UKIP is reaping what the Tories have sown

Alyn responds to UKIP's gains in English local elections.

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Published by scotspolitics.com on 7th May 2013.

The best analysis of the UKIP results I’ve seen was the quip that their newly elected councillors will struggle when they realise they can’t blame Europe for bins not being emptied, writes Alyn Smith. Everything else has been a little overexcited and a bit of perspective is needed. But that is not to dismiss their impact, which is way beyond their actual numerical strength.

By way of perspective, UKIP won 147 council seats in the English local elections on Thursday, but the coalition parties lost 459 between them and still won 1468, ten times UKIP’s haul. More interestingly, UKIP also came second in the South Shields Westminster by-election caused by David Miliband abandoning UK politics, with Labour holding the seat.

It was, by any measure, a good night for UKIP. But little wonder. They are an anti establishment party at a time when the UK economy is tanking and the UK establishment on all sides of the Palace by the Thames looks uninspiring and uninspired. Westminster looks out of touch in England too.

UKIP were built up by the media, especially the BBC, with coverage way beyond anything their numbers merited. But the BBC has recognised a crucial thing – their leader, Nigel Farage, is, as I’ve said to his face, world class at what he does. He makes good telly, and has been making waves for months. There is a ready market for UKIP’s snake oil.

Less so in Scotland, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. That’s not to say I’m complacent, but we have a greater plurality of options in Scotland’s parties, our attitude to the wider world, and crucially, immigration, is sufficiently different to deny them much traction. Plus, when pressed UKIP will talk a good game but we’re simply not their target market- never mind the EU, they remain opposed to Holyrood’s existence, a policy unlikely to attract support on our side of our only land border.

But Thursday remains their best result ever, and their rise has an impact on UK government policy and so long as we remain in the UK it’s our global representative too. They are expanding into an ideological vacuum that was positively and actively created by our Westminster government, over attitudes to the EU in particular but also to immigration and human rights. The Tories, really, truly, just don’t get the EU, and in the same way as it did for Margaret Thatcher, then John Major, it promises to do the same to David Cameron and with him his hapless coalition partners.

The biggest boosts UKIP has received in recent years have been gifts from the Tories. The Prime Minister promised a referendum on UK relations with the EU, at some point after an election he has not won, on a treaty renegotiation he has not secured, over problems with the status quo he has neither identified nor articulated. This was supposed to be some red meat to throw to the euro sceptics, but it only fed the beast, as well as losing friends and influence in Brussels. Likewise, UK government ministers just this week flirted publicly with the notion of suspending UK membership of the European Convention of Human Rights, ostensibly over the case of one individual, provoking blank incredulity in Brussels and member state capitals across Europe. That our government can even float such a boneheaded notion should terrify any thoughtful person.

UKIP is the end result of a brilliantly self fulfilling flaw in the UK establishment’s attitude to the EU. For decades we’ve had a grudging, reluctant attitude, coupled with a cottage industry in daft anti EU stories. Remember the EU wants to ban bagpipes? Mince? Irn Bru? All stories that have been put about in recent years by people who are only now realising what they’ve created. None of them came to anything of course but left an accumulated toxic residue in the minds of the public that the EU’s just a bit rubbish. Also, too often domestic politicians still talk about ‘going to Europe’ when, surely, we’re already there, or present EU laws not as a common endeavour we agreed with our friends and neighbours but bothersome hassle emanating from another place.

So UKIP is reaping what the Tories have sown. And Thursday wasn’t even ‘their’ election. But the European elections in May next year are their big issue. They’ll have wall to wall coverage in the UK media, and I predicted long since they’ll win in England because yes, given their numbers they will be subject to a greater degree of scrutiny, but when it comes to the European election Nigel Farage will hardly be off our screens.

There are two countries here, taking two increasingly divergent attitudes to how we should best interact with the wider world. Each nation has the right to make its own choice of course, and I look forward to Scotland making ours in September 2014, where we can choose to set our own priorities and represent ourselves to the wider world, or decide to let others continue to speak for us. I think we could do better.