James Forsyth: Insurgents are remaking British politics

The big parties have no answer either to the SNP or to Ukip. The consequences could be dramatic

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

Next year will decide the fate of the United Kingdom. The Scottish independence referendum on the 18th of September could destroy the Union, and when we sit down to Christmas lunch in 2014, it could be to the background of independence negotiations. We may all be waiting to see what the Queen says about the end of the Union in her Christmas message.

Too much of England is still struggling to take the prospect seriously. The Scottish government’s independence white paper struggled to make it onto the front pages of the next day’s London papers. Why? Because there is an assumption — based on remarkably steady opinion polls — that the Scots will vote no. But among those most involved in the fight, there is a growing fear that the yes campaign’s money and simpler message could make this a remarkably close run thing.

If that weren’t enough national drama for one year, 2014 could also be the year in which a party advocating leaving the European Union wins the European elections in this country. This would not instantly change the nature of Britain’s relationship with the EU. But it would make it nigh-on-impossible for Ed Miliband to continue to oppose a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

This volatility in our normally placid politics has been caused by the emergence of new parties whose explicit aim is the upending of the established order. The Scottish National party and Ukip thrive on their otherness. They are not interested in joining a consensus or being lauded as responsible and respectable, they proudly stand apart from the other parties. They are cleverly capitalising on popular discontent with the established political order.

Both of these parties are nationalist — but at opposite ends of the political spectrum. The SNP is essentially a party of the left, part of its argument for independence is that a sovereign Scotland would be a more socially democratic country. Ukip, by contrast, is of the right. Its soul is stirred by the prospect of flat taxes, a strong national defence and a tough immigration policy. The SNP’s dream of an independent Scotland with free childcare, no nuclear submarines and increased immigration is Ukip’s idea of hell.

But both parties thrive off their cantankerous relationships with the other parties. They are the Millwalls of British politics — no one likes them and they don’t care.

Both the SNP and Ukip are led by men who are not part of the Westminster parliament but still have a national profile. Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have each worked out a distinct patois that lets them speak to people without sounding like just another politician. It should worry Westminster that the three politicians — Salmond, Farage and Boris Johnson — who have best worked out how to be heard in this anti-politics age don’t sit in the Commons.

These two insurgent movements strike fear into the UK’s three established parties. They don’t know whether to dismiss them as extremists, engage with their demands or just laugh at them. The Tories have tried all three when it comes to Ukip. But none of these strategies have slowed its rise. So, instead, the Tories have just settled on not talking about Ukip in the hope that this will deny them the oxygen of publicity.

One of the reasons why Ukip and the SNP have flourished is that the other parties have been too ready to allow them a monopoly on passion. In the run-up to the Scottish referendum, no one is making the emotional case for the United Kingdom. So, instead, the UK government and Better Together’s defence of the United Kingdom consists of a series of technocratic arguments. This reduces the Union to a fiscal arrangement, hardly the kind of thing that gets people excited.

It is easy to fall into a cultural cringe about the defence of the Union, to mock the flag-waving Tory Liam Fox, a Scot who sits for an English seat, for wanting ‘a march for the Union’ through Edinburgh of families that span the United Kingdom’s borders. This kind of demonstrative patriotism might not seem particularly British. But something does need to be done to remind the Scottish electorate that if they back independence, they are voting to turn the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish into foreigners.

Right at the start of this campaign, one SNP MP bragged to me that they would win by making independence look like what he called ‘independence-lite’ — not that different from ‘devo-max’. This is a strategy that acknowledges the emotional potency that arguments about the United Kingdom’s shared history, institutions and family bonds have. But the Unionist campaign is strangely reluctant to play this card.

The other flaw in this approach to saving the Union is that the nationalists come armed with their own numbers. The result is that rather than the clarity that the Better Together side craves there is a typical political scrap over figures, which is in danger of leaving the voters cold.

Ukip and the SNP have both succeeded in setting the agenda to such an extent that their respective goals are now in sight. David Cameron has promised the country an in/out vote on EU membership if he’s Prime Minister after the next election. While even if the nationalists lose the referendum in Scotland, they have already — just through holding it — extracted the promise of more powers for the Scottish parliament. Indeed, one very senior figure in the Unionist campaign believes that this will make the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements so asymmetrical that democratic legitimacy will demand a referendum in the rest of the United Kingdom to approve the deal.

The rise of these two insurgent parties highlights the smallness of our politics. They have succeeded because the political class has left room for them to flourish. The passionless politics of recent years has created an enthusiasm deficit that Salmond and Farage are busily trying to fill. What our politics so desperately needs is leaders who can offer a positive, optimistic vision for Britain that breaks out of the focus-grouped verbiage that so dominates Westminster politics. The national figure who can provide that will win a string of electoral prizes.

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  • Two Bob

    They are the Millwalls of British politics — no one likes them and they don’t care.

    Well someone likes them or they would not exist……

    • perdix

      I wouldn’t give Tuppence for Two Bob’s analysis. Totally hysterical and why uukip will never be a big party.

  • David Kay

    “The SNP’s dream of an independent Scotland with free childcare, no
    nuclear submarines and increased immigration is Ukip’s idea of hell.”

    You’re damn right it is. And the LibLabCon artists’ aren’t much better either

    Vote UKIP!!!!

    • Two Bob

      Maybe UKIP can do a deal with Scotland, they can have our excess population?

      • David Kay

        indeed. We can do a swap at Hadrian’s wall. They give us Douglas Murray and we’ll give them enough people to double their population. We could even throw George Galloway in for free

        • Shaun Walker

          hes going back regardless…..as is camertwat..bliar..and all the other parasites….and as for fergie…..he’ll be kicking and screaming being dragged to the station for the the one way special to shitland…

      • Zeus

        Scotland has no real race problems and it is not desirous of importing one, unlike England.

        • Eddie

          Yes that is true. I think 4% ethnic in Scotland and Wales?
          Despite much waffle by both about how supposedly openminded and liberal the populations of the Welsh and Scottish Labour heartlands are, I have always found the opposite to be the case.

          In fact, I have knows several Scots (and Welsh) in my working life who deliberately left those places and moved to southern England to get away from the small-minded, deep conservatism and bigotry (against anything new and different, against gay people and women, and of course always against anyone with an English accent). I also know those who have moved south from northern England for the same reasons.

          So this accusation that the English are ‘right wing’ (ie racist and bigoted) unlike the tolerant open-minded Scots is pure comedy. The Scots are quite good at comedy, like the northern English – well, they live in socialist cities so they have to laugh really…

          • Jambo25

            And my English born wife wouldn’t dream of going back to England which she finds to be a nasty, overcrowded hell hole. I like this game.

          • Shaun Walker


          • Jambo25

            I think you’ve just proved her point. Thanks.

  • D Whiggery

    “Too much of England is still struggling to take the prospect seriously. The Scottish government’s independence white paper struggled to make it onto the front pages of the next day’s London papers. Why?”

    Because no-one cares. They should, but they just don’t.

  • manonthebus

    Judging from the comments on various newspapers, there are many like me who think that the Scots will vote NO. They are too canny to take the risk IMHO. On the other hand there are a lot of Englishmen/women, it appears, who are hoping that the Scots will vote YES. Perhaps D Whiggery, below, is right that nobody in the rest of the UK really cares. Nobody knows the accurate figures for or against independence, but if the Scots vote YES it will almost be through voting from the heart rather than the brain. I believe that Alex Salmond merely wants Devo-Max. Independence would mean he would have nobody else to blame (although that wouldn’t stop him) when things go wrong, as they probably would.

    • Jambo25

      I’ll vote Yes from calculation on what the medium-long term prospects of an independent Scotland and rUK are, not on emotion.

      • Greig Craig

        I’ll vote yes because I believe we are a nation and nations should be governed from within by their own people, not, franchised out to a place in a another nation where 92% of the politicians have little or no interest in the other 8 %.

    • cremaster

      It’s fake “independence” anyway. We will still pay for all the Scottish welfare dependents, their health service and free uni education. And no doubt we will still have a cohort of parasite Scottish MP’s in Westminster.

      • Jambo25

        Of course you will. It’s all planned, you know. Each night the entire population of Scotland meets, in secret, to plan how to be nasty to the English next day. Oh what fun we have.

        • Shaun Walker

          you like the other scots have no bottle for independence…talk the talk…but cant walk the walk…..and thats another reason we english think you’re like women in your dresses….and you being a hearts fan…give up football and take up the scottish national sport…..TOSSING…..PMSL

          • Goldfish

            You’re one miserable gump

          • Jambo25

            Get medical help quickly.

      • Greig Craig

        yeah, like no one works or pays taxes in Scotland right? you moronic twat, It’s arrogant attitudes like yours that’s partially responsible for the current situation. If we are such a burden, why are all your politicians so desperate to hang on to us? Hoping for a resounding YES on September 18th.

  • perdix

    It’s not easy to be “positive” when most of the MSM is negative and scaremongering to sell papers. I suggest journalists try to run for parliament and see how they get on. It’s one thing to suggest strategies, another to get people to vote for them especially if you ask them to take the long view.

  • cremaster

    “David Cameron has promised the country an in/out vote on EU membership if he’s Prime Minister after the next election.”

    Whooo! We BELIEVE you, James! We KNOW what CamOron’s “promises” are worth!