Alex Massie: Why Ukip should not be dismissed

Ukip is a party with plenty of crackpot policies crackpots find appealing. This helps win media attention. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ukip is a party with plenty of crackpot policies crackpots find appealing. This helps win media attention. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Outsider status of Nigel Farage’s party could change due to a misreading of the right-wing sympathies of many Scots, says Alex Massie

A few months ago, in the aftermath of English local elections in which Ukip’s share of the vote soared, Alex Salmond dismissed Nigel Farage as “someone who is outwith the context of normal politics”. This being so it was not a surprise, perhaps, that Farage’s visit to Scotland to launch Ukip’s Aberdeen Donside by-election campaign ended badly.

The Ukip leader was the subject of a protest led by the Radical Independence Campaign whose message was, essentially, “You’ve had your tea, Mr Farage, now return to England.” It was a storm in a teacup and yet, also, a curiously shabby, little affair from which few participants emerged with any great credit.

According to Salmond: “We can frankly do without Ukip who dislike everybody and know absolutely nothing about Scotland.” The First Minister cheerily assured Scots that there was no need to take Farage and his party “with any degree of seriousness”.

That is an opinion that may require some modification. For a party dismissed as an irrelevance in Scotland, Ukip appears determined to hang around. We appear to be close to the tipping-point at which a collection of nobodies could soon become a party of somebodies.

Ukip won 3.75 per cent of the votes cast in the Dunfermline by-election. If this did not match its performance at the Aberdeen Donside by-election in which it took 4.8 per cent of the vote it still demonstrated that Ukip might, after all, have a future in Scotland. Two years ago its support could hardly be measured, now it can be.

In 2011 Ukip won just 0.9 per cent of the regional vote. If current trends continue – always a hefty if – Ukip is now within sniffing distance of the­ 5 per cent threshold above which the prospect of winning seats at the next Holyrood elections shifts from lurid fantasy to remarkable possibility. The odds on it winning a seat on the list – perhaps in the north-east – have shortened dramatically.

It may be that Ukip’s rise – fuelled in large part by abundant dollops of free publicity – proves temporary. The party’s ability to command media attention out of all proportion to its electoral success cannot last indefinitely. Familiarity may yet breed indifference. Moreover, a good deal of the attention Ukip receives is due to the fact it is a party with plenty of crackpot policies that crackpots find appealing. It often seems to be an organisation founded to appeal to the kinds of people who frequent online comment threads. A party of cranks, malcontents and angry old men, then. This helps win media attention but it comes at a price.

Ukip still lacks the discipline and organisation parties need to build if they are to make a sustainable impact on public life. But part of Ukip’s appeal rests on it being notably different from the other parties. A more grown-up, responsible, Ukip will be a less colourful, more boring, Ukip. And if Ukip becomes more “professional” – that is, boring – the media may prove less inclined to afford the party the free publicity it has hitherto enjoyed. Ukip can easily, and safely, be ignored. Just ask the Greens.

Be that as it may, and though there is no need to exaggerate Ukip’s support, it is also the case that the party is faring better in Scotland than the unco guid guardians of the Scottish political and media consensus would have you believe could ever have been possible. It turns out there is a place, even if only a small one, for Ukip in Scottish politics after all.

Moreover, on a range of issues the Scottish public is more right-wing – more reactionary, if you insist – than the cosy Holyrood consensus that applies to many, even most, non-constitutional matters would lead one to believe. The so-called “bedroom tax” may be deeply unpopular but a benefits cap and, more generally, welfare reform is just as popular in Scotland as it is in England. A significant proportion of Scots favour reintroducing hanging, too, while at least a third routinely tell pollsters they believe Scotland (and the UK) should leave the European Union.

You may consider these attitudes deplorable and think these policies misguided but they are, nevertheless, widely popular. The blethering classes may think leaving the EU an obviously ridiculous or dangerous notion but, it might usefully be recalled, the same used to be said about Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.

For that matter, it remains puzzling that the Green party – an organisation that attracts a disproportionate number of earnest crackpots – is treated as though it is part of the respectable mainstream while Ukip, a party that, like it or not, is presently polling better than the Greens, is considered somehow beyond the pale.

It helps, of course, that the Greens have two MSPs. Ukip has some way to go before it matches that. Nevertheless, the Greens polled 2.45 per cent in Dunfermline and 1.8 per cent in Aberdeen Donside. If Ukip is -– by some mysterious process – deemed irrelevant one wonders why the Greens are not. Ukip supporters could, I think, reasonably complain their party is the victim of some kind of double standard.

For all the protestations that Scotland is an unusually progressive, liberal, tolerant place our public debates are often overly concerned with determining who has the right to speak in the first place. Some opinions are respectable; others are not. You need to travel a long way Left to find views considered unacceptable but a much shorter distance on the Right before you encounter opinions that “have no place in Scotland”.

This seems unfortunate and might be thought one of the reasons for popular disenchantment with contemporary politics. That disenchantment is hardly a new phenomenon but it is starkly revealed by the fact that turnout at the last – closely-fought – Holyrood election only just crept above 50 per cent. Which, since many Scots are not on the electoral roll, means more adult Scots did not vote than did. Many Scots, frankly, seem to be able to do without Holyrood at all.