The coming of Nigel: Farage arrives for a Ukip public meeting in Basingstoke. Photo: Getty
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Leader: the SNP, Ukip and our disunited kingdom

Seventeen years after the coming of New Labour, Britain’s two unions have never seemed less secure.

When New Labour entered power in 1997, two of its defining ambitions were to secure the Union between England and Scotland and to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”. It sought to achieve the former through devolution (which the cabinet minister George Robertson predicted would “kill nationalism stone dead”) and the rebuilding of the public realm and the latter by convincing voters of the necessity of European integration in an era of globalisation.

Seventeen years later, Britain’s two unions have never appeared less secure. In Scotland, ahead of the independence referendum on 18 September, support for secession is growing, especially among working-class Scots, with some opinion polls putting the No campaign ahead by as few as 6 points. Far from killing nationalism stone dead, devolution has reinvigorated it. Meanwhile, the UK Independence Party, whose founding aim is the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, is on course to finish second or even first in May’s European parliamentary elections. Rather than whether to be at the heart of the EU or to be on its periphery, the debate is now whether to be in it at all. A party of English nationalism with no Westminster MPs and a party with six, the Scottish National Party, have exposed the divisions in our disunited kingdom.

The surge in support for Scottish independence and for Ukip reflects a profound disillusionment with the status quo. Never in recent history have the three main Westminster parties been more reviled or less trusted. It is the belief that they are either unwilling or unable to make a difference that has led voters to look to the insurgents of Ukip and the SNP, or to turn away from voting altogether. Both parties draw their support from what one could call the losers of globalisation: poorer voters whose living standards have been continually eroded and who regard open markets and open borders not as an opportunity but as a threat.

In his report from Cliftonville, a Ukip stronghold, starting on page 26, our political editor, Rafael Behr, notes that while Ukip continues to attract more former Tories than anyone else, “Farage’s popularity is a symptom of something more potent. Little England is the retreat of the besieged; Ukip is animating a spirit of resistance.”

It is for this reason that David Cameron’s attempt to buy off the party’s supporters by promising a referendum on EU membership in 2017 and even tougher restrictions on immigration has proved so unsuccessful. Such gestures fail to address the long-term causes of their alienation. Anxiety over immigration can be a proxy for concern over housing, jobs and wages.

However, the Conservatives’ unrelenting support for austerity over investment has exacerbated this problem. Instead of boosting supply through a mass housebuilding programme, the Tories have chosen to inflate demand through the Help to Buy scheme.

The response of the mainstream parties to Scottish nationalism has been similarly ineffective. Rather than making the positive case for the Union, Better Together has run a negative campaign characterised by dry and technocratic attacks on the SNP over the currency, North Sea oil and EU membership. In so doing, it has only enhanced its opponents’ appeal as an optimistic, anti-establishment force. If the No campaign is to avoid defeat in September, it must respond to the clear and consistent desire in Scotland for greater autonomy by outlining concrete cross-party proposals for further devolution. Only a reconfigured Union – one that covers the need to address the English question – will settle the constitutional tremors.

Ukip and the SNP are symptoms of a multinational state that is ever more divided. The uneven and unbalanced economic recovery is widening the disparities between north and south, rich and poor, entrenching the impression that the inhabitants of Westminster occupy an alternate reality. Just as the “boom” was meaningless to those whose living standards stagnated, so the “recovery” is, too.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here