Scottish viewers of Question Time, This Week and the local election results in England as they come in could be forgiven for thinking that they have walked into a strange parallel universe. From Starkey to Farage to the ‘rise of UKIP’ none of it makes any sense whatsoever in a Scottish context. There are so many questions that you could ask, but there are perhaps three in particular that can help take the discussion forward. What’s going on and how did it happen, why is Scotland different, and what should our response be?
Firstly, lets deal with where UKIP draw their support and in doing so avoid the far easier – and wrong – conclusion that says they are simply a bunch of cranks who have had too much media coverage
The reactionary poison that flows from UKIP has found a resonance with the increasingly embittered, divided English population. They reflect, as all such movements have done historically, a contradictory set of social forces. On the one hand they are a party that appeal to a middle class, driven into a frenzy as a result of the economic crisis. Their anger is focussed on the work-shy, the immigrant and on the European unions super state: all of whom are holding back the hardworking, pure of blood Brit who needs the help of no one to make its way in the world
Anti-EU has been the raison d’etre of Farage and UKIP, and has been the foundations of their rise. It’s classic Tory little Englandism that says we used to be an empire and now our sovereignty has been taken away by Brussels. The collapse of the Eurozone has opened up a space for this perspective to win votes.
Supporters are drawn to the disciplining social policy of the far right. UKIP pose to many as the ‘real Tories’, just look for example at gay marriage. with them feeding on the sense of what many Tories argue is an entrenchment of ‘anti-family’ values.
On the other hand, they appear to stand up for a common cause amongst working people in general. Farage on the lead up to the elections carried out public meetings all over England under the banner of ‘the common sense tour’. They wrap and intertwine the question of immigration with the corruption of not just the EU, but of the political elite in Westminister.
Things have gone so wrong, they say, that what is needed is a back to basics approach. Let’s clean up the streets, cap immigration, stand up to ‘socialist’ Europe and get Britain working. If that means saying unpopular things about labour rights, or maternity leave, then so be it. Remember, what’s important is that unlike the mainstream, they claim not to be concerned about sound bites alone. They are on your side, they are a reflection of a host of mixed up views about the world, fired by a popular support that is angry, sometimes confused and often driven by genuine reactionary tendencies.
So there is a social basis for the UKIP vote. There are three primary causes: the economic crisis, the corruption of formal politics and a general shift to the right in mainstream political discourse which is connected to the third way politics ushered in by New Labour. The crisis created the conditions for division over race and the frenzy of the middle class who themselves suffering the consequences of economic collapse.
The corruption in mainstream politics has added a double edge to this. People don’t trust Westminster, or politicians in general. This creates an opening for other forces to enter into the mainstream, especially if they find a way to articulate the sense of betrayal and suspicion many cast over the parliament and so on. And, this is all underwritten by the neoliberal consensus that was driven through by New Labour. It is not just a direct political assertion that Labour ‘sold out.’ More than that, neoliberalism has impacted society, has atomised it and has created a situation where the struggle for work becomes an intensified struggle against one another for limited and often precarious employment. The mass workplace doesn’t exist in the same way. Our communities have been disrupted, scattered or destroyed. Social bonds and solidarity are not as directly attainable now as they have been in the past. Our society is in decay, our economy is fatally flawed and the political core has shifted to the right. In such an environment, contenders can make gains.
In Scotland we face similar socio-economic issues. So why can we not imagine that UKIP would ever have anything near their result in the local elections up here? There are some extremely important reasons. To start, let’s just first of all say that there is nothing naturally more left wing about Scots than the English. To suggest that is to reject a material analysis of the differences in the conditions in each country.
Perhaps most obviously, there was an antidote (of sorts) to New Labour in Scotland: the SNP. This is crucial. In Westminster your only alternative to New Labour was something more right wing. And if you put your faith in the Lib Dems you were immediately sold out. In Scotland the political domain was prevented from moving to the the right in the same way, because the SNP spied that tacking to the left of Labour would achieve a better result electorally. They provided a clear alternative to the Iraq war, to trident and importantly, they deliberately set out an economic policy that included free prescriptions, free education and a commitment to, for example, the NHS
Further more, the corruption of power so easily capitalised on by UKIP is different in Scotland. Lots of people – pro independence or not – view Westminster politics as corrupt. From Iraq to expenses and so on. But the same cannot be said of the Scottish parliament. Poll after poll shows a high level of support for the SNP, but more than that, if you were to ask the simple question, who is more corrupt Westminster of the Scottish parliament, we can make an educated speculation that Westminster would top that particular poll.
Next is our relationship with nationalism. British nationalism of the type evoked by UKIP is simply not as fertile in Scotland. It is far more difficult to parade around in tweed trousers proclaiming the British way in Scotland than it is in certain areas of England. There is not widespread ‘passion’ for Britishness. Where there is a passion for Scottishness it is of a different order. Patriotism of all colouration can lead to regressive tendencies, but I would argue Scottish nationalism is different to British nationalism, and that in contemporary politics, it has progressive connotations whereas British nationalism has perhaps its most toxic for many decades. Look at it this way: saltires drape over Faslane protesters, its not true that a union jack would be so fitting. Scottish nationalism, is in a sense a form of displaced class consciousness. British nationalism is anything but, it is a rigidly oppressive and imperialist culture.
Lastly, the effects of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has created a divided economy between north and south in Britain. Finance capital has provided increased employment and improving living standards for some people in the south-east of England, but for the north and Scotland it has failed. Unlike in the industrial age, where jobs were spread across Britain, finance capital is very geographically concentrated and requires less labour, which is why unemployment has been permanently over 1million right through the 90’s and 00’s. This economic division is reflected politically with the north of the country predominantly social-democratic and the south predominantly Tory. The difference between Scotland and the north of England is that Scotland is a nation with its own parliament, whereas the north of England is tied politically through Westminster to the south of England. Labour have to go chasing votes in the south to beat the Tories, so ignore their base in the north, to an extent Cameron has to position himself to do the same visa-versa. In the process of both triangulating each other, UKIP have cleaned up the discontented in England, but in Scotland we have a political dynamic which is partially not trapped by the North-South division in England.
If we have at least some understanding of where UKIP comes from and why Scotland is different, what should our attitude be to the UKIP, dare I say it, ‘phenomenon’.
In part we will help those trapped in the spell of nationalism and reaction by breaking up the decaying British state. It is time for that period to end. And with it so to can many of the prejudices that have necessarily grown up around it. The British state needs its ‘prestige’ damaged, if its peoples are to flourish in harmony with themselves and the international community.
But more than breaking the old order we must propose independence as an opportunity to build another. This is certainly not a time for ‘gloating’ that UKIP would never happen in Scotland. It is not a time to abandon the progressive movements in England. It is far more a moment to consider that we must do everything possible to get out there and win independence. Along the way and beyond that we should extend our hands to our peers in England and show in practice that another way of running society, inclusively, democratically and collectively, is possible. The double blow of independence and of showing in practice what is possible, can confine UKIP and their like to museums and re-enactment societies where they belong.