SNP and UKIP: Opposites but with some similarities

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By David Torrance

Perhaps I’m overanalysing but there’s been an interesting tonal shift in terms of the SNP’s view of UKIP. A few days ago, according to reports, deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon told the press that the ‘only way to stop UKIP is to vote SNP’, a line that appeared in a number of newspapers.

If there was a battle for the final seat, added Sturgeon (and the fact she presented it in those terms spoke for itself), then she would rather that ‘someone like’ Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh – ranked third on the SNP party list – ‘was elected to that seat than somebody representing Nigel Farage’.

By David Torrance

Perhaps I’m overanalysing but there’s been an interesting tonal shift in terms of the SNP’s view of UKIP. A few days ago, according to reports, deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon told the press that the ‘only way to stop UKIP is to vote SNP’, a line that appeared in a number of newspapers.

If there was a battle for the final seat, added Sturgeon (and the fact she presented it in those terms spoke for itself), then she would rather that ‘someone like’ Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh – ranked third on the SNP party list – ‘was elected to that seat than somebody representing Nigel Farage’.

I say tonal shift because the SNP’s narrative for the past year or so has been that UKIP is an irrelevance in Scotland, that Euroscepticism is somehow an English (or non-Scottish) phenomenon, and Farage, the party’s undoubtedly charismatic leader, is a joke figure who – on one campaign trip to Edinburgh – was chased out of the city. Sturgeon’s remark suggests the SNP now takes seriously the idea of UKIP gaining an MEP in Scotland.

There is, of course, an element of truth in all of the above statements, but only an element. Compared with England UKIP is, in electoral terms, a marginal force north of the border, Euroscepticism (not only manifested in terms of wanting the UK to leave the EU) is proportionately lower in Scotland, and Farage’s appeal is clearly greater in certain parts of the UK than others.

The SNP’s depiction of UKIP is also a crucial part of the pro-independence pitch, i.e. the notion that the party’s rise in England (and to an extent Wales) demonstrates that Scotland and the rest of the UK are ‘two different countries’ moving in different electoral and political directions. Furthermore, while the ‘Westminster’ parties are dancing to a Faragist tune in terms of immigration, etc, the SNP are promoting the exact opposite.

This is, of course, true; in certain policy terms the SNP and UKIP couldn’t be more different: the former pro-Europe and pro-immigration, the latter hostile to both. But at the same time – and I appreciate making this connection annoys people – the two parties do draw on similar reserves of anti-politics and anti-Westminster sentiment.

Indeed, it was striking watching Nigel Farage debate Nick Clegg recently, for his arguments against the UK’s membership of the EU – as Scotland on Sunday’s Kenny Farquharson pointed out via twitter – were remarkably similar (in rhetorical terms) to Alex Salmond’s case for Scotland leaving the UK.

In short, it boils down to a rather outdated concept of ‘sovereignty’. This, the argument runs, was surrendered by the UK when it joined the old European Economic Community in 1973, which of course it was – to an extent – while Salmond makes a similar point about Scotland which, within the constitutional confines of the UK, is not entirely free to determine its own sovereign future.

Now sovereignty is a very tricky concept, for there’s often a significant gap between theory and practice, but there is of course truth in both the UKIP and SNP critiques. Although it’s in the logical extension of both arguments – in the eyes of the respective parties – where the problems lie. I would argue that both parties overstate the importance of ‘sovereignty’ in terms of practical politics, although to be fair the SNP does at least explicitly acknowledge its limitations in a modern context.

It is, in short, a rather 19th-century concept struggling to remain relevant in the early 21st century. For the crux is this: even were the UK to extract itself from the EU it would – much like Norway and Switzerland – still find itself compelled to abide by most European law. An ‘independent’ UK would also inevitably have to pay for the privilege of taking advantage of a European trading area.

This uncomfortable reality has its corollary in terms of an independent Scotland, for even were a ‘yes’ vote achieved this September and ‘independence day’ declared 18 months later, a notionally independent Scotland would still find its monetary policy set by another state (rUK), and potentially its energy market and university research funding too.

Sure, independent membership of the EU would give Scotland greater sovereignty than exists at present, although the Irish experience illustrates that this would be more theoretical than real. Even before the economic crash, for example, when Ireland rejected a European Treaty democratically it was compelled to hold another one to get the ‘right result’. Such is the fate of small nations around the top table in Brussels.

It’s also the case that Scottish (and indeed Northern Irish and Welsh) sovereignty has also been acknowledged within the UK. Indeed, the ‘border poll’ of 1973 explicitly restated the right of Northern Ireland to choose between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, just as (soon to be) three referendums in Scotland have given expression to Scottish self-determination, none more fully than that due in a few months’ time.

It’s also the case that the gap between Scottish and rUK public opinion when it comes to matters European also isn’t as large as commonly assumed, for in reality a sizeable minority in both would like – if given the choice – to reassert the UK’s independence. Recent research by the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh put this at 40 per cent in England and 32 per cent in Scotland.

Now an eight-point gap is certainly significant, but it’s not huge; as Professor John Curtice has said before, the best that can be stated is that Scotland is marginally less Eurosceptic than the rest of the country. The same research also put support for UKIP at 10 per cent in Scotland, which – if translated into votes – would be enough to win them an MEP, which would not only be a significant breakthrough for Nigel Farage but an inconvenient blow to the SNP’s narrative about Scotland and England moving in different directions.

That said, it’s perfectly possible that Scotland will go into next week’s election with two SNP, two Labour, one Tory and one Lib Dem MEPs and come out with the same distribution of seats – having only six members does not allow for great fluctuation. If there is change it’s likely to lose the Lib Dem seat and add another to the SNP’s tally. Even so, Sturgeon’s comparison between ‘an inclusive, welcoming and socially just Scotland that the SNP want to see’ and what she called ‘the dismal anti-European, anti-devolution agenda that UKIP is promoting’ shows that another scenario isn’t entirely impossible.