Nigel Farage has sought to portray himself as a figurehead in the free speech debate in the UK.
Half way through what has proved to be a politically fraught and in some ways unprecedented year, questions of free speech laws and traditions in the UK, and around the world, have taken centre stage. At the forefront of minds and on the front page of newspapers, free speech has been a central focus of the British far right, both for tactical and sincere reasons, for the last few years.
For the next installment of our mini series on free speech and the far right and radical right, HOPE not hate has explored the work and stances of Nigel Farage, with a particular focus on how he has approached questions of free speech throughout his career, to better understand how the populist radical right might think about these questions.
A well-known, and controversial, politician, Nigel Farage has been a prominent Eurosceptic voice in UK politics since the early 1990s. Formerly the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), and a driving force behind the 2016 Brexit vote, Farage has long been a significant voice in right-wing news circuits both in the UK and abroad. Many of Nigel Farage’s stances fit into the category defined as, and are entirely emblematic of, what has come to be known as the “Populist Radical Right”.
Mostly recently, Farage took the reins of the Brexit Party in 2019 to ensure the United Kingdom leaves the European Union (EU) for good and with World Trading Organisation rules or, potentially, no trading deal with the EU at all. In May 2019, just six weeks after officially launching, the Brexit Party won twenty-nine seats (of the seventy-three contested) in the European elections with more votes than the Tory and Labour parties combined.
The Brexit Party has presented a more mainstream image and platform than UKIP, Farage’s previous party. However, as HOPE not hate’s election reporting demonstrated, a number of people with extreme views found their political home in this party. Despite the party’s stated position of rejecting racism, Farage himself has a history of xenophobic remarks, and has amplified sexism and divisiveness.
Like much of the populist radical right, the issue of free speech is central to the Brexit Party’s platform. The party’s “Contract with the People”, a manifesto of sorts, pledges to defend free speech in universities and insists that more money be allocated to police defending violent crime rather than “enforcing restrictions on free speech”.
Nigel Farage has historically positioned himself as a defender of free speech. In 2010, when he was then the leader of UKIP, Farage argued in the European Parliament against EU leaders that the “limits of free speech should be incitement of violence not the expression of a political opinion”. This speech, filled with mocking rhetoric against then-EU President, Herman van Rompuy, solidified Farage’s reputation as pro-free speech against a supposedly oppressive European elite. Farage sought to continue this image in a 2013 speech in West Sussex in which Farage argued that “Freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law – these are the absolute fundamentals of free Western society, and indeed one could go further and say we fought two World Wars to defend these very things”.
In 2018, Farage gave a lecture at the New Culture Forum’s Smith Lecture in which he called for freedom of speech on social media, complete with a “bill of rights for social media users” that will afford users freedoms to speak online as they please. He later credited much of his rise in popularity to his engagement with various social media platforms, noting that “one speech, because of YouTube, completely transformed my standing with many, many millions of British voters in this country.”
As evidenced in this speech, the power of social media companies has sparked upset amongst the populist radical right. Farage himself has cited how problematic it is that major media companies like Facebook and Google have the power to control what is popularised on their channels. Farage has seemingly called for complete openness of social media, news sources, and free speech online.
Despite Farage’s positioning as a free speech defender, there are multiple examples in which we see his hypocrisy and his misinterpretation of free speech, and where he supports speech that would be categorised as hateful.
In 2018, then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was criticised for comparing Muslim women wearing burkas to “bank robbers” in a national newspaper, and for subsequently refusing to apologise. When asked on Sky News whether Johnson should apologise or not, Farage claimed that “We are living in a country that used to support free speech, and free speech means you often offend people who do not agree with you”, and called for public figures to be able to speak their minds without worrying about how it will impact others. Though proclaiming his belief in unfettered free speech here, we see that Farage has no consideration for how such comments can potentially impact the ability of the British Muslim popultion to exercise their own free speech, and scant regard for basic decency from public officials.
More recently, we have seen hypocrisy in Farage’s argument for openness online and free speech in general. Speaking on Breitbart’s Daily News Digest podcast, Farage argued that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement did “not just spark after George Floyd. This has been long-planned, and they were simply waiting for an opportunity. If we lose free speech to this degree, then the world is going to be a pretty dangerous and unpleasant place.” In these comments, Farage is making a clear distinction between “us” and “them” saying that if “we”, non-BLM supporters, lose free speech then that is problematic, but he does nothing to acknowledge the opposite situation in which it is deprived to “them”.
Furthermore, Farage has spoken out on Twitter and YouTube arguing that the BLM movement is wrong; yet, he has said little about the violent right-wing football hooligan counter-protests to BLM on 13 -14 June, mostly sidestepping their condemnation to discuss the “far left”. In response to the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, Farage produced a video in which he claimed that the toppling of the statue by BLM protestors was abhorrent and that he has put himself on the line speaking out against this behavior, saying for “Those of us who have tried to speak out…free speech is under threat”. Again ignoring the disparity in whose speech is attended to, Farage made no mention of the longstanding campaign in Bristol prior to these events to remove the statue and other uses of Colston’s name.
Such examples make clear that Nigel Farage uses the defense of free speech as a tactic. While he may also expound support for it as part of a sincere belief, his understanding of free speech is misguided and, ultimately, self-serving. While he claims that he is against speech that incites violence (and uses Islamic extremists example to demonstrate that stance), Farage simultaneously argues for people like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – someone who has been kicked off of major social media platforms like Twitter for breaching the platform’s “hateful conduct” policy – should be fully allowed to speak and tweet as he pleases. Specifically, at a 2018 New Culture Forum speech, Farage shared that “I’m not a Tommy Robinson fan. In fact I am not a Tommy Robinson fan. I think he’s a bit of a lout. But I do think he should be allowed to have his say.” Emblematic of the populist radical right, Nigel Farage seems to follow a “free speech” tradition that allows for the amplifying of right wing voices – which are supposedly of ‘the people’ – and the silencing those voices with whom they disagree – i.e. the ‘elite’ and, just as often, marginalised groups.
The Crux of the Issue
Throughout his years in the public eye, Nigel Farage has made issues of free speech central to his platform. With a particular interest in internet and social media regulations, Farage seemingly argues that free speech laws exist to further political debate. Despite this, he is remiss in acknowledging that, sometimes, sharing opinions crosses the line from freedom of speech to inflicting harm on another.
In next week’s installment, we will continue to explore case studies of free speech in the far right and radical right, moving on to a study of the notorious British anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson).