Anti-lockdown politics: A successful revival for Farage's right-wing populism?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The recent defeat of Donald Trump, the world-wide most influential politician pursuing an anti-lockdown rhetoric and governmental strategy seems to contradict this trend.”  

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A few days ago, Nigel Farage announced his intention to rebrand the Brexit party as Reform UK, pitching the new formation as being explicitly “an anti-lockdown party”. ‘There is now a political choice on lockdown and we wait to see whether we get a genuine Brexit’, Mr Farage posted on Twitter.

What to expect from this strategical turn? It could be argued that, thanks to this choice, this will result in the political resurrection of the most influential extra-Westminster politician in the last fifteen years. On the opposite, Reform UK may even blow over as a bubble once the Covid-19 most acute critical phase will be over. More generally, as the opposition to lockdown measures is a common position with other right-wing populist leaders such as Donald Trump in the USA and Matteo Salvini in Italy, may this evolution signal broader implications for the future of political competition in the global North?

Mr Farage seems willing to revive his formerly successful strategy on Brexit. Since the late 1990s, he succeeded at taking up the increasingly popular political space of Euroscepticism, and after becoming leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2006, he widened the party’s strategy from a single-issue one towards a project of the people against the elite. Despite failing at breaking-up the longstanding British two-party system, Mr. Farage’s strategy worked out at putting a consistent pressure on major parties towards the decision of holding a referendum on EU permanency, especially after UKIP won 2014 European elections as the first party. Afterwards, in an attempt to unify all varied constituencies of leavers, Mr. Farage re-packaged a nationalist populist political front by establishing the Brexit Party, opening its bid to all those Eurosceptic voters who were not impressed by UKIP’s far-right stands. Brexit Party was once again the most voted party in 2019 European elections. An outstanding success that however also proved to be the cause of Mr. Farage’s political crisis. Indeed, while his role as MEP provided financial and political resources to keep traction on British politics, now that the United Kingdom is out of European institutions Mr. Farage is lacking an important source of institutional power.

On the one hand, it may be expected that this anti-lockdown strategy may prepare the path for new successes. Indeed, Farage  currently sees the increasing popular discontent towards PM Johnson’s measures to contrast the spread of Covid-19 as a golden opportunity. Therefore, this should be understood as a short-term strategy to re-set an anchor point and gain traction over the popular classes majorly affected by anti-Covid19 restrictions, placing Mr. Farage to the forefront of a renewed right-wing populist project should the leadership of Boris Johnson undergo an irreversible crisis. On the other hand, the short-termism of an anti-lockdown strategy may prove to be based on frail roots. In this scenario, mainstream parties may succeed at presenting themselves as the national heroes terminating the health crisis and managing to boost a quick recover of national economy.

Although it is hard to foresee the outcomes of this strategy, two impacts may be hypothesized even beyond the boundaries of national British politics. First, anti-lockdown parties and leaders all around the global North may be able to influence their political opponents, especially governing parties, at adopting softer approaches towards the health crisis. Delays and uncertainties of most European governments at setting-up circuit breakers for Covid-19 second wave may be read as a confirmation of this trend, seeing them as an attempt by incumbent leaders to contain losses of consent due to the anti-lockdown protests. Second, if ‘anti-lockdown’ stances will gain traction in the next months, they may pave the way to further reinforce right-wing populism beyond the pandemic, especially if negative impacts on economy will last in the long run. This may result in the ongoing trend of populist leaders gaining weight within mainstream parties, or in an increasing relevance of new right-wing populist movements. The recent defeat of Donald Trump, the world-wide most influential politician pursuing an anti-lockdown rhetoric and governmental strategy seems to contradict this trend. Although we cannot yet establish affordable correlations between the dramatic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis and Biden’s victory, Trump’s defeat may signal the flaws of stances against tough restrictions, especially when taken by incumbent forces. However, Trump’s denial of his defeat and his constant recall of Biden’s goal to set-up a ‘prison-state’ in the next month, may also serve the strategical goal to keep high the political polarization around the Covid-19 crisis, facilitating Trump’s political survival as the champion of anti-lockdown stances, should the new government struggle at pursuing stricter measures.

Overall, in this scenario, the adoption of over-simplified and anti-scientific messages by populist leaders may even further weaken politics’ ability at facing the increasing complexity of our societies, which Covid-19 crisis made just more evident.

Homepage image credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Jane
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    1. At 2:50AM on 21 March 2021, Jane wrote

    The majority of anti-lockdown protsters are not in any way far-right. They might well be right-wing libertarians of the free-market model, but they've displayed a much greater love of diversity and equality than many of the pro-lockdown mob have. I say this as a left-wing remain voter, forced in to supporting lockdown scepticism because it seems now the only political force around which still cares for the rights of the individual and respects the individual's ability to assess risks for themselves and be trusted to make decisions. I think many of the problems in politics today, especially the left-vs-right mutual hatred, is because politicians in power wield too much power and use it in too authoritarian a fashion. The thinking for any right-winger is "if the left gets in they'll ruin all our traditions", likewise the left-wingers say "if the right get in they'll attack our diversity", both situations relect what an overly powerful government can do. Lockdown sceptics stand for a weaker state, a state less able to intrude in people's lives and businesses, lockdown scepticism, if successful in weakening state power, could lead to a more liberal future where divisions are reduced. With a weakened state the worst predictions right-wingers could make would be"if the left get in they'll boost our taxes a bit" and the left's worst option would be "if the right get in they'll cut our welfare a little", neither would be bitter enough to maintain the levels of "culture war" that authoritarian policies fuel today. Three cheers for the sceptics.

  • Adrian
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    2. At 11:20PM on 13 May 2021, Adrian wrote

    Can someone please tell me how I find out about the anti lockdown demonstrations in London? Is there one on 15th and 28th May? If so, at what time?

    How do people keep informed?

  • سئو
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    3. At 8:03AM on 15 September 2021, wrote

    Nice article, thanks for sharing

  • Helen
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    4. At 6:45AM on 24 October 2021, Helen wrote

    I have always been left wing but not any more. I will vote for anything/anyone who is ANTI lockdown, even if I don't agree with their other policies or even if I dislike them as a person. With the exception of losing a loved one, lockdowns are the worst thing I have ever experienced.

  • Martyn Jones
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    5. At 11:30AM on 23 November 2021, Martyn Jones wrote

    Whereas the politics in USA may appear a bit Punch and Judy, at least there is a political opposition and alternative. In the UK we have a left and right that all support the same policies. I have had to resign from my Trade Union after 36 years membership, after the Welsh Labour Party introduced Vaccine Passports. I will not be complicit in Apartheid. I was a Remain voter, who disliked Farage intensely, but at least he intends to provide a political alternative from a political and ideological cartel that has failed with flying colours.

  • High Street Belfast
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    6. At 4:02PM on 30 November 2021, wrote

    Nigel Farage at his lark again, one of the main things i worry about with constant lockdowns and uncertainty is the future of the struggling high street.

    Interesting Read :-)

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    7. At 7:53AM on 02 December 2021, wrote

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    8. At 7:54AM on 02 December 2021, wrote

    Covid will soon be over

  • Johnny B
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    9. At 3:29PM on 19 December 2021, Johnny B wrote

    If anything the right-wing element in the anti-lockdown movement is a minority within it. Yes you will see Union Jacks and St George flags at anti-lockdown rallies, but you will also see anarchist flags, Jamaican flags, Palestinian flags, and the flag of the (deposed) Ethiopian monarchy (used as a symbol by Rastafarians). And all kinds of people - white people, black people, Asian people, young people, older people, hippie types, punky types, "normal" types and so on. The movement certainly doesn't belong to the political right.

    A word of warning though. There is a tension within the left between the "state control" left and the less publicised libertarian left. Some left-wing libertarians are reaching out to the right because they see no alternative (in the same way that people in the working class heartlands of northern England who would normally be solid Labour supporters voted Tory in 2019 for the first time in their lives, because they were also Leave voters and they feared Labour would sell them out on that).

    I've never voted for a right-wing party in my life - yet.

  • James ford
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    10. At 10:08AM on 21 December 2021, James ford wrote

    Great article the anti lockdown protests are fascsim by stealth most dangerous movment iv seen in my lifetime

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    14. At 12:23PM on 08 January 2022, wrote

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    17. At 12:26PM on 08 January 2022, wrote

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    18. At 9:41AM on 11 January 2022, wrote

    Great read and interesting in hindsight so it is.

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