Votes for UKIP and independence reflect inadequacies in our political system

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Control of immigration, relations with Europe and devolution of powers to Scotland are issues at the centre of British political debate. But, mostly, people who think there are too many immigrants, or that too much power has been ceded to Brussels or too little devolved to Edinburgh, do not have specific policy proposals in mind.

By and large they have little idea how many migrants are in the country. When Ipsos Mori asked respondents to estimate the proportion of UK residents who are foreign born, the average of answers was 31 per cent (the true figure is 13 per cent, of whom almost half are students). Concern about immigration is greatest not in London, where there are many immigrants, but in rural areas, where there are few. Clacton, where the anti-EU UK Independence party won a parliamentary seat earlier this month, has a lower than average proportion of immigrants but a high proportion of elderly people born in the UK. Many people think that immigration is a national problem but few think that it is one that affects their locality.

Most people find it easier to dislike abstractions than real people. My aunt was always scrupulous in exempting from her blanket condemnation of Pakistanis the only one she had ever met (he was actually Indian, but never mind).

There is similar ignorance of the relative competences of the European Commission, the UK government in Westminster and the Scottish parliament. I have found little joy in asking eurosceptics which powers it is particularly important that Britain should regain from the commission and European Parliament: generally they do not know and reel out some absurd tabloid newspaper canard about regulation of the shape of bananas or the frequency of rubbish collection. No one is interested in hearing that the issue of voting rights for prisoners arises as a result of Britain’s position as signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights rather than its membership of the EU.

But there is nothing reprehensible in the fact most people do not have the same interest in the detail of constitutional arrangements as politicians or columnists. Voting for Ukip, or for Scottish independence, is the proper response of electors to a democratic political system that – regardless of party – seems inadequate in both capabilities and performance. Citizens express dissatisfaction with the current state of politics and the economy in time-honoured fashion, by hostility to anonymous others and complaint that too much power is exercised by people who are out of touch with their needs.

If issues of immigration, Europe and Scottish independence are, for many, the focus of a more general discontent, policy measures that partially address these specific problems are unlikely to have much effect on attitudes. If opinions are not based on facts, changing facts will not necessarily change opinions. The large percentage of the population who think there is too much immigration appears to be independent of how many immigrants there are. No new delegation of power from Brussels to London would satisfy Conservative eurosceptics because their real concern is Britain’s reduced role in world affairs, about which nothing much can be done. And nationalist sentiment in Scotland is not going to be assuaged by the transfer of responsibility for housing benefit to the Scottish government, because the demarcation of devolved functions is not what the debate was ever about.

“For forms of government let fools contest, what’er is best administered is best,” Alexander Pope wrote almost three centuries ago, and he got to the heart of the matter. The discussion of forms of government gains traction only because of a wider sense that we are not well administered. Effective political leadership and a strong economy are the only way to define the resentments expressed in current public opinion.

This article was first published in the Financial Times on October 29th, 2014.

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