Brexit: Is Nigel Farage The Fisherman's Friend?

Brexit Flotilla
Part of a flotilla of fishing vessels campaigning to leave the European Union sails past Parliament on the River Thames, London, June 15. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

It is one of the sights we will all remember once this referendum is over—the Battle of the Thames, Geldof vs Farage, Remain vs Leave. For many it was the point at which an increasingly bitter campaign descended into pure farce just before the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox forced both sides into retreat. The campaign group Leave.EU, which is headed up by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, had organized a flotilla of over 30 fishing boats to take to the River Thames in protest against the effect of EU quotas on the U.K. fishing industry. Many fishermen claim that the EU's common fisheries policy (CFP) has decimated what was once a vibrant industry by giving other nation's boats access to fishing grounds and imposing quotas on British fishermen.

Prominent Leave campaigner and cabinet minister Michael Gove has directly linked the collapse of his father's Aberdeen-based fish merchant business with the EU. In an interview with Sky News on June 3 he said: "I know the European Union depresses employment and destroys jobs. My father had a fishing business in Aberdeen destroyed by the European Union and the common fisheries policy." The Remain campaign have vigorously defended the EU policy, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that the U.K. currently exports £1billion a year in fish to the single market. "There's no way we can get a better deal on the outside than the one we have on the inside," Cameron told the Financial Times.

But, there is deep resentment in Aberdeen and along the entire north east coast of Scotland against the EU, a sentiment at odds with the governing Scottish National Party's (SNP) pro-union stance. In the former fishing village of Pennan, made famous by the 1980s cult film Local Hero starring Burt Lancaster, the last fisherman, Baden Gibson, is ardently campaigning for a leave vote. Gibson, 67, the sole survivor of the industry, is the village's longest serving resident. Since his mother sold up and moved away over two decades ago, he spends most nights in his "bothy", a converted boatshed at the end of the village that is currently plastered with "Vote Leave" posters. Inside there's a small stove, a single bed and fishing paraphernalia strewn around. Gibson is determined that the fishermen's voices should be heard.

Newsweek : So, would you like to explain why, as a SNP supporter, you are going against your party and campaigning for Britain to leave the EU?

Baden Gibson: There was never any doubt how I would vote, absolutely never any doubt. I have nae watched any of the debates on TV because my mind was already made up. It's not just because of what's happened with the fishing industry, there are other reasons as well, such as immigration.

Is this debate similar in tone to that of the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence?

It feels the same because the "Project Fear" campaign is coming out now on the Remain side. It's obvious that the Stayers are a wee bit scared as they see the Brexit side forging ahead. That's pleasing me fine.

Is the popular media perception of Scotland as a pro-EU country accurate?

It's complicated. Scotland voted massively for the SNP [in the 2015 U.K. general election and the 2016 Scottish parliament elections] because of what we see as the Labour Party's failure under Tony Benn, sorry Tony Blair, [when he moved the party towards the centre]. It's true that if you did a Brexit referendum in Scotland alone it would definitely be Remain but thankfully it's nae just Scotland alone.

Who in politics do you most relate to?

Nigel Farage. Absolutely, Nigel Farage. I dinnae ken [don't know] what we'll get after a Brexit. Nobody can tell what will happen but at least we'll get a chance to change it every four or five years. If we stay we are doomed—there will be more bureaucracy, more rules imposed from Brussels. No, definitely no.

Why do you like Nigel Farage so much?

He seems honest, charismatic and able answer direct questions. He openly takes a drink and apparently he smokes, which is not a crime but at least he doesn't hide it. I just like Nigel.

How do you feel about Farage's stance on immigration, which some have labelled as borderline racist throughout this campaign?

I am not racist. We need immigration, there's a lot of people that come to this country to work and that's great, especially those folk who run the excellent local Indian restaurant in my area, I'm happy for them to come in but there is something wrong with letting folk coming to claim benefits. David Cameron says he is going to try to restrict it but I don't believe his promises.

Baden Gibson Nigel Farage Brexit
Baden Gibson pictured in his boat shed in Pennan, Aberdeenshire in Scotland. He is adamant that the fishing industry would be better off outside the EU. Brenda Kutchinsky

What has been the impact on not just the fishing industry but the entire north east coast of Scotland since Britain joined what was then the EEC in 1975?

The EU and its fisheries policy has destroyed businesses beyond fishing. It has destroyed the shipbuilding industry: for example, there were 10 boatyards along this coast in the mid 1980s and now there is only one left in the town of Macduff. Fraserburgh was a key port and the number of fishing boats in its harbor has reduced from 340 to just under 100. If you fish outside of your quota the penalties can be fierce—my worry would be that I would lose my boat and then I would lose everything. I realize that there must be quotas but it should be fishing organizations who set those quotas.

But surely it's not just the CFP that is to blame for the decline of the British fishing industry? Fishing stocks were in decline long before the CFP was agreed.

Aye, it's true that back in the 1960s and 1970s a lot of herring was landed in these parts. It was a massive amount and even though there was no market for it, the fishermen weren't told to stop. If there was a chance of getting your catch sold you had to go out. There should have been something done then by our own government to reduce the amount being fished, but we all did our best to give everyone a fair share of the market. The fish that weren't sold were picked up by the local fish meal factory where it was used to make fertilizer and pig food. There was too much fish but there was work for a lot of folk—shipbuilders, welders, barrel makers, bus drivers who were busy taking people back and forth from the harbor. Everyone seemed to have a job.

How will you feel if it's a vote to remain in the EU?

I will be absolutely shattered and deflated if we stay in the EU. I will start using terms like pounds, shillings and pence for money, and yards and feet and inches for measurements and annoy everybody with my political incorrectness. If we do vote to leave I might even break with tradition and fly a Union Jack flag over the bothy instead of the Scottish Saltire.

As a long-standing SNP supporter, who will you vote for in the next U.K. general election in 2020? Has this referendum changed your politics?

It will be very hard. I might well look to support UKIP. I still support the SNP up to a point but I am going further and further away from them. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland to be an independent country but within the EU, but I don't believe it's possible to be an independent state within Europe. What's the point of getting freedom from Westminster only to be controlled by Brussels?

Additional reporting by Brenda Kutchinsky.

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