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: Getty
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

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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