IT’S amazing what a broad smile can do for an apparently unelectable politician. A belly-laugh turned terrifying Ian Paisley into a Chuckle Brother. A cheeky lad grin did the same for Martin “Commander” McGuinness. Now Nigel Farage has guffawed his way to 147 seats and a quarter of votes cast in last week’s council elections south of the Border.
Of course Ukip’s success was not just down to “cheeky chappie” appeal but an explicitly anti-Europe, anti-Establishment, anti-minorities, anti-claimants and anti-gay political platform. Does this “sea change” mean anything for Scotland?
On the face of it – not a lot. Ukip polled 5 per cent at European elections in Scotland in 2009, 1 per cent at Holyrood elections in 2011 and 0.28 per cent at Scottish local government elections in 2012, losing their only councillor in Fife and coming fifth behind the Greens with a tenth of their Scotland-wide vote.
Unless something momentous has happened in a year, Ukip’s anti-outsider rhetoric has failed to resonate north of the Border. Of course some Scots are hostile to officialdom, immigration, wind farms and gay marriage (the largest planks of Ukip policy). But so far, single-issue supporters haven’t gathered behind a single party capable of challenging the political “Old Firm,” or the two big currents running in political debate – competence to run Scotland and the evolving nature of devolution/independence.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Ukip’s success is like the English riots – theoretically possible north of the Border but anchored, in practice, to a uniquely English constellation of forces and circumstances.
So could Nigel Farage upset the 2014 referendum or the next Holyrood election in 2016? Unlikely.
Firstly, only a party without any feeling for Scotland’s rapidly developing civic consciousness could suggest replacing MSPs with Scottish MPs – and only a man who visits Scotland less than Bulgaria could dismiss Nicola Sturgeon – the Scottish politician with the highest approval rating – as “grossly out of her depth” as Farage did last year.
Secondly, Scotland – unlike England – is already a four-party democracy with lively competition for fifth and sixth places. Even so, and even with our semi-proportional voting system, the Greens’ 15 per cent poll in a European election didn’t become a game-changer and the SSP’s six MSPs didn’t survive one election, so powerful is the SNP-Labour dynamic at the centre of Scottish politics.
Thirdly, if southern electoral success did automatically produce a Caledonian spin-off, David Cameron would have revived Tory fortunes long ago. Scots are cautious and socially conservative by nature – and yet the Cameron bounce resembled a half-inflated spacehopper.
Farage himself has conceded Scotland is a “graveyard” for his party – in large part because Ukip’s anti-Establishment platform is already occupied in Scotland by the SNP.
Writer David Torrance sparked a minor Twitter storm by drawing a parallel between the two parties: “both advocate withdrawing from wider unions while both are rather muddled as to how and why”. In the most obvious ways, he’s right.
Both parties seek to leave political unions. Both have larger than life leaders with large egos and big grins. Both started life as single issue campaigns. But there the resemblance largely ends.
Notwithstanding the fact that UK Conservatives might soon advocate withdrawal from Europe themselves, some different conclusions could be drawn.
Indeed for many – not just “on message” Nationalists – the Ukip/SNP comparison provides the strongest evidence yet that England and Scotland are on irrevocably different political paths.
The SNP has somehow managed to retain a sizeable “protest vote” whilst also in government – that’s no mean feat. Of course they’ve shifted responsibility for problems to “bad” Westminster. But credit where credit is due.
Most “protest parties” wither on the vine, like the Social Democrats, or reach power and lose credibility, like the Liberal Democrats. The SNP has done neither.
Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman on BBC Question Time said disaffection, disenchantment and protest lay behind Ukip’s success at the polls. And of course the same forces do operate north of the Border – but they have led to very different outcomes and mind-sets.
The Scots tend to think different structures are needed to tackle disaffection. The English tend to think electing different people will do. They are wrong.
England urgently needs structural change but cannot face the upheaval. The “Mother of Parliaments” presides over an asymmetrically devolved UK, the most centralised country in Europe, a mistrustful citizenry and a misfiring, unregulated, market-driven economy.
Duplication, loopholes, double standards, disempowerment and resentment abound. And yet structural change is not on the agenda. There is no call for an English Parliament or internal English devolution to mitigate the impact of “national” policy to dampen demand in the over-heated south at the expense of the under-heated North. No Ukip “sea-change” can protect vulnerable communities from the destructive force of “city-first” English policy.
Ukip’s “triumph” simply demonstrates the overwhelming conservatism of an English electorate condemned to remain forever rearranging deckchairs under the supervision of new people instead of searching for a new ship, new direction or a total refit in a new yard.
The only structural change being considered south of the Border – leaving the EU – would cause economic havoc and further entrench domestic political power in the hands of a rudderless London elite.
The prospect of such a double whammy – Britain leaving Europe and Labour losing another general election – could be a game changer in the Scottish independence referendum. Next year’s European elections will give better intelligence.
Until then, there is only one real point of cross border similarity. Disengagement. Last week’s English council election turnout was a woeful 31 per cent – in Scotland 2012 it was 39.8 per cent.
Generally speaking, the disenchanted don’t turn up to vote – but if SNP predictions are correct and the 2014 referendum attracts a 70 to 80 per cent turn-out, it will be the largest vote (proportionally) in recent British history. The disaffected will turn up and who knows how they will vote? No-one. It’s been in the interests of politicians, parties and the media to overlook the inconvenient truth of this enduring and shameful democratic deficit.
Southern success by the party of “lunatics and fruitcakes” has served to highlight only one point. Scots know the time for such empty protest is past. We are piecing together alternate visions for the future. It’s a messy business certainly – but a different game entirely.