Joyce McMillan: Apocalypse now, a new land later

Nigel Farage and Ukip look likely to do well ' in England ' in next week's European election. Picture: PA
Nigel Farage and Ukip look likely to do well ' in England ' in next week's European election. Picture: PA
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A centre-left Scotland could emerge from the mess of a Ukip-heavy European parliament, writes Joyce McMillan

For those with an interest in politics, number-crunching the opinion polls in the run-up to an election is a strange kind of fun. You take the poll results, you run them through the relevant electoral system, you watch the who-wins-what prediction emerge; and you wait – like any true geek, in any field – for the moment when you can compare prediction with reality.

When it comes to next week’s European election, though, the task of predicting the likely UK outcome has taken on a slightly apocalyptic edge, as the familiar political landscape of the last century crumbles away, to be replaced by something very different. In the land of the mass protest vote, of course, things can change rapidly; but if the recent pattern of opinion polls is remotely reliable, then when all votes are counted, we should be looking at a UK group in the European Parliament which features something like 24 Ukip members, 20 Conservatives, 18 Labour MEPs, three each for the Greens and the SNP, and just one for each of the others – Plaid Cymru, the three Northern Ireland parties and the comprehensively crushed Liberal Democrats.

What’s more, all but one of those Ukip MEPs will have been elected in England, with none at all from Scotland or Northern Ireland; and Ukip will have come first or first equal, in terms of number of seats won, in every English region except London, where it runs third.

These results will, of course, have a cataclysmic effect on our representation in the European Union, as a third of our UK MEPs will now be there only to mock and disrupt.

The European Parliament, though, is a relatively low-profile institution. Perhaps the more profound long-term impact of this election result will be on the self-image of the nation that has produced it, and on its chances of a viable and progressive future.

For the point about Ukip is this: that although it clearly aims to “speak for the people” in a way that Britain’s mainstream parties have largely ceased to do, what it is saying, at least in the central anti-immigration plank of its policy, is ill-founded nonsense, based on a series of unsustainable post-imperial prejudices.

To judge by Nigel Farage’s dire warnings about immigration on yesterday’s World At One and elsewhere, Ukip’s view is threefold: that Britain is clearly the best country in Europe and that everyone wants to come here; that our “generous” benefits system is part of the attraction; and that the migrants who do come here take our jobs, and cost us more than they benefit us. All three of these propositions are demonstrably false, yet not only does Ukip continue to advance them with unblushing fervour, but the other parties are now so scared of appearing insensitive to voters’ “concerns” about immigration that they have also begun to base policy on these false premises.

Mainstream UK politics, in other words, is fast dwindling into an ineffectual right-wing mess, driven by the constant advancing of useless answers to problems that are either non-existent, or are being wilfully misunderstood in the effort to distract attention from the nation’s real structural issues. Those issues are extreme and growing inequality, declining real incomes for most workers and relentless profiteering by a tiny, well-connected elite, often at the expense of what were once public services; and they are not much masked by the elite’s unconvincing talk of an economic “recovery” whose main current feature, apart from an engineered property boom, seems to be the forcing of unemployed people off the jobless register and into largely fictional forms of income-free self-employment.

So, this is the dramatic political situation we face as we enter this crucial summer of 2014. The European election results are likely to offer up further proof that UK mainstream political parties are facing a grassroots meltdown, and that England is responding to that meltdown in a very different way from Scotland.

At the same time, the low salience of these elections is likely to limit the impact of the result on the forthcoming Scottish referendum, which is still likely to result in a No vote.

By October this year, in other words, we could be facing a situation in which Scotland has voted – for reasons of caution and personal connection – to remain in a Union which is moving in exactly the direction that makes that Union more difficult to maintain. And ahead of us will lie three possible paths.

In the first, we simply give up on ourselves as a distinctive nation, and begin to drift down the same political path to Farage-land, all Union Jack waistcoats, jokes about scrounging Jocks, and arguments for leaving the EU.

In the second, we turn back with renewed fervour to a Nicola Sturgeon-led SNP, as the only party capable of frightening Westminster governments into giving us a decent deal in return for our continuing presence in the UK.

And in the third – possibly the best, but the hardest to imagine from where we stand now – we take some of the grassroots political energy generated by the Yes campaign in Scotland, across a whole range of issues from sustainable energy to land ownership to new forms of local and community government, and use it to begin to form new partnerships across and beyond the continuing UK, and to develop the kind of network that could one day evolve into a new political party of the centre-left, fit for the century we live in.

Down at the real grass roots, after all, in communities across these islands, active citizens are too busy using and depending on the skills that migrants bring to indulge in the idiocy of ethnic politics; and too busy tackling real issues, from food and fuel poverty to elderly care, to pay much attention to the myopic grandstanding of Nigel Farage and his colleagues.

And it’s out of that practical, positive and realistic active citizenry that a new, forward-looking centre-left will eventually emerge – whether the Union lasts long enough for it to be a UK-wide movement, or whether it finds its place in a new island confederation of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and all the great regions of England raising their voices at last.