Nigel Farage and the Leadership Principle
Sean Gabb (17th May 2015)
I have met Nigel Farage three times. Once was when we had lunch. The other times were when I attended UKIP events, and we found ourselves in conversation. I liked him. He had no reason to court me, but was both charming and modest. This is not to say that I am a regular UKIP voter. I always vote UKIP in European election. I voted UKIP in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, when it was plain that the Conservatives would lose, and the best use for my vote was to tell them to try harder. But I voted Conservative in 2010, when they had a good chance to get Labour out, and again in 2015, when it seemed they might fail to keep Labour out. I remain, even so, a fan of Mr Farage, and was glad that UKIP did well in terms of votes the week before last.
I side entirely with Mr Farage in his latest troubles. He has been accused of running his party as a cult of personality. This is to say that he makes sure that he is its only authoritative spokesman, and will allow no dissent within the general leadership from his own opinions. I could deny the truth of this, and refer to my experience of him in private. But I see no reason to do so. You can be both modest and authoritarian. If Mr Farage manages to be both, this is simply one more cause to respect him.
Let me explain.
If it is to have any success, a movement for radical change needs to be led. It needs someone in charge whose decisions are not open to regular challenge. The title of the essay includes the words “leadership principle.” These are most closely associated with Hitler. Looking at him in purely functional terms, he led the Nazi Party into government, and he kept it there. He decided what the Party’s ideology was, and its electoral strategy. Once in power, he decided all matters of domestic policy that he thought important. He also determined Germany’s foreign and military policies. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not approve of his objectives, or of his means of achieving them. But dwelling on his badness as a man is beside the point. His early strengths made him and his party supreme in Germany, and made Germany the most powerful country in Europe. His later weaknesses took Germany to destruction.
It was similar with the Soviet Communist Party. The main difference was that this existed to propagate an ideology that was already, in its essentials, decided by others. But it was Lenin who adapted this ideology to Russian circumstances, and whose leadership was critical to the Communist seizure and retention of power. After his death, it was Stalin who took up the Party leadership, and who made Russia into a superpower.
Take away Hitler and Lenin and Stalin, and neither of the two big totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century would have made the sort of mark that they did. Without their leaders, the parties would have been cliques of ranting intellectuals, unable to reach out to the people at large, and unable to take immediate and ruthless action to advance their cause. Or they might have divided into lesser movements, each with its own charismatic leader, and all sniping at each other. As it was, Stalin saw off Trotsky and his followers, and Hitler did the same with Ernst Roehm. The function of a leader is to set a course for his movement, to sell that course to the people, and to hold the movement together.
The weakness of such parties is that the leader may lose touch with reality, as Hitler did after 1940, or as Stalin may have done towards the end of his life. The only answer then is to remove him by irregular means – unsuccessful with Hitler, successful with Stalin. Or there is the problem of the succession. This was especially the case with Hitler, who was National Socialism. Even with the Soviets, though, there were voids in the leadership after Lenin and Stalin died. These, however, are problems that arise after a party has become successful. It is the foundations of initial success that interest me here.
A seeming objection to this analysis is that the main parties in Britain and, I think, in America are oligarchies with some show of formal accountability to the membership. The Conservative Party, for example, has never had a leader supreme in the sense that Hitler and Stalin were. Even Margaret Thatcher had to work within constraints. When she tried too often to step outside those constraints, she was deposed. Every recent leader has been approved by a ballot of the membership. Yet the Conservative and Labour Parties have remained broadly united and effective parties of government.
The answer is that these are not parties that have been recently brought together with any urgency of purpose. Until well into the twentieth century, the Conservative Party existed to defend a set of landed and financial interests that were long established. It was the political wing of a set of interlocking families who had ruled England since time immemorial. It had a wide base of funding and general support. It had the critical mass and the patronage to keep its intellectuals and enthusiasts under control. The membership could be guided or ignored. Except its aristocratic base has been eroded, this remains the case. Supreme leadership has never been needed for its success.
As for the Labour Party, this joined the Establishment cartel more by accident than by the nature of its leadership. Before the Great War, it was a loose pressure group. It then simply stepped into the position vacated by the Liberals. After 1931, it was governed by a clique of trade union leaders and career politicians. Even so, the powers of this clique were always uncertain. Its failure after 1979 opened the way to fifteen years of internal chaos and of resulting electoral failure. Its recovery in the 1990s was the effect of a new leadership far more authoritarian than Margaret Thatcher’s had been. Once Tony Blair was gone, it drifted steadily towards oblivion.
We can say, then, that oligarchic rule is appropriate only in the special case of parties or movements that have no ideological imperative. A good further example is the Soviet Communist Party after Stalin’s death. The country had been remade. The ideology had become an established faith. Short of dissolving itself and letting Russia rejoin the civilised world, the Party no longer had any work that had urgently to be done. It could give up on absolute leadership and become an oligarchy of those who had survived the purges. What finished it off was that the oligarchy was unable to reproduce itself, and the system it defended was a comprehensive failure.
This returns me to UKIP. It is a small party. Its funding base is narrow. Its main objectives put it in conflict with the existing order of things. It owes its success in the past few general and other elections to the leadership of Nigel Farage. The alternative to his leadership is rule by a group of men whose main skill is to stay awake through five hour committee meetings, or by men whose general abilities are untested, and perhaps better not tested. I am at least suspicious of Douglas Carswell. If he rejoins the Conservatives in the next few months, I shall not be surprised.
I am disappointed by how badly Mr Farage took his failure to win the Thanet election. His resignation as UKIP leader, followed by a hint that he might stand for re-election, followed by the withdrawal of his resignation, was an obvious mistake. It made him look absurd. But anyone who wants UKIP to remain a political success should be in no doubt of which side he needs to take in the turmoil this has enabled. Mr Farage should be urged to impose an iron control over the party, and to purge anyone who stands in his way. He should, so far as possible, own UKIP. The offer he should make to actual and potential supporters is that he will lead the way to a set of agreed ends, and they should not object to his means. If anyone thinks he can do the job better, let him go and start his own party.
Despite its failure to win many seats in Parliament, UKIP did very well in this month’s general election. With the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties crippled, and unlikely to recover in at least the medium term, UKIP is on the verge of becoming the main party of opposition in England. So far, the pendulum has swung between two parties of authoritarian corporatists. It may be that our politics are about to reconfigure themselves into a contest between a party of authoritarian corporatists and a party of smaller and more traditionalist government. The removal of the leader who – whatever his personal and intellectual faults – has brought us to this possibility would be a disaster for anyone who believes in smaller government.
For this reason, while I have not so far been a consistent UKIP voter, I side with Mr Farage. Time to sharpen the long knives, Nigel – time to break out the ice picks!
Postscript A further point for the avoidance of doubt. Nothing said above refers to how a leader should behave in power. If he ever becomes Prime Minister, it should go without saying that I expect Mr Farage to govern within the traditional norms. The main point I make is that political parties are best run as despotisms.