BY NOAH KEATE
You can listen to Noah's full interview with Michael Crick here: https://www.mixcloud.com/NoahKeate/
The Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage pictured speaking at CPAC in 2018.
I first came across Michael Crick watching clips of him chasing after politicians and loudly asking awkward questions they didn’t want to answer. Immediately, I admired this pursuit of journalism in practice. When given the chance to interview Crick, I asked where he’d got that confidence from.
‘I don’t know really…I’m naturally quite a shy person actually’ he confessed, something which surprised me. Having spent nearly three decades in broadcast media, working for Channel 4 and the BBC and now a correspondent for Mail+, shy is not an adjective I would have associated with the great man. Crick argues that he sees himself asking questions on behalf of ‘not just organisations but all their viewers’ as a way of overcoming personal attention.
Any aspiring political journalist like myself is also very aware the position often involves doorstepping: standing outside a politician’s house where they will enter or leave, followed by shouting questions at them. Crick remarks this requires ‘persistence’ and putting in your question ‘more loudly’ to attract the attention of a politician ‘a split second before anyone else gets their question in’.
It is these two traits that are perhaps the most obvious ones he shares with the subject of his latest biography: Nigel Farage. The former leader of UKIP and the Brexit Party, Crick had wanted to investigate Farage for ‘ten years’, finding a chance after leaving Channel 4 News in 2019. We both recognised that penning ‘One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage’ had been his ‘lockdown project’, though Crick admitted ‘a lot of the interviews had to be done like this [on Zoom] and it’s not quite the same’.
Nonetheless, both the book and our interview are hardly short of material. Given Farage’s prominence on the British and international stage - he’s the definite of a Marmite figure - Crick argued ‘nothing is boring about him’. ‘He’s such a colourful character… there’s no episode that’s dull, there’s no chapter that you want to quickly get through because it’s tedious.’ Although everyone is now aware of his success in ‘bringing about Brexit…and bringing down the government of Theresa May’, I wanted to use the interview as a springboard to step back and work out what really gave Farage such prominence and influence without ever being elected to the House of Commons.
Crick argued Farage came of age in the early era of social media. A passionate, though amateur, fisherman, Farage gave many speeches about ‘fishing and fisheries policy’ in his early years as MEP that were incredibly ‘boring’. Yet thanks to the European Parliament imposing a 90 second limit on speeches, Farage ‘learnt how to make an impactful speech in 90 seconds’ and therefore ‘the art of the political soundbite’. Such speeches would go viral on YouTube, ‘get millions of hits’ and were ‘picked up in America and later on impressed the Trump team’.
This concise attitude to making a political statement also, Crick believes, helped Farage on media platforms. Contrasting him to politicians like Michael Foot who would ‘go on and and on and on and never speak in sentences’ or Michael Heseltine who was ‘hopeless on the streets one to one’, part of Farage’s success seemed from his ability to be a brilliant communicator ‘across the range’. Having interviewed Farage numerous times, Crick said all his ‘answers would be good and useable…you’d be in a real quandary as you wouldn’t know which one to use’.
This evidently differentiated Farage from other politicians, who might only ‘say the same thing five times’. Indeed, his success could also be down to the caricature figure presented of the man. In reality, Farage ‘loves engaging with the general public’ and ‘getting into an argument on the streets’. Crick makes the point that, in Farage’s subsequent media career on LBC, ‘people would ring in and he treated them fairly and he is a good listener’. Indeed, this directly contrasted Boris Johnson, who Crick and I both agreed is often ‘embarrassed’ in front of voters, not least over flooding during the 2019 election campaign.
Farage’s engagement in argument didn’t come from university (‘there was not much point to it’ in his mind, stated Crick) but from Dulwich College, one of the ‘top day schools in London’. Crick told me how Farage loved debating ‘from the very beginning of his time’ at Dulwich, happily exposing ‘either side of the motion’ to ensure an argument could take place. Able to make ‘a lot of money’ in the city, if Farage was 18 today, Crick suggested he ‘would have easily got in’, but suggested his intelligence was ‘a very streetwise intelligence’. Like ‘Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch’ before him, Farage has a ‘knack of understanding public opinion’. Michael Crick was quick to confess that he personally did not have this ability.
It became so very clear Farage was a man full of internal contradictions. Managing to build the coalition of both the Brexit campaign and Brexit Party, ‘which had such a resounding success in the Euro elections of 2019’, Farage was able to galvanise large numbers of people with varying political views to put aside their differences. Yet Crick confesses ‘Stalin would admire [Farage’s] ability to purge anybody who poses a threat to him’, with Neil Hamilton, Suzanne Evans and Godfrey Bloom among the UKIP figures Farage fell in - and subsequently out - of favour with.
I was eager to make clear Farage’s rhetoric contradiction about criticising the metropolitan liberal elite when he was so clearly, from his time at Dulwich and in the City, a part of an elite. Crick quickly jumped in to respond in the affirmative, saying Farage ‘belongs to Gentlemen’s clubs, is always seen dining and eating…loves the high life’. Indeed, despite wanting to transform the political system, Crick highlights Farage’s inner frustration at not being ‘offered a knighthood or a peerage’, as well as his relationship with Trump not being utilised by the Foreign Office. In other words, ‘he’s a revolutionary who wants to be part of the establishment’.
Alongside the many contractions comes an immense amount of personal luck for Farage. Despite the ‘House of Lords six times’ blocking a measure to introduce proportional representation for the 1999 European elections, the Blair government persisted under the Parliament Act. Blair was ‘insistent and…under pressure’ from the Liberal Democrats. By moving away from first-past-the-post, this allowed Farage to be ‘one of the first UKIP MEPs elected under PR’ and therefore grow his platform in the very institution he wanted to abolish.
Similarly, though the MPs expenses scandal was a disaster for most parties, it saved UKIP in 2009 as ‘all sorts of people who would normally vote Labour or Liberal Democrat or Conservative for the traditional Westminster parties deserted them’ in disgust. Previously, UKIP had been losing votes to the British National Party, with the expenses scandal helping them triumph. Ironically, as Crick highlighted, UKIP were channeling EU ‘allowances and staff’ towards their own activities. Had it not been for the expenses scandal, political apathy may not have been so high.
I asked Crick whether he felt a responsibility in the media for platforming Farage and catalysing the amount of attention he received. Admitting ‘there’s a big debate…in broadcast circles’, Crick came down on the ‘side of a big no’ at blaming broadcasters for Farage’s rise. ‘UKIP undoubtedly throughout that period represented a significant body of opinion in Britain’. With, between 2005 and 2010, the position of Labour, the Liberal Democracts and Conservatives towards Europe being indistinguishable, not having Farage would have meant our membership was ‘debated on television even less than it was’. Again, Farage struck lucky on the uniformity of his opponents, not least remainers (Crick admits he was one) who ‘kept quiet about the issue’ and allowed Euroscepticism to ‘win the argument’.
But perhaps Farage’s biggest stroke of luck was surviving a plane crash on the day of the 2010 election. Never one to do things by half, Crick describes how Farage was planning to fly a banner over Buckingham, the seat he was contesting, as a ‘publicity stunt’. Instead, the banner ‘wrapped around the tail of the plane’ and plummeted to the ground, leaving Farage within ‘inches of death’. Crick doesn’t believe UKIP would have been the ‘effective body that it was’ in pressuring Cameron to hold a referendum, though admits the pressure for Brexit was ‘long-standing’ and went beyond one figure.
Undoubtedly, any person’s childhood shapes the adult they grow up to be. Born and raised on the border between Greater London and Kent, Crick highlights Farage’s ‘very very English’ upbringing in Down, with ‘two pubs, a church, a village green’ offering a ‘village of nostalgia’. To me, it seems like the kind of England described by George Orwell, with Farage living quite a ‘solitary childhood’ with a ‘terrible alcoholic’ for a father.
It’s impossible to discuss Farage without mentioning racism, both personally and the groups Farage chose to align himself with in the European Parliament. Crick admits Farage made alliances with ‘pretty unpleasant’ and racist parties so a European Parliament group could be formed, allowing more access to funds and parliamentary committees. Indeed, despite his previous opposition to Marine Le Pen due to her party’s ‘racist and antisemitic history’, Farage did work with her, endorsing her on camera in the 2017 French Presidential election.
Despite Farage’s ‘racist and antisemitic streak’ at Dulwich, Crick didn’t think ‘now he’s a racist’ instead arguing he was ‘guilty of pandering to racism’, not least in the ‘Breaking Point’ poster. Suggesting Farage believes ‘the English are the superior race’, I quickly jumped in to say that is racist. Crick though argued Farage believed in ‘more a form of nationalism…than racism’, though believed Farage was ‘xenophobic’ regarding his fears about not hearing ‘any English voices’ on his train home from Charing Cross to Bromley.
Crick is clear that Farage is ‘the most influential politician of the last 20 years’, despite his failure to get elected seven times. Giving up the fight after the 2015 election in South Thanet, Crick argued ‘the electoral system and first-past-the-post (FPTP) is not kind to smaller parties’, meaning any kind of Westminster success is currently impossible. Nonetheless, we both admit Farage ‘transformed British politics after Brexit’, not least in the electoral fortunes of the Conservative party, with disaffected Labour voters switching to UKIP before the Conservatives.
I ask Crick what he believes Farage’s future career will be. Not yet 60, does he have another political fight left in him after stepping down as leader of Reform UK? ‘Yes!’ Is the empathic reply. Crick believes Farage will be regretting ‘for the rest of his life’ having retired. Believing Farage’s current campaign for a referendum on ‘Net Zero as a goal’ to go ‘nowhere’, Crick thinks his main contribution will be ‘as a commentator’. Indeed, Crick is particularly scathing about the role of Ofcom in regulating Farage’s employer GB News, declaring the regulator a ‘pathetic organisation’.
If my interview with Michael Crick taught me anything, it’s that a huge amount of Farage’s success can be placed down to the fortunes of luck and his own internal contradictions. In a FPTP system, Crick suggests a new party could only be launched by having a ‘big personality’ who could ‘win election as a city major’ and ‘create a party around them in that way’. Given the political uproar caused in no small part down to Farage, what’s stopping him? Stranger things have happened.
Image - Flickr (Gage Skidmore)