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Why can't Ukip crack Scotland?

It's not anti-immigrant populism Scots are immune to, it's English nationalism.

It's not anti-immigrant populism Scots are immune to, it's English nationalism.
Activists demonstrate as Nigel Farage visits during European election campaigning on May 9, 2014 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

It’s not inconceivable that Ukip will win one of six Scottish seats at the European elections tomorrow, but it is pretty unlikely. Nigel Farage reckons his party needs 12 or 13 per cent of the vote to secure, for the first time, an MEP north of the border. Polls suggest Ukip currently has the backing of around ten per cent of the Scottish electorate.

But even if Farage manages to upset the odds and get his lead Scottish candidate, David Coburn, elected, he will do so with just a fraction of the support Ukip looks set to secure across the rest of the UK. One MEP and a string of lost deposits hardly amount to a Caledonian "breakthrough", much less the political "earthquake" the Ukip leader is predicting.

So why can’t Farage crack Scotland? Contrary to what some believe, Scots are not naturally immune to anti-immigrant populism, nor are they as enthusiastically pro-European as their two dominant parties, Labour and the SNP, make them appear. (Although research confirms euroscepticism is less widespread in Scotland than it is in England.)

One theory is that Ukip and the SNP draw on "similar reserves of anti-politics and anti-Westminster sentiment"; that the SNP’s success limits the space Ukip has to expand north of Carlisle. But this doesn’t explain why other parties with more radical agendas, such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru, have failed to capitalise on the collapse of Westminster authority in recent years. It also exaggerates the SNP’s "anti-political" credentials. On most social and economic issues, the party barely deviates from Westminster orthodoxy, while its "separatism" is mitigated by a commitment to retain various British institutions, including the pound and the monarchy, after independence.

A more convincing explanation, in my view, is that Ukip's rise is linked to the growth of English nationalism over the last decade. In 2013, the IPPR published a report charting the emergence of an increasingly assertive sense of English national identity. The report showed that, in the years since the Scottish Parliament was created, growing numbers of English people have described themselves as English first and British second. Crucially, the more "English" respondents to the IPPR’s survey felt, the more likely they were to say Scotland received a greater share of public spending than it deserved or that the UK’s current constitutional set-up didn’t serve English majority interests.

Attitudes towards Europe split along similar lines. Respondents who described themselves as exclusively English, or as more English than British, were more hostile to the EU than respondents who described themselves as primarily British. The IPPR concluded that the main beneficiary of this surge in English nationalism had been Ukip, whose increased support "reflects English discontent with the political status-quo - and not just with 'Europe.'" 

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most Scots won’t vote for an English nationalist party, particularly one whose supporters believe Scottish public services are subsidised by English taxpayers. In this respect, Ukip's problem with Scottish voters mirrors that of the Tories’: it is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as overwhelmingly southern and right-wing. (Ukip politicians even share the Tories’ habit of making outlandish statements about Scotland - earlier this year, Misty Thackeray, Ukip's former Scottish chairman, claimed Glasgow City Council was full of "gays, Catholics and Communists".)

The party faces other difficulties. It is disorganised, its membership is threadbare and its candidates are frequently eccentric. (David Coburn has accused Alex Salmond of planning to "fill the Highlands with Pashtun warriors and ex-Afghan warlords".) But these are relatively minor issues that can be resolved over time. The broader, structural challenge, on the other hand, will be much harder to deal with: unless Ukip can break with its English nationalist roots and develop a more distinctive Scottish identity (and there’s no reason why it should), it will never find lasting support among Scots.

Both sides in the referendum debate have a lot riding on the outcome of the European elections. If Ukip scrapes a Scottish seat, unionists will argue that the Scots and the English have more in common than nationalists like to pretend. If, as looks more likely, it is rejected by Scottish voters again, nationalist will say Scotland and England are on separate political trajectories. Either way, Ukip's current status in Scottish politics far outstrips its actual popularity.