism and seeing criticism of their policies as a problem. 

With all this in mind, one can conclude that Farage possesses an organicnationalistic view. He believes in the UK as a nation state and just like all anti-Enlightenment thinkers opposes supra-national institutions. He convinced a majority of the Brits that the UK will be better off leaving the EU. . How could he succeed in convincing the majority of the people in the UK to vote in favor of leaving the EU. How did an anti-Enlightened politician get so many people on his side in this 'time of Enlightenment'?

The referendum that changed it all

Sovereign in appearance, the common people in a direct democracy are in reality the slaves of ‘perverse demagogues’ who manipulate and flatter them' (Israel, 2011, p. 815). This quote from Israel (2011) can be used to describe the way Farage fought for a referendum on Brexit. By letting the people decide whether the UK would stay in the EU or leave, he indirectly opted for direct democracy. The outcome of a direct democracy, as the Enlightenment thinkers already pointed out in the 19th century, is probably the outcome the demagogue is pushing for. Farage has invested a lot in an online and offline campaign in favor of Brexit, and as such had a tremendous impact on the public opinion. In that sense, the Brexit referendum can be read as a good example of this Enlightened warning for direct democracy.

Direct democracy is thus not necessarily democratic in the Enlightened sense of the word.

Direct democracy is thus not necessarily democratic in the Enlightened sense of the word. On the contrary, it can be a bad thing, according to Israel (2011):  As people cannot grasp what genuine liberty is, their rule in a direct democracy can be harsher than that of the worst tyrant. Direct democracy is inherently bad, since liberty without reason is of little value in itself (p. 815).

The people, however, believe that what they vote for, will be the best for their country. This opinion is, in most cases, based on too little information in order to be fully aware of what the consequences of the outcome will be. The opinion of the common people is influenced and manipulated by 'perverse demagogues' (Israel, 2011) 

This can be seen in the discourse that Farage uses when talking about the referendum: "This referendum is about more than that. Our politicians have given away the control of our country. They have given away control of our borders, and our message is gonna be clear. We've gotta be assertive. We believe in Britain, we believe in this country, we believe in this people and we want our country back." (RobinHoodUKIP, 2016). He uses his discourse as a way to let the people believe that what is best for the country and for themselves, is to vote to leave. He manipulates the opinions of the people who listen to him. However, the people believe that he gives them the power to decide the fate of their own country; their own lives. 

Perfect timing to campaign for Brexit

The way Farage is framing his discourse is interesting. From the combination of his image and issues, his message comes to the fore (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). Farage positions himself as a man of the people, who isn't afraid of saying what needs to be said, attacking the country's elite and especially the European elite.

He can be categorized as a classic demagogue: framing the elites as the ones explicitly wanting to sell out the country, allowing mass migration and failing to stop terrorism. He's not afraid to use lies and exaggerations to make his point. Farage is communicating on his issues (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012), including border control and leaving the EU. His image consists of a man from the working class, who enjoys drinking pints and who is fighting for an independent UK. Combining those things together, you see a politician who dares to say everything. He tells the people what they want to hear and through his image and issues, he constructs his message. This message is what the public sees as the character of the politician (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). 

His message of being the anti-migration and anti-islam politician is decades old and Farage has been addressing topics like border control and leaving the EU for a long time. Ever since he started a career as politician, he was skeptic about the EU. By being skeptic, he constructed an audience for his message. When the time came for voting on Brexit, ISIS terrorist attacks were happening all over Europe, there was war in the Middle-East and the EU had to deal with a refugee crisis. These events made a certain part of the British population believe in Farage's message. This is an example of what Maly (2017) addresses. When politicians say what the people want to hear or when they tap into anxiety, for example during a crisis, the politician has a good shot at being successful.


Figure 2. A tweet from Farage from Twitter.com


Farage's views on migration were very controversial for example. “Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police” (Stewart & Mason, 2016) was a headline that was used in the papers after Farage presented an anti-migration poster, which can be seen in figure 2. The poster shows a lot of migrants in a queue, with the text: “Breaking point, the EU has failed us all. We must break free of the EU and take back control.”

This shows how Farage thinks about migration. With this poster, he shows that he wants to cut immigration and that he blames the European Union for a failing immigration system. The poster shows 'a gulf of migration', to show what Farage means with 'a failed policy of multiculturalism' (Figure 3). Moreover, he targets the elites of the country who have allowed all of this to happen.

Figure 3. A tweet from Farage from Twitter.com

To communicate this issue to the people, he uses terms like 'open door immigration’. With metaphors like this, he can make people believe that border control is insufficient and that it is easy to come to the UK as an immigrant. However, the policies regarding entering the UK are actually very strict and there is no such thing as 'open door immigration'.

However, even though this isn't true, Farage can make people believe it is by using those terms. It shows that Farage is using a discourse that is typical for the new right movement and is demagogic. In an interview with FoxNews (2017), he literally says "You can't have open door immigration and not bring in terrorism". The tweet in Figure 3 shows another example classic new right discourse. Farage blames the political class for the failed policy of multiculturalism. He claims that this failure has put UK citizens in danger. His discourse on migration is deeply intertwined with a discourse on security, criminality and terrorism.

Farage takes this point even further. He blames the multicultural society in the UK for the terror attack in Westminster (Oppenheim, 2017). He claims that terrorists enter the country because of 'open door immigration'. In his interview with FoxNews (2017), right after the Westminster terrorist attack, he said: "Well, I remember, about five years ago, I said that we had a fifth column living inside our own nation. It was the first time in our history that we had people living amongst us that wanted to destroy our values and actually even wanted to kill us." This is another example that shows that he blames immigrants and the multicultural society for the terrorist attack. 

A successful campaign

It wasn't just his timing that made Farage so successful. There was a really successful campaign behind him and his aim to make Brexit happen. The campaign was a long one, and different modalities were used to get people to understand why Brexit should happen. Moreover, it is seen as an online campaign, which has used new media to a great extent (Polonski, 2016). 


What Polonski (2016) forgets to mention is that Farage also used offline campaigning. He travelled to different cities all around the UK to talk to the people who lived there. This could be in a big hall, or he would knock on the front doors of people to convince them to vote for him or for leaving the EU. This knocking on doors technique was what he used, for example, when he campaigned to become the MP for South Thanet (The Spectator, 2015). As can be seen in the video, Farage tried to crack a joke, but also made people aware of the issues he stood for and debated with them about them. Farage also used offline campaigning for Brexit. He was speaking from his campaign bus in Dudley, for example, to get people to vote for leaving the EU (RobinHoodUKIP, 2016). 



A concrete example to show how engaged Brexit supporters were, are the hashtags #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Those hashtags were trending for a while and they were integrated in online conversations. 

What Polonski (2016) emphasizes, is that the use of new media in the Brexit campaign was unbelievably strong. Polonski's (2005) large-scale social media data analysis shows that the Leave camp knew how to use new media much better than the Remain camp. New media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were dominated by the supporters of Brexit. On Instagram, there were twice as many Brexit supporters as there were Brexit opponents. On Twitter, there were seven times as many Brexit supporters as there were Brexit opponents (Polonski, 2016). When looking at the tweet from Leave.eu, a supporting movement of Brexit, in Figure 4 you can see that this tweet has over 1K retweets and 1.4K favorites. 

Figure 4. A tweet from Leave.eu from Twitter.com

The way the Leave camp has dominated social media has influenced a lot of voters who were not sure what to think at first. Seeing so much support for Brexit might have just pulled them to the Leave camp (Polonski, 2016). Because the Leave camp was so engaged in pursuing their message on social media, they made others and undecided voters believe that they were supported by a diverse public (Polonski, 2016). A concrete example to show how engaged Brexit supporters were, are the hashtags #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Those hashtags were trending for a while and they were integrated in online conversations. 

Something that should not be forgotten when addressing Farage's Brexit campaign, is his use of old media. While the way Brexit supporters used new media was immensely successful, and while Farage is a hit on new media (his Twitter account has over 1 million followers and his Facebook page has almost 800K likes), Farage made extensive use of radio interviews and television as well. Strong communication on social media was picked up by the mass media.

Farage uses radio interviews to make his issues and his image known to the people in the UK. In an interview with Absolute Radio (2015), he talks about the Eurovision Songfestival, beer and karaoke. This is in line with the way people see him as a person. He is often seen with pints or beers in bars, and therefore people see him as a drunk man from the working class. This keeps coming back in his interviews. 

Meanwhile, he keeps addressing serious issues like the banks. This shows that in his interviews, the topics that people want to know more about are his issues as well as his image. People know him as a drunk who makes fun of everything, so his interviews address topics like beer and singing. On the other hand, Farage is a politician who wants to address certain issues that are seen as serious and important. In interviews like this one from Absolute Radio (2015), he can show people his image and his issues at the same time. Using radio interviews like this is also an effective campaigning method, because radio reaches a lot of people. According to RAJAR (2017), 90% of UK residents listen to the radio. 

Direct democracy and the anti-Enlightenment demagogue

In this time of Enlightenment, UK citizens voted for an anti-Enlightened politician that positioned himself as the true defender of democracy. His views on immigration, referenda, nationalism and the nation state, make an anti-Enlightenment thinker. This has caused the UK to leave the EU. Half of Britain is happy with this outcome, but the other half is not. 

For Farage himself, the Brexit campaign has been a great success, as he has now achieved the goal he has been fighting for for the past twenty years. He was this successful because of two things. First, his message appealed to a certain population of the UK. The issues he stands for are increased border controls and leaving the EU. The circumstances (i.e. war, refugee crisis, ISIS) made that these issues appealed to the public. Second, the very active Leave front on new media was important for the success of the campaign. Farage's campaign was mainly an online success, but Farage also used offline media to campaign for leaving the EU. 


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