From Brexit to Coutts – has Nigel Farage become Britain’s most influential politician? | Andrew Anthony

Who is the most consequential British politician of the 21st century? Tony Blair? David Cameron? Liz Truss? OK, the last one was a joke, but someone else who is also widely regarded as a punchline has a strong claim to the title.

Whatever one thinks of Nigel Farage, back in the news for bringing about the resignation of NatWest’s chief executive Alison Rose and Coutts boss Peter Flavel, he has been instrumental in changing Britain. Few observers would argue that his campaign to remove the UK from the European Union has led to a beneficial change, but almost everyone would agree that it’s been a profound one.

In Britain, where the first-past-the-post voting system neuters small parties, single-issue politics tends to be the preserve of eccentrics and obsessives, carrying about the same parliamentary influence as David Icke or the Monster Raving Loony party. The glaring exceptions are Farage’s Ukip and the Brexit party, which between them helped deliver the harshest of Brexits.

An almost anachronistically English figure with his beer and blazers, his Carry On laughter and golf-club rhetoric, Farage is an easy man to underestimate. But, as his biographer Michael Crick says, he is “one of the great communicators of our age”.

A virtuoso on the dog whistle, he is also a master of the tai chi strategy of using his opponent’s strength to his own advantage. He rose by encouraging dissident Tories to drag the party down to his level. Ukip was a crank outfit before he took over in 2006 and reverted to one again the moment he left, following the EU referendum, in 2016. But in between it was a crank outfit that got the Tories to dance to Farage’s Little Englander tune, eventually securing the referendum that his side won.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, confidence in globalism and political elites plummeted. Plenty of politicians on the left sought to capitalise on the discontent, but it was Farage and wealthy backers like Arron Banks who saw the opportunity for rightwing anti-elites populism.

Untainted by political office – the only election Farage has ever managed to win, ironically, is to the European parliament – he was free to play the professional rabble-rouser or, as it’s also known, “man of the people”. He excelled in the role because he is a gifted blamer of others: Europeans, bureaucrats, the establishment, immigrants, Tories, Labour, anyone and everyone.

As a serial loser in British politics (he stood in seven constituency elections and lost them all), what he’s never had to worry about is outcomes. His power has always been at one remove, where responsibility rests with some fool who will sooner or later be subject to Farage’s I’m-just-telling-it-like-it-is brand of scorn. He even expressed disappointment with Brexit, as if its grey reality was not of his making.

In this respect, if no other, Farage is resolutely modern: a born disrupter, a habitual fomenter of grievance with zero obligation to produce results. He is the loudmouth curmudgeon, the carefree voice of old fogeyism, the bar-room bore who thrives on the national stage.

But after the grim spectacle of Brexit, and his proclaimed retirement from politics, where could he go? Not to the House of Lords, because Boris Johnson, in jealous protection of his own saviour myth, had no desire to honour his progenitor. So the obvious answer was GB News, where rightwingers move to moan about the state of the nation after so many years of rightwing government.

Condemned to live among the undead with Dan Wootton and Eamonn Holmes, he was rescued last month by Coutts. You don’t have to be a semiotician to see that the bank, with a background in offshore tax avoidance, was guilty of virtue-signalling when it closed his account because of his political beliefs. That error was compounded by Rose briefing a BBC journalist with false information about Farage.

As a consequence, the BBC was forced to apologise, Rose lost her job and Farage found new purpose in his. He’s calling for the rest of the NatWest (of which Coutts is a subsidiary) board to resign and wants to guarantee the right to have a bank account. Some commentators wonder if this is the opening skirmish in a battle to rein in the ESG (environmental, social and governance) movement aimed at building sustainability and progressive values in corporations. For the moment, Farage is maintaining his focus on matters of individual rights, although he’s already calling it a “war on woke banks” – this weekend it emerged that Britain’s newest “consumer champion” was launching a tool to help consumers who believe they have been “debanked”.

What’s not in doubt is that he is back in the headlines, and once more able to present himself as the little guy taking on the establishment – Coutts, renowned for its royal clients, is nothing if not a conspicuous emblem of elitism and entitlement. It doesn’t matter that there is little the ex-public schoolboy, one-time commodities trader and former Coutts client has in common with the average person in the street. Nor is it much of hindrance to him that his populist opinions are not that popular with the British public. The point is he makes himself a kind of lightning rod for public disaffection. There remains a huge reservoir of anger towards the banks, and he will know how to draw on it, although the libertarian friend of hedge-fund owners is unlikely to push for meaningful regulation in that regard.

In the end, he is not really a politician but a consummate complainer, because his animating passion is to be against things. It led to the event by which history will remember him, Britain’s inglorious exit from the EU. But it’s essentially a destructive talent. What replaces the targets he so vociferously attacks will always be somebody else’s concern.

Andrew Anthony is an Observer columnist

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