He is the darling of the UK press. After a massive rise in support at the recent local elections in England, his party’s main policy – withdrawal from the European Union – has begun to set the political agenda, with even members of the Coalition Cabinet expressing sympathy and Conservative backbenchers straining for a referendum commitment. Yet when Nigel came north the extent to which the political cultures in Britain are drifting apart was laid bare. While we may share a bond of culture, the argument that we share a political bond looks increasingly desperate.
This afternoon, Nigel Farage launched UKIP’s campaign for the Aberdeen Donside by-election in, characteristically, a pub. Why they chose a pub on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile rather than in Aberdeen itself? Flights will take you 127 miles further north, Nigel. An emergency protest was called by the Radical Independence Campaign, who argued that UKIP are a racist party and unwelcome in Scotland. The protesters entered the Canons Gait pub and heckled Farage before he attempted to flee in a taxi. After the driver refused his fare, Farage returned to the pub, where he was barricaded in by police. The UKIP leader was then escorted from the scene in a police van at around 5.40pm.
This is not the first time in recent months that right-wing politicians have travelled north only to find a less than welcoming reception. At a time when benefit cuts are biting into household budgets, the disabled are being forced out of their homes thanks to the bedroom tax and many families are struggling to make ends meet, this comes as no surprise. A protester hit the headlines by branding Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, a ‘ratbag’ during a speech in Edinburgh. When David Cameron followed this visit by sailing up the Clyde on a nuclear submarine opposed by the majority of Scots, the ‘unsavoury cabal of queers, feminists and trolls’ A Thousand Flowers, couldn’t disguise their glee, declaring ‘More Tory Visits: Our Only Demand’.
Farage may not be a Tory, (he’s worse), but by the promises to hold a referendum on leaving Europe and anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from the Conservative leadership, you’d sometimes struggle to tell the difference. British politics is being dragged to the far-right by an MP-less Party whose support in Scotland is essentially non-existent, despite saturated media coverage. Visits like Farage’s today – and like Duncan Smith’s and Cameron’s before him – remind us how Disunited this Kingdom has become.
Why do UKIP receive such a visceral response in Scotland? It isn’t only their obliviousness to Scotland’s culture; it’s also their policies. Scotland, following devolution, has changed for the better. The parliament in Holyrood has become our most significant and most trusted political institution. In this context, UKIP’s policy to abolish Holyrood’s members and downsize devolution is as bizarre as it is unpopular. Their dismal failure in the Scottish 2011 election – receiving a miserable 0.13% on the constituency vote and less that 1% on the list vote – came as no surprise. We do not expect that the voters in Aberdeen Donside will follow the pattern of the English local elections and move towards UKIP.
Of course UKIP’s irrelevance in Scotland is also built upon deeper ideological grounds. If there is any perfect heir to Thatcher it is Nigel Farage. Anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-state and British nationalist: in a nutshell that is the problem with UKIP in Scotland. Immigration, the number one issue for UKIP voters, is contentious in the densely populated parts of England. It’s difficult to forget Gordon Brown’s attempt to placate this sentiment with his “British jobs for British workers” slogan. It is this political agenda that UKIP manipulate: criticising the ‘benefits’ of migrants, whilst decrying the employment of migrants and blaming them for crime. In Scotland – without the same experience of immigration or the politicians willing to attack immigrant communities – the same rhetoric does not gain credence.
UKIP’s recent hostility to equal marriage for gay people also isolates them from the Scottish political class. The Scottish Parliament has two LGBT party leaders; and the Conservative party, to their credit, have moved beyond the bygone days of bigotry and homophobia for electoral kicks.
UKIP are culturally regressive; yet behind the mask of culture wars and the dream of a green and pleasant land, they are right-wing ideologues. UKIP call for far greater cuts to public spending and propose to put 2 million public sector workers on the dole. It’s no surprise that in Scotland – where elections continue to return a social democratic consensus – UKIP are rejected at every opportunity.
Finally, it is UKIP’s identity politics which leaves a sour taste to Scottish voters. For Farage and UKIP, sovereignty lies in Westminster and any threat to this from the European continent must be resisted. Yet Scotland’s conception of identity, of sovereignty and of Europe is different. As Tom Devine wrote in The Scottish Nation, we are a mongrel nation with a distinct European history. In Scotland it is the people that are sovereign. It is unrepresentative Westminster governments that pose a threat to that claim of right. In this context, it is no surprise that Scottish and English voters have contrasting views of the European Union. Ipsos MORI found Scots’ support for membership to be 23% higher overall in comparison with English polling.
UKIP, within this divided political culture, are a huge liability to the No campaign. That is why ‘Better Together’ have refused to alloy UKIP to formally join their campaign, saying they were “not a Scottish party”.
There are those, even those strongly opposed to UKIP, who feel that today’s protest was not the way to deal with political opponents. That’s a perfectly legitimate point of view. For all of Farage’s right-wing posturing, after all, he seems more of an absurd public figure in Scotland than a serious threat. But UKIP’s absurdity is not recognised by the British media and political class who are increasingly treating Farage as a serious and important political force. Part of the necessity of independence is due to the erosion of a sense of political union. The views of the Conservatives and UKIP are alien to the majority of Scottish voters, and yet it is this agenda which shapes the country we live in.
We have long made the argument before that the independence referendum is not a choice between change and the status quo, but about a choice between two divergent futures: a fork in the road. Do you want to be a part of Farage’s Britain?
Picture via @Mschatnoir