Farage’s attempt to win over Yes-Leave voters may disenchant core Leave-Unionist support, but the move is part of the Brexit Party leader’s strategy to de-toxify his brand north of the border, Ben Wray finds
NIGEL FARAGE’S appearance in Scotland on Friday was a curious event. The former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which under his leadership had (and still has) a policy of abolishing the Scottish Parliament, sought to tempt Scottish independence supporters over to the Brexit Party.
“If you’re genuinely a nationalist lend your vote to the Brexit party, let’s get out of the EU and then have an honest debate about independence,” he told the rally in central Edinburgh.
An “honest debate” might not sound like much of an olive branch, but it should be seen in the context of the Brexit Party’s Scottish candidate, Louis Stedman-Bryce, stating earlier last week that they would not block a second independence referendum “if the people of Scotland said that is what they wanted”, a commitment that Ruth Davidson, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie have all been unwilling to make.
Farage explained his party’s thinking prior to his rally in Edinburgh on Friday, telling journalists: “The impression that’s often given by Nicola Sturgeon is that almost everybody in Scotland thinks the European Union is a fantastic idea, when the reality is that 30 per cent of her own voters, because they are actually genuinely nationalists, voted to leave the EU.”
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The Brexit Party leader actually underestimates SNP voters support for Leave at the time of the 2016 referendum: 36 per cent backed Leave, nearly as much as the Scottish average.
That 36 per cent is the obvious target for Farage’s new positioning north of the border, and with Sturgeon moving to an increasingly Europhile position – where she will speak at a People’s Vote rally in London but not numerous big independence ones in Scotland – this is not totally without logic.
Indeed, former SNP deputy leader and Eurosceptic Jim Sillars has said it’s “impossible” for him to vote for the SNP, running on a ‘Stop Brexit’ ticket, in this week’s European Parliament elections.
Sillars wrote in the Sunday Times yesterday: “From day one of the Brexit decision, the SNP leadership has alienated hundreds of thousands of independence-supporting ‘leave’ voters in Scotland by immediately seeking to subvert and reverse our vote.”
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However, the Scottish nationalist firebrand won’t be putting a tick in the box of the Brexit Party, and one suspects that the vast majority of Yes-Leave voters won’t either, as Farage’s virulent British nationalism is likely to deter tactical voting for the Brexit Party among Scottish Eurosceptics. Anti-establishment politics has a very different dynamic north of the border, with London, not Brussels, the focus of people’s ire.
Perhaps more significantly, many SNP-Leave voters in 2016 appear to have been on a journey since then. John Curtice stated in October last year that “those 2017 SNP voters who said that they would vote Remain in a second EU ballot outnumbered those who stated they would back Leave by nearly four (79 per cent) to one (21 per cent).”
While it’s possible that SNP-Leave voters in 2016 had abandoned the party by the time of the 2017 General Election, it’s not likely to account for a 17 per cent drop in support for Leave. Scotland in general has become significantly more Europhile since the 2016 plebiscite.
So it’s likely that the number of Yes-Leavers Farage can appeal to is diminishing, and attempting to win them over may do damage to his pro-Brexit, pro-Union support north of the border, a larger constituency that identifies much more with the sort of right-wing, British nationalist politics which is the Brexit Party leader’s stock in trade.
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That, at least, is the hope of the Scottish Conservatives, who are desperately seeking to prevent the party’s support being torn to shreds in Scotland like it is in England.
Davidson responded to Farage’s speech by tweeting: “Nigel Farage now openly courting the nationalists and showing ankle to SNP top brass over #indyref2. Any pro union voters in Scotland considering voting for the Brexit party should think twice.”
The Scottish Tory leader has reason to worry. A Scotland-wide poll (so not a sub-sample) found that the Brexit party is on course for 16 per cent of the vote north of the border, with the Tories polling at just 11 per cent, scrapping it out with the Lib Dems for fourth place. It’s possible Davidson’s party could not win any seats, while any increase in the Brexit Party’s support between now and polling day could get them up to two Scottish seats.
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Even if Farage’s party were to claim more than one seat, there’s no guarantee that it will make them a permanent fixture in Scottish politics. Ukip won their first Scottish MEP in 2014, securing 10.4 per cent of the vote. It didn’t stop them failing to win an MSP in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.
That doesn’t mean there’s room for complacency. While Farage will hope to appeal to Yes-Leave voters, the real aim with his speech on Friday was probably to de-toxify his brand in Scotland, distance himself from his Ukip past and try to show that his democracy message is consistent in its approach to British and Scottish constitutional conundrums. There is a longer game in mind here.
The same poll also showed that the Brexit Party would be on course to win six per cent in the Holyrood list, which in some parts of Scotland could secure them an MSP. Not a political earthquake, like in England, but not an irrelevance either. Of course, there remains a lot of politics to be done between now and 2021 – most decisively of all will be the outcome of the Brexit crisis itself.
Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore