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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496