No, Farage, the protesters weren't anti-English, they were anti-UKIP

It's right-wing bigotry that the protesters are "virulently opposed" to, not "the English".

If Nigel Farage is to be believed, the protesters who forced him to abandon his planned press conference at a pub in Edinburgh yesterday, were Scottish nationalists "virulently opposed to the English". In an interview on the Today programme this morning, he challenged Alex Salmond to "come out and condemn this sort of behaviour", declaring that "they were all campaigners for independence, they were all people who vote SNP. They were all united by a hatred of the English, the union jack and everything the UK represents."

But while it's politically convenient for Farage to dismiss the protesters as nationalist bigots, you will search in vain for any evidence to support his claim. Those who disrupted the press conference shouted "racist", "scum" and "homophobe", words which suggest that the protest had more to do with UKIP's opposition to gay marriage and its anti-immigration policies than it did with Farage's nationality. For one thing, if SNP supporters are motivated by anti-Englishness, why aren't Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians mobbed whenever they set foot in Scotland? 

Rather than naïvely accepting Farage's characterisation of the protesters, (as some anti-independence Labourites have done), it seems reasonable to let them speak for themselves. 

John Martin, the president of the Edinburgh College Students' Association, said: "We organised yesterday's protest against Farage out of a belief that UKIP's policies are fundamentally rotten. Their headline five-year immigration freeze is not only completely disconnected from reality, but is a policy that neither the people of Scotland nor the rest of the United Kingdom would stomach. His regressive and repugnant ideology is not far removed from that of the BNP - just dressed in a better-fitting suit."

A spokesman for the Radical Independence Campaign said: "This was about challenging someone whose party has been spouting racist, sexist and homophobic bile and gone unchallenged for months. Everyone who opposes the politics of fear and division should unite against UKIP - whether you live in Scotland or England."

Farage's insistence, against all evidence to the contrary, that the protesters were united by a hatred of the English (a significant number were English) is amusingly at odds with the line adopted by his own party's spokesman yesterday: "Was it anti-English? I doubt it." 

In another interview, on Good Morning Scotland, Farage insisted: "The anger, the hatred, the shouting, the snarling, the swearing was all linked in to a desire for the Union Jack to be burnt." Note the peculiar phrasing: a "desire" for the Union Jack to be burnt. If the protesters loathe the English as much as Farage suggests what was stopping them setting light to the flag there and then?

One protester did invite the UKIP leader to "shove your union jack up your arse", but this stray quip hardly summed up the spirit of the demonstration (nor was it obviously anti-English). 

The protesters may have been foolish to greet Farage as they did (yesterday's events were a political gift to UKIP), but anti-English they were not. 

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage addresses the media in central London on May 3, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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