AROUND 48.3 million people in Britain were entitled to vote in the European Parliament elections; just 16.5 million could be bothered.

Of these, slightly fewer than 4.4 million gave their support to Ukip. Nigel Farage and his admirers won a victory over other parties, but in a contest with apathy the self-styled leader of a people's army was, as he might say, stuffed. The people just didn't show up.

This doesn't prove much, of course, beyond the fact that 44 million were not so outraged by "Europe", immigration and invented Romanians after all. They didn't march on polling stations demanding repatriation for the children's children of anyone whose name they couldn't pronounce. The absence of evidence is not evidence, as a rule, but people should be judged by their actions or, in this case, inaction. They were not that bothered.

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All right-thinking sorts deplore apathy, of course. Neglect democracy and you wind up facing the consequences. But certain party politicians are not, in this as in so many things, entirely honest. The truth is it suits them fine to know in advance that regiments of the lumpen variety will not be disturbing anyone's career plans any time soon. It simplifies "policy" when you need only pander to a self-selecting minority.

This might be one reason why no progress is ever made in these islands with compulsory voting. A bit of common sense (with the essential "none of the above" option) would spread terror among party managers. Think of the nasty surprises "the people" might inflict if they were roused. Think of Farage being denied the chance to pretend that he speaks for more than a minority of a minority.

Still, fair's fair: tot up the ballot for Ukip across the entity from which the party borrows inspiration and you find a 27.5% "share of the vote". Forget that European elections don't mean much, as turn-out shows, to most people. Set aside the fact that snow sits on a dyke longer than such triumphs. Remember - or have frantic Liberal Democrats remind you - that the influence of these polls on subsequent contests is slight. Farage and his interesting colleagues are now "legitimate".

That's a big word. Does it apply to a party securing 140,534 votes in an electorate of four million in Scotland? Farage or his Kensington candidate might answer that even the Scottish National Party, clear winner in this division, could not rise to 400,000 votes (389,503, for the record), but the advertised Ukip earthquake still sounds more like a can being kicked down the road. That only 33.5% of eligible Scots turned out does not refute Ukip's fancy claims, but it leaves the motley army looking a little exposed. If vote share is the argument, the Scottish investment in Farage - in a European election, too - was not wholehearted. Ukip scored a handful fewer than 202,000 votes in Wales, in a country with far fewer votes cast than Scotland.

Still, that's the Scots back in their place. There are 140,534 Farage fans to prove that all the insufferable chatter over justice and democracy can be forgotten for another generation. Farage - and one of those devious European voting systems - has shown them up for deluded poseurs. They have an interesting right-wing MEP all of their own, for consternation's sake. The issue is settled, by the highest standards of political science and gash headlines.

Give Farage this much credit: there are near enough 4.4 million of Britain's hardy sons and daughters who have lost their inhibitions thanks to him. The suggestion that Ukip is a party capable of putting the BNP out of business has left these voters unbothered. Instead, suggestions of a racist tinge big as a tiger's stripes has provoked a kind of proud "so what?" defiance.

It's your political incorrectness gone mad, guv. The old party loyalties, much exaggerated to begin with, have faded away, as Labour understands better than most. The need for alternatives - Nationalist, Green, or sham populist - has found one answer. Things are breaking apart. One fact revealed in the upheaval is that one minority population doesn't mind being called racist. One segment is relaxed, in fact, to answer to what was once an insult.

You might have guessed otherwise. You might have thought that the country capable of being choked up over the passing of Nelson Mandela had joined the dots a little more accurately. For my own generation, it seems that Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, all that soul, a wealth of black football players, the chance to get a decent meal and, above all, the hope of breathing free without bigots on every corner, had produced an effect. Not really. Scotland's Ukip vote isn't much, but it remains 140,534 on the wrong side of risible.

Like the panic among the Westminster parties, this isn't surprising. What matters, perhaps, is whether your body politic contains antibodies. For that, the signs from south of the Border are not encouraging. Labour and the Tories have had a go at feeding the beast and each lost a couple of fingers. The LibDems are playing out one of those zombie movies in which half the cast get their brains eaten. Loyalty, political life's blood, is ebbing away.

This doesn't mean that Farage will collect his named prize of 20 seats in the next British general election. All sorts of "offers", few of them pleasant, will now be bunged at the 4.4 million in an effort to lure them back to the Tories (mostly) and Labour. Leaders "listening" will not trouble to name racism for what it is as they work to rebuild their Westminster duopoly. But Ukip will still matter in a few constituencies in the country that is, so the diehards of the Union maintain, just like us.

We will have our own vote before the deckchairs are next rearranged down at Westminster. In this country, on one reading of history, party loyalties were disrupted utterly by the rise of the SNP. Meanwhile, the supposed anti-Establishment Ukip vote seen in England and Wales has no echo here. After seven years in government, if not in power, the Nationalists are still getting pass marks from voters. But the independence referendum has nothing to do, fundamentally, with parties.

Here is an argument about an idea among an electorate that regards old attachments as optional. Scottish Labour will not - or cannot - grasp the fact. Here is an argument, too, in which a derisory Euro-election turn-out will have no relevance. By every measure of opinion, at least twice as many Scots, and probably more, will turn out in September than went out in the vote that allowed Farage "legitimacy" in Scotland.

Ukip's earthquake revealed deeper faults. The usual Westminster thing no longer satisfies a minority of a minority. Is that one of those comforting advertisements for Better Together? The old parties are scrambling to placate a section of people who have few problems with prejudice. In September, choices over that will become available.

For those who are fans of the phrase, Ukip remain England's little problem. An electorate impelled by ideas rather than parties can address the fact in September.