What UKIP and the SNP do have in common…

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By Peter Geoghegan
 
Since the European (and local) election results were announced, our media has been convulsed in solicitous, navel-gazing paroxysms. ‘Are UKIP the future of British politics?’ news anchors ask of pointy-heads. ‘Why are voters rejecting the political system’ opine newspaper columnists.

In Scotland, news that UKIP scraped a European seat was paraded by some as confirmation that Scots are just as xenophobic as their counterparts o’er the border, regardless of their electoral preference for Labour and the SNP. (Less was made of polling that suggests UKIP success was likely to bolster support for a Yes in September.)

By Peter Geoghegan
 
Since the European (and local) election results were announced, our media has been convulsed in solicitous, navel-gazing paroxysms. ‘Are UKIP the future of British politics?’ news anchors ask of pointy-heads. ‘Why are voters rejecting the political system’ opine newspaper columnists.

In Scotland, news that UKIP scraped a European seat was paraded by some as confirmation that Scots are just as xenophobic as their counterparts o’er the border, regardless of their electoral preference for Labour and the SNP. (Less was made of polling that suggests UKIP success was likely to bolster support for a Yes in September.)

Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage make a neat comparison, too, especially for metropolitans struggling to understand the shifting timbre of British politics. Both men have a background in the financial sector, and share a certain charismatic bon homie that the uninitiated often struggle to comprehend.

Ergo, UKIP and the SNP are one and the same. The Scottish National Party might have a lengthy pre-Salmond history and the White Paper might even make commitments to increase immigration – a revelation that caused some journalists to almost collapse in shock at its launch – but both men are, in the argot, ‘old fashioned populists’.

It’s a heuristic attractive in its straightforwardness but it fails to grasp what is happening, both in England and in Scotland. The UKIP ‘revolution’, if you want to call it that, and September’s referendum share a common thread, but it’s not jingoism, it’s an inchoate reaction to a series of discrete but overlapping social, economic, political and cultural calumnies that many of us are experiencing but would struggle to name.

Paul Mason, over at Channel 4 News, puts it better than anyone else.  Voters are frightened of immigration; have seen real wages stagnate and are no longer convinced that the benefits of globalization-fuelled capitalism will ever trickle down to them. (Leaving aside UKIP’s ‘libertarian’ policies, much of its support last week was drawn from working class former Labour heartlands across England.) Many of these concerns are reasonable, even if their political outworkings are less judicious.

The result in England has been a withering away of support for the European project, and a concomitant fall in the backing for mainstream political parties.

Although many Scots share a degree of skepticism about Europe, Brussels is not a defining feature of Scottish politics – and is unlikely to become one in the near future. Instead in Scotland feelings of powerlessness in the face of rapid economic change have become largely crystalised around the ‘national question’, and have come more from the left than the right. That support for independence has run at around a third for decades – a similar figure to that which UKIP polled last Thursday – attests to a crisis of political legitimacy in Scotland that is long-standing and very real.

The canary in the mine was, however, largely ignored until the SNP won in 2011. Even then it was treated more as a curio than as a serious expression of democratic disgruntlement by London. This has changed, with most analyses of the UKIP result adducing the referendum in support of the ‘crisis in British politics’ narrative.

All of which puts UK unionism in a difficult place. A ‘no’ vote has been consistently presented as a vote for the ‘status quo’ – but if this settled state of affairs is in flux what then?

The very idea of a homogenous ‘rest of the UK’, which we hear so much about, is decidedly shoogly. Each of the constituent parts are different – not in itself an argument for its abolition – but these tensions are arguably more raw now than at anytime since the Irish war of independence. Demands for further devolution are growing in Wales; Stormont wants control of corporation tax; the north/south divide has emerged as a point of political dissension. Then, of course, there is Europe.

‘Could it be that, at the root of some of the Eurospecticism which seems to evident in parts of these islands, there is actually a more unfocused uncertainty about identity at home,’ Linda Colley presciently asks in her recent book ‘Acts of Union and Disunion’. UKIP’s success would seem to render redundant the hedging ‘could’.

Despite its (relatively minor) successes elsewhere, UKIP is a profoundly English party. Farage’s ubiquitous pint of bitter is more than a mere affectation. At its root is an ill-defined sense of English nationalism. And, as Michael Keating predicted in The Independence of Scotland, the answer to the Scotland question is most likely to come from this until now quiescent beast.

‘If English elites and English opinion insist that the central constitution remains essentially untouched by devolution then their only real option is to reconstitute themselves as a new nation-state.

‘The end of the UK is unlikely to come about from the secession of Scotland as long as the Scots have other options. It is more likely, stranger to say, to come from the secession of an England that is no longer prepared to pay the political or economic price of union.’