I had no idea what to expect from the UKIP public meeting in Bath tonight. The city is genteel, wealthy and has been solidly Lib Dem for over 20 years. While there are of course some sketchier areas and it hasn’t been immune to the UK’s recent economic troubles, generally speaking it has little to complain about.
So when UKIP booked the 730 downstairs capacity of the Forum (a rather beautiful old Art Deco former cinema from the 1930s) for a public meeting, I hung onto the hope that there was at least a reasonable chance it’d be half-empty.
No luck there, then.
The pic above was taken about 15 minutes before the event started. By the time it kicked off I’d say around 95% of the seats were filled (by some careless oversight I’d booked three for myself), with a crowd perhaps 20 times the size of the small knot of protesters who’d gathered outside with the BBC’s 24-hour Farage Response Team.
The short queue for entry shuffled in quickly, past Neil and Christine Hamilton giving interviews to TV cameras – though they were never mentioned inside the hall – and through a foyer packed with stewards and security and stalls flogging merchandise and cut-price £10 memberships. Tickets were checked but not ID, and we were in.
We were promised seven guests but in the end there were only four – Nigel Farage and three of the party’s South West region candidates for the Euro elections. One, 2015 Bath general election candidate Julian Deverell (a late substitute for the promised MEP William Dartmouth who was otherwise engaged), spoke for only a couple of minutes and another served only as MC, with two more (Dr Julia Reid and Dr Bob Smith) acting as Farage’s warmup with lengthy speeches.
Both were confident and comfortable speakers, with Reid offering a gentler approach concerned with poverty and unfairness and Smith more of a rabble-rouser. Both made big play of the party not being xenophobic, with Smith demanding “If you’re a racist, leave this party. If you’re thinking of joining, we’ll take your money then kick you out.”
Perhaps understandably, this would be a theme returned to often during the evening. It was a message the crowd clearly wanted to hear, and there were frequent outbreaks of spontaneous cheering and applause (you could tell they were spontaneous because there were no pauses in the speeches inviting them).
There was a lot of very popular mockery at the expense of Nick Clegg, and a fair few plays to any left-leaning types in the crowd (despite Bath being rather barren territory in that regard) - “People say we’re a right-wing party, but who’d have thought Labour would be complicit in closing Post Offices and privatising Royal Mail?”
The sternest words were reserved for Edward Heath (for our younger readers: a Tory Prime Minister of the 1970s who presided over the UK joining what was then called the Common Market or the EEC), described as “the greatest traitor this country has ever seen, and probably will ever see” in what was the most belligerent language of the evening. “It’s our job”, raged Smith, “to stop what he started.”
When Dr Bob had finished pumping the crowd up, he introduced the main event. Farage’s entry onto the stage was greeted by an immediate standing ovation, and unlike the previous speakers he addressed the crowd without visible amplification, pacing up and down the stage, talking without notes and gesturing with both hands, all in a manner uncannily reminiscent of Gordon Brown, except more controlled and without all the weird jaw-wobbling stuff.
There’s no getting away from the fact that live, Farage is an accomplished orator. Casual and relaxed, he held what was clearly a mainly friendly crowd in the palm of his hand. He welcomed everyone, whether supporters, undecideds or those “who came here just to confirm that you utterly despise me”.
He disarmingly conceded that the party had a share of nutters and vowed to take firm action - “We’ve got a handful of people who say and do stupid things, but we will get rid of them” - and he fulminated against identikit career politicians of all the major parties who’d never had proper jobs and couldn’t relate to normal people, which the audience roared agreement with.
He emphasised his love of Europe (albeit comically in terms of its wines and cheeses), targeting instead the bureaucracy of the EU and saying “I don’t just want the UK to leave the EU, I want Europe to leave the EU”, to big cheers. He was, in short, affable reasonableness personified, exactly as his media stereotype.
By far the cleverest part of the speech, though, was when Farage insisted that all he wanted was for the UK to adopt the same sort of immigration policy as Australia. He was all for immigration, he repeated, so long as it involved skilled people intending to work hard and make a life for themselves – he wasn’t interested in benefit claimants or, rather jarringly, people with illnesses.
This was a new line to me, and a chillingly smart piece of politics. Because while its immigration policies are stringent and sometimes bordering on murderous, Brits tend to see Australia as an easy-going and friendly nation with close cultural ties to the UK, somewhere they’re happy to be associated with. Farage played it extremely well, and the crowd lapped it up. He closed with a plea to join “the people’s army”, there were more cheers and another standing ovation and that was it.
To any honest observer, the evening up to that point was an unmitigated triumph. Slick (without being showy), pacy and punchy, it was a highly professional operation. But then it came just a little unhinged.
Farage’s speech segued straight into a Q&A session, with everyone else still on stage but only Farage answering. There were no questions from the floor at all, only written ones read out by the MC, but several of them still seemed to take Farage by surprise, asking about policies not directly related to the Euro elections.
These made Farage rather snippy, and having simply ignored a couple he eventually said explicitly that he was only going to answer Europe-related ones, with everything else having to wait until meetings nearer the general election.
Shortly afterwards, having taken questions for just 14 minutes, he – seemingly to everyone’s surprise – cut the session short and went off to do some book signing. (At which an official photographer would snap you with Nigel and sell you the picture.)
A third standing ovation nevertheless followed, and the crowd started to squeeze its way out, roughly an hour and 20 minutes after the event had begun.
If you were expecting rather more mickey-taking in this feature, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Everyone in the auditorium was taking UKIP very seriously indeed. There were no gaffes and little to mock. All the laughs were with, not at. Nobody heckled.
For perspective, Bath is roughly the same size as Paisley or East Kilbride. For all the public engagement with politics the independence referendum has brought about, as far as I can ascertain no event in either has drawn anywhere near 700 people.
And as I said at the start, Bath is by no stretch of the imagination natural UKIP territory. Farage highlighted in his speech that many of its electoral successes have come not in traditional Tory shires but in industrial towns in the north. If they can also pull a crowd this size in well-heeled but socially liberal Bath, there might just be something in their claims to be taking votes from all three of the mainstream parties.
I came out of the event no better-disposed to UKIP’s policies than I went in, but even more convinced that they pose a serious danger to the UK’s membership of the EU.
The speeches were careful, inclusive and largely positive. The audience was a broad mix of ages and classes, not exactly hipsters (and I didn’t see a single non-white face) but younger than the average “Better Together” crowd by a distance. Nobody in the room saw the party as a joke, and the animosity to the political mainstream was so intense you could almost reach out and touch it.
Britain is now a country which loathes its politicians (largely justifiably), and anyone who can give the impression of being unlike them will find a large audience.
Comparisons between UKIP and the SNP are largely misguided on that basis – the SNP, pretty much uniquely, are a party of government who still retain some degree of public trust. There are elements of basic similarity about the “bloke you could imagine having a pint and a curry with” attraction of both Salmond and Farage, but they’re overstated even aside from the obvious policy differences.
Salmond’s appeal is that of a statesman with a common touch, Farage is playing the outsider revolutionary. Salmond calls for consensus and renewal of the political process, of independence strengthening his opponents. Farage is more of the “to hell with ‘em all” school, a sort of conservative anarchist.
But in England, that’s a message people are all too willing to hear, and nobody else is delivering it. I remain of the opinion that UKIP probably won’t get many seats in 2015, though Farage claimed that “with luck and a following wind” it could find itself holding the balance of power like the Lib Dems did in 2010.
But what I believe more firmly than ever after this evening is that the party’s supporters will vote tactically and smartly next year to ensure that David Cameron returns to 10 Downing Street in such a way that he’ll be locked into holding an EU referendum. Even Nigel Farage doesn’t think Nigel Farage is going to be the Prime Minister, and that means Cameron is the only route to their goal.
And from what I heard tonight, even in a longtime Lib Dem city that owes much of its livelihood to European tourists, and as such is both familiar and comfortable with “foreigners”, that referendum is only going to go one way.