UKIP leader Nigel Farage landed in Edinburgh yesterday, hoping to capitalise on his party's bounce in the Eastleigh by-election and the English local government polls.
Ukip claims a recent significant growth in membership north of the Border, though this is from such a vanishingly small base that it is hardly surprising, given the level of media exposure being enjoyed by the anti-EU party and its flamboyant and jocular leader.
The plain facts are that Ukip attracted less than 1% of the vote in the 2010 Holyrood elections and no Ukip candidate has ever retained his deposit in a Scottish election.
There are a number of reasons for this. Ukip is viewed as essentially an English party. Its core policies – anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-welfare – have less traction in Scotland. Generally speaking Scots are more liberal. Also Ukip takes most of its votes from the Conservatives, a party with far fewer votes to lose in Scotland. Besides, the political marketplace is already fairly crowded.
Nevertheless, as David Cameron has discovered, politicians write off Nigel Farage at their peril. Social attitudes surveys consistently show that while Scots tend to embrace more liberal and communitarian values, the views of a significant minority chime closely with those of Ukip. Its leader's libertarianism, symbolised by the cigarette and pint of beer that often feature in photographs of him, and his anti-politics rhetoric carry a certain appeal with those who are disillusioned with politics and politicians.
Mr Farage's claim that his party will win seats in both the Holyrood and European elections looks overblown. However, all four main parties could be damaged by Ukip. If the party succeeds in splitting the Conservative vote in England, the likelihood of a Labour win in the 2015 General Election undermines the SNP's argument that independence is the only alternative to perpetual Tory rule.
With the Scottish Conservatives already in trouble, the last thing they need is to bleed support to Ukip. That could well happen in the Donside by-election, where the Tories are not serious contenders. For Labour, attempting to put a left-of-centre argument for sticking with the Union, the last thing that party wants or needs is Ukip muscling its way on to its platform. As for the Liberal Democrats, they must fear being relegated to fifth place in next year's European elections.
Mr Farage may have little to gain in Scotland but if he can make Ukip look more like a UK party than simply an English one, his chances of getting on to television debates in the run-up to 2015 will be boosted.
The superficial attraction of an anti-politics party lasts only so long as it does not come close to a share of power. Many of Ukip's policies do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Farage may be a dab hand at political posturing but real politics is about compromise and consequences. Ukip has not been exposed to either.
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