What the SNP's breakthrough tells us about UKIP's prospects

As it was for the "Tartan Tories", the real test for UKIP is not whether it can take votes off the Conservatives but whether it can build a broader long-term coalition.

Today politicians are fearful of the potential "breakthrough" of a nationalist separatist party with a charismatic leader. No, not Alex Salmond and the SNP, but Nigel Farage and UKIP. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two parties are striking. When you consider that both are obsessed with constitutional politics and plebiscites; both are derided for their collection of "fruit cakes"; both admire the right-wing economic policies of Margaret Thatcher; both stand on a none-of-the-above party platform, challenging the political establishment; and, ultimately, both believe that the blame for all life’s woes lie with membership of a certain union.

So should this worry us? Not necessarily. If there is one thing that we can learn from Scotland, it is that the voters are able to differentiate between different elections. For example, although the SNP did unbelievably well in 2011, the year before, in the UK general election, they stood by and watched Labour consolidate their position as the main party of Scotland at Westminster.

And according to recent opinion polls, they still command solid support at the Scottish Parliament, despite six years in government, although this is not the case in recent UK polls. In addition, if every single opinion poll on the referendum is to be believed, then their entire raison d'être, separatism, will be resoundingly rejected next year. Yet it is from history that we should view this nationalist success, and measure the potential success of UKIP.

The SNP's breakthrough in Scotland did not happen in 2011, nor in 2007 as some would have us believe, but rather over time, and can be traced back to the void created by the 1960s decline of the Tories in Scotland, which the SNP helped to fill, as well as the start of distrust of the three main parties among the Scottish electorate. This was first noticed when the SNP started to win local elections, and come strong runners up in by-elections like the one in West Lothian in 1962, where it scooped most of the Conservative votes. Since then, many of its strongholds are in what were once Conservative areas. Hence the old SNP nickname north of the border:"the Tartan Tories".

They manoeuvred to collect these initial votes through their embrace of previously Tory values around tradition and, most obviously nationalism, as well as an ownership of rural issues; depicting Westminster as distant and unrepresentative; oh and the argument that membership of the union was not only expensive, but somehow that Scotland was subsidising England. Sound familiar?

Nonetheless, this was nothing new. Despite the Tories winning half the Scottish vote in 1955, Scotland has long voted disproportionately for centre-left parties. For most of the 19th century, it was as sterile towards the Tories as it is today. Thus there was no future for the SNP in remaining "Tartan Tories". The smart thing the party did was not just to provide a hearse for Scottish conservatives, but also a vehicle that can be boarded by social democratic Scots as well.

Of course these were long term changes. More recently, in the last decade, the SNP, via devolution and local government, was able to portray itself as a more credible party of government that could be trusted with the keys to the public coffers, helped by competent and charismatic leadership.

The real test of UKIP’s prospects, then, is not if it take Tory votes, but if it can substantially spread its vote more widely, like the other main nationalist separatist party in these isles has done. It is not until UKIP builds this sort of coalition among the electorate, as the SNP has done in Scotland, that people can truly claim to be witnessing a "breakthrough".

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.