Every election campaign acquires its story line and this one is no different. When it is going well for the Tories it is usually about Labour’s failure to do its economic sums. When it it is going well for Labour, it is usually about the “cuts” and schools ’n hospitals. But some times, and this is one of them, it is about something that no one foresaw. Hence the acres of newsprint being devoted to Conservative warnings about the perils of Downing Street falling into the hands of the left-wing Ed Miliband aided and abetted by the uber-left Nicola Sturgeon.
Who would have thought that a UK general election, an election in the fifth biggest economy on the planet, would be dominated by the agenda of a small separatist party from the far north, which has been campaigning for a break-up the Union for 100 years and which, only a few months ago, lost a referendum on independence?
But that is how it has turned out. “Cameron: Ukip voters can stop ‘toxic’ SNP”, barks the Torygraph front page today. “Ruthless Sturgeon wants to make merry hell, says Major”, warns the equally Conservative Daily Mail.
Views about the Union clearly vary. The Scots, brought up on a diet of grudge and grievance over the past 30 years, have come to blame Westminster for all their ills, real and imagined. Labour, as much as the SNP, is responsible for this state of affairs. A sparrow cannot fall from the sky north of the border without the loathsome English being blamed. The political culture of the country is now markedly different from the rest of the UK, as Sturgeon’s quasi-Marxist manifesto indicates. Even the Socialist Workers Party might balk at her call for Scots to vote against austerity and approve an extra £150 billion of public spending, to be paid for by yet more borrowing.
Sturgeon makes Alexis Tsipras, leader of the ruling Greek fantasists Syriza, look like a moderate.
And if you thought we were out of the woods by now, it is worth bearing in mind that the UK’s public finances are among the most debt-ridden in Europe. The national debt is nearly 90 per cent of GDP and annual borrowing is equal-third biggest of the 28 EU countries. Last year, we borrowed a bigger proportion of national income than Greece.
The campaign narrative is not, as Lynton Crosby intended, a contest between Tory competence and Labour chaos. It is not the long-term economic plan versus Labour’s wish-list and Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a bacon sandwich without getting ketchup all over his shirt. Instead, it is whether English voters will tumble to the fact that metaphorically, at least, the Saltire will be flying over Downing Street by May 8 unless they turn back to the Conservatives and eviscerate Miliband’s hopes of a phalanx of Labour MPs who can then make common cause with their even redder Scottish cousins.
Hence the appeals by Cameron, Major and Boris Johnson, among others, for all good patriots to come to the aid of their country.
It might work and there are two weeks to go for the message to sink in among English voters. La Sturgeon is carrying all before her in Scotland and seems certain to wind up with a satchel-full of seats. But there is the danger that the better she does, and the more she is lionised in the media as a latter-day Lady MacBeth, the more the English, especially the patriotic white van fleet of voters, will have second thoughts about backing Labour.
Which brings us to Mr Farage, the other nationalist in this race. Nigel, a splendid and brave politician, is little seen on the national stage. He made a decent fist of the TV debates but has now retreated to his Kent fastness where he is battling for his political survival. Instead of a flag-waving national call to arms, an appeal to the electorate to rise up against the Brussels yoke, his campaign has come to resemble an extended pub crawl in Margate.
Of course, Farage is right to focus on winning Thanet South. If he fails to take the seat from the Tories, his political career will be all but over. The other party leaders (with the exception of Nick Clegg and Sturgeon, who is not even standing for Westminster) do not have to worry about their own backyards. But a Farage defeat will not only destroy him personally but deal a savage blow to his party, which signally lacks anyone of his energy and charisma.
So far, Farage has stayed out of the Scottish imbroglio beyond observing that English voters are “very very worried about the Scottish tail wagging the English dog” if Labour entered an alliance with the SNP.
Perhaps, he should go further. After all, Farage is campaigning for independence, but from Brussels not Westminster. Sturgeon too wants Scotland cut free from what she regards as foreign rule, this time from Westminster rather than the EU. There is some common ground here. Today’s England is, at best, a lukewarm supporter of the Union, and what goodwill there is towards Edinburgh is rapidly being dissipated by the combination of constant Scottish moaning and the threat of the UK suddenly finding itself being ruled by a Red-Tartan alliance.
So why doesn’t Farage respond to popular pressure down south for Scotland to go its own way? He could campaign for another referendum on Scottish independence, but this time in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. If the English and others vote for Scotland to quit the Union, then Scotland could have a second go at cutting its ties with the rest of the UK.
After all, what is so dreadful about the idea of an independent Scotland? There are plenty of small countries within the EU who seem to get along perfectly well. True, we would have to sort out the Faslane base and a few other matters like which currency would Scotland use. But if you believe that small is beautiful and that well-defined nationalities should be able to decide their own destiny in the world and live with the consequences, then an amicable divorce is not so alarming. Scotland out of the Union would also remove an obstacle to the UK eventually voting to quit the EU, since Sturgeon is also demanding an effective Scottish veto over such a move.
And what is the alternative? A democratic deficit of spectacular dimensions with Scottish SNP MPs deciding England’s fate when we have no countervailing influence on the raft of powers already ceded to the Scottish parliament. A government in London unsupported by 85 per cent of the UK’s population. Farage has rightly highlighted the injustice of UK policy, not least on immigration, being set at a European level. Now we are heading for much of UK policy being decided at an Edinburgh level. Something has got to give.