Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage were political twins
You will not find many references to Nigel Farage in Alex Salmond’s political obituaries. He and the leader of the United Kingdom Independence party are hardly bosom buddies. Salmond thinks Farage a backward-looking ‘little Englander’. Farage thinks Salmond fuels anti-English nationalism which abuses opponents.
Yet, as Salmond departs the political scene, it is worth reflecting on the similarities which lurk beneath the surface of the careers of the leaders of Scottish and English nationalism. Take their beginnings. In youth, both were inspired by causes at the fringes of politics. Salmond joined the Scottish National party as a student. In his autobiography, Farage recounts how he joined the Conservative party after a visit to Dulwich College by proto-Thatcherite Keith Joseph.
To support these fringe political passions, both earned their crust in financial firms now known best for their scandals – Salmond as an oil and gas economist for RBS, Farage at Drexel Burnham Lambert and Crédit Lyonnais.
But it was a cause in apparent eclipse that that drove them on. Salmond was on the radical left of an SNP divided and in retreat, even being expelled in 1982, for his support for a ‘Scottish Socialist republic’. The ‘extremists’ eventually displaced the mainstream, and Salmond secured the leadership with the princely total of 486 votes.
Farage was an activist on the hard Tory right during his City years, but abandoned the Tories in 1992 over Maastricht, spending years in the bewildering world of United Kingdom Independence party internal politics, where coup and counter-coup vied for control of the tiny party. In these small pools, their shared talents – oratory, charisma, a distinctive, media-friendly political voice, and the commitment of the workaholic – made them indispensable.
Neither’s rise to leadership was meteoric, but became a gradual inevitability. Perhaps as a result of the internal struggles that created their dominance, both men have been accused of treating their party as their personal plaything. Unusually, though, that indispensability has been proven. Both have ceded leadership of their party, only to return after their successors had clearly failed and they were called back to the colours.
One reason for their success is a certain sinuousness. Salmond has morphed from socialist republican to a royalist calling for lower corporation tax, advocating a Scottish ‘Celtic lion’ modelled on Ireland’s ‘tiger’, before a re-rejection of neoliberalism, an economic reappraisal that saw Salmond shift his attitude on sterling from ‘Millstone’ to ‘shared asset’, earning the approval of Rupert Murdoch. Also admired by Murdoch, Farage too finds it easier than most politicians to discard inconvenient commitments. From high-speed rail to flat taxes, Ukip policies are adopted and discarded with dizzying haste.
This willingness to shift positions might reflect their mutual fondness for a calculated gamble. Salmond is a former racing tipster, and Farage told Spreadbetting magazine he ‘frequently and often’ bet the family fortune on commodities trades. Both men enjoyed mixed results.
There is more than just gambling and tactical nous at play here, however. Their shifts are in the service of a bigger cause – independence, and a conjoined loathing of those, whether distant European bureaucrats or out-of-touch ‘Westminster elites’, who would deny a nation their voice. Each provides the consistency mere policies lack.
The enemy can be – and is – blamed for every ill, held responsible for all failings. Their eventual destination of freedom is worth every contradiction on the route. It is that insight that has made each man a successful, if mercurial, leader. But the cynicism it betrays may also be their greatest weakness – which, in Salmond’s case, proved ultimately a fatal one.
Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress
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