ALEX Salmond was at the centre of a row over freedom of speech last night, after he failed to condemn pro-independence protesters for preventing Ukip leader Nigel Farage putting his party’s case in Scotland.
Police had to escort Mr Farage to safety when demonstrators hijacked his attempt to stage a press conference in a pub in Edinburgh on Thursday.
Reacting to the incident yesterday, Mr Farage branded the protesters “deeply racist with a total hatred of the English and a desire for Scotland to be independent from Westminster”.
The demonstrators were from a left-wing group which is not part of the SNP.
Asked about the clash, in which the protesters shouted “racist Nazi scum” at the Ukip leader, Mr Salmond said it should be kept in “proportion”.
The First Minister maintained that he condemned anyone breaking at the law in demonstrations.
He added: “Lawbreaking has yet to be established. People have the right to protest, to protest in a proper democratic way. That’s our tradition in Scottish politics, but you’ve got to get things into proportion.
“A student protest is a student protest – it’s been going on for generations. And Mr Farage quite clearly cannot tolerate any questioning against him.”
However, his remarks were condemned by political opponents at Holyrood who demanded a tougher stance on “extreme” elements of the pro-independence movement.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the First Minister should speak out against “this attack on free speech”, while Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone warned of the dangers of the protesters’ comments going “unchecked”.
The First Minister’s remarks also produced an angry repose from Mr Farage, whose party is hoping to gain votes in Scotland on the back of its success in recent council elections south of the Border.
The Ukip leader told The Scotsman yesterday: “He [Salmond] is taking the line that it was just a few students and he won’t condemn them because they haven’t broken the law.”
He claimed that similar tactics were used in a Perth by-election in the 1990s “where SNP supporters shouted down opponents and tried to close down the debate”, adding: “This reminds me of the BNP.”
Mr Farage continued: “For years, this extreme wing of the SNP has been doing everything it can to shut down debate and stop its opponents from being heard.
“It is remarkable that Mr Salmond continues to get away with it and that it has not come under closer scrutiny from the press. If supporters of Ukip had done the same to Lord Mandelson as I was subjected to, I would have had a hard time from the press and quite rightly so.”
Having earlier called some of the protesters fascists, Mr Farage added: “Of course I don’t think all Scottish Nationalists are fascists, or all Scots. But there is an extreme wing to the SNP and the independence movement.
“People need to examine the tactics the SNP and independence campaign are using.”
As the row gathered momentum yesterday, the SNP countered by accusing Mr Farage of “losing the plot” in hanging up during a telephone interview with BBC Scotland radio.
The Ukip leader ended the call shortly after claiming the broadcaster had shown the same kind of “hatred” as the protesters. Mr Salmond condemned the Ukip leader over the BBC interview in which he was pressed on the party’s lack of representation north of the Border by journalist David Miller.
“You’re dealing with someone who is outwith the context of normal politics,” the SNP leader said.
“Yes, we will have our political debate and discourse in a proper way in Scotland, but we can frankly do without Ukip who dislike everybody and know absolutely nothing about Scotland.”
However, political opponents were not satisfied with Mr Salmond’s response. Mr Rennie added: “The offensive and aggressive behaviour towards Nigel Farage was unacceptable.
“Of course I disagree with Nigel Farage on his unpleasant and dishonest agenda, but he will be defeated by argument, not aggression.
“It was deeply ironic when these self-proclaimed anti-racist campaigners told an Englishman to get back to his own country. Anti-racists turned racist but were too ignorant to notice. I am sure most people in Scotland will be appalled at this behaviour. These people do not speak for Scotland.
“Alex Salmond must speak out against this attack on free speech.”
And Mr Johnstone accused Mr Salmond of paying “lip service” when it comes to condemning abusive language in his own party. “There has been no end to the abusive comments made by elected members of the SNP in their quest for independence,” he said.
“And yesterday’s abuse handed out by separatists was another shameless example of the lengths they will go to hijack the independence debate in Scotland. If such abusive comments are allowed to continue unchecked, the next 18 months will descend into little more than an anti-British hate campaign.”
Staff cleared the Canons’ Gait pub when the press conference on Thursday evening for Ukip’s Aberdeen Donside by-election candidate Otto Inglis was mobbed.
Members of the Radical Independence Campaign, a grassroots pro-independence group, shouted at Mr Farage and his Ukip colleagues.
Mr Farage tried to escape by taxi but protesters blocked its path and he was forced to return to the pub. Police then barricaded the doors until a riot van came to his aid.
Police said two men had been arrested for alleged assault and breach of the peace. It later emerged that one protester, arrested for allegedly pouring a drink over a Ukip member, is English. The campaign group rejected Mr Farage’s allegations of racism.
A spokesman for the official pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign distanced it from the demonstrators. He said: “We had no knowledge or involvement in any of the scenes on the Royal Mile during (Mr Farage’s) visit to Edinburgh. Yes Scotland continues to run a positive campaign and we condemn any and all forms of intimidation.”
An SNP spokesman said Mr Farage “has completely lost the plot”. He said: “Nothing he says can be treated with a shred of credibility and his partners in the No campaign should be embarrassed about his behaviour.”
Ukip, with its core policy of withdrawal from Europe, is poised to overtake the Liberal Democrats as the third force in UK politics after a “game changing” performance in the recent English County council elections. It secured over 140 seats, averaging 25 per cent of the vote in the wards where it was standing and also has 11 MEPs, including Mr Farage.
But the party has faced criticism over extreme right-wing elements and a hardline policy on cutting immigration. It has yet to make any inroads in Scotland and has no councillors north of the Border. Mr Farage was attempting to raise the party’s profile ahead of the forthcoming Holyrood by-election in Aberdeen when the trouble erupted on Thursday.
Radical group behind the protest that hit headlines
The protest against Nigel Farage was organised by the Radical Independence Campaign, a collective body, which includes Greens, socialists, peace campaigners and intellectuals among its backers.
The pro-nationalist group is pushing for a more left-of-centre future for the country in the event of a Yes vote next year.
About 800 people attended a conference it held in Glasgow towards the end of last year.
The campaign’s Liam O’Hare, who organised the protest against the Ukip leader defended the action yesterday.
“What we saw was group of people from all walks of life in Scotland – young, old, from different backgrounds, coming up to oppose Nigel Farage and his type of politics and put forward an alternative narrative.
“We want a Scotland that welcomes immigrants but does not welcome Nigel Farage who is here to try and sow the seeds of division among communities.”
Peter Lynch’s analysis: Farage loved the attention as much as protesters loved their success at disrupting his visit
The Farage visit may have brought controversy and headlines, but let’s face it, it involved a heated but small and non-violent student protest against a politician and party that thrives on his maverick status and the oxygen of publicity.
This was actually a very minor event with little real political relevance, though it generated great copy for journalists and pictures for broadcasters and lots of entertainment on social media.
Farage loved the attention as much as the protesters loved their success at disrupting his visit. And his response was to lash out against the “Scots” and nationalism in all directions – and also at the BBC – knowing that this would generate headlines.
However, he didn’t like being challenged at his press conference or on air and didn’t handle the media at all well for a supposedly seasoned politician.
He was seriously lacking in his legendary bonhomie on Good Morning Scotland and came across like a grumpy old man: though there is a political audience for that.
Nigel Farage should have anticipated a warm welcome in Scotland and shouldn’t be surprised that he got one. But in a sense, he will find this useful down south. Ukip policy for Scotland until recently involved abolition of the Scottish Parliament and its replacement by MPs: meaning back to the world before 1999.
He may be fishing for some votes up here, but mostly for lots of votes in England and Wales, where there is a right-wing electorate prepared to defect from the Conservatives [though not just them alone] over the economy, immigration, Europe and dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
What does this tell us about contemporary Scottish politics? Not much.
But, a final thought. Ukip may have very little support in Scotland but don’t be surprised if Ukip comes close to winning a seat at the European elections in June next year, at the expense of the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.
Why? Because the Tories and Lib Dems are struggling, Ukip are on the up and it doesn’t take much to get that sixth Scottish MEP elected. Last time around, the Lib Dems won the last seat with just 11.5 per cent of the vote – a share of the vote they could barely dream of now.
• Dr Peter Lynch is an expert in Scottish politics at the University of Stirling
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Owen Jones: Well done Scotland for giving Nigel Farage an appropriate welcome. You don’t fancy keeping him, then
Nigel Farage: Thanks for all the kind messages from Scots appalled at what happened yesterday and also at the BBC interview …
Isabelle Bavetta: My respect for the people of Scotland has doubled after seeing the footage of Nigel Farage in Edinburgh
Morning Chorus: So where next for Nigel Farage? Bradford? Lets see nearest pubs to the Al Mahdi Mosque …Ahmadis practice Islam without fanatical beliefs
The big ragu: They claim Farage is anti foreigner. So shout ‘get out of scotland’ ‘go home’ you not think thats a bit stupid
Cath Murphy: Farage calls Scotland ‘facist’. World stocks of incredulity now at all-time low
Jon Worth: SNP socking it to Farage better than any Westminster politicians have done recently
Daniel Trilling: As on welfare, Alex Salmond doing what the Labour Party seems incapable of doing: challenging right-wing narratives.