Nigel Farage is no fisherman’s friend: he’s been ignoring them for years
His hijacking of a Brexit protest in Whitstable was typically opportunistic. British fishing deserves a better ally than this charlatan
Nigel Farage at a protest in Whitstable organised by pro-Brexit group Fishing For Leave. Photograph: Niklas Hallen/AFP/Getty Images
The Brexit negotiations are something that I, some time ago, actively decided not to care about. There’s only so much news one person can handle. So as we shuffle down the long, inevitable path to our gloomy EU-less future, I have given the topic a wide berth. What’s going to happen is going to happen, right?
But I was roused from my political apathy this weekend, by a loud ruckus on the beach across the street from my house. Here in Whitstable the local fishermen were out in force, demonstrating their displeasure with the way Brexit negotiations are going. They were part of a nationwide protest organised by a group called Fishing for Leave. Promises of control over UK waters when Britain leaves the EU next year have been dropped, they say, meaning the transitional deal will be a “death sentence for Britain’s fishing industry”.
Whitstable is a working town, not just a twee tourist one: the harbour houses a busy asphalt factory as well as fishing boats and equipment. There’s no doubt that the fishing industry here, as it is across the UK, is beleaguered, with livelihoods at stake. Small-scale fishing communities, like Whitstable, are particularly hard-hit.
The demonstration was lively – circling fishing boats sounded horns; red smoke from flares drifted across the sky; crowds gathered; and a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed. But then, most alarmingly, something horrible and hideous began emerging from the water – ex-Ukip leader Nigel Farage, in a boat, wearing an inadvisable anorak-and-tie combo and his customary smug grin. To add insult to injury, another ex-Ukip leader (is there any other kind?) Henry Bolton and his “racist text girlfriend” – the Daily Mail’s words, not mine – came along too, for the fun of it.
Yep, it seemed that loathsome opportunist Farage had turned up to hijack the demonstration, in an ill-advised publicity stunt that involved burning EU flags and a wooden fishing boat, renamed the Thereason May for the occasion.
There are better-informed people than me who can explain the ins and out of the common fisheries policy, and why Ukip is wrong to blame the latter for “destroying the British fishing industry”.
Writing in this newspaper, John Lichfield exposed the myths that Ukip and others have peddled about foreign boats and quotas: for one thing, the distribution of national quotas is the responsibility of national government, not the EU. This means that while there is indeed an excellent case for the inshore fleet – that is, those who fish within 12 miles of the shore, using boats mostly shorter than 10 metres (all the fishing boats in Whitstable harbour fall into this category) – being allowed a substantial increase in their share of the British catch (currently just 4%), this has nothing to do with Brussels.
Whitstable harbour on the day of the protest.
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Whitstable harbour on the day of the protest. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Strangely, this crucial point was not raised by Farage in Whitstable, busy as he was posing for selfies and setting things on fire. It is palpably clear that fishermen need someone other than Farage on their side. He is not, as one protester’s banner put it, the fishermen’s friend. His voting record while a member of the influential European parliament fisheries committee is utterly dire – over three years, he turned up to one of 42 meetings. Research by Greenpeace shows that during the three major votes on the common fisheries policy, Farage failed to vote in favour of improving the legislation.
It is possible to be pro-fishermen (and women) and anti-Farage
It is possible to be pro-fishermen (and women) and anti-Farage – a point that has been all but lost, thanks to the latter’s circus of self-promotion. With the arrival of the toadying windbag, the mood turned darker and the debate polarised in a way that served nobody well. The fishermen turned against their perceived enemies – pro-EU protesters; the remainers – but there are many in Whitstable who support a fairer deal for the fishermen while strongly objecting to Farage’s presence.
By early Monday morning, the remains of the Thereason May were still smouldering on the beach, but it was business as usual for those out in their boats, including Neil Shilling. He was nonplussed about Farage’s appearance at the protest. “On the whole it was a nice peaceful demonstration,” he said. “At the moment we haven’t got a quota system – its been taken from us. [Politicians] promised we would get it back – and now it looks like we’re not going to get it back. If anything, it’ll probably be worse for us.”
And with that, he was off, ready for another day all at sea.
• Fay Schopen is a freelance journalist
Ukip is wrong: British fishing answers to Westminster not Brussels