This article was originally published over at VICE UK.
Scotland’s referendum was supposed to have been a foregone conclusion. Newspapers were churning out headlines about the SNP’s case being “in tatters” over a year ago, and predictions of a “crushing defeat” for independence abounded. When polls began to tighten two weeks ago – putting each side within the margin of error – panic mode set in amongst the UK establishment, as the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK suddenly became very real.
Since then, barely a day has gone by without politicians of various hues dashing north to remind everyone just how much they love Scotland, of the vital role that the country plays in the union, and of the near-Armageddon that faces it if it does decide to go it alone. On Thursday, this last ditch effort to save Britain involved despatching a trainload of a hundred Labour MPs to Glasgow. This didn’t quite go to plan, with their walk through the city centre getting sent up as an "Imperial March" from The Empire Fights Back, doing more viral outreach work for the independence cause than Yes Scotland’s social media strategists could have realistically hoped for.
On Friday evening, the spotlight turned to Nigel Farage, a man whose previous forays into Scotland have been pretty calamitous affairs. Having either been outnumbered by protestors, barricaded into a pub, or made to look ridiculous for his lack of basic knowledge about Scotland, people here have never quite taken to him in the same way as some other parts of the UK.
Ahead of his latest visit, the UKIP leader said that he felt compelled to come and do his bit for the union, lest he been seen as giving up on the “UK” letters in his party’s name. If that really was his best argument for the union – to stop UKIP having to undergo a name change – I reckoned he probably had his work cut out to convince Scotland. Curious to find out if he had much more of a case for sticking together, I headed along to their “Separation Referendum Rally” in Glasgow city centre. The “Separation Referendum” bit is important cause as, in UKIP’s view, Scotland wouldn’t really be “independent” if there’s a Yes vote, as it would likely still be in the European Union. I imagine they’re pretty pissed off about the SNP stealing the whole “independence” schtick from them too.
To get into the venue, I had to walk past 50 or so anti-racist protesters who had somehow found out the location of the conference, which had been a closely guarded secret to stop exactly these sorts of people getting anywhere near it.
Nathan Gill MEP (Left), David Coburn MEP (centre) and Henry Reilly (Right).
When I got in, it soon became clear that there wasn’t any sign of Farage yet and, actually, he wouldn’t be appearing for another two hours. None of the assembled press looked thrilled at the prospect of having to sit around listening to any number of third-rate UKIP hacks all evening until Farage showed up. But with UKIP assuring us that Farage would be the most important intervention in the entire referendum to date, hopefully it would be worth the wait.
We were introduced to David Coburn, UKIP’s first elected representative in Scotland, who became an MEP in May this year after the party gained 10.5 percent of the vote. Coburn is a controversial figure even within UKIP Scotland, having been parachuted in from London to top their election list, to the disbelief of the party’s Scottish members. In the ensuing fallout, a rival of Coburn was even issued with a “fatwa” banning him for “100 years”, which is probably meant to sound dead hard but instead comes across as the fantasy machinations of people making shit up as they go along. A bit like UKIP’s worldview in general.
Obviously everyone wanted to ask questions to Farage, who wasn’t there, so instead had to put up with 30 minutes of Coburn’s tedious opinions on subjects like how much Nigel likes fishing and the Ukraine crisis. He seemed to be relishing his big moment in front of the UK and international media, even if no one else was. Bemoaning the current state of Scotland, he described it as a “no go area for capitalism”, where its young people are forced to either be “part of the socialist collective” or emigrate.
For a man who kept talking about the need for breaking the chains of the state and an entrepreneurial resurgence, the next couple of questions put to him placed this neatly into context. How many surgeries had Coburn organised since becoming an MEP? None, he conceded. And how much was his salary from the EU during this time? “You know, I haven’t a clue. Whatever it is I get paid,” he clarified. Given that MEPs get around £10,000 in salary and expenses each month, I guess it’s enough that he doesn’t have to think about it. Is this the same UKIP that never tire of reminding us how they’re the exciting new alternative to an out of touch political elite?
The main rally took place in a larger lecture theatre with around 100 people there, including press. The star attraction was still an hour and a half away, with six different UKIP speakers taking to the stage in a sluggish build up to his eventual arrival. Each seemed determined to outdo the previous one in how completely boring and devoid of any substance their speech could be, their primary focus being unfettered British nationalism. Struggling to comprehend why anyone would possibly want to vote for independence, they reeled off all their favourite things about the UK, like its flag and “unionist tradition of Hope and Glory”. I felt a bit like I had walked into a press conference in 1952.
Things only got interesting when the topic veered onto Ireland. Henry Reilly, a UKIP councillor in Northern Ireland, got some of the loudest applause of the evening when he viscerally labelled the SNP the “scum of the Earth” and accused them of associating with Irish republicans who “killed Scottish soldiers”. This is probably news to the SNP.
Farage enjoys a cult like adherence among the UKIP faithful. His entrance was met by a standing ovation, his stage managed jokes laughed at on cue, and the audience clung on to his every word before he was marched out again immediately after his speech. That was the extent of his appearance before the audience and the media; there was no time for selfies with his adoring fan base. Effectively, his much hyped contribution to saving the UK, which he proclaims to care so dearly about, was over and done with in 17 minutes. I would have felt pretty pissed off if I’d parted with £20 to get into this jumped up press call, as maybe a dozen particularly gullible patriots had.
It felt like there should have been something more to it. Farage listed off the same overdone rhetoric about the EU as every other speaker, the technicalities of membership and what this could entail for an independent Scotland if it joined. On devolution, now the hot topic for the Westminster parties with talks on new powers in the event of a No vote, Farage had very little to say. He mentioned that Westminster is “making a mess of devolution”, although how UKIP’s proposals to effectively abolish the Scottish Parliament would be an improvement is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps strangely, no one made a big deal out of immigration all night. Farage’s speech made one mention of it, which is a slight contrast to the billboards they plastered the UK with in May. This is a card that was theirs to play, given the SNP’s plans to radically overhaul immigration under independence and have more liberal policies towards it. At one point, Better Together were even privately threatening to “push the [immigration] issue” if the polls narrowed. Fortunately, no one has yet resorted to stirring up xenophobia to swing the referendum, and if even UKIP don’t think it’s palatable as a vote winner, that can only be a good thing.
Those who had stuck it out to hear Farage seemed enraptured, his charisma carrying them along with the same speech they’d already heard about six times that night. Whether it has much impact on the wider electorate remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely to be the game changing moment that UKIP expected it to be.
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