How Brexit’s biggest booster embraced anti-science populism
In November, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK’s Brexit Party, posted on Twitter. “Let us hope that Pfizer are right about their vaccine. If not then more lockdowns,” he wrote.
The responses were littered with anti-vaxx rhetoric. “If you want to win the next election, you should oppose the damn vaccine, the virus is a hoax,” wrote one follower. “Seriously! Absolutely not! I don’t trust Bill Gates! We would be injected with a substance that will track us with 5G,” said another.
Farage had recently burst back onto the UK political scene after a two-week quarantine following his return from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Shortly before, he announced he was rebranding his Brexit Party with a new name: Reform UK.
As Farage told me during a recent telephone conversation, “There’s not much point having a Brexit party when you’ve got Brexit.”
The first item on Reform UK’s agenda? Fighting coronavirus restrictions in Britain. “We must have the courage to live with the virus, not hide in fear of it,” Farage and the Brexit Party’s deputy chairman Richard Tice wrote in their announcement. “We’re relaunching the Brexit Party to fight this cruel and unnecessary lockdown.”
This is quite a turnaround, given that only a few months ago, Farage was pro-lockdown and a critic of Boris Johnson’s interest in pursuing a strategy of nationwide herd immunity.
Johnson’s government was eventually persuaded against taking the controversial approach by scientific consensus that the results would be disastrous.
“I was delighted when the government performed its dramatic U-turn a few weeks ago and moved away from a herd immunity strategy,” Farage wrote in op-ed for The Telegraph in March.
Johnson had “finally caught up with the sheer gravity of the situation,” he told his YouTube followers when the first lockdown was announced. “I do think that social distancing is the only way forward. Please stay safe, please obey the rules. I know it’s tempting – listen, I’m as annoyed as anybody that the pubs are closed. But let’s be grown up. Let’s be sensible.”
He advocated for stringent anti-virus measures, encouraging the use of masks, calling on the government to impose restrictions on movement and condemning the prime minister for not closing the UK’s borders. In the UK, opinion polls showed overwhelming support for tighter virus controls, as issues like Brexit were relegated to background noise.
“There was this rally round the flag effect at first,” said Léonie de Jonge, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who researches right-wing European populism. “Experts were back on the table – and, especially in the UK, there was definitely a public focus that shifted away from identity politics. Immigration, which was the main topic during the whole Brexit debate, completely left the agenda. As a right-wing populist party you lose your main focus.”
Populist responses to the pandemic have varied around the world – with some leaders using the pandemic to impose illiberal measures, while others pursue an anti-science agenda.
Once stricter measures came in, Farage’s narrative began to shift. In July, he was criticized for going to a pub while he was supposed to be observing a 14-day quarantine, following a visit to the U.S. Over the summer, he spoke out against a law requiring people to wear masks in shops.
Back in the spring, Farage calculated that the pursuit of herd immunity would kill 400,000 people, but he told me that his opinion has “evolved over time, through learning more about it.”
“I’ve come to the view that the current cure is now worse than the disease,” he said. “I’m not advocating that we completely throw into the bin sensible precautions.”
Farage’s opinions on the virus are not as extreme as those of many of his followers on social media, but his adjacent position echoes the way he has approached divisive issues such as immigration throughout his career.
“It’s a middle finger, ‘up yours’ kind of politics, an objection to being told what to do,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University. “And if science happens to be a part of that consensus, then it will be science that gets it in the neck.”
Successful populists tend to have an uncanny ability to seize onto current events and exploit them for all they are worth. “If they disappear for too long, they can’t make it back. So this keeps him in the news, where he needs to be,” Bale added, referring to Farage’s embrace of the anti-lockdown movement.
Last week, Bale and a colleague wrote a report examining the Venn diagram overlap between the anti-European and anti-lockdown movements. The report found that almost all Conservative members of the UK parliament who voted against the government’s lockdown policies were also pro-Brexit. But the report also found that this relationship doesn’t carry over into the general public.
Farage said he does not believe that anti-lockdown supporters and Brexiteers have much in common. “There are a fair number of middle-aged and older people who are so terrified of the virus, so there are divergences there,” he said.
Some observers believe that Farage’s rapid about-face on Covid-19 restrictions is a strategic way to mobilize new supporters. “It might not flow from ideology, but from seeing where there is space or opportunity in the current political climate to position yourself and carve out a niche,” said de Jonge.
While Reform UK’s focus on resisting coronavirus restrictions may risk alienating some members of Farage’s hardline anti-Europe base, it is still likely to appeal to those who reject expert opinion, scientific research and state intervention in favor of personal sovereignty. And it may tap into the growing and persistent anti-science movement in the UK.
Farage’s positions could also appeal to a smaller, long-standing group of supporters. The UK Independence Party, of which he was by far the best-known leader, has a significant anti-science contingent among its following. For instance, a 2014 poll found that UKIP supporters were five times more likely than other voters to believe that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was unsafe.
He does not find that statistic surprising. “A UKIP voter in 2014 was far less likely to believe anything they were told by government. You could have applied that test across a range of measures and found the same answer,” he said.
Farage told me that, while he is pro-immunization, he has doubts about a potential coronavirus vaccine. “There’s a little bit of me that says ‘Oh go on, Bill, you have it first. I certainly would not want it to be mandatory,” he said.
“I’m skeptical about the speed at which it has been developed. I’m skeptical about the practical application of it. I also look at the government’s competence on test, track and trace and how they’ve made a complete mess of that. And I mean, are this lot really going to do this professionally and properly? I’ve got my doubts.”
When asked if his new party was pandering to anti-science rhetoric, Farage said: “Science is a never-ending study of the unknown. You can never ever say science is settled on anything.”
Farage has said he would not be willing to share a stage with David Icke and Piers Corbyn – two of Britain’s most prominent and controversial anti-lockdown campaigners.
“I think if I understand correctly, they’re saying that Covid-19 is a hoax. I’m not suggesting that at all,” he told me.
However, in recent months, Farage has begun to downplay the severity of the coronavirus. During an interview with a UK radio station last month, he drew direct parallels between the flu and Covid-19 by saying flu also kills large numbers of people every year. The virus is as much as 10 times more deadly than flu, but both infections have been inaccurately equated by anti-science voices since the beginning of the pandemic. Farage’s comparison is a departure from the spring, when he warned his 200,000 YouTube subscribers that it was “not just flu.”
Reform UK is currently calling for an approach advocated in the Great Barrington Declaration – a document named for the Massachusetts town in which it was drafted by scientists who call for keeping the vulnerable and elderly indoors, while allowing the virus to sweep through the rest of the population and create herd immunity.
The declaration has been roundly criticized by leading scientists, who say that deliberately allowing the virus to spread is unpredictable, unethical and will lead to many more deaths. It has also not yet been established whether infected people develop durable immunity against reinfection. All the same, Farage has shaped the identity of his new-look party around these ideas.
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