Profile: Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

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Nigel Farage
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UKIP leader Nigel Farage is a founding member of the party, defecting from the Conservatives in 1993

After decades on the fringes, UKIP recently found itself in the spotlight after giving the Tories and Lib Dems a rattling in three by-elections, and the party's ebullient leader Nigel Farage was cast centre stage - but who is the man in the Home Counties blazer?

Nigel Farage was never really interested in toys, says his mother Barbara.

He was a good scholar, and, she reveals, his final school report from Dulwich College said the school "would be a poorer place without this boy's personality".

Nigel's stockbroker father, Guy Oscar Justus Farage, was also something of a bon viveur - and, it transpired, an alcoholic. He left the family home when Nigel was 5-years-old.

Born 48 years ago in Kent - where he still lives - the young Nigel bounced through school, joining everything from the cricket and rugby clubs to Army Cadets and the politics society.

In 1982 he decided not go to university but instead chose to work in the City as a commodities trader - which is where he met friend Steven Spencer.

"My first impression of Nigel is an unorthodox, happy, cheerful guy - outspoken and humorous," says Spencer, speaking to Radio 4's Profile.

"When I worked as a customer of Nigel's I would wander into a smoke-filled room, with tobacco smoke about 4 feet from the floor, with a bunch of very happy traders [and] good chemistry around Nigel.

"There'd always be a very politically incorrect atmosphere that just relaxed everybody."

The birth of UKIP

Alongside work, and plenty of play, Nigel Farage also flirted with politics - at that time, the Conservative Party, from which he defected after John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty.

In 1993 he became a founding member of a new party - the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which had one principal goal: to get Britain out of the European Union.

Farage was elected as an MEP in 1999 and the European Parliament has been his main stomping ground since.

However, the fact that the EU - an institution Nigel Farage detests - has come to shape, even consume, his life, puzzles some of his friends.

"We always joked with him about that - if you dislike it so much, what are you doing there?" says Steven Spencer.

"But Nigel's view has always been, to me, that the place to change it is inside, not outside."

But while Nigel Farage is against the EU, he is not necessarily against Europe. As he has pointed out himself, he is in fact married to a German - Kirsten Mehr became his second wife, in 1999.

And back in Brussels, he has allies - one of the closest being Timo Soini, leader of the eurosceptic True Finns party.

"He's very outspoken - even the people who don't share his message think that he's a great speaker and fun to listen to," says Soini.

"Nigel is so quick and so intelligent that it's very hard to beat him, but the real political elite in Europe, they would rather have parliament without Mr Farage."

'Low-grade bank clerk'

Farage's outspoken speeches in Brussels against what he perceives as "euro-nonsense" are legendary, both for their wit and passion.

They are also known for being epically rude - as the then new President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy found out two years ago, when Farage accused him of "having the appearance of a low grade bank clerk."

According to fellow eurosceptic Dr Richard North, this colourful side of Farage's personality hides something steelier.

"Although he comes over as a very friendly, bubbly open individual, behind the scenes he's very insecure," says Dr North.

"He cannot work with people in a detailed long-term relationship. What he actually does is that he uses people and he uses them up - he consumes people.

Richard North was sacked by Farage and there is certainly no love lost between them now.

"When you actually look at his career and his progress, it's a succession of teams around him. People join him, they get enthused by him, and then see the inner Farage, become disillusioned and then peel off - rather like me, but there are hundreds of me, in that sense," North says.

In the 2010 General Election Nigel Farage raised eyebrows yet again when he contested John Bercow's seat in Buckingham. It was a subversive thing to do as the Speaker of the House is neutral and not usually challenged.

But on the morning of the election, Farage was involved in an air crash caused by the UKIP election banner the plane was towing getting caught in the plane's tail fin.

Farage emerged from the accident remarkably quickly. He has previously survived a serious car accident at the age of 21 and soon after that, testicular cancer.

George Coles, the pub landlord in his local, saw Farage shortly after the plane crash.

"I don't think he had quite got over it at the time, but he was obviously being as bouncy as he could... putting a brave face on it all. It's the sort of guy he is.

"Nigel is a passionate fighter, he doesn't sling the towel in."

Farage's old friend from the City, Steven Spencer, also saw him soon after the air accident.

"Having crashed his plane in the election campaign, he turned up at the church, still injured, with a stick, to pay tribute to one of his colleagues who'd died at the London metal exchange.

"He was walking in incredible pain... but he wasn't going to miss it. It's just absolutely Nigel."

European history buff

Farage's passions go beyond politics. He is a big fan of classic sitcoms like Dad's Army and he loves cricket.

But he reserves his greatest enthusiasm for touring World War I battlefields, with a group of close friends who call themselves "Farage's Foragers".

"We do sometimes refer to them as 'bottlefield tours'," says fellow forager and UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom.

"I remember we were in Ypres, it was about 3:00am in the morning, we must have drunk the restaurant completely dry - it was one hell of a session, and I called time.

"I staggered up into bed, and Farage shouted at me, 'lightweight' and that really sums him up.

But these trips are certainly not just an excuse to get drunk, says Steven Spencer.

"He's deeply interested in Europe, and the history of Europe and where it's gone wrong.

"He likes people to understand what Britain went through in two world wars and what our position is in Europe - he's passionately interested," Spencer says.

But does this patriotism cross over to something darker? Rumours of racism have dogged Nigel Farage and his party for years - David Cameron controversially described UKIP as being full of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" back in 2006.

"I spent a lot of time with him - very, very close to him," says one-time ally, now critic, Richard North.

"If he is a racist, then he's also a consummate actor, because he hides it that well. Personally I don't think he is. I think he's an old-fashioned jingoistic patriot."

But Dr North does have other reservations about Nigel Farage - including what he sees as his lack of political acumen.

"It is part of his charm - hard-living, hard-drinking, and hard-smoking - that is who he is and why he is able to attract a following.

"But if you're looking for a serious politician, with a strategic brain, who is able to lead a party and develop and expand a party, well, they're not the same people.

"Perhaps UKIP's tragedy is it has this tremendously effective figurehead, but it has no strategic brain," says North.

Despite the strong performances at the recent by-elections, it is true that Nigel Farage, in terms of electoral success, remains a political minnow.

UKIP has never won a Westminster seat - and yet Nigel Farage is one of the most recognisable politicians in the country. That is his success - due in large part to his vivacity and flamboyance.

However, his friend MEP Godfrey Bloom just hopes that this high-wire lifestyle is not also Nigel Farage's undoing.

"His lifestyle is appalling, he'd be the first to admit it. He drinks too much red wine and he smokes too much.

"Unless I can persuade him to slow down - and nobody else has succeeded - he won't have a future. He'll fall off his perch."

Radio 4's Profile of Nigel Farage was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 1 December. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or Profile podcast.

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