How significant is UKIP’s Clacton success?

(Originally published on The Evans Review 25/10/14)

On the 9th of October, UKIP won its first seat in the House of Commons as Douglas Carswell swept to victory in the Clacton by-election. Like it or lump it, this changes everything and the Westminster establishment must wake up to the very real threat posed by Nigel Farage’s leadership.

UKIP-logoOne seat in parliament may seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things but it matters a great deal to UKIP. They now have the chance to quiz David Cameron in the weekly Prime Minister’s questions, instigate debates and table amendments in parliament. The party will also get access to state funding. MPs are paid by the state to run offices and staff while political parties with a proven electoral record are due more funds than those without. Carswell’s victory in Clacton is therefore a political and financial coup for UKIP.

Electoral success has given UKIP a platform within the inner sanctums of British politics. It has provided an opportunity to challenge the three main parties and accrue some much-needed funds. Perhaps more importantly, the party has moved into the political mainstream. The idea that a UKIP vote is a wasted protest vote has been one of the biggest challenges to the success of the party. David Cameron’s jibe that Tory voters tempted to vote UKIP might risk ‘going to bed with Nigel Farage and waking up with Ed Miliband’ is certainly punchy. It could still prove to be savvy electioneering on the part of the Prime Minister but Farage now has a concrete example of a constituency where the party’s voters have got what they voted for.

UKIP+Leader+Nigel+Farage+Visits+Eastleigh+G7p9oGmdg2TlNigel Farage has even been invited to take part in a TV debate alongside the three main party leaders ahead of next year’s general election. Amid criticism of the proposals from The Green Party, broadcasters explained that UKIP’s inclusion was due to ‘changes in the political landscape’ since the last televised debates. This is a fair point but the omission of The Green Party does seem unfair considering they have occupied a seat in Westminster for over four years rather than just a few weeks. This level of inconsistency is, unfortunately, something to be expected in the modern political climate but UKIP’s inclusion does highlight how much ground has been gained. Farage has rattled the right cages at the right time.

A lot of UKIP’s success recently has come as a result of its alternative image. Nigel Farage has very deliberately portrayed himself as a Westminster outsider, brilliantly playing on the public disillusionment towards the three main parties. With electoral success this position immediately becomes harder to maintain. Every step UKIP takes towards the political mainstream is a step away from its status as the insurgent outsider. Additionally, UKIP is now big enough to become divided. The potential for disagreement over policy between Douglas Carswell as a local MP and his nationally minded party is huge and could undermine the leadership.

Nevertheless, the Clacton result is immensely significant. It is an opportunity for the party to portray itself as a legitimate alternative to the mainstream, not a protest vote but a genuine contender in the struggle for political power. The result is also a continuation of the momentum gained after their European election successes earlier in the year. With the Rochester and Strood by-election looming and another Tory defector, Mark Reckless, standing for UKIP, the party could have two MPs before next year’s election. Political momentum is hugely important at this stage in the electoral cycle and no-one can deny that, right now, UKIP has it.

How democratic is the United States?

The United States portrays itself as a beacon of democratic purity, a forward-thinking model of perfection to be mimicked and, if necessary, exported around the world. This has become so engrained in western culture that we no longer think to question its legitimacy. There is just one problem: American democracy is far from perfect.

Simon Schama, the popular historian, recently tweeted his view:

This is certainly one of the more densely packed 140 characters you’re likely to see, but Schama’s point is a good one. After the wars of independence, the newly formed United States was the antithesis of everything British. It was a republic, it was secular and it detested colonialism. Their democracy was the envy of the world and the US Constitution is undoubtedly one of the most important documents ever written.

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The Supreme Court

The Constitution outlines the national framework of government and, above all else, defends the individual freedoms of the American people. In practice, however, it is not so clear cut as the power of interpretation is granted to the Supreme Court. This is necessary with a constantly changing political landscape but it has also allowed the current political establishment to veer from the original intentions of the Founding Fathers.

The 2010 US Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case effectively means that corporations are treated as people by US law. It lifted all restrictions on donations to political parties and fundamentally left the balance of power with the rich. This is what Schama means by ‘democracy of the chequebook’: Washington is rife with lobby groups acting on behalf of corporations, side-lining the politics of the people. In any democracy there will be conspiracy theories but the potential for corporate gain taking priority over the public’s interest is greater in the United States than in any other western democracy.

The ‘Move to Amend’ campaign rejects the Citizens United ruling. Their aim is to establish that: “money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.” This debate raises serious doubts over the legitimacy of American democracy. It leads you to wonder whether political power can be bought and if the political agenda can be changed by those with a bigger chequebook. It is a frightening thought that a country with such diplomatic and military power could have such fragile democratic foundations.

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President Obama during his inauguration ceremony

The Founding Fathers separated church and state powers and thereby established a truly secular system. Again, in contrast to their British counterparts. In Britain, the Queen is head of state and head of the church meaning that, constitutionally speaking, the two institutions are intimately linked. Yet, in practice, they are not. Even the most adamant British atheist would agree that religion plays a much smaller role in our political system than in the United States. It is an irony of modern times that, despite the enshrined separation of church and state power in US politics, religion is of the utmost importance.

There is only one openly atheist member of the United States Congress. Considering the combined total of the Senate and the House of Representatives surpasses 500, this is almost a statistical impossibility. The truth is simple: a declared atheist stands little chance of election in the US. Even the Presidents declare ‘so help me God’ during their inauguration ceremonies. Religion is everywhere. Thomas Jefferson, the revolutionary hero, would be appalled at the authority of the Church in modern day America. Another irony, Jefferson, the man who placed such importance on a secular society, is a hero of the tea-party movement, a group with the religious right at its very core.

filepicker-GxgiR53AQdSux1El9YNJ_132nra-949x1024.jpgThe oligarchy that Schama refers to is thus the American political establishment. It is a group balancing the interests of powerful corporations, the religious right and, if they have time, their people. Often you are gripped with the impression that President Obama has his hands tied due to the strength of big-business and powerful lobby groups. Just look how hard the Democrats had to fight for their healthcare reform bill and, even then, the final bill was an extremely watered-down version of the original plan. More upsetting is the impossibility of bringing reform to US gun laws. Despite the heart-breaking and frequent stories of school shootings, the NRA gun lobby is far too powerful for anything to be changed. In a nutshell, American politics is a mess.

Schama’s comparison of today’s America with eighteenth century Britain no longer seems so absurd. The enshrined values of the Constitution could be mirrored the world over. However, the problem with the current US political system is the difference between theory and practice. In this case, theory is perfection, practice is far from it.

Despite appearing final, Scotland’s ‘no’ vote poses more questions than answers.

The Scottish referendum saw a level of political participation unrivalled in recent years. The population was energised not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom and it has sparked an unanticipated constitutional debate.

The West Lothian question asks why English MP’s should tolerate Scottish MP’s voting on English issues while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland. It is a historic questiunionflagon that dates back to the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 when William Gladstone argued:

“If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.”

The same logic was not applied to Scotland and, in a constitutional sense, England has been under-represented ever since the devolution bills of 1997. The West Lothian question is no longer a question, it is an ignored reality. In the wake of a referendum deciding Scotland’s future, attention has shifted towards England.

There is one fundamental problem. The West Lothian question is easy to ask but it is another matter entirely to answer it. A separate English parliament seems unlikely due to the additional cost and bureaucracy yet change, it seems, is on its way and so is heated debate. The three main parties are already bickering about reform despite weeks of apparent unity during the referendum campaign.

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Federalism is one option. We could devolve powers to regional assemblies to vote on local issues, thereby answering the West Lothian question. The electorate could also vote for MPs to sit in the Westminster parliament in the same way that the Scottish are represented by MSPs and MPs. There are many options and the preferred system can be debated and perfected with time. The fact that we are having this debate at all is the important thing.

Alex Salmond, despite his obvious disappointment, gracefully accepted Scotland’s decision to reject independence. He is a divisive figure and will continue to be so as he looks to hold Westminster to its promises. However, as Tony Blair once said: “when you decide you divide and that’s just the way of it.” Salmond decided. It wouldn’t be surprising if he goes down in history for engineering more change than even he suspects.

The Scottish referendum campaign has prompted the British electorate to ask questions that have long been ignored. Constitutional change is overdue but it is on its way and in this climate of reform perhaps we can finally review the state of The House of Lords too. Whatever the outcome, it is wonderful to see these questions finally being raised and fascinating to anticipate the results. We are on the cusp of witnessing historic change. Thank you Alex Salmond, thank you Scotland.

Some thoughts ahead of the referendum deciding Scotland’s future.

On Thursday 18th September 2014, the people of Scotland will be asked “should Scotland be an independent country?” The result of this referendum will not only decide Scotland’s future relationship with the United Kingdom but it will also have a resounding impact on the European Union. Pardon the cliché but we are witnessing history in the making and it would be unwise to dismiss the Scottish debate for anything less than that.

So far the independence debate has been passionately contested on both sides and there is no doubt that the Scottish electorate has been energised by the campaign. Estimates suggest that turnout could be as high as 80% which would be a truly remarkable level of participation compared to recent election statistics. As an Englishman, I am reduced to the role of interested observer and rightly so, it is not for the English to decide whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. However, part of me cannot help but dread September 18th simply because I do not want to see a successful yes vote.

England and Scotland are old enemies. We are nations divided by Hadrian’s Wall after the Roman conquests. We have lived through centuries of bitter warfare and rivalry while horrendous atrocities have been committed on both sides. However, the Acts of Union of 1707 can arguably be labelled the most spectacular peace treaties ever written. The Jacobite threat was undoubtedly significant but ultimately the union paved the way to a strong and wealthy nation. The newly formed United Kingdom was at the forefront of global commerce, scientific innovation and intellectual thought. Edinburgh, like Athens and Rome before it, was considered the global capital of intellectual thinking. Adam Smith and David Hume were both a part of the Scottish Enlightenment and are both studied today by economists and moral philosophers. At the height of empire, many English publications even joked of the Scots taking control of the world due to the disproportionately high number of Scots in the East India Company. There is no doubt that Britain as we see it today has a very Scottish stamp on it. The United Kingdom was and is an efficient working partnership that has not only bread friendship but untold success. In my view, the fact that England and Scotland were able to put aside old grievances for the benefit of the future was a fantastic achievement. I appreciate that this may be a very Anglo-centric opinion but as an Englishman I am immensely proud of the Acts of Union and would be deeply saddened to see them effectively nullified in the event of a yes vote. To vote yes would not only undermine the magnificence of the Acts of Union but it would be an unnecessary return to blind, old-fashioned nationalism.

According to recent opinion polls, it appears that the independence referendum will be a very closely fought contest. This, in my view, is due to the failure of the “better together” campaign to appear in any way optimistic of Scotland’s future prosperity with or without the United Kingdom. Rather than stressing the benefits of Scotland remaining part of the UK, their emphasis appears to have been almost entirely based on what might go wrong in an independent Scotland. In the televised debates Alistair Darling attempted to discredit Alex Salmond and the yes campaign by highlighting the flaws in their proposals for independence. Darling was especially keen to impress upon the audience that an independent Scotland would be economically weak due to the uncertainty surrounding the newly independent state’s usage of the pound. Despite the fact that this is a sound argument in many respects, what Darling didn’t realise is that it isn’t remotely inspiring for prospective voters. The activists campaigning on behalf of the no campaign have come across as deeply conservative “nay sayers” while those campaigning for a yes vote come across as progressives looking to take Scotland forward. The yes campaign, for their part, have capitalised and campaigned admirably for their cause. Alex Salmond has invoked the spirit of Robert the Bruce very effectively and used circumstance to his advantage. One very impressive element of their campaign was to link the “better together” campaign with the Conservative Party. The impact of this is particularly telling when we consider that the “better together” campaign is actively supported by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. More importantly, the Conservatives are unashamedly loathed throughout much of Scotland and their perceived link with the no campaign could shift swing voters to back the yes campaign. In essence, the “better together” campaign has blindly played directly into the hands of the SNP in a master-class of political ineptitude. 

As an Englishman I sincerely hope that Scotland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom. I feel that the union is something we should be proud of and to see it nullified would not only be a great shame but also, in my opinion, a mistake. Unfortunately I cannot help but feel that those campaigning for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom have not only underestimated the importance of their task but also failed to effectively articulate their argument. We should all be waiting for the result with baited breath and I for one will be hoping to wake up on Friday 19th September safe in the knowledge that the Scots remain part of this United Kingdom. Only time will tell.

Is the British relationship with the United States really so “special”?

In Britain today, we are constantly reminded of the special relationship that unites politicians in London and Washington. Yet, on wider consideration, it appears to be an exaggerated myth put together by British diplomats rather than a fully-fledged transatlantic alliance. This is particularly apparent when we consider that the special relationship is relatively unheard of on the other side of the Atlantic.

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The history of the two nations is dominated far more by volatile rivalry than the sentimental “shoulder to shoulder” alliance we are told to believe in today. The original thirteen colonies on today’s eastern seaboard declared independence from the British Empire in 1776 and years of bitter conflict between Britain and the newly formed United States followed. Many would argue, particularly in Britain, that this is ancient history. However, the legacy of rivalry with the British as their former colonial rulers endures even today in the United States as it is taught in schools. The national anthem of the United States, The Star-Spangled Banner, describes a British bombardment of Baltimore in 1813 and a lesser known verse actually uses the words “their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

The Second World War is arguably a shining light in the history of the special relationship as the Allies eventually overcame the might of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. However, American suspicion of British attempts to gain assistance in the fight against fascism tells a different story. The America First movement, supported by future presidents John F Kennedy and Gerald Ford, was immensely popular and claimed that European Wars were none of their concern. After Blitzkrieg had obliterated Western Europe, Britain was left alone in the fight against Hitler. Yet, desperate requests for support were met by cold indifference from Britain’s North Atlantic ally. What followed was the transfer of the British Empire’s entire life savings to North America in a series of secret and desperate convoys. The British gave away state secrets, scientific innovation and, of course, vast sums of money to entice the reluctant Americans into fighting fascism. Churchill raged privately that Roosevelt was acting like a bailiff seizing the goods of a bankrupt, made worse by the fact that this was a time of war. By 1940 prices, estimates suggest that £500,000,000 went to the USA prior to 1942 (an immense sum when we consider inflation) and the exchange completely changed the balance of global wealth and authority, making the United States a superpower in the process. In many respects the United States crippled the British economy in exchange for military support and even then, in December 1941 it was Hitler who declared war on the United States, not the other way round.

After the war, this unsentimentality continued as Britain was shut out of the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, a conference that has shaped the global economic system as we know it. Britain’s representative was legendary economist John Maynard Keynes and it is staggering that a man of that stature and intellect had no say in the rebuilding of the post-war global economy. During the Suez crisis of 1956, Britain and the United States came extremely close to open conflict. America’s sixth fleet stalked the Royal Navy and President Eisenhower discussed the possibility of “being ready to shoot” at the British fleet amongst his closest White House advisers. Underhand suspicion has continued throughout the 20th and 21st century. Another more recent example is in 1994 when President Clinton granted Gerry Adams a visa to the United States, effectively handing him the respectability to move into mainstream politics. This was at a time when the IRA posed a genuine threat to British security. Adams was leader of Sinn Fein, an alleged terrorist and at the very least a vocal critic of the United Kingdom. Can you imagine the fallout if the British government granted a visa to an individual on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list?

In reality there is no special relationship between Britain and the United States. This piece has not by any means attempted to portray the two nations as enemies, merely point out the several occasions where there has been genuine conflict. Conflict has occurred politically, economically and sometimes militarily far more recently than is widely recognized. The War on Terror in the early 21st century arguably brought the two nations closer together, particularly considering the close relationship between Tony Blair and George W Bush. Yet, in times of warfare this is necessary and cannot be cited as a sign of a transatlantic alliance. The more distant and often frosty relationship between current President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron is far more normal than the bond between Bush and Blair. In truth, the term “special relationship” is used as a political tool, used far more in London than Washington as a vain form of legitimising British foreign policy. The United States relationship with Britain is no more “special” than with France, Germany or Spain and we, as Britons, should not be so naïve as to think that we stand on a higher pedestal. 

Why is Morrissey such a divisive figure?

To say that Steven Patrick Morrissey is a divisive figure is a colossal understatement. The “marmite analogy” is brandished around too regularly in my view but it is certainly appropriate with Morrissey. Morrissey has enjoyed a glittering career and notable success in the music industry, firstly with the Smiths and later with his solo work. He has been a solo artist for twenty-six years and spent five years (1982-1987) with the Smiths. In this time he has achieved eleven Top 10 albums plus a further nine with The Smiths. On the surface then, Morrissey is a legend of the music industry and one would expect to see him uttered in the same breath as legendary figures like David Bowie. Indeed he is by his fans, if anything Morrissey has his own pedestal and enjoys hero-worship worldwide that would be the envy of most of his peers. In 2006, Morrissey was voted the second greatest living British icon by viewers of the BBC losing out only to Sir David Attenborough. Evidently, Morrissey has had an immensely successful career, so why is he such a controversial figure?

Despite his success and undeniable popularity, to some Morrissey is a figure of ridicule. His critics accuse him of taking a “glass half-empty” approach to life. It is the same old story. Time and time again, you hear it said that “Morrissey is miserable” or that “The Smiths are depressing”. In my experience, statements such as these are made by the ignorant. It is people who have little or no familiarity with Morrissey’s music who brandish these criticisms.     It seems to be the pre-programmed response if ever his music is mentioned. It is such an easy condemnation and frankly, it is boring. For those people who have listened to The Smiths or, indeed, Morrissey’s solo work and decide that it is not for them, I cannot argue and would never intend to do so. On that basis, why are Smiths fans so often ridiculed?

To be fair to the critics, if you were to describe Morrissey’s style it sounds very odd and perhaps it is surprising to think just how successful he has become. This is particularly apparent if we were to draw the comparison with contemporary music. Skrillex has become a very successful musician in the 21st century with his brand of Dubstep and electro-house. I must confess that I am not even remotely a fan but that is not the point, if we are to take this blueprint and compare it to the political messages in Morrissey’s lyrics it is quite astonishing that Morrissey has achieved such a level of success. He must be doing something right! Perhaps it is the very fact that he is so unusual that has propelled him to such levels of success, fame and fortune and it is a natural and expected consequence for him to have ruffled a few feathers along the way.

Let us now return to the point that Morrissey, according to many critics, approaches life as if his glass were “half empty”. A song that is so often mentioned in relation to this point is “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. So many people make the point that this song is depressing. Again, I think that this view is often born out of ignorance but that is not the point. Whether or not “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is depressing is all in the eyes of the beholder. For me, the song is funny and it makes me laugh. To quote;

“I was looking for a job, and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now”

This lyric is brutally honest and a genuine reflection of what life is like for a young person. I think it is this brutal honesty that people can find unsettling and part of why Morrissey has become such a divisive figure. Now we get to the crux of it, critics accuse Morrissey and his fans alike of approaching life with a glass half-empty approach. I disagree, for me the typical Smiths fan is a glass half-full kind of person; one who appreciates that life isn’t perfect and chooses to make the best of it. Indeed, the ability to laugh at yourself is a remarkable quality. Unfortunately, I feel that this view will fall on deaf ears. The fundamental problem is this; if Morrissey’s glass is half-empty, then the typical Morrissey critic hasn’t even got to the bar yet.