There has been a deal of unwarranted complacency among the Scottish chattering classes about the threat posed by Nigel Farage, who received a predictably hostile welcome from radical independence demonstrators in Edinburgh recently. There is a comforting delusion that Ukip is a uniquely English political phenomenon. We don’t hate immigrants up here and we don’t want to leave Europe, axe maternity rights for women or cut off peoples’ benefits. Anyway, didn’t Ukip want to scrap the Scottish parliament?
Well, yes they did – at least until last year. Ukip’s policies are hard to pin down because their manifesto is a work in progress and their leader seems to chop and change them at will. But there are still a lot of people in Scotland who think the parliament is a waste of money. Many voters have never forgiven Holyrood for the parliament building fiasco, the expenses scandals and the general sense that the Scottish parliament is a playground for liberal pressure groups wanting Clare’s laws, fox hunting bans, social workers replacing parents.
Ukip have never saved a deposit in any election here, and have a very small membership base. Most Scots would not think of voting for them in any election that counts. But that’s precisely the problem with the european elections – they don’t count. Turnouts in past elections have been even lower than local authority elections. Barely 30% of Scottish voters actually voted in the 2009 european elections. In such apathetic ballots, small parties like Ukip can come from nowhere and get a significant percentage result on very few actual votes.
It is not inconceivable that Ukip could approach their target of 10%, though unlike the First Minister, Alex Salmond I don’t think they will secure a seat. Nevertheless, any significant vote for Ukip in Scotland will be magnified by the UK press who will say that Scots isn’t so different after all, and that social democratic Scotland is a myth.
There are quite a lot of people in Scotland don’t like Europe, for much the same reasons they don’t like Westminster: it’s remote from their lives, manufactures bureaucratic regulations and is a gravy train for corrupt politicians. There is an anti-politics trend in both Scotland and England – a hostility verging on loathing for establishment politicians among a significant minority of voters. And in Scotland the Scottish National Party is also an establishment party.
The BBC can’t get enough of Nigel. The role of the state broadcaster in promoting the far Right warrants at least a footnote in the history. Farage has been accorded almost unlimited access to the airwaves. He is hardly ever off programmes like Question Time. His party has no MPs or MSPs, yet he got two hour-long televised debates with Nick Clegg. Why has the BBC fallen in love with a politician who hates everything it stands for? Well, it’s his audience pulling power which they love rather than his politics. He is box office. Farage is the Tony Blair of the Right and producers just can’t get enough of him because he is a political star.
And yes – it’s also a very BBC way of getting one over the Tories. The Conservatives have been shattered by Farage. Ukip is poised to achieve what no one thought was possible a couple of years ago: overall victory in the European elections, according to the last polls, largely on the basis of stolen Tory votes. After initially calling him a fruitcake and then trying to ignore him, David Cameron has now had to agree to a televised debate with Farage. This damages the Conservatives in Scotland because the PM has of course refused to debate with Alex Salmond, even thought the First Minister represents the governing party of Scotland and has a sizeable bloc of MPS in Westminster. It is humiliating for the Prime Minister to have to bend to the will of this outsider – and dangerous, because Cameron is liable to be pretty comprehensively defeated on Farage’s recent form.
It has often been said that UKIP is the BNP with a human face, and in a way Farage has completed the cross-over attempted by Nick Griffin, the bankrupt former leader of the British National Party. He has made anti-immigration politics respectable. Indeed, not only respectable but arguably the dominant issue in UK politics right now. All the parties are playing his tune. Labour politicians scarcely open their mouths without apologising about how they “got it wrong” over immigration and ignored the justifiable anxieties of ‘ordinary’ Labour voters.
Then there’s the man thing. It lurks in the corners of the internet and dare not speak its name, but a lot of young to middle aged men feel they are living in a society that no longer wants them. They fail at school, find that women are taking over in the workplace, see their heterosexual values and prejudices disparaged by a media which promotes gay men and women’s issues. They don’t feel they have any authority over their children any more and no longer feel like they are respected as breadwinners. They also think that people on benefits are living a comfortable life on their ‘hard-working’ taxes.
This complex of anti-establishment reflexes, rather than Britain’s relationship to Europe, is what really motivates Ukip voters. Nigel Farage, with his bar room bonhomie, doesn’t need to spell it out. They know from his body language that he loathes the politically correct media establishment, the nanny state telling people not to drink or smoke or slap their children. He doesn’t allow the media to paint him as a racist homophobe because he doesn’t actually say anything racist of homophobic. But everyone knows where he stands.
Ukip has already forced UK politics to lurch to the right. We have had increasingly restrictive immigration laws making life difficult for students and others seeking visas. We have seen the demonisation of welfare recipients as “skivers” by cabinet ministers and the introduction of the benefits cap, which Labour supported last month. An in/out referendum on Europe seems increasingly likely now, as even Ed Miliband has conceded the possibility of holding one if Brussels seeks any more powers from Westminster. None of these policies are endorsed by Scotland’s political parties. Ukip is driving a wedge between Scotland and England as well as between the UK and Europe.
Indeed, the paradox is that an increased Ukip vote might actually benefit the Yes campaign. It will certainly concentrate the minds of Scots. Many will be highly motivated to vote in the referendum if only to affirm their opposition to Farage and his policies. Ukip turns the argument about Europe on its head because if it does well on May 22nd, the prospects for a Brexit will be greatly increased and if Scotland stays in the UK we will be out too. Nigel Farage says that Scots are being sold a phoney independence by the SNP and that voting yes will leave turn Scotland into a province of Europe. But many will prefer that to being a powerless province in a UK increasingly dominated by the politics of Faragism.