The result of the elections to the European Parliament will have so many ramifications that it will take weeks if not months for the impact to be fully visible. That said, there can be no doubt that UKIP’s achievement of securing their first Scottish MEP, David Coburn, will have a greater impact than most others.
Firstly, it gives the party better credentials than Labour or the Conservatives as a One Nation party. As Henry Hill wrote yesterday, with councillors in Northern Ireland and MEPs in Scotland and Wales – not to say many representatives at different levels in England – it now has elected representatives in every part of the UK. That is an outcome that cannot be claimed by any other political group. So when some politicians criticise the BBC for the amount of coverage it has given UKIP, they need to bear that in mind.
Turning in particular to the Scottish result, and how it will affect the referendum and the Scottish Conservative’s prospects, there are a number of observations I’d like to share.
I have been arguing that UKIP was likely to win a Scottish MEP seat since at least March 2013 – and can only say to my colleagues in the Scottish commentariat that did not see it the same way that they were blinded by their own prejudices, dressed up as wishful thinking.
The biggest loser from the electoral outcome is, paradoxically, the winner on the night, the SNP. Alex Salmond made it his party’s mission to demonise and marginalise UKIP in Scotland so that it would not gain the bridgehead it desired. He failed.
The SNP’s tactics ranged from repeated political attacks in speeches, articles and statements to failing to condemn the rough mobbing of Nigel Farage during his visit to Edinburgh last year. That was an especially shameful episode in the First Minister’s chequered career, a low point at which he abdicated the dignity of his office.
Salmond’s claim last Thursday night that the SNP had done well is typical bravado. What needs to be remembered is that, in Scotland at least, the performance of the various parties is generally determined by getting the vote out. Labour has persistently under-performed in European elections while the SNP and Conservatives have traditionally done well because they have both enjoyed a combination of good organisation and registered supporters who have been motivated to vote on these particular occasions.
With the SNP facing the biggest political event of its history – the independence referendum – we can have no doubt that it stretched every sinew to get its vote out so that it might build up momentum. That it could not win the third seat it cherished was a real slap in the face, a slap that it is trying to deflect attention from. For Conservatives this was a good result that I believe confirms the general feeling that the referendum is helping draw people back to the party.
While Ruth Davidson is right to make much of the Scottish party’s revival, how much of it can actually be put down to her is yet to be tested. She may well be winning some new support (which is obscured by sentiment towards the referendum) but her modernism is also likely to be losing some, too. Indeed, my own anecdotal experience confirms this as many Conservatives I know voted UKIP.
With turnout in Scotland up from 28.5% to 33.5%, for UKIP to double its vote from a low base of 5.2% in 2009 to 10.5% and win a seat in 2014 is a stronger achievement than Alex Salmond is prepared to admit.
Given that some Conservatives will have switched to UKIP and that the Conservative vote still increased from 16.8% to 17.2% we should conclude that UKIP gained from those that have never voted before, have previously sat on their hands, or voted Labour, SNP or even Lib Dem in the past. We can also see it was a good vote for Conservatives.
While the total Unionist vote rose marginally from 62.7% to 62.9% there will be some voters who will vote Yes to independence but support Scotland staying outside the EU. Such a position is not an option that the SNP is willing to countenance and therefore UKIP offers a temporary ‘home’ for such nationalist voters.
Ironically, there is a strong case that the SNP strategy of isolating and berating UKIP actually delivered Farage’s party the votes it needed. The SNP attacks fed oxygen to UKIP’s publicity by issuing press releases and tweeting how the choice for voters was between a third seat for the SNP or a win for UKIP. The election figures reveal that the real battle for the last remaining seat was between UKIP and the Greens. Had the SNP called upon nationalist voters to support its partners in the independence campaign then the Greens could have benefitted and pipped UKIP at the post.
The visceral, partisan nature of the SNP could not allow it to see this strategic blunder.
Salmond’s claims about the BBC “beaming down” UKIP coverage are asinine and risible – after all, much of the coverage from the BBC and other broadcasters sought to ridicule UKIP and its politicians. What the establishment politicians just never understood was that the public is sick of their games and often interprets evidence of strange behaviour in UKIP as evidence of real people innocently feeling their way in the game of politics.
The outcome is huge, for Salmond the renowned gambler was playing for high stakes. He wanted the European elections to show Scotland is politically different from England and the rest of the UK. Even the timing of the referendum was set so that it would come after these elections, the tub-thumping patriotism of the Bannockburn re-enactment and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
The SNP claim that UKIP is irrelevant in Scotland because it has no elected representatives is now dead in the water.
The SNP claim that Scotland is different is also now proven to be a delusion. UKIP doubled its vote and won a seat, while the Conservative vote is now recovering.
Those two points together must mean that in net gains UKIP took votes from all the other main parties (including the SNP) except for the Scottish Tories.
Where does this leave the nationalist claim of Scottish moral superiority now? London has a Green MEP and even the South East has a Liberal Democrat and the South West has a Green! Which part of the UK is the most “progressive”? Certainly not Scotland.
The SNP’s civic nationalism is now seen as a false belief in civic superiority, a cultural bigotry no better than blatant racism. Claiming Scotland’s political culture or moral compass is superior to England’s or the rest of the UK’s is as absurd and repugnant as claiming Scots are better than English.
Another impact is that with an elected representative UKIP will now have a rightful claim to be on Scottish broadcasters’ panels. This will really open the door for UKIP to undermine the SNP’s arguments for pseudo-independence – based as it is on joining the EU without any referendum on membership terms.
For Scottish Conservatives the lesson is that they are not as unpopular as opponents make out. Conservatives should now go on to identify opposition to a European referendum by the SNP as a weakness in the nationalist case. Ruth Davidson’s silence on this issue is an opportunity for UKIP. She should close it down by demanding Salmond offer such a vote to the Scottish people – before UKIP does. She must grasp the opportunity before the summer.