How does Nigel Farage construct the notion of British Identity and how does he use it to serve his purposes?
The politics of British identity
We may know Nigel Farage for being the man of questionable political correctness, the founder and ex-leader of UKIP, the father of Brexit or the relentless critic of the European Parliament, but the fact is that we all know who he is.
Over his course in British and International politics he has gradually made use of the British identity to argue his views, to the point where he himself is constructing a dogma on what British identity means.
One is compelled ultimately to ask the question ‘What constructs British identity?’ and how does Farage use this definition to further his own political stance? This question is answered first by looking at the supporters of Farage and why they find his message so compelling; and second by examining how and why Farage excludes or includes certain people in his definition.
Defining British identity
Nigel Farage aims his rhetoric at the needs and interests of ‘the common man’ and it is this same undefined demographic that he uses as the base for creating his ‘British identity’. Maly (2017) writes that “Vox populism is a frame that distinguishes ‘the people’ from the elite. Such frame shapes ‘the people’ without defining it too explicitly” and it reflects perfectly what Farage is attempting to do with his rhetoric: Setting ‘the Brit’ as abused by ‘the elite European Union’ and placing himself as the rectifier of this situation.
Much like Maly’s ‘the people’, ‘the Brit’ is “a very flexible concept, changing meaning depending on the context” (Maly, 2017) meaning that the term ends up acting as an umbrella term for multiple different demographics who will be targeted in the hope that ultimately they will“support the candidate who seemingly voices their concerns” (Maly, 2017).
Since social democrats have swapped targeting blue collar workers for the ‘urbanite’ vote, the proletarian workers have been left voiceless.
These demagogue tactics are without a doubt defining characteristics of a populist. Since social democrats have swapped targeting blue collar workers for the ‘urbanite’ vote, the proletarian workers - those worst affected by globalisation - have been left voiceless and without representation in their own government. This vacuum has allowed for right wing nationalists to re-voice their concerns and embed them within their discourse, not in the redistributive justice suggested by the left, but in a nationalistic discourse against the globalist elites who have turned their attention to glamorous causes and betrayed their own citizens. As a result, ‘the common man’ has recently shifted its vote to the right (Curtis, 2017).
The ethno-cultural definition British identity
Farage - like Trump and other politicians of today - has built a manifesto around and for these people, telling them that their problems are the fault of their globalist leaders, because they were focusing their attention on immigrants rather than on the real citizens who needed their help. Farage constructs the ‘British identity’ as the sole focus of British governance, he contrasts the ‘white British’ with ‘immigrants’ thus implicitly constructing ‘the British people’ as white, middle class Brits with shared ethno-cultural traits.
In order for this rhetoric to serve his political needs, Farage needs to incite division in the population through emotional arguments. He warns the population that, not only are these immigrants the new ‘favourites’ but they are also taking over the country: “in many parts of England you don't hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren” (Sparrow, 2014).
Farage depicts immigration and the multiculturalism or multilingualism that it supposes as a problem, because it degenerates British identity. To him the British people are of British cultural background and English speaking, so any force that causes deviation from this means a threat to British identity; “I don't understand them … I don't feel very comfortable in that situation and I don't think the majority of British people do” (Sparrow, 2014).
It is much easier to marginalise part of the population on the basis that they are different and, once they have been ostracised from the ‘British population’ demographic you can create sides. As Farage is on the side of the British, anyone against him is betraying their country.
'Us' - the true Brits and 'them' - the migrants
In fact, if we pay attention to Farage’s rhetoric, he has been almost obsessive about creating this ‘us’ vs ‘them’, not only to fit his views on immigration, but also to fit them on the Brexit matter, “Farage says blue passports are FIRST SIGN Brits are getting their country back” (Cambell, 2017). This clearly shows modern anti-Enlightenment thought (Sternhell, 2010 ; Maly, 2012, 2016 & 2018).
A key Enlightenment principle is egalitarianism therefore an enlightenment thinker would advocate for universal rights based on this principle. Farage’s discourse shows the exact opposite: immigrants should leave because they are not like us, we should leave the EU because they are not like us.
Where the universal rights doctrine advocates for rights based on the intrinsic quality of ‘being human’, Farage tries to deny rights by stripping certain Brits of the identity that grants them their rights. Another thing that this implies is that Great Britain exists as an organic nation, and thus all those who do not share the language, religion, history or ethno-cultural background are by default excluded of the benefits that ‘being British’ presupposes. Third but closely linked to the first point: with this he undermines universal human rights.
So how exactly does he establish the British identity? Farage tailors the meaning depending on his political needs, if we follow Burke's ‘unification instrument’ we can see that out of the four points described, Farage subscribes to three of them.
- First of all he instills the idea of an ‘inborn dignity’ and rights upon his people because of the fact that they pertain to that country,
- second he constructs a ‘projection device’ as the external cause of all the ills of the nation (the EU),
- third a ‘symbolic rebirth’ which provides the followers with a feeling of moving forward (Brexit).
As these situations have already happened, we ask in retrospect who can have this ‘inborn dignity’ and why Farage created it in such a manner?
The first thing that defines a Brit is the cultural heritage - greatly influenced by religion - one has grown up with. Farage says that we must defend this Christian heritage. But not the actual faith, only the identity it gives the British population, “he speaks not as a defender of the faith — he ventures to church only four or five times a year — but of “our identity”” (Odone, 2013). Farage clearly draws religion as a keystone in British identity because most immigrants do not share it - they mostly come from Muslim, Hindu, or Orthodox backgrounds (Bennet, 2015) - drawing a wedge between two demographics.
This again shows clear anti-Enlightenment thoughts (Sternhell, 2010), not only is he stressing the non-equality of persons but he is also part of the classical trope of anti-Enlightenment thinkers that want to bring religion closer to the nation. This organic conception is what is found in all anti-Enlightenment thinkers and fascists. Benito Mussolini for instance wrote that “Fascism (… ) sees not only the individual but the nation and the country; individuals and generation bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission” (Mussolini, 1932).
Within anti-Enlightenment thought, the State is organic and religion plays a large part in the definition of identity. Farage's thoughts about the nation, identity and religion position him in a very strategic place and in a long political tradition. We all know where on the spectrum he points too, but not exactly where he falls. Additionally, religious tolerance is often advocated by the globalist leaders that have caused the decline in ‘the common man’, so by rejecting these views he is also aligning himself against these people.
The art of the 'on message' gaffe
Even when he ‘eff-s up’ he still maintains his rhetoric intact. A gaffe is just as important for the message as all intentional forms of communication. For example, Obama’s pronunciation of ‘Pakistan’ said a lot about him because it set him apart from the candidates that were unable (or unwilling) to pronounce it correctly (Silverstein, 2003). National Review author Kathryn Jean Lopez (2008) wrote: “When Obama says Pock-i-stahn I have an uncontrollable urge to read the New Yorker and ﬁnd some Chardonnay. Fortunately I have an old copy of NR and a Coor’s Light to snap me back to reality. Seriously though—no one in ﬂy over country says Pock-i-stahn. It’s annoying.” (Lempert, 2012). We see a very similar occurrence in an article in ‘The Independent’: “When people say Ukip is racist, it makes me [Farage] laugh. Look at our intern,” and he [Farage] points to the young woman who delivered us a cup of tea. “She’s half Hindu!” (Odone, 2013).
Farage may or may not be consciously using the word ‘Hindu’ but it has a very powerful effect. Nobody knows exactly what ‘a hindu person’ is (someone who follows the hindu religion, someone who speaks Hindi, or a descendant of the ancient Hindu people?) and this ambiguity helps transmit this message because it creates a sort of awkwardness about the people who share this trait, while being widespread enough to be understood by everybody. With one word he simultaneously dehumanises this generalised group of people as confusing while depicting himself as the ‘common Brit’ who does not have time to learn about each country where they all come from.
He is strategically positioning himself next to all those who proclaim ‘I’m not a homophobe! I have a gay friend!’ because the people who vote for him do not see anything wrong with a statement like that, “not only that, he is expected be the antagonist. These contentious statements what his opponents call lies, racism, sexism and gaffes - all add to the message of being the candidate who is not afraid to speak his mind: the politically ‘incorrect truths’ that upset the establishment” (Maly, 2017). These comments are intended to add to Farage’s high entertainment factor and evoke emotion in his supporters.
Language and British identity
Language - as we have seen above - is another thing that determines British identity. In 2017 Farage gave a speech in which he stated that the UK’s ‘real friends’ speak English “Our real friends in the world speak English, have common law, and stand by us in times of crisis” (García, 2017). This statement is quite interesting because he is simultaneously positioning himself with the United States and against Europe, a doctrine that goes very well with his political goals.
Maly (2017) states that “this radical anti-migration, ethno-cultural nationalism is a successful unification mechanism. It enables the construction and unification of ‘the people’ through vagueness and implicit communication.” The flexibility of this newly created terminology allows Farage to use the identity to justify any behaviour. In the year 2016 a series of politicians and public figures began releasing their tax records, when asked whether he would do the same Farage stated that his answer was “A big no”. Farage was involved in accusations of tax avoidance at the time, so the easiest way out would have been to just release the records, however he stated that “I think in this county what people earn is regarded as a private matter” (Stone, 2016).
As an advocate of British identity his words are contentious because everybody wants to identify as a ‘true Brit’. This serves Farage an incalculable advantage, because if he were to specify what constitutes a ‘true Brit’, one way or another, he would be leaving out a part of a population and would consequently lose their vote. The less concrete he answers questions the easier it is for Farage to bend the meaning, while allowing everybody who wants to to identify himself as the most patriotic Brit the world has ever seen to do so.
This rise of nationalism is surely to be felt in the foreign policy of the country. Farage is interested in aligning himself with Donald Trump and distancing himself from Europe, therefore rather than foreign policy focused on looking outwards it's going to become very introspective. Farage has described the previous president of the United States as “That Obama creature – loathsome individual – he couldn’t stand our country. He said we’d be at the back of the queue, didn’t he?” (Walker, 2016). Farage says this because Obama’s policies were extremely outward-looking, he worked closely with international organisations, and relations with the EU and NATO etc flourished.
Anti-Enlightenment thought - of which we can say Farage is an avid subscriber - is strictly anti-utopian as it is deemed unrealistic and self-serving. This is very evocative of Farage’s thoughts on the EU. Maly (2017) writes that Trump uses globalisation as the new villain, as “the political elite screws [The American people] up; instead of choosing for America, they support globalization. In his account, the bad things that are happening to America are the result of policies that Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton have unfolded (…) The people are thus constructed in opposition of ‘them’, the political ‘cosmopolitan’ elite supporting globalism which destroys American energy and let the migrants enter”.
Farage villanises Obama as someone who causes detriment to the British people and ‘sells’ Trump to these same people by making the latter fit the British identity that he has so carefully constructed “What was interesting was that Trump said we’d be at the front of the queue. However imperfect Donald Trump may be, and my goodness he is, his mother was Scottish, he owns Turnberry, he spends a lot of time in our country, he loves our country, what we stand for and our culture” (Walker, 2016).
Who should benefit from 'being British'?
Farage is undoubtedly a name for history books, his lack of political correctness causes uproar amongst the masses. He fits almost perfectly the character of Lempert and Silverstein’s “straight talker”: his diction is familiar and relatable, his mannerisms are funny and make use of the ‘British wit’, he says things in the mind of the ‘common man’, so it is not a surprise that people believe he ‘says things like they are’. Due to this reputation, his fame and the fact that people want to believe the things that he is saying, he is able to establish the new norm of what ‘being British’ really is.
Additionally, if we factor in his high entertainment factor, it is not surprising he is seen as one who speaks so directly to the hearts of ‘the common’ men and women of Britain. This demographic - in part created by this sort of rhetoric itself - was an untapped source of political impetus that politicians like Trump or Farage have discovered and exploited, the latter, using an extremely flexible notion of national identity. Nobody in 2010 would have expected the political climate that would ensue in only five years, and only history will tell of the repercussions, but one thing is certain: These are interesting times we are living in and power is shifting - once again.
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