Activists demonstrate as Nigel Farage visits during European election campaigning on May 9, 2014 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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 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.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder