Carn Brea is about as far away from an SNP heartland as you can imagine. Its leisure centre is in far south-west Cornwall on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Redruth. The nearest Scottish icon is the magnificent McSalvors DIY store.
But on a wet and windswept evening this week, Carn Brea saw a Brexit Party rally – one of the biggest political gatherings in Cornwall for years. The event was a sell-out with more than 1,000 in the hall.
I arrived 40 minutes early to find no parking space for half a mile, queues snaking round the hall and almost all the seats taken. I squeezed in near the back and had a strange sensation of being in the midst of some huge SNP alter ego event, a fervent whooping, cheering doppelganger SNP rally.
The Brexit debate may have descended into a scabrous row over border controls, trade arrangements, economic gains and losses. But this was not what pulsed through this audience. What brought it time and again to its feet were points centrally to do with independence – the right to be governed by its own representatives, to make and shape its own laws, to order its own priorities and not to be governed by unelected officials based in another country.
Familiar? As I looked across at the audience, it seemed remarkably similar in fervour, enthusiasm – and independence end goal – to anything witnessed at the SNP conference in Aberdeen this week.
Brexit Party candidates were introduced – farmers from Devon, fishermen leaders from Newlyn, low-carbon campaigners, self-employed, small business people, care sector workers, a Breton-Cornish environmentalist.
Widdecombe the warm-up act
This part of the country has always been distinctive. Not that long ago, the south-west was a Liberal Democrat heartland. Its distinctiveness is precious. It baulks at being ruled from London or Brussels. In the EU referendum, 56.5 per cent voted Leave.
Warm-up act Ann Widdecombe, now an MEP for the South West, brought the hall to its feet time and again with pleas for independence and stinging criticism of the ruling elite: “If you don’t like the term surrender act, then stop surrendering!”
But there was something even bigger in this huge hall – a sense that a genie really has come out of the political bottle. Nigel Farage declared that the debate has moved on from “merely” Brexit to the very soul of democracy itself.
Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice set out the broader aims – a self-governing nation with democratic control over its own laws, borders and money; reform of the House of Lords and the broken two-party system; break-up of the entrenched and unaccountable powers of the civil service and the BBC; scrapping vanity projects such as HS2 and greater investment outside the south east.
It was energising and inspiring – I doubt if any SNP supporter would not have found some common cause with many of the attendees at this rally.
But I left with some misgiving and doubt. There was not a single mention of the event either on the main BBC news or its local news magazine. It never happened.
I could not help but feel that the heavily London and south-east based commentariat is making the same mistake as the US commentariat in the 2016 presidential election – the fly-over states of no consequence, nor the inhabitants of the Rust Belt and Hicksville farmsteads beyond – the naïve and unsophisticated “deplorables” the naïve and unsophisticated “deplorables” as Clinton infamously branded half of Donald Trump’s supporters. Then look what happened.
However big the Brexit rallies, they may struggle to be heard this week amid the pressure to push through a tweaked withdrawal deal, leaving the UK half in and half out.
But they will pose a major challenge to a compromised Conservative Party, a divided Labour opposition and a Lib Dem party now determinedly for Remain. It’s not just that the Brexiteeers will fight a betrayal as they see it. They may lose in this now. But they have lit a long fuse for far greater change.