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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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