In an age in which visual impressions and appearances are everything, politicians often like to transmit certain subliminal visual signals through the media to register particular impressions on the minds of their imagined constituencies. It might be their clothes and accoutrements, the situations they allow themselves to be photographed in, the animals they associate themselves with.
One thinks of George Bush’s leather jacket; the ludicrous bare-chested Putin riding horses and prowling the wilderness with a high-powered rife; Tony Blair in unbuttoned shirt posing with the troops in Iraq or appearing on football focus (same difference – to him); the smiling Cameron riding a bicycle to Central Office before he was elected (admittedly followed by a car carrying his briefcase, but never mind, we got the point).
These messages don’t have to be subtle to be effective. Subtlety in fact, has nothing to do with it. In a few rare cases these visual props become so iconic that they actually become an essential and indelible component of the public persona and political message of the politician concerned, almost like a physical appendage.
The unlikely rise of Ukip has provided a new and, as far as I can recall, unprecedented addition to modern political imagery, in Nigel Farage’s unprecedented willingness to have himself photographed with a pint in his hand. I’m not saying that politicians don’t drink: we know that they do and always have done, and that quite often their job makes them drink even more – in private.
We know, for example, that Richard Nixon was a long way from sober when he ranted and raved to Henry Kissinger about his plans to bomb North Vietnam into the stone age back in 1972. But Nixon didn’t make a public virtue out of drinking, and it is doubtful whether he would have been highly regarded if he had.
British politicians are no different. They might drink or they might not, but they were, until recently, unlikely to be rewarded politically if they boasted about their ability to do it in public. All this has now changed, at least in the case of Nigel Farage. I can’t think of any politician in British political history who has so relentlessly and fervently tied his political image to pubs, beer and drinking.
In the last two years or so Farage has been photographed so often in a pub with a pint in his hand that it is tempting to imagine that he actually lives in one, or would like to. These associations have been carefully and deliberately cultivated. To think of Farage is to conjure up an instant image of a man with a lop-sided grin who looks as if he has just won the lottery, leaning up against a bar, holding a pint in his hand.
Now there was once a time when you would be no more likely to trust a politician who spent so much of his time in a bar, than you would the driver who offered to give you a lift back home after a party and assured you that he was under-the-limit.
Yet Farage’s capacity for drinking appears to have become a positive political asset. When he boasts that he likes a pint or two at lunchtime, his growing numbers of supporters don’t think that such a man might not staking out a claim to be a future prime minister.
Nor do they appear to be concerned by the fact that Farage and his fellow Ukip MEPs are picking up £60,000+ salaries even though they hardly ever appear in parliament, or that Farage appears to be too lazy to even read his own party’s manifesto.
In Farage-land, it seems, the capacity for a liquid lunch, is precisely what makes him in and his party so voteable. So the question is, what exactly does Nigel Farage’s pint signify? What are the essential signals that it is intended to convey?
I’ve identified the following possibilities, though feel free to add your own:
1. Farage’s liking for a pint shows that he is not a politician but an ‘ordinary bloke’ – just like you and me, in fact. Never mind that he is a former stockbroker who went to Dulwich, where one of his teachers once complained about his fascist tendencies. The British pub, not Westminster is where ordinary blokes and real people can be found – the kind of blokes who ‘out-of-touch’ politicians never listen to.
2. The bloke part is important. Farage is always holding a pint, not a half-pint, which would be a little feminine and kind of wimpish. In Britain real men drink pints, and don’t care if the world sees them do it. If the Ukip leader was a woman, she would definitely not let herself be seen drinking a pint or even half, and she probably wouldn’t be well-seen if she did. In this sense Farage’s pint is the equivalent of Putin’s high-powered rifle: it shows that he is a red-blooded, flesh-and-blood male, unlike the effete Oxbridge types who are running the show in Westminster.
3. The pint – like the pub – is a British institution. It’s real British (English) beer, just as Farage and his party are real British (English) politicians. It’s not something that comes from Brussels or some chintzy Euro-wine bar. After all, as the EDL once stated on its website:
‘ We’re proud of our rich cultural heritage, the innovations we gave the world, our language, our pubs, our national football team (most of the time), our armed forces, and the sacrifices that previous generations made in defence of everything that we hold dear.’
Ukip and Farage are proud of all that too. And photo-shoots in pubs are one way of showing how proud they are.
4. The pub, not Westminster, is the place where the great British conversation is taking place, and Farage’s pint shows that he is part of that conversation, not the pseudo-debate taking place in Westminster.
5. A man who’s not afraid to show that he likes a good, honest pint is man you can trust, unlike the slippery, grasping, expenses-drawing, immigration-facilitating, EU-loving traitors who have sold our green and pleasant land down the drain and allowed the Bulgarian and Romanian hordes to take over.
6. Farage is almost always photographed alone, smiling with a pint in his hand. This isn’t because he is lonely. On the contrary, these images are an invitation to you, ordinary voters across the land, to have a pint with Nigel. You are his drinking companions, and the ones who will help him get to Westminster.
So come on into the Ukip Arms, mate. Let Nigel tell you how the EU has destroyed our proudest traditions, our national and cultural identity, and flooded the land with Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians, foreign criminals, and Islam. Talk about the dictatorship in Brussels and the European super-state and human rights out of control and political correctness gone mad.
Come and talk to a man who knows the truth – just like you – and isn’t afraid to tell it.
Sit down and have a pint with Nigel. And find out why he’s always smiling.