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What does the rise of Ukip mean for Scottish and British politics?

A new national pastime now exists thanks to the existence and rise of Ukip. But even if they win the Euro elections we must be careful in which conclusions we draw, particularly in Scotland.

Gerry Hassan
9 May 2014
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Nigel Farage/Flickr/European Parliament

This is the round the clock coverage of the party: often mocking, filled with condescension and a barely concealed incredulity that sane citizens will consider supporting such a party. So far all this has seemed to do is feed the appeal that is the Teflon-like Ukip.

The media of course love and hate Ukip in equal measure. Nigel Farage is the joint most frequent panelist on ‘BBC Question Time’ over the last five years (equal with Tory Ken Clarke).  Whether it is Godfrey Bloom’s many bloomers on women, Africa and climate change, or Roger Helmer MEP (who is standing for the party in the Newark by-election) and his views on rape and gays, none of this so far seems to hurt Ukip.

We can debate the characteristics and qualities of Ukip but it is certainly a populist revolt against the modern world and contemporary UK. There is a rage against the machine, political orthodoxies and political correctness in the party, many of its representatives, members and supporters.

This is one reason why, along with immigration, Ukip people consistently make problematic remarks on the role of women in society and issue of working women, gender equality, and the topic of homosexuality and gay rights. These are all areas which, whatever the inequalities and divisions of modern Britain, have seen enormous advances in language and how people talk and think. Many Ukippers see this kind of progress as the demise of the white, male society which they feel is synonymous with Britain.

Ukip have been labeled ‘racist’ by many, including former Labour immigration minister Barbara Roche and Lib Dem Lord Oakeshott, while David Cameron famously called them ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. They have been seen by the likes of Matthew Parris as ‘a mutiny within Conservatism’, as an internal revolt between outsiders and insiders within conservatism, which is at least part of the party’s appeal, but not an explanation of all of it.

The ‘racist’ terminology is fascinating. Ukip’s website until recently declared the party as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’, language frequently used by Farage. As Hugo Rifkind has pointed out, there is something amiss here in how Ukip feel the need to point out the one negative they are most definitely not. ‘Bit jarring, that ‘non-racist’ bit’ writes Rifkind as ‘the list of things Ukip isn’t must be endless. All it cared about, though, was that people don’t think it is racist’. This, Rifkind argues, does not necessarily mean that Ukip itself are racist, but that it should explain the number of ‘racists who think that Ukip is racist’.

Then there is the absence of a British-wide appeal for a party which is about British independence, withdrawal from the European Union, and restoring British self-government. To some, Ukip has become an English nationalist party, such is the absence of support for it in Scotland.

Ukip have a Scottish problem, but they have English and Welsh appeal. At the last Euro elections they won 12.8% of the vote in Wales and one MEP, and in current European polling the party have rated 29% support in England, 20% in Wales, and 10% in Scotland.

Recent research highlighted the difference between Ukip’s appeal north and south of the border. When asked which party ‘best stands up for the interests of England’, respondents divided Ukip (23%), Labour (17%), Conservatives (16%), Lib Dems (4%). When the question asked was which party ‘best stands up for the interests of Scotland’ this produced: SNP (45%), Labour (17%), Conservative (5%), Ukip (0.8%).

Ukip’s Scottish predicament can be seen in how the party do not know how to intervene and speak north of the border. Their youth wing is called ‘Young Independence’, meaning from the EU, but it doesn’t carry that resonance in Scotland.

One example of how Ukip do not understand the Scottish terrain has been their evolving position on the Scottish Parliament. Until early last year Ukip policy was the abolition of the Parliament and its replacement by Westminster MPs sitting in Scotland: a de facto Scottish Grand Committee and a return to pre-devolution days.

It was also a policy (like many the party have) that it didn’t particularly want to talk about or flag up. By highlighting it last year in an article, and this being brought to the attention of Farage within a week, the policy was discarded. It has been the experience of many a Ukip policy (and the entire 2010 UK manifesto), but it illustrates that just as most of Scotland doesn’t seem to get Ukip, more problematically for the party, it just doesn’t understand Scotland.

Despite this we have to be careful of the ‘no Ukip here we are Scottish’ line which plays out in parts of Scotland. It is another manifestation of the complacent, comfortable account which is bought into by too many in Scotland. This is one based on the reality that most Scots were anti-Thatcher and anti-Tory and don’t want to vote for Ukip, but from this to jump to the assumption that Scotland is a social democracy which is inclusive, egalitarian and more redistributive in its public policy choices than the rest of the UK, is a problem.

Instead, there has to be some understanding of the framing of English (and Welsh) politics and the national dimensions at work in all three countries. This is particularly crucial in light of the likely events that will unfurl in the next couple of months from the European elections onward.

Ukip are set to poll incredibly well in the European elections. This will not be a ‘flash’ party result such as the Greens achieved in 1989 when they won 15% of the national vote, then declined precipitously. Ukip were third in the 2004 elections with 16.1% of the vote, second in 2009 with 16.5%, and could easily on May 22nd 2014 finish first in votes and seats.

If this occurs, a political earthquake will hit British politics with huge Scottish consequences. First, if Ukip triumph in the European elections, British politics will never be the same again. There will be an immediate political and media firestorm around what this means, the nature of Ukip’s appeal and its implications for British politics. Second, this will re-ignite the barely concealed Tory civil war relating to Europe, which is really a proxy for what kind of conservatism the party should articulate. It will illustrate that David Cameron’s attempt to draw a line in the sand by promising a 2017 in/out referendum, rather than killing the issue, has merely fanned the flames of Eurosceptism.

Finally, there is how all of this will be interpreted between Scotland and England/rUK and the politics of the narrative of difference. A Ukip election triumph will be based on the back of English (and to a lesser extent Welsh) votes with Scots, in comparison, coldshouldering Ukip. This will offer the prospect of a significant spike for the independence campaign, framing the political mood of England (and Wales) as one of rising Eurosceptism, xenophobia and reactionary nationalism. All of this will be contrasted to the supposedly benign, progressive politics north of the border.

There are pitfalls in the above. For a start, the rise of Ukip is part of an anti-mainstream politics trend which can be seen across the West and to which Scotland is not immune. There is also the simplicity of drawing political assumptions just from the difference in Ukip votes north and south of the border. To illustrate this, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that on a low turnout Ukip could win one Scottish MEP representative.

The deeper problem is choosing to reinforce a certain view of Scotland from the rise of Ukip. Scottish opinion is, across a range of areas, just as open and persuasive to a right wing, populist agenda as elsewhere in the UK: with significant majorities believing in the virtues of an anti-welfare, anti-immigration stance. This can be seen in support for the benefits cap (82%) and a tough position on immigration (69%).

So by all means celebrate that Scottish voters don’t support Ukip in the numbers seen south of the border. But let’s not use that to create an imaginary, fictitious Scotland – a land of no racism and xenophobia, immune to caricaturing people on benefits. That problematic Scotland is out there in force; and it can only be dealt with by recognising its appeal. It would be a shame if Scots wisely turning their back on Ukip on May 22 actually made it harder for us to come to terms with the views in our midst which make such a politics possible.

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