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Alex Salmond's success is just a symptom of our age of rage

Across Europe, populist anti-politics has gone from being a novelty to knocking on the doors of power

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

In his short and infrequent visits to Scotland this year, the Prime Minister should have found time to speak to those supporting the ‘yes’ campaign. He would have seen and heard precisely the same complaints and exasperation that are driving his other great foe, Ukip.

For years, politicians have laughed about voters who are ‘mad as hell, and not going to take it any more’. That joke is no longer funny. People have derided, lamented or lampooned the death of the Tory party’s grass roots. But the independence debate revealed that in Scotland the Labour party has suffered the same fate. The Better Together campaign against Scottish independence was meant to be largely powered by Labour party operatives. But the closer it came to the vote, the clearer it became that the Labour party did not have any troops to call out.

The ‘yes’ activists in Scotland and Ukip supporters in England both have a point. The Westminster system is broken, because it has been taken over by professional politicians who focus on their opposite numbers rather than on the people they’re supposed to represent. That this led to mass apathy and resentment did not trouble them at first: to a professional politician, those who don’t vote might as well not exist. But now the abstainers have found new champions in the insurgent parties. People are turning up to vote for the first time in years. A grumble has grown into a war cry, as we saw in Scotland.

It’s happening abroad, too. As Johan Norberg says on page 16, the populist Sweden Democrats were the real winners of that country’s general election last weekend. They have emerged as the third force in Swedish politics. Similar stories can be seen across the continent. Polls in France show that the Front National’s Marine Le Pen would be president if an election was held there tomorrow. In Italy, the anarchist comedian Beppe Grillo gained 25 per cent of the vote last year. Everywhere in Europe the political class is working to a late-1990s playbook: the leading parties copy each other, avoid difficult issues and end up losing the distinctive features that made them popular in the first place.

Voters want parties to be different, and principled. The PR men think otherwise. If the teaching unions don’t like Michael Gove, then the Conservative party gets rid of him and ‘neutralises’ the issue. Voters are worried about the NHS, so the government pledges not to seek any savings in the health budget and ‘neutralises’ that too. Such tactics worked for Tony Blair and other social democratic leaders in the 1990s. But the public has changed. They no longer believe that the system is working for them. There may be a recovery but wages remain stagnant. Real issues remain unaddressed.

Scotland’s ‘yes’ campaign was in part driven by angry people who felt that they had nothing to lose — and it’s the same elsewhere. In the unlikely event that he gets up the courage to campaign in Clacton, in the by-election against his former colleague Douglas Carswell who has defected to Ukip, David Cameron would see how prevalent that rage is. These voters are the ‘scorned and the scunnered’, as James Forsyth put it last week: the dispossessed and those who never had anything to begin with.

Cameron has spent his time playing political chess with Labour, and accommodating the sensitivities of Liberal Democrats, when he should have been worried about bigger shifts within the British electorate. Only recently, insurgent politicians such as Salmond, Le Pen and Grillo were seen as novelties — the type who do well in Euro elections and can then be forgotten about for four years. Now these anti-establishment politicians (however risible the entitlement of some of them to that claim actually is) are knocking on the door of power and sometimes breaking through it.

It is crucial to recognise that the current ‘anti-politics’ mood is not an anomaly or a cry of pain. It is the start of a new political order, one in which people want bold ideas to get out of what they see as a political and societal morass. The ‘yes’ phenomenon should be seen as part of this wider movement. In Scotland, Cameron noticed the speed of the shift far too late and was left unable to preserve the status quo. He ended up having almost to offer home rule in desperation and, worse, his old enemy Gordon Brown had to offer it for him.

There are seven more months until the UK general election. In that time Cameron needs to stand for something different. It is funny how a man so obsessed with modernity cannot bring himself to recognise the latest trends in politics, even when they slap him in the face. The voters want bold, not emasculated, politics. And that is one of the many lessons that Cameron should bring back from Scotland.

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