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.

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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.

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.