If the Brexit Party wants further triumphs, Nigel Farage should drop its ‘shrink the state’ philosophy

If the Brexit Party wants further triumphs, Nigel Farage should drop its ‘shrink the state’ philosophy

Not for the first time, Nigel Farage has changed the terms of political trade. Let’s be honest, until his creation of the Brexit Party, we Leavers had been losing ground in the great political tug-of-war for many months.

The slippage of ground under our feet led to the great non-Leaving of 29th March and to further “extensions” to our EU membership announced by Theresa May – 12th April, 30th June, 31st October and no doubt more to come.

But thanks to the brio and verve with which Mr Farage exploited his own media persona and following in the country and some consummate political skill, he was able to create a pop-up political party in time to contest and win on behalf of the Leave cause the European elections that were not supposed to happen.

And now Mrs May is heading out of the door and even Remainy Tory MPs appear to realise that their party will go down the plughole unless led by a determined Leaver.

So hats off to Nigel, the Brian Clough of politics, who has now led two outsider outfits to nationwide electoral victories. He might not consider himself the most influential politician of the 21st century, but he’d be forgiven, as Cloughie’s old joke put it, for ranking himself “in the top one”.

Naturally, I voted for the Brexit Party on 23rd May. Although in the polling station I felt a renewed rush of outrage that the contest was taking place at all, there was never any doubt it was going to get my support. I also kept up for the duration of the European election campaign a steady barrage of supportive comments about the Brexit Party on social media and on Newsnight a few weeks back too.

But I have not joined the Brexit Party. And I am contesting the Peterborough parliamentary by-election on behalf of the Social Democratic Party, despite the last-minute arrival of a Brexit Party candidate into the field.

Many Brexit Party supporters have tweeted me in the past few weeks demanding to know why on both counts. So now that the European elections are over, let me tell you: I don’t agree with the basic philosophical stance of the Brexit Party in domestic politics.

This observation may puzzle you, given the frequent observation that the Brexit Party “doesn’t have any policies” (other than WTO Brexit). In fact, Nigel has announced what we might call a few “policy postures” along the way to do with things like immigration, tax rates and the BBC licence fee. And by the way, the policy formulation processes of the Brexit Party that led to these utterances are somewhat mysterious.

But the main point is that while the Brexit Party has very few worked-through policies, it does have a defined political stance. And it is not one that I believe will maximise its political potential as an organisation which wants to attract the support of all those who wish to leave the EU. And not one with which I personally agree either.

I don’t know how many of you have read the Brexit Party’s constitution – but I suspect it is remarkably few. Given the immediate impact of the party, it surprised me that so few of its political opponents and so few political journalists bothered with this act of due diligence. No doubt they would have got round to it sooner or later.

But from my point of view, paragraph 2.5 is the crux. It begins by affirming:

“The Party is a democratic, classical liberal party.”

Classical liberalism is part of a family of shrink-the-state philosophies with a following among thinkers on the right. I do not detest it and I have always recognised that ideas from the libertarian end of things deserve a hearing and serve as a reminder to policy-makers that the state can become too dominant and too large in any society to the detriment of individual freedom and that is something to keep an eye out for. But as a stand-alone philosophy, classical liberalism has never been popular in modern Britain, leading inexorably as it does to Margaret Thatcher’s famous axiom that “there is no such thing as society”.

In case anyone might think that this reference to classical liberalism in the Brexit Party constitution is a throwaway line of no significance, later in paragraph 2.5 its fundamental grip is underlined in one of the stated objectives of the party:

“Seek to diminish the role of the State.”

Now, I am by no means a left-wing socialist. But neither am I an unalloyed Thatcherite. And neither are millions of Leave voters. You can only diminish the role of the state in a limited number of ways, the principal of these being to privatise or otherwise reduce its functions or to cut its budgets.

In the UK, our state sector has been subject to almost a decade of austerity. And yes, given a population rise of four million in that period, even those areas of public services whose budgets have apparently kept pace with inflation have suffered major cuts in reality. Whole swathes of services from the police to local authority budgets have provably suffered much worse than that. I believe it has been to the detriment of British society. We can argue how much of this austerity was necessary, given the extent of the public sector deficit at the outset. But surely only a small proportion of the electorate will think that a further reduction of public sector budgets is justified.

And neither have many recent privatisations worked well – the latest farce being the atrocious and predictable flop of the part-privatisation of the Probation Service, now abandoned. On the railways, the taxpayer has stepped in to bail out private franchise holders too.

Most sensitive of all is the issue of the National Health Service. Now remember the Brexit Party is a “classical liberal party”, which has baked into its constitution a mission to “diminish the role of the State”. As of yet, it has no stated policy on healthcare provision in the UK. But its leader said the following when he was leader of UKIP:

“I think we are going to have to move to an insurance-based system of healthcare. Frankly, I would feel more comfortable that my money would return value if I was able to do that through the market place of an insurance company.”

This quote was one of the very few millstones that Nigel draped around the neck of UKIP, helping to place a ceiling on its potential support which precluded a major parliamentary breakthrough. I also believe it to be Nigel’s true and consistent private view in regard to healthcare provision.

We are in different, more extraordinary circumstances now. Nonetheless, the Brexit Party, which has been an astonishing success in the European elections, is proposing to go into a general election with a constitution calling for the shrinking of the state and a leader on record as wishing to privatise the NHS. It won’t wash. Certainly not in Mansfield or Wigan or countless other blue-collar towns populated by people who paid their National Insurance stamps, view big PLCs with suspicion and expect the welfare state to be there when they need it.

And it won’t wash once Labour finally works out that accusing, ludicrously, the Brexit Party of being “far right” or questioning where it gets its money from are entirely useless responses to its ascent.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit Party in fact runs all the way up the back of its leg. It has been lumbered, quite unnecessarily, with an avowedly Thatcherite philosophical core. Among habitual Tory pro-Leave voters, this may not matter much as there is certainly a renewed appetite among a substantial element of them for big, right-of-centre ideas. But among habitual Labour-facing pro-Leave voters, it will be a killer.

I do not suppose Nigel Farage will feel after his latest brilliant triumph that the weakness I have identified should overly concern him much. But the political context will not always be so conducive. To have the single policy of Brexit in a European election was a perfectly sustainable way to unite the different tribes of Leave voters. In a general election you need much more.

There is a way that Nigel could make a major play for the support of centre and centre-Left leavers in domestic elections. And that would be to drop the shrink-the-state stuff from the Brexit Party constitution.

If he approached the next general election offering Britain a “Great Democratic Reset”, involving full Brexit, scrapping the House of Lords and introducing electoral reform in, say, a three-year parliament – but no radical right-wing policies on public service provision and funding – then I would certainly argue that pro-Leave social democrats should support him and even offer to stand for election on his ticket.

He would then be free to fight a subsequent election, held under a proportional electoral system, on full strength Faragism while others of us could present an alternative domestic prospectus under different party banners.

Nigel is currently in a position of great political strength and deservedly so. He will choose his own way ahead. Whatever happens, I will continue to cheer on his Brexit speeches in the European Parliament, albeit from the comfort of my own sofa from now on, rather than further back in the hemicycle.

But I won’t be making a libertarian leap-of-faith when it comes to domestic politics. And neither, in my view, will millions of other Brexiteers.