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.

An Englishman’s thoughts on Scottish independence.

In September 2014, the people of Scotland will vote in a historic referendum. It will decide the future of Britain as we know it. Will the Scots stay with us or will they decide to part from the Auld Enemy?

Modern African states were divided by Imperial European powers during the “scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century. Today we see nations with rigid, straight-line, and most importantly; artificial borders that were imposed upon them by a ruling imperial power. There are some horrific stories about the Berlin Wall; men going out on the night of 13th August 1961, only to find their path home blocked by the wall that had been constructed overnight and thus, separated from their families for over twenty years. The same can be said of Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall was constructed as a fortification to separate the Romans south of the wall from what they saw as barbarians in the North. Britons had lived alongside each other to this point and there was no sense of “Englishness” or “Scottishness” that we see today. Undoubtedly families were separated by a fortress constructed by a ruling foreign power and thus, the perceived cultural differences we see today between the English and the Scots were imposed upon us by the Romans. This is a fascinating starting point in the debate for Scottish independence and puts things into perspective; we are one and the same, we are islanders and any cultural differences we may see are largely false.

After the Romans left, England and Scotland were separate, rival states until 1707. The Acts of Union of 1707 saw the first official usage of the term Great Britain. Linda Colley makes the argument that Britain and the idea of being British was forged through warfare and consequently that “Britishness” is a modern concept. Prior to 1707, according to Colley, the kingdoms of Britain were culturally distinctive but the long, hard wars with France and later Germany united alien peoples behind the banner of Britain. This implies that unified Britain was a short-term alliance; much like the so-called marriage of convenience between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War Two. Furthermore, it implies that in a period of prolonged relative peace, the natural order will resume and rekindle the distinct cultural differences between the kingdoms of Britain. Is this what we are seeing today? Is the imminent referendum on Scottish independence a resumption to the natural order that Colley alluded to? On this I am unconvinced, if Hadrian’s Wall was an artificial divide separating culturally similar people then surely the Acts of Union in 1707 was the resumption to the natural order that Colley talks of and thus, we ought to remain unified.

Let us take a step back; the cultural story of Britain is a truly remarkable one. The Romans divided the celtic people of Britain and paved the way for centuries of bitter rivalry and brutal warfare. Yet, recent history has seen unification, friendship and prosperity. I for one would consider it a great shame if the Scots were to vote “yes” on Thursday 18 September. The “yes” vote campaign has raised some valid points and the British political system is far from perfect but fundamentally a “yes” vote would be a rejection of the English and actually a tick in the box for a return to the bitter rivalries of the past. Surely, in 2014 we have moved on from that? However, what has worried me so far is the electioneering of the pro-Union campaign. The threatening stance of Whitehall with regard to the Pound and a rejection of a shared currency with independent Scotland somewhat encourage these fantastical illusions of a modern Anglo-Scottish rivalry. Indeed, the threats actually play into the hands of Alex Salmond and the SNP and provide an opportunity to label the political manoeuvres as English bullying. If the pro-Union campaign allow the referendum debate to come down to such a style of politics, then the chances of a successful “yes” campaign increases. It allows Salmond to appeal to Scottish nationalism as opposed to rationalism; arguably it is his only chance of winning as it rekindles the nationalist spirit of Robert de Bruce. I sincerely hope that, come September, the Scots think rationally and vote “no”. Forget Braveheart, think David Bowie: “Scotland, stay with us.”