Nigel Farage launched his U.K. Independence Party’s campaign for a vote to take Britain out of the European Union, rejecting the advice of those who told him to keep a low profile.
Farage’s decision that UKIP will run its own “out” campaign, rather than join a cross-party umbrella group, is a blow to those both inside and outside his party who said his forthright, combative style risks alienating undecided voters. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged a vote by the end of 2017 after a bid to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership of the 28-nation bloc.
“Nigel owns ‘Out,’” UKIP Deputy Chairwoman Suzanne Evans said in an interview. “If it wasn’t for UKIP, we wouldn’t be having a referendum. UKIP has been campaigning on this for 22 years. Why wouldn’t we get on and do our own campaign?”
One reason is Farage’s divisive effect on voters. During one televised debate for this year’s general-election campaign, he topped the polls both of the best performer and the worst. In another, he adopted the unusual tactic of attacking the audience. And while UKIP got its best-ever result in the election, winning 13 percent of the vote, Farage himself failed to get elected to Parliament.
Douglas Carswell, the party’s only member of Parliament, said in the wake of that result that the “out” campaign would need a different type of figurehead. “Sometimes the most passionate advocates of change aren’t the best people for persuading the undecided,” he said.
Speaking at the campaign launch in central London Friday, Farage was bullish. “If people are put off by what they’ve heard this afternoon, I can’t do much about that,” he told reporters. “But I suspect the majority of people who are open minded will agree with us.”
Some within UKIP think the party doesn’t need to win the referendum for it to be a success. They point to the way the Scottish National Party’s support took off after it lost 2014’s independence referendum and see a similar possibility for UKIP.
“A lot of UKIPpers say it doesn’t matter if we lose, we’ll have a surge like they did in Scotland,” Evans acknowledged. “I don’t take that as read.”
Patrick O’Flynn, a UKIP member of the European Parliament, agreed. “There are lots of differences,” he said in an interview. “The SNP only had to keep their sense of grievance going for six months, the SNP were pretty much the only party in the ‘Yes’ campaign. If we become too obsessed with what happens after the battle, we will forget to fight the battle.”
The opening salvo in that battle was fired on Wednesday, on a damp evening in Peterborough, a city 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of London, when 150 people gathered in a theater to watch a dry run of the debate that will consume British politics for the next year or more.
Arguing for exit were Evans and O’Flynn, who had organized the event. Taking the other side were Laura Sandys, a Conservative lawmaker who stepped down in May, and Julian Huppert, a Liberal Democrat who also left Parliament at the election, in his case unwillingly, losing his seat in Cambridge.
The audience, mainly elderly, was a reflection of the reality that the kind of people who feel strongly enough about the EU to go out in the evening and attend a debate are generally hostile.
Jack Tyler, a 70-year-old retired builder, had driven 5 1/2 hours from Lowestoft, on the east coast. “I came for our country,” he said. “I believe in democracy, and I believe in the British people.”
Like everyone else present, Tyler was asked to take part in a secret vote on his way in, and at the end of the 90 minutes he was asked to vote again. The result was never in doubt. Going in, 67 percent favored leaving the EU, with 22 percent declaring themselves undecided. By the end, all but one of those “don’t knows” had seen the euroskeptic light: the final vote was 88 percent for leaving, 11 percent for staying in.
O’Flynn said he set up the event partly because he wanted to rehearse how the argument will go once the general public starts paying attention. “We will see which of our arguments seem to resonate,” he said. “We will see which arguments the other side stresses. It will be an intelligence-gathering exercise.”
While organized by UKIP, the debate itself was conducted according to rules drawn up to ensure fairness, with speakers and questioners sticking to strict time limits. The audience didn’t consider itself entirely bound by the request for mutual respect. Huppert and Sandys were heckled and mocked. “No wonder you lost Cambridge,” one audience member shouted at Huppert, to applause.
Afterward, Huppert acknowledged that those arguing for staying in the EU need to work on their arguments. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “People have clearly heard so many anti-Europe myths that they believe they’re true. Part of the problem is that for decades people have shied away from making the case for Europe.”
Still, he didn’t read much into the result of Wednesday’s debate. “You had an audience who came in very supportive of UKIP, and they ended up very supportive of UKIP,” Huppert said. “But I don’t think that reflects the country.”