This is an age of uncertainty, crisis and doubt. The UK is experiencing multiple crises: political, constitutional and economic, of the UK in Europe and of Europe itself as an idea and project. And underneath all of this is a deep-seated Western fear, of loss of confidence in Western modernity and anxiety about the future.
The lack of sureness now being displayed in Britain’s political elites is one manifestation, as is the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP. The Westminster village has been talking of little else since UKIP burst through in the English local elections winning 23% of the vote, humiliating the mainstream parties.
Cut then this week to the beautiful setting of Edinburgh’s High Street, its castle at one end, Holyrood Palace at the other, tartan tourist tat in between. This was the improbable setting for Nigel Farage’s northern sojourn and face off with Radical Independence supporters.
Insults flew back and forth; the protestors called Farage ‘racist scum’; he retorted by calling them ‘fascist scum’ and then attempted to taint the broad church of Scottish nationalism and the SNP by claiming the former had a ‘fascist side’; the next day in a combative interview on ‘BBC Radio Scotland’ Farage accused the interviewer David Miller of the same ‘hatred’ as the protestors and hung up.
There is more to this than appears at first glance: a student protest or a populist leader caught making political opportunities. UKIP have been the political flavor of the month, and Farage is trying all he can to remake the political weather, with Cameron on the run in retreat and the Tory Eurosceptics sensing that their dream is within close reach.
Who Does UKIP Give Voice To?
Farage is aiming to reposition UKIP, given its appeal at the moment is nearly entirely English, although it has small Welsh and Northern Irish representation. But it has no Scottish base, winning 1% in the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 and 5% in the last Euro elections of 2009. Farage, even if he doesn’t win much support north of the border, benefits by taking on Scottish nationalists with their ‘ridiculous’ idea of independence in Europe. He gains in that it plays well back in England, allows him to pose as a national leader, and cannot do him any harm in Scotland. It is possible that with little Scottish support UKIP could win representation in next year’s Euro elections and 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, but it wouldn’t fundamentally alter UKIP’s core appeal.
UKIP are predominantly an English voice: a force for English self-government and English nationalism. In part this is a reactionary movement, born of fear, loss and anxiety that the country is no longer what it once was namely, white, homogeneous, contained and ordered, and a place of certainty with an implicit social compact between the classes. There is a part of England which feels that this is no longer their country, and this is due to a mix of influences: class, welfare, immigration and Europe, alongside the failure and sheer deceit and deception of a large swathe of our political classes to deal with and understand popular anxieties.
To parts of the British mainstream political establishment UKIP are beyond the pale – ‘a cancer’ as Labour MEP David Martin called them – racists, xenophobes and demagogues to others. But this is too dismissive of a powerful political phenomenon and seemingly uninterested in why such a potent force could win such widespread support across England.
Then there is the dynamics of UKIP and Scottish politics. Some such as the political commentator David Torrance have identified what they see as similarities between UKIP and the SNP, emphasising a convergence of language in how they wish to reclaim independence from their respective unions, Europe and the UK.
This misses profound differences. UKIP are nearly entirely a one man elemental force remade by Farage; look for example at the farce of leadership which was Lord Pearson’s brief stint as leader in the 2010 UK election. The SNP for all Salmond’s dominance are far from a one-man band with a powerful sense of collective leadership and mission. The differences don’t stop there. UKIP have had huge organisational problems with candidates, elected representatives and elements of their membership. The SNP have none of these characteristics and are a professional political party. It is also relevant that UKIP policies, when they had them, were hardly well thought out, and are now nearly entirely under review, whereas the SNP have policies on every aspect of Scottish life which whether you like them or not have been considered and researched.
The Farage northern trip says something about the state of Scotland and the UK. For one the UK media as they do once they have built someone up, were looking to take Farage down a peg or two and start the backlash or at least scrutiny of his and his party’s activities. Then there was the theatre of the occasion with media, Farage and the leftist Radical Independence forces (whose core activist base is a breakaway from the SWP) all using the occasion to grandstand.
A secondary story was the attempt by former Salmond admirer and now anti-Scottish nationalist Tom Gallagher to paint the whole episode as part of the liberal conspiracy running Scottish media and institutions, talking of a ‘left wing media mafia’. He will find little traction for such an assessment beyond the Daily Telegraph given Scotland is a land which postures and preens with radicalism but which is deeply cautious and conservative.
More relevant is that UKIP’s core appeal of being anti-politics, populist and posing as outsiders against the failed establishment, should not be immune to Scottish voters. But somehow it mostly is because of the tone and colour of UKIP’s appeal – which is predominantly an English democratic voice.
The wider story of this is the crises of Britain, the shifting sands of ‘the conservative nation’ of England in Andrew Gamble’s use of the term, and its divisions between Tory and UKIP voices, and the long term failure of progressive Britain: the latter a land of disappointed elite liberals.
At the recent Prague Press Forum whilst debating with British journalist John Lloyd on the future of the UK and Scottish independence, Lloyd made the claim that numerous European conversations were inhabited by ‘a cosmopolitan elite which was at best 3% of the population’. The vast majority of Europe could be found represented by the anxieties of ‘Mrs. Duffy who collared Gordon Brown at the last UK election’. That is a ridiculously stark view: cossetted Eurocrats versus worried women from Rochdale with nothing in between.
At one point Lloyd put forward a defence of the UK against Scottish independence based on five points: techy comradeship, natural mixing, pooling of resources, economic security, and being a sort of significant world power. Martin Woollacott of The Guardian asked if both the Czechs and Slovaks voted on their ‘divorce’, why shouldn’t the English vote on Scottish independence. Lloyd in a supposedly critical remark on Scottish independence railed against its ‘small nation coziness’ as an obvious negative. But isn’t that a positive virtue versus the preposterous, grandiose over-reach and hyperbole of the Great British power project and its related delusions? Such is the pessimism of a whole generation of liberal, supposedly enlightened English opinion.
What Future for a Progressive, European Britain?
Something is dramatically changing. A British political elite which used to detest and dismiss the idea of referenda is suddenly in favour of them all over the place in defence of the shibboleth of parliamentary sovereignty. This is about the challenges of political disconnect, lack of trust and legitimacy, and a desperate attempt to rewin political consent.
It is also about an unreformed, atrophying British state and set of elites: a venal, feral political class as Peter Oborne powerfully pointed out this week still despite the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, going back to their old ways of outrageous claims, bullying parliamentary authorities, and thinking they are entitled to live the good life at our expense.
Yet even more is at stake. For all Cameron’s cautious maneuverings and weak leadership, the vision of the UK that he is beginning to outline could not be a starker one. It is based on a defence of the power and privilege of the City of London and its related tax havens, deregulation, and uncodified human rights.
This is what the once powerful and even at times progressive politics of ‘the conservative nation’ of England have been reduced to. It is a narrow, dogmatic, fantasyland politics of near dystopian proportions, and yet this agenda is like a political tsunami sweeping through the Conservatives, right wing media and giving rise to UKIP’s new found appeal.
What does this say about Britain’s future as a progressive and European country? Namely that the story of progressive Britain, which once was a popular people’s story founded in the Labour and Liberal Parties as well as the trade union movement, is in irreversible decline. There isn’t any feasible way that Britain’s elites will somehow come to their senses and snap out of their fixation with making the country into some Atlanticist tiger pointing towards Asia. The consequences of this are that there is no real possible future where the UK re-embraces the European project and identifies itself as a European country.
This is the moving of tectonic plates: in Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, across the UK and Europe, representing an existential crisis of what the UK is and what it stands for. UKIP are a profound manifestation of this, as are Cameron and the Eurosceptics' desire to geo-politically shift the UK, and in a different way, the appeal of Alex Salmond and the SNP.
Two independence referendums - one on Scottish independence, the other on UK withdrawal from the EU, will bring up the question of what kind of British and European union and co-operation are desirable in the future. The difference between the two is that the Scottish independence campaign, while it is stamped by opponents with the labels ‘separatists’ and ‘separation’, is informed by a modern post-nationalism of sharing sovereignty which is very comfortable with the EU. The UK withdrawal campaign talks the moderate language of ‘renegotiation’ and ‘a new relationship’ with Europe but is actually an old-fashioned politics of absolutism, parliamentary sovereignty and British nationalism.
This is where Cameron is being dragged by his Eurosceptics and the rise of UKIP. It seems to be a vision which progressive Britain has lost the nerve, political intelligence or popular touch, to successfully resist. Whether the two votes end in two divorces remains to be seen, but turbulence, uncertainty and very different and looser unions for Scotland and the UK/post-UK and for Britain and Europe are the shape of the next few decades to come.
 ‘Brian Taylor’s Big Debate’, BBC Scotland, May 17th 2013.
 Andrew Gamble, The Conservative Nation, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1974.
 See on the Labour people’s story of Britain and its decline: Arthur Aughey, Nationalism, Devolution and the Challenge to the United Kingdom State, Pluto Press 2001, Ch. 5, ‘The Labour Nation’.