Yesterday the most extraordinary thing happened. Someone stood up to Nigel Farage and told him quite loudly that he did not agree with him, and interrupted his press conference.
There are two aspects to this that I find fascinating. The first is, how utterly effective this piece of direct action was. Secondly, how some have reacted to it.
So to fill in the details of what happened yesterday (there is a good write up here too). Nigel Farage goes to Edinburgh to launch campaign for Aberdeen MEP by-election (don’t ask why). Nigel goes to pub in Royal Mile to have his signature photo taken of him with a pint in his hand, all the while receiving glowing and uncritical media publicity.
This is where things start to go wrong. Some students turn up at the pub too. They start arguing with Nigel. Nigel doesn’t like this. He tries to argue back, but eventually it all gets too much for the publican, who turfs the whole bunch out on to the street. There are more students out here, and so the police tell Nigel to go back in the pub. Nigel attempts to get in a taxi – twice. Twice the cabbies turn him down. Eventually the police get him into a van and drive him off.
Normally when students have attempted to use direct action (sit-ins, protests, demos) they have been either totally ineffective or counter-productive. The two big national student demos (Demolition in 2010 and #demo2012) were respectively a media car-crash and a pointless walk in the rain. Local direct action in Newcastle has often (but not always) failed to make an impact – protests at the Civic Centre hardly changed the course of the budget debate.
And yet this protest was utterly, incredibly, totally effective. They not only made headlines in the local Edinburgh press, but the frontpage of the Independent and the online pages of the BBC, Telegraph, Guardian too. Today there is still excellent and critical coverage of Farage on BBC News, and the protests seem to have rattled Farage himself. When appearing on a BBC Scotland radio show, he was so rattled at this first Paxman-style interview that the eventually started to peddle the notion that the interview was being critical because of some sort of anti-UKIP hatred. Rather than appearing to rise above the fray, Farage further embroiled himself in the controversy by dubbing the protestors as “fascist yobbo scum“.
The other thing that struck me as amusing about L’affaire Farage (Alex Salmond said “it’s not exactly the Dreyfus trial“) was the bizarre reaction against it. Tim Stanley (of the Telegraph) said that it was a “violent mobbing” , despite no one being hit, arrested for violence or anything been thrown (although one student was detained for pouring a coke on Nigel Farage). Dan Hodges, also of the Telegraph, condemned what happened and said “Farage should be free to campaign where he wants”. Although Hodges has said in the past that he is “instinctively authoritarian” and “if the state’s paternalism occasionally has to be extended at the tip of truncheon, so be it”, so we can discount his opinions accordingly. It’s a stunning reminder that some people really don’t value basic civil liberties at all.
An unjustified mob? Come off it, if there’s one thing that Farage has been getting over the coming weeks, it’s pretty much completely favourable media coverage. The result in the local elections came about as him being portrayed as the patron saint of pubs and beer. Seriously, where has the pushback come from? Barely anyone has been willing to put forward the case for immigration or the EU, and those that have are the political equivalent of vampires or the undead. The Tories have been running scared ever since, willing to throw out increasingly important parts of the coalition agreement just to appease this insatiable beast.
And so here was something that truly turned the tide. Beforehand, every journalist didn’t have a reference point to anchor the anti-Farage movement. No popular support? Well, they’ve got 100+ councillors, 23% of the vote apparently. There’s never been an occasion where Nigel failed to make a good impression in the last 18 months. Now in future every conversation, every media interview is at least going to touch on the ‘scottish thing’.
Why was the protest so successful? I think – somewhat sadly – it was mostly down to luck and good fortune. Nigel’s incompetence at dealing with Scottish culture, the genuinely different political ground wrong-footing him, the hilarious nature of the protest, the lack of violence and his poor reaction to the situation all were contributing factors. It was the right tactic at the right time.
But ultimately looking at a protest in this way is like looking at a song and analysing it by its component parts. Looking at “Rocket Man” is not going to help you to author “I’m Still Standing“. It’s fun, but not much use in the end.