‘Leaving the EU is about making Britain more successful. At its most basic, it is the ability to take our own decisions. No one cares more about our success than the people who live here and that, ultimately, is why leaving the EU is the best choice for our future.
‘By leaving we can work together to make Britain a more ambitious and dynamic country. The big difference will be that Britain’s future will be in our own hands. Instead of only deciding some issues here in Britain, it will allow us to take decisions on all the major issues.’
These rousing passages are a straightforward encapsulation of the Ukip credo: the kind of thing that spouts easily from Nigel Farage’s lips. They represent the argument the party put before voters in the last European election, where it ended up with more MEPs than any other party.
However, the words aren’t Ukip’s. They are taken from the official website of the SNP. I have simply replaced ‘independence’ with ‘leaving the EU’, and ‘Scotland’ with ‘Britain’. Restore the originals and you have the exact beliefs of Alex Salmond.
As both the Scottish and EU referendum debates develop, the similarities in the cases being advanced by the SNP and Ukip become ever more striking. Both, for example, are at pains to insist their desire for a breach is not based on any suspicion towards or distaste for ‘the other’, whether that ‘other’ be French or English. The dark history of nationalism makes this a necessity.
An anti-EU campaigner will often tell you that he ‘adores Europe’, owns a cottage in the Dordogne and is married to a Belgian or a Luxembourger. A Nat will profess his love for holidays in Cornwall and point out that his favourite auntie lives in Corby.
EU better-off-outers will explain that a Briton has different political and cultural preferences to those of an Italian or a Dane, valid though those other preferences may be. There is no authentic common feeling between us. So why does it make sense to pool our decision-making? Similarly, an SNP politician will say that England and Scotland have taken different ideological paths – one a hop to the Right, the other a skip to the Left. Our shared identity has splintered. It makes practical and democratic sense to break apart the Union and create separate political entities.
Both like to talk of creating a new, smaller, sleeker nirvana-state – let’s be Sweden, or Norway, or Switzerland, they say. Let’s be anything other than what we are.
It may be painful for many Yes voters to accept, but the SNP and Ukip share a founding spasm. It is one that rejects the status quo, that sees only the negative in what exists, that backs away from the values of shared responsibility, fellow-feeling and solidarity, and it is one that could fundamentally change all of our lives. Both are willing to gamble our security, prosperity, influence and key relationships on the basis of a romantic, untested theory.
History shows us that movements like these – nationalistic, radical, iconoclastic, identity-based – usually revolve around a central charismatic force. In the SNP’s case, that force has for decades been Mr Salmond. The ringmaster of the Ukip circus, a newer outfit, is Mr Farage. Without the presence of these two gifted men, neither party would be in its current position of eminence – the SNP with its once unthinkable overall majority at Holyrood, Ukip having swept all before it in May’s Euro elections and now looking at victory in the Clacton by-election.
Mr Salmond and Mr Farage might be described as the Laurel and Hardy of British politics. At first sight they make for an unlikely pairing. But closer examination reveals that they are, in many ways, a double act, appearing on the same bill, standing on the same stage, cracking the same gags. They certainly risk getting us into a fine mess.
Mr Salmond is a social democrat who argues that his party fills a hole in Scotland left by Labour and its swing to the Right under Tony Blair; Mr Farage is a traditional conservative who hawks the policies he says the Tory party used to offer before David Cameron shifted it to the Left.
Both have painted themselves as outsiders who have stormed the barricades of the Establishment. This has served them well. They have masterfully tapped into a public mood of disenchantment with politics-as-usual, in which the three main British parties are seen as being much the same as one another: compromised by the expenses scandal, part of a professional political class that conspires against the voters rather than representing their interests, analogue leviathans in a byte-sized digital age.
As tribal attachment to these old, broad-based, complex political institutions has fallen, and membership numbers have plummeted, people have looked elsewhere for some of the old-time religion. As the world has become more inter-dependent it has become harder to untangle and understand. Power is exercised ever more remotely by a bewildering array of acronyms – the G7, the G8, the G20, the EU, the ECB, the ECJ, the UN, the IMF, the WTO, the WHO, the OECD – and by a wealthy and influential global elite who can be found hobnobbing with each other every year at Davos.
It’s understandable voters feel removed from decision-making and want to do something about it. These economically straitened times only enhance that instinct. Many search for a single cause that will rekindle the passions that politics once readily inspired and that will put them back in charge.
For all these reasons, the climate is perfect for a good salesman with sharp patter and even sharper practice. Step forward Messrs Salmond and Farage. You can imagine the smirking First Minister and the cackling Ukip leader running a slightly dodgy stall at the Barras and doing a roaring trade – quick of wit, bullishly persuasive, always with a line for the ladies.
They are plausible, populist demagogues, who are defined by the thing they detest and who promise an easy escape from the intractable difficulties of the globalised world: with one bound we can be free. They say we can be healthier, happier, safer, more productive, with lower taxes and better public services, if only we get out. They are less forthcoming on the detailed policies that will bring about this highly desirable state of affairs, and this is because they are spinning a line rather than stating a fact. They cannot know whether what they say is true, but they know it is what people want to hear.
Like demagogues everywhere, they attract and make great use of the mob – the two most potent online political armies are the cybernats and the Ukippers. Go onto any newspaper website and look beneath a story about either Scottish independence or the European Union and you will find them there, amassed in great numbers, taking increasingly intemperate swipes at anyone who disagrees with their orthodoxy. These extremist internet warriors are brutal and unpleasant, and they have made the British digital debating space an environment only for those with strong constitutions and iron hides. In Scotland, sadly, they are no longer confined to the digitsal world.
It is telling that Mr Salmond and Mr Farage see something in each other, despite their political differences. ‘Alex Salmond is someone I have admired in politics,’ says Mr Farage, who admits that the former’s decision to step down as the SNP’s Holyrood leader in 2000, along with his subsequent comeback in 2004, inspired his own departure from the Ukip job in 2009 and later return. ‘I was burnt out, but I’d seen what Salmond had done. He’d walked away then come back a few years later on his own terms.’
Mr Salmond returns the compliment, describing Mr Farage as having a ‘certain bonhomie’. He adds: ‘He is having influence beyond his significance so you have to admire that. There is a constituency for saloon bar politics and he has played it out. I have a sneaking regard for anyone who takes on powerful establishments.’
This is the equivalent of Raffles and Danny Ocean raising a glass to each other across the floor of a crowded party as they both eye the safe in the corner. You might describe it as honour among thieves, or say that it takes one to know one, or that an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper. It is certainly clear that the men recognise a kindred spirit in one another.
It is enlightening too that they share an admiration for the closest thing the international stage has to a Moriarty. Most of us would struggle to find a good word to say about the calculating and serpentine Vladimir Putin, who runs a corrupt and kleptocratic gangster-state and whose expansionist ambitions are currently causing chaos in Ukraine.
Despite this, Mr Farage names Mr Putin as the statesman he most admires, describing the former KGB officer approvingly as an ‘operator’. Mr Salmond found himself in hot water when he said he admired ‘certain aspects’ of Mr Putin, adding: ‘I think Putin’s more effective than the press he gets… and you can see why he carries support in Russia. He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.’
There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn: there is a degree of amorality at play in all three men. Neither Mr Salmond nor Mr Farage man may agree with the specific actions taken by Putin, but they can dispassionately appreciate a master tactician and strategist at work. They applaud his act. With him, as with them, the end justifies the means.
Neither Mr Salmond nor Mr Farage is quite what he seems. Despite the guerilla manoeuvres and the leadership of parties stuffed with angry radicals, they are not really outsiders: both are in fact fairly traditional Establishment figures. Before entering politics, the SNP leader was for seven years an economist with Royal Bank of Scotland; after becoming an MP he was known to enjoy the Westminster way of life, so much so that he left Holyrood only two years after its creation to return to London. He enjoys the company of successful alpha male businessmen, and one of his keenest hobbies is golf, the game of Establishment deal-makers the world over.
For his part, Mr Farage attended the prestigious Dulwich College in south-east London, alumni of which include Ernest Shackleton and PG Wodehouse. He is a former City trader who still affects the uniform of the traditional Square Mile gent: pin-striped suits and velvet-collared covert coat. His father was a stockbroker; his brother still is.
The problem for populist demagogues is ensuring that their successes outlast them. Neither man can go on forever. Both have a short window of opportunity in which they might achieve their life’s goal. September 18 will determine whether Mr Salmond has managed to yank Scotland out of Britain. Some time early in the next Westminster parliament, Mr Farage and his pals may be given their chance to pull Britain out of Europe. That’s one other thing I expect them to share: failure.