19 Sep 2014

A year of extraordinary votes

It’s no coincidence that yesterday’s extraordinary vote (when the nationalists came so close to achieving independence) comes just four months after another newcomer in British politics – Ukip – came top in the European elections.

What’s more, in three weeks’ time the people of Clacton may return to Westminster Ukip’s first elected MP. (Indeed, we may even see a second elected Ukip MP, with the Heywood and Royton by-election on the same day.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the SNP and Ukip are the same thing, or interchangeable. In policy terms, the SNP’s left-leaning Scottish nationalism has little in common with the right-leaning British nationalism of Ukip.  On big issues such as Europe, immigration, gay marriage, nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the parties could hardly be further apart.

But there’s no doubt success of both these young  parties has been greatly fuelled by the serious disaffection and frustration with traditional politics. Such disaffection has been slowing growing for more than 40 years now, but become an explosion in the last few years. People’s disillusionment with politicians grew rapidly over the Iraq war of 2003, then the financial crisis of 2008, which was quickly followed by the MPs’ expenses crisis of 2009.


Both Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have seized the obvious chance. Both men are charismatic, cheeky-chappy personalities and outsider politicians who’ve brilliantly exploited this public disgust with old politics.  The SNP and Ukip built first on the foundations of a decaying Conservative party, and more recently gnawed into the traditional working-class Labour vote.

Both were greatly aided by the gradual spread of proportional representation over the last 20 years – both in Scottish elections, and in elections for the European Parliament. And both parties then thrived on the decision of the Liberal Democrats to give up their traditional role as Britain’s foremost  protest party and to join the Westminster establishment in the form of the current coalition.

Both parties – the SNP and Ukip – have ridden this tide of anti-Westminster public opinion and brought back into politics thousands of people who’ve not voted for several decades, if ever. Both parties held out the prospect of a rosy future through the dismantling of old, failed institutions, and independence from international unions and foreign powers.

A new politics has emerged in Britain – a politics of left and right, and nowhere in particular on the traditional  spectrum.  The old parties who ruled Scotland from 1945 to 2011 – Conservative and Labour – looked almost powerless these past few weeks. In their very limited appearances in Scotland this week both David Cameron and Ed Miliband seemed frightened to appear in public through fear of making the plight of the union even worse.

The old parties are in serious decline, not just in Scotland. It’s not just the SNP and Ukip which have enjoying electoral success, but the Greens too, and occasional independent candidates such as the flamboyant businessman George Ferguson, who was elected mayor of Bristol in 2012.

Salmond and Farage aren’t the only populist outsiders who’ve captured the public mood with their extra colour and authenticity. Boris Johnson, a semi-independent Conservative, is part of the same trend; so too is George Galloway, elected as Respect MP for Bradford in 2011, though in reality more an independent politician than a traditional party hack.

The old parties were based on formal membership organisations, traditional hierarchies, and strong discipline through the whips at Westminster. The new politics depends more on social media, and the kind of almost spontaneous activity we’ve seen in Scotland these past few weeks.

The referendum campaign saw plenty of complaints of underhand activity, dirty tricks and threats.  Despite the claims of some colleagues, I don’t think the contest was especially nasty.  I’ve personally experienced far worse intimidation on Merseyside in the 1980s, or during the years of intense industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike and Wapping.  Much of the Scottish referendum campaign, in fact, was very civil and good-natured.

Indeed it’s rare in the world for an independence movement not to involve bloody violence and terrorism, as we’ve seen in recent times in Ireland and the Basque country.

The remarkable thing about this new British politics is how it’s developed within the old fair play rules of our  parliamentary democracy, a democracy that’s even older than the Act of Union.

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