25 June 2024

On Ukraine, Nigel Farage is at a moral and political dead end


In an interview given to BBC’s Nick Robinson Nigel Farage, TV presenter and newly minted leader of Reform UK, argued that the West had ‘provoked’ the invasion of Ukraine.  

In an interview with ITV that was released on Monday, Farage doubled down on his position saying: 

Up until a few years ago the West provoked Putin stupidly… I felt the ever, ever eastward expansion of Nato and the European Union was giving Putin a reason to go to war.

This and Farage’s early comments sparked a flurry of criticism from politicians across the political spectrum and in the media. The Mail on Sunday – which despite being firmly on the Right has often been fairly hostile to Farage – ran the story on its front page with a quote from a source in the office of President Zelensky saying that Farage’s comments were evidence that, ‘the virus of Putinism, unfortunately, infects people’.

Though I can understand the Ukrainians’ comments, I think they misdiagnose the illness. I do not think Nigel Farage is a particular fan of Putin’s and indeed in a follow-up Telegraph article he does make clear that the decision to invade Ukraine was ‘immoral, outrageous and indefensible’ and in his interview with ITV he said that he was not opposed to continued munition supplies to the Ukrainian army.  

No, Farage’s comments are evidence he is suffering from a illness far more widespread in British politics than Putinism. This virus affects those across the political spectrum in roughly equal numbers. From the hard left who refer to the British police as ‘feds’ and adopt ‘hands up don’t shoot’ as a slogan, to politicians who think ‘The West Wing’ has useful lessons for British political strategy, to Tories begging the public not to hand Labour a ‘supermajority’ – a concept that makes no sense in a parliamentary system in which a simple majority is needed to pass any bill. This disease is, of course, the dreaded ‘America Brain’. 

Farage, who has spent a good deal of time in the US over the last few years, seems to be under the impression that there is a portion of the electorate which wants to blame the West and institutions like Nato in particular for the war in Ukraine. Otherwise, it’s difficult to explain his shift in the last few days away from talking about immigration to this issue of foreign and defence policy. 

In the US, support for Ukraine, like so many seemingly unrelated issues, has become wrapped up in their incessant political psychodrama with support increasingly divided along party lines.  Among Republican voters, roughly half now believe that the US is providing Ukraine with too much aid compared to just 16% of Democrats. Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his scepticism about the benefits of Nato to US security and there is a whole ecosystem of conservative commentators who are openly sympathetic to Putin and his claims that the war in Ukraine was provoked by the West. 

But Britain is not America. In the UK, the public are overwhelmingly supportive of Nato and believe the accession of many eastern European countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall has reduced rather than increased the likelihood of war. 

In a recent round of surveys on the subject, YouGov found that 83% of the public support the existence of Nato. While just 15% of voters buy the thesis that Nato has increased the likelihood of war. 

But what about the organisation’s expansion on which Farage has blamed at least in part for the war in Ukraine? Well that’s also overwhelmingly popular. A stonking 76% of the public support Nato expanding to include more European countries as a general proposition, compared to 6% who are opposed. When asked about Ukraine specifically joining Nato, 80% of the public support the idea, which is almost as high as the level of support found among Ukrainians for Nato membership. 

It is also noteworthy that partisan gap is minuscule by comparison to the US and if anything runs in the opposite direction, with 2019 Conservative voters being somewhat more supportive of Nato than those who voted Labour. What’s more, support for Nato expansion is actually strongest among older voters, who are exactly the group which Reform is trying to win over.

There are voters in the UK who think Nato is a bad thing and are more sympathetic to Russia than Ukraine – but you’re talking about around 5% of the electorate, which is roughly the figure you’ll get answering in the affirmative to a question on whether the King is a reptile who feasts on the blood of infants.

The problem from Farage’s perspective is not just this group’s small size. Firstly, a good chunk of this group are literal communists who are unlikely to vote for Reform. Secondly, it is next to impossible to appeal to these voters without risking alienating huge swathes of Reform’s support base who want someone firm on defence, and who generally think that Putin is a bit Hitlery – and consider that a bad thing. 

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Daniel Freeman is Managing Editor at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.