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 Images.
Show Hide image

The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.