Richard North, 08/05/2019  

Despite the very obvious threat of giving a rampant Farage an electoral platform, it seems that the two party leaders, May and Corbyn, are unable to get their collective acts together and stop the absurdity of the UK taking part in the European elections.

One cannot expect the opportunist Farage to refuse the gift handed to him on a plate by two politicians who have clearly transcended mere incompetence to bring crass ineptitude to new levels in the annals of British politics. In their inability to manage the Brexit process, they have completely lost control of the political agenda, handing it to a shallow demagogue who will do what demagogues do, and have done through the ages.

By a convenient quirk of timing, we got yesterday the news via David Lidington that the May/Corbyn deal was not going to be concluded in time to avoid the elections, at the same time the demagogue was basking in the attention of a London press conference, laying out his issue-illiteracy for all the world to see.

Through this we find that the man has not progressed intellectually in his position on Brexit and, if anything, has regressed. He now wants a no-deal withdrawal, which he calls a "WTO Brexit", asserting that a victory for his plaything party in the Euro-election would amount to a national endorsement of this option.

This, he converts into conferring "democratic legitimacy" to a departure on those terms on 31 October. Of himself and his supporters, he says: "We absolutely believe that the UK must, must, must leave on that date".

Then, having set out to define a "no-deal" scenario – marking the termination of any negotiations with the EU – the man demonstrated his fundamental lack of grip by arguing that "our elected MEPs" should play a significant role in the future negotiating team.

Certainly, they will need something to do if the government has its way – not that that seems likely these days. Lidington – he who says the talks won't make the deadline - says he hopes the deal will be concluded with Corbyn by Tuesday 2 July.

That magic date is when MEPs are scheduled to take their seats in the newly-elected European parliament. Lidington thus declares that "ideally" British MEPs will not need to be there but, as a fallback, the agreement should "certainly" be passed by the summer recess, normally mid/late July.

In the meantime, we have an unprecedented political mess on our hands. Normal politics has ceased, held in suspension awaiting resolution of this interminable drama. And the longer the delay, the more damage done to the nation – not only economically but in terms of self-esteem.

No good can come of this. Farage's agenda is fundamentally sterile, offering no path to a resolution. The WTO option is not an answer to the UK's Brexit problems, and to pursue this line is not helpful. And if we end up dropping out in October on those terms, the repercussions will be severe.

The trouble is that a mischief-maker such as Farage, with a high public profile but with no responsibility for the consequences of anything he proposes, can easily dump "crowd pleasers" into the public domain with not the slightest justification and then walk away from the resultant mess.

There is not the slightest possibility that the WTO option is viable, and Farage has never even attempted to make the case for it. He simply asserts his preference and lets the volume of applause from his disciples make the case for him. This is policy by acclamation, by-passing rationality and mere evidence.

It is, of course, the superficiality of the attraction which makes it so easy. The allure of a "clean break" has everything the feeble-minded want to see. It promises an uncomplicated withdrawal with no further troublesome attachments, an immediate cessation of those detested bills and freedom to act on the global stage. What's there not to like?

That the scenario is fantasy is neither here nor there. The demagogue does not have to demonstrate viability. The mere promise is enough and as long as the crowd is enraptured, the job is done. Counter-arguments are either ignored or dismissed as "project fear". The people have spoken and their will shall be done.

Under normal circumstances, the very superficiality of the case would eventually see it fade away. But these are not normal times. With the establishment parties making egregious missteps, arrogantly dismissing real concerns and justified criticisms, Farage – the professional politician of twenty years' standing – can cast himself as the "man of the people", standing up for the rights of the common man against the uncaring "establishment".

A prime minister who is rooted in the problems of the real world – not all of her own making – having to look for answers which have real world applications, can look flat-footed against the easy rhetoric of the practised demagogue. May versus Farage, still with his boyish smile, is an uneven match. In the rhetorical stakes, he wins every time.

And the more interminable and complex Brexit appears, the more Mrs May takes on the character of a frenzied animal trapped in quicksand, affording the smiling Farage the role of the timely rescuer, holding a coil of rope.

The more this situation develops, though, the more I begin to understand the situation in Germany of the 1920s and early '30s. When the population is confronted with prolonged bouts of indecision and uncertainty, it turns to the demagogue – the man with the easy, certain answers who will end the pain.

The moment one makes such parallels, though, the Muppet tendency rises up to accuse me of making out Farage to be a Nazi. For all his many faults, though, Farage is not that, and his plaything party will never be anything like Hitler's creation.

Nevertheless, Farage is what Hitler was – a demagogue. And he doesn't need the Jews as long as he has the scapegoat of the European Union. Nor does he need answers because, for the demagogue, the answer is to pass the burden of sin onto the scapegoat and tip it over the cliff. Worryingly, a significant proportion of the nation is in danger of being seduced by this nostrum, casting rationality aside.

Whatever the attractions, though, it must be emphasised again and again that this is the road to ruin. There is no crock of gold at the end of the rainbow and no happy ending that comes with chasing after fantasy solutions. Nothing a demagogue has to offer ever ends well.

The Brexit process presents one of the most difficult challenges any post-war government has had to face, and in some respects is harder to manage than fighting a war. In the latter event, at least the enemy is known and the objective is easy to define. Victory is such a simple word to understand.

With Brexit, what does "victory" mean? In Farage land, it means vanquishing the evil European Union, whence we can all raise our eyes to the vision of those sunlit uplands which are the rightful reward of every freeborn Englishman. In the real world, though, it means crafting a complex, messy relationship with a complex and not altogether helpful or likeable set of neighbours who have the temerity to have their own agendas and demands, with whom we have to agree a messy compromise.

Those who think that Farage has anything to offer in this respect are deluding themselves. Not least, the trauma of a no-deal Brexit – if that is what Farage achieves – could be so debilitating to us as a nation that, within years, the remainers, re-cast as joiners, could force on us another referendum which would have us back in the EU. What can be done, can be undone.

The only way forward that will allow the UK a sustainable future outside the EU is to allow the highly unsatisfactory Withdrawal Agreement to go through, allowing us to make the most of the political declaration in the time we have.

If MPs are not adult enough to realise this, and are determined on the path to political immolation, then an adult nation needs to take charge and convey its wishes to the prime minister. That is not achieved by kneeling at the feet of Farage. The expedient of refusing to vote in the European elections, turning in masses of spoiled votes, would send that message.

Basically, if our politicians are behaving like children, for the nation to follow in that path and revert to childish nostrums is not a solution. Grown-ups need to stand up and be counted, putting Farage back in the nursery where he belongs. Playtime is over.

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