'People don’t trust politicians': Louis Stedman-Bryce on why he supports a no deal Brexit
Louis Stedman-Bryce, the newly elected Brexit Party MEP for Scotland, says he was never particularly interested in politics until the UK voted to leave the EU.
“I’ve never been politically active,” he tells Holyrood. “I used to be a Conservative voter, not even at every election, but they were probably closest to my political beliefs.”
Describing himself as “a social entrepreneur” who has always felt compelled to stand up for people, Stedman-Bryce comes from a business background, as a partner in a development consultancy, which he says now operates in health and education projects in 40 countries around the world, while he also runs a health and social care business based in Scotland.
But Stedman-Bryce’s view began to change in the aftermath of the leave vote, as Theresa May struggled to get her deal through the Commons. “I guess, over the last three years, I sat back getting more and more frustrated with what we were seeing happening. My fear was that we would face a situation like the one that we saw in Ireland and the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, where politicians were trying to frustrate the process as much as possible and push it back to another vote, and then maybe another vote, until we voted the way that they think we should. In my mind, that’s not democracy.”
Watching on TV, he says he became angrier and angrier, particularly following reports that Brexit could lead to shortages of food and medicine. Eventually, Nigel Farage launched the Brexit Party, after splitting from UKIP, and so Stedman-Bryce decided to join.
“I filled out my subscription and then, a few days later, they announced that they were looking for candidates. I read that with interest, because I quite liked the fact that they were not looking for what they classed as career politicians.”
Stedman-Bryce replied but says he didn’t get an answer, so he started sending chairman Richard Tice messages on LinkedIn, telling him he had become irritated by the fact he felt Brexit supporters were being labelled as racist, homophobic, or stupid. Eventually, the Brexit Party chairman relented.
And while he says he has long held doubts over the EU, based on what he describes as its “unnecessary bureaucracy”, he would never have supported UKIP.
“I’ve said this to Nigel [Farage] before,” he says. “I would never have voted for UKIP. I didn’t like the party. I didn’t like the type of people that it attracted. Maybe when it first started out, when there was some sort of purity around it on what they wanted to do. I think a lot of the problems that are projected onto us are because we’re kind of viewed as ‘UKIP mark two’. But I honestly don’t believe we’re anything like UKIP, we’re really diverse. We’re attracting some fantastic people, from right across the political spectrum and across different professions as well.
“I don’t think UKIP came anywhere close to the level of talent that we’ve got or the kind of standards and the ethics that we have within this party. OK, Nigel’s leading this party and he was leading UKIP, but I think that what he’s taken from his time in UKIP is that actually, we need to be really clear on the types of people that we want to allow into the party. What you will see is that there’s a lot of people that have applied to join this party from UKIP, some quite recently, that have been turned down, or not allowed to stand again because they don’t fit with the values we’re trying to project.”
But while he pitches himself as a political outsider, he admits that since being elected in May, he has had a fairly strained relationship with some of Scotland’s other MEPs.
“I’ll be truthful with you, I don’t think there’s any point not being,” he says. “So, the Baroness [Nosheena Mobarik, the Tory MEP], I find her very pleasant, we agree on a lot of things, but there are some things we disagree on as well. We’re both of the mindset that we were elected to do a job, and beyond Brexit and everything else, it’s about improving the lives of the people who voted for us. We’re already looking at joint initiatives we can work on.”
He adds: “With Sheila Ritchie [the Lib Dem MEP], we’re civil to each other, we say hi, we say hello, we quite often have a little spat on Twitter and stuff, but I think she is a good person... but the SNP group, for the life of me, I’ve forgotten the chap’s name. The French guy.”
“Yes, so Christian is a lovely guy,” he says. “Every time he sees me, he says hello, asks me how I am doing, and I do the same. But as for Alyn Smith, I liken it to when you tell a dog not to eat something, and they look everywhere else, except at the thing you tell them not to eat. That’s what he’s like when he’s in a room with me. He won’t acknowledge me, he won’t look at me, and it’s the same with the lady as well [Dr Aileen McLeod]. She’s pretty much the same. I think it’s bizarre behaviour.”
He adds: “That ‘we hate you approach’, I find it pretty pathetic, it’s childish, and it’s not very becoming of an elected public official. Interestingly, if you look at Alyn Smith, he’s absolutely everything I despise, because he’s a career politician who’s led a very privileged life, but he claims to be one of the people.”
As the only elected member of the Brexit Party in Scotland, Stedman-Bryce clearly occupies an unusual position in Scottish politics, with the MEP drawing criticism after running a Twitter poll earlier this month, questioning if the Scottish Parliament should be abolished (of the 8,562 voters, 77 per cent were opposed). Actually, he says, he is a strong supporter of the Scottish Parliament, on the basis it brings governance closer to the people, and despite his description of his fellow Scottish MEPs, he appears determined to try and present himself as reasonable, in contrast with Scotland’s previous eurosceptic MEP, David Coburn, UKIP Scotland leader.
And maybe his more measured approach is proof of Nigel Farage’s attempts to leave behind the controversy that stalked UKIP in his time as leader. Yet when it comes to Brexit, Stedman-Bryce is as hardline as anyone, insisting that a no-deal Brexit – he sticks to the term ‘a World Trade Organisation exit’ – is now the best option for the UK.
The position stands in stark contrast to most economic analysis, with the Bank of England predicting that a no-deal Brexit would cause an instant and long-lasting shock to the UK economy, that real incomes would drop and that the pound would collapse in value, putting a number of industries in jeopardy. The bank has also suggested a no-deal Brexit could cause food and fuel prices to rise sharply, and could even lead to shortages. That must be a massive worry for anyone concerned about the UK, surely?
“Yeah,” he says. “But, to be very clear on this point, we had a whole litany of reports and spokespeople for the Bank of England, for organisations such as the CBI, and a raft of others, that came forward and said at the start of this process that we were going to lose anywhere between 500,000 and a million jobs, just if we voted to leave the European Union, and that clearly didn’t happen. We were told that we would go into recession, that didn’t happen. So I kind of do take what they’re saying with a measure of salt, if you like, because I believe there are other interests at play. This is all about trying to scare people into believing or voting a particular way, which is a tactic here.
“With regards to food shortages and stuff like that, I think that’s absolute nonsense, I think that’s criminal, that they are using that as a tactic to try and manipulate and scare people. That just cannot and should not be allowed to happen. Personally, I think it’s appalling. You know, one of the things they’ve been saying is about medication and that’s something that affects a lot of people we support [in the care sector], and we’ve spoken to pharmaceutical providers and they’re saying, no, there isn’t going to be a problem.
“So I would take a lot of what they are saying with a pinch of salt. Of course, there is going to be disruption, of course, there’s going to be upheaval, and there will be winners and losers, I think that’s obvious. But equally, there will be winners and losers if we decided as a country to stay in the EU. It’s not a one-sided argument, there are pluses and minuses on both sides, but I think the longer-term prospects for the country, through exiting the European Union, are much stronger. I’ve seen a report saying food prices could be reduced by up to 20 per cent following Brexit, just through the pressure of competition. So for every bad argument there’s a good argument, and for every good argument there’s a bad argument.”
But isn’t it quite damaging to talk about independent institutions, like the Bank of England, in those terms, as if they are playing some sort of game?
“Well, they are.”
It’s not good for public discourse.
“Well, they are, though. They absolutely are. But more damaging than the Bank of England is a house full of politicians, the House of Commons, which voted to support Brexit, then completely changed their minds on that. This is the problem and it’s why the Brexit Party has come forward and gained the popularity is has, because people don’t trust the politicians, they don’t trust the mainstream media, they don’t trust institutions like the Bank of England, because they are starting to come wise, that actually, these people aren’t necessarily representing me or my best interests. There are other agendas at play and quite often it’s to suit their own needs.”
That sounds like a conspiracy theory.
“Well, it’s not really a conspiracy because we’ve seen it. It’s there for all to see. The House of Commons invoked Article 50, they signed it, they agreed to support it and they haven’t supported it. That’s not conspiracy, that’s just reality.”
So what about the effect of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland’s chief constable, George Hamilton, has warned that a hard border would be damaging for the wider peace process, and that any new border infrastructure would be seen as “fair game” for attack by dissident republicans.
In a BBC report, he warned: “If you put up significant physical infrastructure at a border, which is the subject of contention politically, you are re-emphasising the context and the causes of the conflict, so, that creates tensions and challenges and questions around people’s identity, which in some ways, the Good Friday Agreement helped to deal with.”
Is that not a concern? An open border is generally considered a key part of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Again, I think it’s terrible that Ireland is being used as a political football in this way,” he says. “I don’t know if you saw the documentary they [the BBC] made about the European Parliament but they are actually talking about how they are going to ham this up and make it a big thing. This is a smokescreen. We have seen in other countries how they are able to control this through electronic means. I was in a meeting with someone from Switzerland and because they are not a full member, they have to track some of their trade, and they do this digitally. This was someone in the government there, by the way, and they said this could be a principle applied to the Irish border. It could be done in exactly the same way.
“Again, this is what frustrates me, this is where the whole standing up for people thing comes out in me, gets me angry, because you’ve got these idiots – I would describe them as idiot bureaucrats – who are sitting there making these political decisions. Not based on reality, but to gain points, when they are juggling with people’s lives. That must be a terrifying situation for people living there, to be thinking about going back to such an appalling time, but it’s totally unnecessary, we don’t need it, we can find our way around that, and if we can’t in this modern day and age then there’s something pretty disturbing about that.”
But in terms of standing up for people, a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, and people are worried about maintaining peace. Stedman-Bryce talks about standing up for people, but wouldn’t that mean listening to their concerns?
“I hear what you’re saying there, but we could apply the same logic to London. London voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU.”
But London hasn’t got a recent history of political violence. Surely Northern Ireland is an exceptional case?
“But Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom, isn’t it, so all the time that it’s part of the United Kingdom, in the same way Scotland is, a democratic vote for the United Kingdom has to be a democratic vote for the United Kingdom. We can’t start to look at that in isolation, because unless you are proposing to break up the United Kingdom, it won’t work. Democracy is democracy, we can’t pick and choose which elements we like. We either take it all, or we take none of it, so all the time that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, then it has to come under the same rule of law as the rest of the United Kingdom.”
But why couldn’t the UK have just left the EU but remained in the single market? Then we wouldn’t have this problem with the backstop. It would still respect a democratic vote but without risking the return of political violence.
“Yeah, so some people might say that, but I would disagree because I think we need a total exit from the European Union, that is my personal view. That’s as a business person, you know. But yes, there are a lot of people that would follow that train of thought, but my desire is for a World Trade Organisation exit that removes us from all EU institutions, and removes us from all ties to the EU, and doesn’t leave us locked in for many, many years to come.”
Whether the UK will leave the EU on 31 October and how far Boris Johnson may be willing to go to achieve that aim remains unclear, yet there seems little doubt Stedman-Bryce and his party have benefited from the failure of more established political parties to cope with the chaos unleashed by the leave vote. But what will happen to the Brexit Party after the EU leaves the EU? Does it have a long-term future?
Stedman-Bryce seems unsure. “I think we are in uncharted territory at the moment, and I couldn’t have predicted I’d be where I am, just a few short months ago. There’s so much going on at the moment. It’s just nuts. We, in Scotland, have made it clear to the Conservatives that our priority is to cover every constituency seat [in a snap election]. Now we may not be able to win all of those seats, though I’d say there could be an opportunity for some, but what we could do is effectively wipe the Tories out in Scotland. That kind of becomes our priority, and we want to hold their feet to the fire on this, because if they don’t deliver on 31 October and a general election is called, then that will be our priority.
“We have different scenarios here. One is that the Tory party will collapse, or will be unrecognisable as it is at the moment if they don’t take us out on the 31st of October. If they are so consumed by this infighting that they again ignore the will of the people then I think this will be the last opportunity they’ve got. I think you would see a massive surge of popularity for the Brexit Party.
“If, however, by some miracle, Boris manages to take us out by 31st October then that could be a different situation, but it has highlighted that the political system doesn’t work in Westminster. You’ve got two parties which have been unable to deal with this, and yes, it’s a complex issue, but they’ve still been unable to even advance it slightly in three years. You’ve got this arguing, bickering, slipping and slopping, and people are just sick of it. You’ve constituencies which are overwhelmingly leave, not in Scotland but down in England, but you’ve got an MP who has decided they are going to support remain. I don’t think Brexit has created this rift, but I think it has highlighted that the rift exists.”
He adds: “One of the interesting things about the Brexit Party is that we have attracted Conservatives, Labour, we’ve attracted people from the Lib Dems and in Scotland at the moment, we’ve even got former SNP people, who want to become candidates for us. What that demonstrates is that we are not a fixed house, we are not seen as unacceptable to join for certain party organisations. We are kind of a broad church, which appeals to a broad group of people.”
And what about Stedman-Bryce, could he have a long-term future in politics?
“I would describe myself as a reluctant MEP, and I do genuinely want to get myself out of a job. With regards to politics in the future, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. At one point I thought, definitely, definitely, but the reason I am doing this is not about building a political career, it’s because I believe that we, as citizens, have a duty to do whatever we can to help, in our own way, to uphold democracy, so I’m not sure.”