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

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.