Why Farageism stops at the border

UKIP’s unpopularity with Scottish voters is more evidence that Scotland and England are on separate political trajectories.

Contrary to his subsequent assertions, the protest which greeted Nigel Farage on his trip to Edinburgh last week was not motivated by anti-British or anti-English “hatred”. Most of the students who heckled the UKIP leader outside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile were in no way associated with the SNP or the independence movement, while those who were belonged to a group - the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) - which is at best sceptical of nationalism. The intensity of the demonstrators was nonetheless notable: Farage himself said he had never experienced anything like it before. UKIP's persistent unpopularity in Scotland confirms that Scotland and England are now on separate political trajectories.

Recent polling data bears this out. In May, Ipsos MORI published new research which showed that 40 per cent of Scots backed higher taxes in exchange for increased investment in public services, compared to 30 per cent of English people. The research also suggested that Scottish voters were twice as likely as their English counterparts to view the public sector as the best mechanism for service delivery. A similar discrepancy exists on the European question. When Ipsos MORI canvassed opinion in February, it found that 53 per cent of Scots wanted to remain part of the EU. An earlier poll revealed roughly the same proportion of English respondents wanted to leave.

A common unionist response to this Anglo-Scots divide is to highlight the apparent closeness of voting patterns in Scotland and northern England and identify the conservative south as the real outlier. But here, again, there are significant disparities: although the Tories took just 17 per cent of the vote in Scotland at the 2010 general election, they secured a respectable 31 per cent in the English north. More worrying still from a unionist perspective, these specific electoral and policy differences are framed by a broader, separatist trend in Scottish public opinion: on health, education, welfare and tax - although not defence and foreign affairs - most Scots now want Holyrood, not Westminster, to make the decisions.

Why does Scotland sit outside the British - or at least the English - political mainstream? Certainly, the emergence in the 1960s and ’70s of a credible, left-leaning nationalist movement helped pull the centre of Scottish political gravity in a more progressive direction. This shift was consolidated during the ’80s, when Scotland’s opposition to Thatcherism fused demands for social and economic justice with the campaign for home rule, reinforcing the perception that social democracy was an inherent feature of Scottish national identity. The establishment in 1999 of a new seat of Scottish political authority - one which would go on to challenge Westminster’s right to speak for Scotland on a range of issues – has been another important factor.

One further reason may be the effectiveness with which some politicians exploit the myth of Scottish egalitarianism to preserve what remains of Scotland’s welfare state, as happened last autumn during a debate over higher education funding. When Johann Lamont signalled her support for the introduction of university tuition fees, she was merely bringing Scottish Labour’s position into line with majority opinion: a 2011 poll for the Scotsman showed that nearly two-thirds of Scots believed students should pay something towards their degrees. Yet, in the ensuing publicity battle Lamont was trounced by the SNP, which worked together with civil society organisations to defend the principle of free universal education, ostensibly on the grounds that course tariffs would be inconsistent with Scotland’sdistinctive tradition of "democratic intellectualism".

Devolution was meant to act as a constitutional adhesive, but so far it seems only to have strengthened the internal logic and momentum of Scottish political life: if Holyrood is capable of running the Scottish health system competently, why not the benefits system too? And if benefits, why not the economy? And if the economy, why not defence? The polls continue to suggest Scots will reject independence next year. But whatever the outcome of the referendum a substantial transfer of power from London to Edinburgh seems inevitable sometime in the near future.

Unionism’s crisis could be terminal. The only party - Labour – with any meaningful claim to ‘one nation’ status faces what is beginning to look like an insurmountable task - that of reconciling Scotland’s aspiration for more responsive government with electoral pressures at the British level. Ed Miliband has to persuade Scots that their values and interests match those of voters living in England’s increasingly parochial rural and suburban south. But they don’t. The UK may survive beyond 2014. As the gradualists in the SNP have long predicted, however, Britain’s constitutional structure will struggle to hold the strain indefinitely.

Nigel Farage is heckled by students outside the Canon’s Gait pub in Edinburgh.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.