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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.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

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