Last week the American people evicted a shameless, bellicose, narcissistic populist from the White House and a weight was lifted from the world. Unfortunately for me, another shameless, bellicose, narcissistic populist chose this otherwise happy moment to move in on my turf.
Nigel Farage announced he is changing the name of his Brexit Party to Reform UK. I suppose, with Brexit’s consequences now circling Britain’s lonely tent like a pack of hungry wolves, he needs a fresh grift to maintain prime-time credibility. The former UKIP leader has, with an enervating lack of imagination, decided this grift will be a campaign against the Covid lockdown. The rest of his “new” vehicle’s agenda is in fact the usual scrabbled-together mix of dog-whistle, far-right crankery and thinly-veiled racism: immigration (of course), law and order, a gutting of the BBC.
My problem is that I run a think tank called Reform Scotland and, well, to be frank I’d really rather Farage didn’t nick our name. It’s not that I don’t like to share – I play well with others – but I passionately don’t want to share with Nigel. The thought that anyone might assume any association between our organisations makes me want to self-isolate till the end of time.
The word “reform” is a positive and constructive one. It means “the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt and unsatisfactory”, “the change to a better state”, “to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action”. Social reform, education reform, criminal justice reform – these are good things, right? The 1832 Reform Act expanded the franchise; the 1928 Reform Act gave women equal suffrage. Farage would probably have opposed both.
Reform Scotland tries hard to live up to this heritage. Our policy work is focused on boosting prosperity to create more and better jobs and to more generously fund public services; on increasing opportunity for all; and on looking after those who fall through the cracks. Improving “what is wrong, corrupt and unsatisfactory” is what gets us out of bed.
Farage is about as unsatisfactory a bedfellow as can be imagined. And it’s not just me. There’s an English think tank called Reform which is none too pleased. Members of the stuffy old Reform Club on Pall Mall are horrified. Even the leader of the Reform Party of Singapore felt moved to issue a tweet pointing out it has nothing in common with these “English racists”.
Reform UK won’t amount to much. Farage is overstaying his welcome like a 1950s boarding-house spiv who avoids his landlady because he hasn’t got the rent. Last week, he spoke alongside Donald Trump at an event in Arizona, a state Trump won in 2016. He also put ten grand on a Trump second term. A few days later Arizona voted for Joe Biden, as did a majority of Americans. Biden’s election as president is the moment the West’s populist insurgency begins to pass, leaving its hucksters and attention-seekers facing enforced retirement.
It’s essential that, having toppled the tree, we now dig out the roots. We must make the most of Biden’s win. The president-elect is, by all accounts, a man of extraordinary spirit, courage and kindness. After a low, dishonest half-decade of deliberate division and manipulation, snarling abuse and brutality, misogyny and racism, and straight-out lying – none of it confined to the US – we have a chance to ride the Biden wave towards sunnier shores. People like Biden and his vice-president Kamala Harris, like Marcus Rashford and those responsible for the many, many acts of sacrifice and charitableness we’ve seen since Covid struck, all show the way.
It was telling that on Saturday night, just as Biden prepared to give his victory speech, the Prime Minister at last announced he would agree to Rashford’s demand that underprivileged children be fed by schools during the holidays. He is also now suddenly “a great enthusiast” for a Brexit trade deal. Johnson will be terrified by the change of guard in the US, having aligned himself with Trump and Trumpian tactics. The repeat spin cycle of Johnson and Brexit and Trump has enabled and sustained each for long enough, but is now breaking down.
Johnson is no fool, and is an arch opportunist. Just watch him continue to shift his ground in an effort to curry favour with Biden. It may stick in some craws, but we should give him every encouragement. Pray it’s still true that when America sneezes, the UK catches a cold.
And as for Nigel Farage – not in our name.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank Reform Scotland