Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review: Nigel Farage

I'd love to like Nigel Farage.

But after reading Matthew Lynn's short biography, Independently Minded, I find it increasingly hard to do so.

For those of you living under a rock, Mr. Farage is the long-time leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the closest thing the Brits have to a Tea Party. And who among us Tea Party types aren't thrilled by Mr. Farage's eloquent revelation of truth to power from his perch as a member of the European Parliament. For those of us who believe in small, limited government and individual freedom, this is music to our ears.

Born in 1964, Mr. Farage hails from Downe, Kent (one of the home counties surrounding London), also famous as Charles Darwin's birthplace. He's a hail-fellow-well-met guy who loves his pub and brew, and was a semi-professional golfer in his younger years. Not much of one for school, he chose a career as a commodity trader in the City--a job where his natural gregariousness and people-skills would be put to good use. He possessed "a formidable ability to hold his drink."

Not formidable enough, apparently. In 1985, his walk back to the train station after an evening of drinking led to an accident that destroyed his golf ambitions. That pushed him into a career in politics, inspired in part by the well-known Conservative politician, Enoch Powell. He joined the incipient UKIP and soon became its leading member.

Mr. Farage loved campaigning, especially in the home counties where he could move from pub to pub and commune with the locals. But running a successful political organization was another story, and that Mr. Farage would rather have left to somebody else. The problem was that somebody else usually had ideas of his own not to Mr. Farage's liking. So while he was never interested in climbing the greasy pole, that's part of what he did, and not unsuccessfully. UKIP, while it still does not have a seat at Westminster, holds a disproportionate number of seats in the European Parliament and is a player in British politics.

In 2010 he was involved in another accident, as a passenger in a small campaign plane forced into a crash landing. It took him a year to recover, though he remains in poor health. While his previous accident inspired a career in politics, the latest one is pushing him away. We may, sadly, be seeing the end of Mr. Farage's public career.

Mr. Farage is a politician with many positive qualities. Unlike so many politicos, he really is a nice guy. He's been able to dispense with the handlers and consultants, and just be himself. There is a refreshing honesty about both his persona and his program.

His argument against the EU is compelling. It really is run by a bunch of unelected bureaucrats who have no right to be deciding how people should lead their lives. His funny criticisms of Herman van Rompuy and Jose Barroso, satirical to be sure, are right on point. The EU is a utopian vision that is doomed to fail, causing misery and suffering across the continent.

That said, the Euro has survived longer than many would have thought. Kicking the can down the road, as the EU government has done, apparently works, at least in the short term. Not that the vast army of unemployed in Greece, Italy, or Spain are better off because of it.

So what's not to like about Mr. Farage?

First, he and (especially) some of his colleagues are prone to accuse Germans of fascism simply because they are German. This is a cheap shot, and not a true one. There is a problem of fascism in Europe, but almost none of it comes from Germany. Instead, I'd finger groups like France's National Front or the overtly racist Golden Dawn in Greece. The comparable organizations in Germany are much smaller. Accusing Angela Merkel of being the second coming of Hitler (as some Greek protesters are wont to do) is as unfair as it is unhelpful. Mr. Farage should distance himself from this sentiment.

Second is that UKIP has acquired some unpleasant bedfellows. UKIP has long prided itself on being a "non-racist" party, and distinguished itself from thug groups such as the British National Party. Unfortunately, according to his biographer, Mr. Farage is now proud that his anti-EU alliance includes organizations such as the National Front and the True Finn party. In particular, Mr. Farage is increasingly campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, which verges on racism.

Immigration is a very difficult issue. At one extreme is the dreamer, Bryan Caplan, who argues that if only people could move freely to where they could earn the most money, the world economy would instantly grow by another 2-3%. This, of course, is how it works within the United States--overtaxed New Yorkers can move to Texas without asking anybody for permission first.

Unfortunately, this very sensible economic argument runs up against cultural resistance, and so free immigration across international frontiers is simply not practicable. But it's one thing to argue for well-regulated immigration (as Mitt Romney did), and yet another to blame immigrants for all or most of a nation's problems. In extremis, the latter conforms to the fascist meme: we're poor because the foreigners stole all the money.

No prominent politician on the American scene is anywhere close to the fascist meme. The closest was Tom Tancredo who ran on an anti-immigration platform, and lost badly. But the same is not true in Europe. In particular, the National Front is against immigration per se, not just for its better regulation.

Now I understand that Europe is not the US. Relatively open borders in a big, diverse country like the US means something very different than it does in Finland. It may be the Finns have good reasons to be much more cautious about immigration. That said, I'm pretty nervous about the True Finn party, and I get pretty nervous about Nigel Farage when he comes out in their support.

Apparently Mr. Farage is proud that he has built an anti-EU alliance that includes these fascist or fascist-leaning groups. I think he's lost sight of the goal. The goal is not to abolish the EU. The goal is to expand individual liberty, toward which the EU is undoubtedly an obstacle. But replacing unelected bureaucrats with politicians who don't believe in free markets, democracy, liberty to begin with is not progress.

I'd like Mr. Farage much better if he would disavow some of his so-called allies.

Mr. Lynn's biography is a short, entertaining read. At 61 pages it is just the right length for a (so far) minor political figure. For a clear introduction to Mr. Farage and the movement he represents, this is a very good place to start.

Further Reading:

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