As the two parties fight for a place in the European Parliament, both want to see an end to the UK as it is now, writes Allan Massie
If THE polls are right, the Liberal Democrats will lose their Scottish seat in the European Parliament. This would be a pity, first because the Lib Dems are resolutely good Europeans – a thought that may persuade some Scots who also approve of the EU to switch their vote to them at the last moment; second because, as Willis Pickard, a former features editor of The Scotsman, pointed out in a letter yesterday, George Lyon has been an effective MEP. But there it is. Everyone knows that politics is a rough old game. The Lib Dems’ decision to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives to give us five years of stable government at a critical time has evidently cooked their goose in Scotland.
So we are left with the SNP claiming it is between them and Ukip for this last Scottish seat, which may or may not be true but is an interesting prospect. The two parties have much in common, even though for many the SNP presents the acceptable face of nationalism, Ukip the unacceptable one. The SNP is pro-European and asserts that an independent Scotland would be admitted as a member state of the EU with no difficulty, even continuing to benefit from the opt-outs from European law negotiated by British Conservative and Labour governments. Ukip, on the other hand, calls for Britain to leave the EU.
The SNP parades its inclusive credentials – nobody is barred from membership on account of ethnicity or religion, and Alex Salmond recently visited a mosque in support of the SNP candidate, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. Ukip in contrast is discriminatingly xenophobic, if not racist – and, bizarrely, the Ukip candidate here, David Coburn, condemned Mr Salmond’s visit to the mosque as “sectarian”, thus giving, in the eyes of some of us, further substance to David Cameron’s view that Ukip is full of “fruitcakes”.
Moreover, while Alex Salmond is the best-known and arguably most popular politician in Scotland, respected even by many who will vote No on 18 September, the Ukip leader Nigel Farage is met with angry protest whenever he crosses the old Anglo-Scottish Border, though in parts of England he is hugely admired.
The SNP is a coherent, disciplined and well-established party with a long history behind it. The wild men were eliminated or sidelined a long time ago, even if some of the intemperate and nasty internet posts by the so-called cybernats might seem to suggest otherwise. Ukip has nothing like the SNP’s history, and is scarcely an organised party at all. Its policies are utterly incoherent and it appears to have very little control over its candidates and councillors, who frequently express views that may embarrass even the embarrassing Mr Farage. It is a sort of ragbag party which attracts all sorts of resentful people who profess to love Britain but often evidently hate the country it is now.
Yet, simply because both are nationalist parties, they have essential things in common. Even a civic and respectable nationalism like the SNP’s must identify and oppose the Other who is in some way oppressing or holding back the nation. Mr Salmond has sensibly and sincerely steered his party away from anglophobia, from identifying the English as the enemy. Indeed he proclaims himself, again sincerely, to be an Anglophile and insists that if we vote for independence the “social union” between Scotland and England will survive and we will be good neighbours to each other. He might be right in the long run, though in the short term it’s quite likely that there would be tears, tantrums and a great deal of bitterness. Divorces are rarely wholly amicable.
But if the SNP is not anti-English (though some who vote for it may be that), it nevertheless had to identify the Other – the oppressor and focus of discontent. It found it in Westminster, in the UK political system and the British political parties, all of which, even their Scottish wings, stood in the way of Scotland’s aspirations. Westminster was broken or – the fashionable word – dysfunctional. Westminster politicians, both Conservative and Labour, had post-imperial ambitions which Scotland had discarded. Westminster was corrupt. The contrast was made between Westminster vice and Holyrood virtue. Only by freeing ourselves from the post-imperial delusion that the UK was still a great power with a role to play in world affairs could Scotland fulfil its potential. Moreover, there was often a Tory government in Westminster, and this was clearly a bad thing.
It is in its hostility to Westminster and the political class there that Ukip is at one with the SNP. Ukip’s founding purpose was to get the UK out of the EU – though, amusingly, it is only the European Parliament, elected by the un-British system of proportional representation from a party list, that has given Ukip an opportunity and a degree of credibility. Nigel Farage has a certain standing because he is a member of the European Parliament. Nevertheless, though Ukip is hoovering up an anti-immigrant vote, it is evident that many who will vote for the party on Thursday are animated by their loathing of the political class, of what they call the ConLibLab consensus, which has treacherously taken their country away from them.
If Ukip stresses its British identity and the SNP would like to dispense with that, both parties are fuelled by the same sort of discontent with things as they are. Ukip would put the “Great” back into Britain, while the SNP would remove it, but both parties share the belief that the UK state in its present form is profoundly unsatisfactory, unresponsive to their legitimate interests. Of course they are not the same: the SNP’s goal is credible and capable of being achieved; Ukip’s wish to turn the clock back and restore the Britain of a generation or two ago is an exercise in fantasy. Ukip’s frame of mind is therefore in the exact sense of the word hopeless, while the SNP will insist that it offers hope of a better future.
Nevertheless the two parties have one other thing in common: a lack of confidence in the people they claim to represent. Ukip believes the UK cannot flourish in the EU; the SNP that Scotland cannot flourish in the UK. They are both, as it happens, wrong – the evidence is against them.