Euan McColm: Farage showed his true colours

IT WAS Otto Inglis I felt sorry for. Nobody cared about Otto, with his bright smile and his “wows”. While Ukip leader Nigel Farage held court, Otto bounced around, working the edge of the room.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Picture: GettyUkip leader Nigel Farage. Picture: Getty
Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Picture: Getty

He did a laudable job of remaining enthusiastic in the face of ­absolute indifference. Meeting Ukip’s head of press, Otto let out a “wow” and nodded, vigorously. “Oh, wow.”

He continued to smile and “wow”. Here a “wow”, there a “wow”. Eventually, someone introduced us. “Wow,” said Otto.

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But nobody wanted to speak with Otto, the party’s candidate in the Aberdeen Donside by-election, while Farage was trading insults with protesters in an Edinburgh pub on Thursday afternoon.

The descent into chaos of the Ukip leader’s press conference in the Canon’s Gait has been endlessly analysed. Farage was either caught up in a perfectly legitimate protest by left-wing activists or intimidated into silence by an undemocratic mob.

I’m on the side of a bit of both. The protesters – a mix of student radicals and ageing peddlers of the Socialist Worker –had every right to picket his event, but silencing him as they did was fundamentally wrong, assuming we believe in freedom of speech and democracy and all those fripperies, that is.

On the other hand, if you will insist on doing your politics in pubs, based on policies that frequently sound as if they were brewed up over five pints of Stinking Nellie on a bank holiday lock-in, you are rather asking for the occasional flare up: politics, like football colours, being best left outside the bar.

But back to Otto. We might have expected him to feature in Thursday’s proceedings in some way. Perhaps Farage could have introduced him, for example. Maybe he could have invited Otto to outline his vision for Aberdeen Donside, all the while nodding approvingly as the candidate spoke. He might at least have acknowledged his presence.

And the Ukip leader could have done this long before the press conference fell apart. I suppose he would have done had Thursday’s event been about the Aberdeen Donside by-election. But it wasn’t.

Not only did Farage fail to much acknowledge the eager Otto, a labrador in a suit, but his campaigning fervour couldn’t quite take him north to the constituency his party would dearly love to (but, of course, won’t) win. Poor patsy Otto provided a convenient excuse for Farage to gain airtime. Clever man, that Farage.

The by-election is some way away – 20 June – but so far none of the main competing parties is hearing much to suggest constituents are at all interested in Ukip. In these early days, anecdotal evidence across the mainstream parties has Farage’s party on a worthless one per cent. Mainstream parties see some evidence that voters in the by-election are lining up along solid constitutional lines. With an independence referendum on the horizon, it may be that the timing couldn’t be worse for Ukip.

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All to play for and all that, but Ukip won’t be entering Holyrood next month. Farage knows that. And he also knows good telly.

The prospect of being caught up in a protest didn’t present much of a public relations problem for Farage (though his uncertain handling of Thursday’s events and his angry hang-up during a BBC Radio Scotland interview on Friday morning suggest things went much further than he expected). It was fascinating to watch Farage up close, before the protestors began disrupting proceedings. Pressed, by a reporter from a local paper, on a range of issues in Aberdeen Donside, Farage quickly lost patience. His lips tightened out that smile and he dismissed a bloody stupid question.

There have been attempts by some to draw comparisons between First Minister Alex Salmond and Farage. That they both lead parties seeking independence is a solid exhibit A, but how Farage handled what happened next showed the difference between these two successful political operators.

Challenged on allegations of racism in his party by a slightly breathless young protester, Farage suggested the chap might be more stupid than he looked.

Salmond (and I realise the First Minister would expect a more sympathetic ear than Farage received) would have had that protester eating out of his hand. He would have engaged him, dropped his voice, told a personal assistant to make a note. But Farage lost his temper and broke from his “bloody good bloke” persona.

What does it matter, though? Ukip is ­irrelevant in Scotland. Alex Salmond said so. Ukip barely registered in the 2011 Holyrood election, that’s true. But we do have other elections, do we not? In the 2009 European election, Ukip took more than five per cent of the vote. Since then, Farage’s profile has grown considerably.

We’ll have to wait until next year to discover whether he is to have any impact in Scotland. The European election next May presents his best opportunity and those in the mainstream taking comfort from the spurious notion that Thursday’s protest represented Scotland’s rejection of Ukip should perhaps wait until then before dismissing the party’s chances.

There is a common myth that Scots are considerably more pro-Europe than the English. In fact, the difference is negligible: 41 per cent in England would like to leave the European Union, while 37 per cent of Scots feel similarly.

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Farage gained more than he lost this week, but he wobbled under pressure. The Ukip leader retains many admirers, however. Any number of politicians who condemn him publicly will privately praise his style. He’s a good operator.

So is it really so unlikely that Ukip could win a Scottish seat next year? Those in the mainstream parties currently dismissing Ukip as an irrelevance may regret their complacency. Farage will be back in Scotland. This time, cheery old anonymous Otto helped get him headlines that appeal to the sense of grievance felt by his core support south of the Border, but he’ll find other reasons to visit.

All last week told us was that student lefties don’t like Ukip. A year from now we’ll discover whether the party can wow Scottish voters. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm