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In the final part of our serialisation of his new profile of Nigel Farage across the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, the distinguished political biographer MICHAEL CRICK tells fascinating stories of the former Ukip leader’s formative years . . .
Few places feel more English than the village of Downe in Kent — the county of cricket, orchards and hops. Churchill’s country home, Chartwell, is six miles away.
Even closer is the runway at Biggin Hill, from where RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires fought the Battle of Britain.
This is Nigel Farage country.
The master of political upsets in the 21st century grew up here. To this day he lives just a mile down the road. Through all the turmoil of his life, personal and political, this part of England has always been home.
As a boy, he lived in a Victorian cottage backing onto the Down House estate, which for 40 years had been the home of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution challenged the conventional wisdom of his day and outraged his contemporaries — just as, in his day, the rebellious Farage upset the political Establishment.
Nigel Farage, from Kent, is one of the master of political upsets in the 21st century. ‘Hitler Youth’ claims have been hanging over his school days
His father was the flamboyantly named Guy Justus Oscar Farage, who had married Barbara Stevens, five years his junior.
Guy, a City stockbroker, was always dapper with expensive pinstripe suits from Savile Row, handmade shoes, silk ties, a bowler hat and umbrella. He was full of charm. Like father, like son.
Nigel, born 1964, adored his father but saw little of him. Guy spent nearly all his time and much of his money in the Square Mile, causing strains in the marriage as Barbara was left to bring up Nigel and his younger brother Andrew pretty much on her own.
Nigel was five when his parents split up. His father, an alcoholic, left home and for a while things got so bad that the boys were prohibited from seeing him. But he turned himself around, kicked the booze and started afresh. (He is still alive, in his 80s.)
Nigel’s time at Dulwich College was not only colourful, but illuminates his subsequent life and career. It shows the contradictions in his character: the ultra-rebel who tries to provoke, stand out and show off, yet is also keen for recognition by those in authority, the man who wants both to join the established order and yet also bring much of it down.
Farage — or ‘Farridge’ as he pronounced it then — made an immediate impact. ‘He was very confident, articulate, forthright, a real character,’ says a classmate, Peter Petyt. He and Petyt formed a successful debating team.
Nigel’s time at Dulwich College was not only colourful, but illuminates his subsequent life and career
‘He was entertaining and witty,’ says Petyt. ‘Quite a lot of the time he spoke without notes. We won virtually everything.’
The supremely self-assured Farage was forever putting himself forward to speak. He didn’t care which side he was on in debates. He’d offer to propose a motion and, when rejected, would then put up his hand to argue the opposite. Even at this early age, he is remembered as being highly political.
The day Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister in 1976, the 11-year-old Farage went into class singing The Sun Has Got His Hat On at the top of his voice. But his Right-wing views could get out of hand. This was the era when the neo-fascist and racist National Front became prominent, and another classmate, Stuart Dunbar, remembered Farage ‘having a thing about it’.
‘He would run into classrooms and chalk ‘NF’ on the board though obviously that was his own initials as well.’ He also made racist remarks. Dunbar recalls: ‘Whether that was attention-seeking, just to wind people up, I don’t know. But it really was a major thing for him.
The Farage of these early days was something of a yob. He dressed untidily, his behaviour anti-social. If there was trouble, you could bet Farage would be at the heart of it
‘I remember asking him once why he said those things, why he didn’t like black people?’ What was confusing was that Farage got on really well with a fellow pupil named Paul who was black.
The Farage of these early days was something of a yob. He dressed untidily, his behaviour anti-social. If there was trouble, you could bet Farage would be at the heart of it. As he got older, he and his mates would meet in the groundsman’s hut at lunchtime and sit smoking or drinking beer.
He was threatened with expulsion after being caught having a water fight in the lavatories.
But in his mid-teens, almost overnight, he radically changed his style, morphing from a scruff into a dandy in a double-breasted blazer and a boater, immaculate creases in his trousers. One account has him walking round with an old-fashioned cane and hiding a box of snuff from teachers.
Many of Farage’s contemporaries agree he was simply a Conservative Right-winger, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and Powell
He may have been following fashion; it was a time when the TV series Brideshead Revisited and the film Chariots Of Fire were influencing public school culture. But he had found his distinctive Farage look.
A boorish arrogance went with this new look. Once, a senior boy who helped out in the school library was stamping pupils’ books in and out when Farage started kicking off. ‘He was being loud and adopting a ‘What are you going to do about it, then?’ attitude.’
As Farage got older, so his rebellious streak grew. ‘I suppose I was a bit of a wind-up merchant. I always questioned authority,’ he says. But he had also found a role model.
Top-rank politicians often visited Dulwich to talk to the boys but the one who made the greatest impression on him was Enoch Powell — a long-standing opponent of Britain joining the European Community but probably best known for public opposition to non-white immigration, as exemplified by his notorious Rivers of Blood speech in 1968.
Powell ‘dazzled me for once into awestruck silence’, Farage later said. He instantly became one of his great political heroes for championing unfashionable causes and challenging conventional wisdom.
‘Whenever I encountered interventionist authority, I was at the forefront of the dissidents,’ he says. ‘Whenever I encountered unthinking acceptance of doctrine, whether about the news or history, I challenged it fiercely. Whatever my own views, I would champion any damsel in distress against the dragons of prejudice.
‘This was not mere puppy play-fighting. I had discovered in myself a passionate loathing for received opinion.’
Top-rank politicians often visited Dulwich College (pictured) to talk to the boys but the one who made the greatest impression on Farage was Enoch Powell, probably best known for public opposition to non-white immigration, as exemplified by his notorious Rivers of Blood speech in 1968
Yet despite his challenges to authority, not long after Farage’s 17th birthday, David Emms, the Master — the school’s head teacher — surprisingly appointed him a prefect for his final year.
The decision caused uproar. The adult Nigel Farage has always loved Dulwich College. He is an assiduous attender of alumni events, where he sometimes turns up in an Old Alleynian (the special name for its Old Boys association) blazer with its garish stripes and brass buttons.
The school, though, has a delicate love-hate relationship with him. On one hand, he’s among its most famous Old Boys. On the other, the school can’t hide some discomfort with his public reputation and how he represents an outlook and politics which many staff and alumni abhor. This became an issue even before he left. In the staff room, his appointment as a prefect set off a furious debate.
‘It became enormously heated,’ recalls former English master Bob Jope. ‘A significant number of staff, young and old, from various departments, expressed concern. The accusation was that he had voiced views that were not simply Right-wing but racist. Not the views that a school should tolerate.’
Allies of Farage say Jope’s criticism stemmed from his own personal Left-leaning outlook — described by one old boy as a ‘lovable hippy type, a crusty of his time’ who sang in a teachers’ rock band called Breaking Class. Farage mocked him and others like him as the ‘Bob Dylan set’.
But the main opposition to Farage’s promotion was from young English teacher Chloe Deakin. She wrote a lengthy letter to the Master saying she was ‘not acquainted with NP Farage — happily so because judging from reports I have received he is not someone with whom I would wish to be acquainted’.
She’d heard that he was a publicly professed racist with neo-fascist views.
Another colleague had described how Farage and others at an Army Cadet camp marched through a quiet Sussex village late at night shouting Hitler Youth songs.
She told Emms: ‘I’ve often heard you tell our senior boys they are the nation’s future leaders. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that these leaders are enlightened and compassionate.
‘I am by disposition, tolerant; and in politics, moderate. But I find it distasteful that a boy such as Farage should have bestowed upon him the prestige of office and authority.’
Her letter made no difference. The head stuck to his decision. He said later in his defence: ‘I thought of him as a naughty boy who got up the noses of the teaching staff for his chirpiness and cheekiness. I think it was naughtiness rather than racism. I saw good in him and considerable potential and I was proved right.’
His deputy Terry Walsh told me there was a strong Left-wing element among staff and Farage liked to wind them up by adopting an extreme Right-wing facade. He agreed Farage sometimes expressed support for the National Front, or the even more extreme neo-Nazi British Movement. ‘He did it because he knew it would rile them. But I don’t think he ever believed it.’
The adult Farage dismisses the accusation about Hitler Youth songs as ‘completely silly’. He didn’t know ‘the words’ of such songs, he said.
As for racist remarks: ‘Yes, of course, I said some ridiculous things — not necessarily racist things, it depends how you define it.’ Yes, he had been excluded from class ‘dozens of times’ and, he said, he might simply have been winding up his critics.
‘Was I a difficult, bolshie teenager who pushed the boundaries of debate further than perhaps I ought to have done? Yes. Have I ever been a member of any extremist organisation, Left or Right? No.’ He thought the outrage among some staff was because they deplored ‘my spirited defence of Enoch Powell’.
Many of Farage’s contemporaries agree he was simply a Conservative Right-winger, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and Powell.
But there are several whose memories go well beyond that. They accuse him of being significantly racist or anti-Semitic. One Jewish ex-pupil recalls a climate in which it wasn’t unusual to hear anti-Semitic or racist comments.
‘I got it,’ he says. ‘Kids from India or Pakistan got it.’ He remembers Farage sidling up to him and saying: ‘Hitler was right,’ or ‘Gas ’em.’
But then he heard Farage explaining his own surname may originally have been Huguenot —the Protestant sect who fled from persecution in Catholic France in the 17th century. ‘I said to him: ‘So you are also from a family who came to this country under threat of genocide.’
‘He said: ‘Yes.’ And I said: Isn’t your attitude to Jews and Blacks out of kilter?’ And he replied: ‘I suppose so.’ He was quite capable of being reflective, and intelligent and quite charming. And you see that now, absolutely.’
The fellow pupil had relatives murdered in the Holocaust. He ‘despised’ Farage, he says, but he ‘never entirely hated him’ as a person. ‘I just avoided him thereafter.’
He didn’t feel bullied by Farage. ‘I might have done if he had acolytes bearing down on me as a group. But he had no clique; he wasn’t a classic bully with his gang.
‘He was very much a loner. ‘Of course, he was provocative, but he was provocative to everyone. He was eccentric, slightly mad, a nutter, as David Cameron later said, a fruit-cake.’
Another Dulwich Old Boy expressed similar views in an anonymous letter to a newspaper. He remembered Farage fondly — for the terrific breakfast his mother cooked when he stayed at his house and the way he ‘enchanted people at school, teachers and fellow pupils alike’.
Yet he also recalled Farage’s ‘keen interest’ in his initials being the same as the National Front, and how he doodled the NF symbol on his school books.
He remembered Farage frequently crying ‘Send ’em home’, citing the former British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and singing a song which went ‘gas them all, gas ’em all, gas them all’, to the tune of Bless ‘Em All.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a political opponent attacking Farage under cover of anonymity. Yet the writer said he thought Farage had been ‘absolutely right to challenge the EU’ robustly.
Another contemporary, Nick Gordon Brown, remembers Farage as: ‘A very vocal National Front supporter. He always referred to ‘our black and brown friends’. He used to talk about voluntary repatriation.
‘There was a Jewish lad he was horrible to. With Jewish schoolmates, he made no secret of his distaste for them. What you see now, is what he was like then.’
David Edmonds, who was in the same class as Farage when they were 15, says: ‘He was a deeply unembarrassed racist. He used words like ‘w**s’ and came out with the usual anti-Semitic tropes.
‘We could never be friends, but I didn’t dislike him. He relished rubbing people up the wrong way. But I think that his far-Right politics, his racism and English nationalism were also quite firmly ingrained. He had the sense that England was being destroyed by waves of immigrants. The idea he wasn’t a racist is 100 per cent incorrect.’
Fellow pupil Tim France says Farage openly supported the extremist British Movement and recalls him chanting ‘BM, BM. We are British Nazi men’, and even giving Nazi salutes. ‘He consciously and vocally positioned himself as a very extreme Right-winger. This was when he was 18.’
But the picture is confused. Old Boys from his time probably divide fairly equally. For everyone who recalls Farage voicing extreme views, another will say they heard nothing untoward.
‘He never said anything racist or insulting to people,’ says Jonathan Mayne. ‘I don’t think he was malicious. He was unconventional and said things that were not everyone’s cup of tea. He was larger than life and also quite self-deprecating in his humour.’
Nor does Jon Benjamin think Farage was anti-Semitic. ‘Being Jewish, I think I’d remember that.’ Ian Oakley Smith says: ‘Nigel’s views at the time wouldn’t be exceptional, so they probably didn’t stand out as much as they would today.’
Farage’s response to these allegations of racism and anti-Semitism at school is dismissive: ‘I thought all of the far-Right parties/movements to be ludicrous/barmy/dangerous. There were some hard-Left masters and several of us thoroughly enjoyed winding them up. Terms of abuse thrown around between 15-year-olds were limitless; there were no boundaries. I think red-haired boys fared especially badly.’
Accusations racism would continue to dog Farage throughout his political life. One of the most bruising allegations was from Alan Sked, who founded and led the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) until forced out by Farage. He says that just before the 1997 General Election, Farage suggested it was time to drop the policy of banning former National Front members from being Ukip candidates. An affronted Sked rejected this, to which Farage apparently replied that they shouldn’t ‘worry about the n****r vote. They will never vote for us.’
I interviewed hundreds of people for my book on Farage yet nobody else recalls him using such racist language at any time after leaving Dulwich College. Nor do any interviewees recollect him saying anything even close to such words — yet many of them dislike him and are highly critical in numerous other ways.
The Eurosceptic journalist Richard North, who worked closely with Farage and then subsequently fell out with him, rejects the idea he’s an ‘out-and-out’ racist, though says he was ‘locked in aspic’ from the time of World War I.
‘He was racist in a Churchillian sense, in that he believed in the superiority of the white Englishman — King and Empire.’
It’s important, too, to remember that Farage counts as one of his greatest achievements as Ukip leader that he kept the party from forming a far-Right alliance with the British National Party, as some members urged him to do.
By the mid-1990s the BNP had emerged as the main force on the extreme Right of British politics, a successor to racist and neo-Nazi groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists and the National Front.
‘There were lots of people saying to me at that time, ‘You’ve got to do a deal with them,’ Farage recalls. ‘We were being beaten by them regularly in local elections, so there was huge pressure on me.’ In 2017, he proudly said: ‘I destroyed the BNP, who genuinely were anti-Jew, anti-Black. I said to their voters, if you’re holding your nose and voting for the BNP as a protest, don’t.
‘Come and vote for me. I’m not against anybody. I just want us to start putting British people first. And I almost single-handedly destroyed the far-Right in British politics.’
As he neared the end of his time at Dulwich, most pupils planned to go to university. His mother was desperate for him to do the same, dreading him following his father into the City.
But Farage’s mind was made up. ‘I don’t want to be a scruffy student, I want to be out there,’ he remembers thinking. ‘I couldn’t wait to get cracking.’ He headed to the Square Mile and joined a firm of traders on the London Metal Exchange.
On the day he left school in 1982, one of his teachers told him: ‘Nigel, I have a feeling you will go far in life, but whether in fame or infamy, I don’t really know.’
Farage replied: ‘Sir, as long as it’s far, I don’t care which.’
Adapted from One Party After Another by Michael Crick, published by Simon & Schuster, £25. © Michael Crick 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until February 13.