Scottish independence: The class issue

Helping hand: Would an independent Scotland offer greater protection for the welfare state?
Helping hand: Would an independent Scotland offer greater protection for the welfare state?
Ian Dunt By

Do you have something to lose? If you do, you will very likely vote 'No' in the Scottish independence referendum. If not, you'll probably vote 'Yes'.

The gap between the haves and the have nots is of crucial importance in the campaign. As in other areas, the referendum shines a light on the cracks in society.

"There's a body of people who feel excluded and don't feel they've much to lose," Andrew Blick, from the Institute of Contemporary British History at King College London, says. "Now maybe they do actually have a lot to lose, but they don't feel that way. There's a problem of a disenfranchised group who feel negatively and the union is a manifestation of everything that's not working for them."

The figures are stark. The Economic and Social Research Council found support for independence at 46% among those on the lowest incomes, compared to 27% for the highest earners. Another survey found Scots in deprived parts of the country backed independence by 58%, compared to just 27% in affluent areas.


One of the largest differences in support for independence is between home owners and renters. Just 35% of freehold home owners plan to vote 'Yes', compared to over half of renters.

There is one wrinkle in the figures. University educated voters are more likely to support independence. This may be a sign of the romantic historical longing among the Scottish intelligentsia. Or it could be something more self-serving.

"Some elites' status is derived from the union, but other elite members think it might be enhanced by the creation of an independent country," Blick says. "They wouldn't be part of a sub-elite in the UK, but an elite of Scotland. Certain functional activities would transfer from London to Edinburgh, which they can be part of."

But aside from the graduate phenomenon, the trend is clear: the lower down the economic scale you are, the more likely you are to support independence.

This trend gives Alex Salmond hope. His advisers pray a last minute earthquake could finally give the 'Yes' camp a lead in the polls with weeks to go. That would go against international trends, which show undecided voters tend to swing behind the status quo in the last weeks of a campaign. But there is a difference in Scotland, where undecided voters are more left-wing than average, more hostile to the Conservative government in Westminster and more inclined to believe Scotland could succeed on its own.

This is a Labour problem. Thirty-six per cent of people who identify with the party are yet to say how they'll vote. It has plainly not done enough to convince them of the union cause.

"It reflects how the Scottish National party (SNP) framed the debate, which is of 'Yes' as pro-welfare state and Westminster as more neo-liberal," Michael Keating, chair in Scottish politics at the University of Aberdeen, says. "There's some truth to that, given what the government has done on either side of border, but the SNP has really emphasised this. Many people who don't vote SNP are going to vote 'Yes' because they think Labour can no longer protect them from other parties in Westminster."

Labour has underestimated the SNP before. In 2011 it ran a lazy, distracted campaign, assuming the normal rules of political gravity in Scotland would see it maintain its working class voters against an SNP with a confused economic message. After all, Alex Salmond has often celebrated the Irish low-tax system and the generous social model of the Nordic nations. No-one could come away from his speeches with a clear idea of his class politics. But Labour's complacency led to a landslide victory for Salmond - a victory which triggered the current referendum.

All of which begs the question: why isn't Salmond doing better? He couldn't have asked for a more perfect moment to ask the independence question. A Tory toff is in Downing Street, implementing a surprisingly extreme right-wing economic agenda. Unparalleled austerity cuts are slashing public services. Even where they are succeeding, public services are being privatised and handed to firms with a weak track record. The Cabinet is composed mostly of public school millionaires. The recession may be over, but people's living standards have yet to recover. And yet even in this scenario, Salmond has been unable to convince enough of the people of Scotland that independence is the answer.

Partly this is the fault of the SNP's confused economic message. Over its recent history it has veered from social democracy to socialism to middle-class vagaries, in an effort to keep a fragile pro-independence alliance together. Poorer Scots may be willing to opt for any change to a system which clearly isn't working for them. But to really swing the country behind him Salmond needed to make a stronger case for how independence would lead to a more just and equal country.

Scotland's protection of public spending provides him some cover but his friendship with wealthy right-wing US figures like Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch and celebration of Ireland's disastrous low-tax experiments gives him the reputation of a chancer, more than a socialist firebrand. This mixed track record – the product of countless years taking whichever opportunity was open to him – has gotten in the way of a clear argument on social justice.

All the elements are in Salmond's favour and people struggling in Scottish society are willing to be convinced. The class issue in the Scottish referendum should be decisive. If he can't make the case now, he'll never be able to.

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