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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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