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.