Why Ukip matters in the Scottish independence referendum

Published: 12 May 2014

This post was originally published by The Spectator on 29 April 2014

There is now a significant chance that Ukip will top the European election poll in England. But while Ukip are also on course to win an MEP in Wales, if the results of new polling are borne out on 22 May, they would likely not win an MEP in Scotland. Such a result would highlight the political differences between the nations of Britain. The strength of Ukip’s popular support in England draws on something which even they appear not to have fully recognised: the extent to which the party has become the champion of an increasingly politicized sense of English identity.

The Ukip surge that appears in England – where almost one third of voters are intending to back the party in the 22 May elections – is largely absent in Scotland, where only the Liberal Democrats are likely to fare worse.  A new study by academics at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities and the think tank IPPR shows that Scots stand out.

One in ten Scottish voters are likely to back Ukip, almost the same figure as are willing to back the Conservatives.  By comparison, almost two thirds of the electorate are planning to cast a ballot for either SNP or Labour.  This represents an increase for both of the two main parties, who earned 29 per cent and 21 per cent respectively in the 2009 European elections.

The gain appears to be at the expense of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. If one were of a mind to consider this a mid-term referendum on the UK government, then neither coalition party comes out of it very well in Scotland, with both down on their performance in the 2010 UK general election.

These results likely reflect variations across Britain in the parties perceived to best stand up for particular regions. In England, almost one quarter (23 per cent) of voters felt that Ukip ‘best stands up for the interests of England’. Labour and the Conservatives followed on 17 and 16 per cent respectively.  In Scotland, however, only 0.8 per cent of voters think that Ukip ‘best stands up for the interests of Scotland’, while Labour and the Conservatives earn 17 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.  By far the greatest support is for the SNP, with almost half of all voters (45 per cent) believing it best stands up for Scotland.  UKIP is clearly playing a role as a defender of the national interest that in Scotland is fulfilled by the SNP.

How does this relate to attitudes to the European Union? Scots are less Eurosceptic than other parts of the UK, more likely to think EU membership is a good thing, and less likely to vote that the UK should leave the EU.

In Scotland, one fifth of voters still don’t know how they would in an EU referendum, a figure double that of ‘don’t knows’ in the independence referendum. Of those who do know, almost 60 per cent would vote to stay in the European Union. In England, by contrast, 45 per cent would vote to stay. In England this relates to national identity, with those who feel British only or more British than English twice as supportive of staying in the EU as those who prioritise their sense of Englishness.

In Scotland we see much smaller differences across identity categories. Just over half (50 per cent) and just under half (48 per cent) are likely to vote to stay in the EU regardless of whether they prioritise Scottishness or Britishness. It is therefore not just that Scots as a whole are more supportive of the EU, but that the relationship between national identity and Europe works differently in Scotland than in England.

These differences in outlook between England and Scotland could have an impact on the Scottish independence referendum in September. A strong performance by Ukip in May’s European elections might encourage Scots into the Yes camp if they read it as a signal that England may vote to leave the EU in a future in-out referendum on Europe. For this to happen, though, Scots would need to care more about EU membership than UK membership, and it is not clear that many of them do. Perhaps more likely is that Scots will look to the English electorate on 23 May and see them backing not one party with minimal support in Scotland but two and might well question whether they are part of the shared community of interests.

Professor Ailsa Henderson is Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh