Coffee House

The myth of meritocratic Scotland

7 September 2014

11:23 AM

7 September 2014

11:23 AM

Alex Salmond argues that Scotland has unique values, distinct from those in the rest of the UK, that can be best expressed in an independent country. A new poll from the Sunday Times today shows Salmond on course to get his wish. But do Scots really hold different values to the rest of the UK?

This is an edited extract from the forthcoming book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about political elections’, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, to be published by Biteback in October. Click here to pre-order it from The Spectator Bookshop.

Successive election manifestos from political parties in Scotland have argued that Scots have different values to those in the rest of the UK. More meritocratic, more communitarian, more supportive of state intervention in the economy and EU membership, Scots are portrayed as a left-leaning social democratic foil to an essentially conservative, Euro-sceptic class-bound England. Such comparisons were rife during the Thatcher years but have continued today and feature regularly in the claims made by politicians and parties. Devolution, argued the Labour party, would allow Scots to turn their distinct preferences into practice. Independence, argues the SNP, would allow them to do so without the risk of intervention from London.

If we actually look at what people in Scotland, Wales and England think about various policy options, or fundamental values, we can often identify clear distinctions among them. They back different parties in elections, they hold different national identities. They vary in how well they perceive the current political system to be working (does Scotland/Wales/England get its ‘fair share’) and in the constitutional solutions that they propose. Attitudes to Europe are slightly different: on some measures at least, Scottish voters are more supportive of the European Union. But even with Europe the differences depend on the survey and the particular question asked: the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey shows few significant differences across Scotland, England and Wales on whether to stay in the EU; the 2014 Future of England Survey shows Scots are significantly more likely to believe membership in the EU is ‘a good thing’.

Much of the rhetoric about distinct political cultures concerns fundamental economic and social values: whether a state should be interventionist or not, whether women with young children should work outside the home, whether the state should support censorship in certain circumstances, or ensure resources are redistributed from the rich to poor. On these sorts of issues, and on fundamental evaluations of the state (our sense of trust, our sense of efficacy), the claims of distinctiveness typically outstrip results. Scots are not more meritocratic or communitarian than English or Welsh residents.


Even where there are differences, they fade once you control for demographic characteristics such as social class. Scots feel differently about the UK, about how well it runs and how it should organise itself, but they don’t necessarily feel differently about how a state in general should operate, and what it should do for people.

The chart below provides average scores (taken from multiple questions) for three typical measures: a welfarism scale (with higher scores implying support for a more interventionist state); a left-right scale (higher scores implying more right wing) and a libertarian-authoritarian scale (higher scores implying greater support for censorship). In no case are there significant differences between Scotland, Wales and England.

So where do these claims of distinct political cultures come from? Some researchers have long argued that this is a north Britain-south Britain divide, that values still have more to do with social demographic factors such as one’s social class, gender or age, and that the distribution of people in different economic circumstances is driving regionalised pockets of support for different values or different policies. There is much merit to this argument.

At the same time, the presence of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly means that Scottish and Welsh political parties have a venue in which to articulate perceived differences in values and to legislate on their behalf. And so the perception of value differences between countries, even if it is misleading, can lead to real differences in policy. Legislators who believe in a more communitarian or left wing Scotland have used such arguments to justify introducing free university education and free personal care for the elderly in Scotland. Perhaps, therefore, the more politically important feature of these distinct values across the regions of the UK is not whether they are true, but whether they are perceived to be true.

This distinction between evidence and perception helps to explain the sometimes contradictory results we see in surveys and the arguments among politicians about whether Scottish, Welsh, English or indeed British values exist.

When asked to describe whether they are more left or right wing, Scots, for example, are significantly more likely to report themselves as being left wing than other Britons. But when we ask about the types of values that would indicate whether someone is left wing or not, there aren’t usually meaningful
differences across the regions of Britain. The 2014 Future of England Survey asked about basic attitudes to immigration and legalising same sex marriage, as well as whether people thought attitudes in their ‘region’ were more supportive of each of these policies than elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish answers are revealing: although Scottish attitudes are actually similar to those in England and Wales, Scots believe that they are more in favour of these policies than they are and the gap between actual attitudes and perceived attitudes is larger in Scotland than in any other part of Britain.

So Scots believe they are distinctively left wing, their belief in this distinctiveness is reinforced by the rhetoric from politicians and civic organisations, and it then comes to form part of the mental imagery of Scottish national identity. If being a Scot is less about where you were born and more about the values you hold, does it matter if such distinctive ‘Scottish’ values don’t really exist? And for whom are legislators creating policy: the electors they have, or the electors they think they have? If politicians create legislation based on what they believe their voters value, rather than what they actually value, do they end up creating the electorate they imagine?

‘Scottish values’ may be more imagined than real right now, but several decades of legislation seeking to reflect such values could create the distinct political culture it currently seeks to reflect.

Professor Ailsa Henderson is Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh

What's at stakeSpectator appeal: Do you want Scotland to stay in the UK? Write a short letter, of no more than 250 words, addressed to a Scottish voter telling them why you’d like for them to save Britain, and stay part of a united country. We’ll publish the best. Find out more here.

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Show comments
  • Ed  

    Jurisdictions run by socialists have higher rates of inequality than those run by conservatives; this is primarily driven by higher unemployment and worse economic conditions.

    It’s difficult to have a meritocracy with runaway unemployment.

  • Tim Morrison

    Missing the point again – the Referendum is not about governments or being more meritocratic than thou but about governance. We are not claiming to be nicer than anyone else – just wanting to run our own affairs – and by ‘we’ don’t make the mistake of thinking I am talking about the Scots but people who live in Scotland.

    Independence is a huge opportunity for Scottish Conservatives. The only reason that they have survived in Scotland at all is because of the structure of the Scottish Parliament which more or less guarantees their survival. The Lib Dems will be struggling to have any Scottish representation in the next UK Parilament. For either group the only chance they have of survival is within an independent Scotland where they can both be free of the numpties in their national parties. Even Labour might stand a chance again.

    • Ed  

      Part of life in a democracy is that when you lose, you don’t take your marbles and go home, you live with the result, and contest the next election.

      It’s called “democracy”, and “being an adult”.

      • Tim Morrison

        Ah indeed – and if my side lose the referendum i don’t tend to emigrate but I notice a long of comments on Spectator blogs about how people on the right intend to leave the country and deliberately engineer financial problems by moving their money out.

        • Ed  

          “… deliberately engineer financial problems by moving their money out.”

          Yes. Heaven forbid that people save themselves. That would never do.

  • francis_albert_sinatra

    Suffering Catfish! My wee country only wants it’s Independence back and all of a sudden we are being slagged off by English people! Calm down!

  • Des Demona

    Oh please, there are more pandas in Edinburgh zoo than there are tory MP’s in Scotland. And if you asked those same questions in England, where the majority of voters do not vote Tory, you’d get much the same result. It just so happens that in Scotland the two best supported parties are left leaning – because the majority of Scots are left leaning.

  • evad666

    Now where was that article about oxbridge’s strangle hold on British Society.
    obviously these people are best suited to command the rest of us.
    Their expertise in matters technical and scientific is second to none. Probably negative actually!!

    • Ed  

      And Salmond and his nasty lot are any better?

  • Dean Jackson

    The ‘No’ camp has blown a 22-point lead. That’s impossible, and…

    proof that the polls are being massaged by Marxist agents…

    The concept of Union has always meant security from outside invasion, the original threat to Presbyterian Scotland and Anglican England being an invasion from either Catholic France or Catholic Spain. What else would bring two such diverse cultures together, the Celts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon Normans of England? And the threat of foreign invasion is more subtle today, even unseen, because the enemy is weak in numbers, hence the enemy’s need to conceal its identity. Who is this enemy that threatens Britain?

    The enemy is within and without, and are Marxists who’ve co-opted the political parties of the West, including the West’s leading institutions, from the media to religion. We know this to be true not only because we were warned of the enemy within by KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn in 1962, but because the West’s institutions failed to warn its populations that the collapse of the USSR (and East Bloc nations) was a strategic disinformation operation, as proved by the West’s failure to not only verify the collapse, but de-Communize the Soviet Armed Forces officer corps (which was 90% Communist Party officered in late 1991), and failure to de-mobilize the six-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Ministry of Interior and militia to control the populations in the larger Soviet cities.

    The West’s fate depended on verification of the collapse of the USSR, verification’s absence proving co-option of the West’s institutions. On the Soviet side, there could be no collapse when (1) the Soviet Armed Forces officer corps remained Communist Party dominated; and (2) six-million vigilantes continued to control the population. There can be no collapse of the USSR without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-Mobilization.

    A United Britain is a threat to the USSR and her ally China, and a hindrance to their global strategy to “liberate” the world by means of infiltration of the West’s institutions.

    In order for Scotland to decide on Union or independence, Scots must be armed with all the information that’s necessary to make the correct decision. The co-opted media will not present the facts as laid out above.

    Read my comments to The Scotsman article, “JK Rowling honours Malala Yousafzai at Book Festival” for a concrete example of how the USSR co-opted Western media and governments act together to manipulate their populations to support political policies those populations would otherwise never support…

    • Nils Desperandum

      “Marxists” = “JEWS” no doubt 🙂

      Take your National-Socialist nonsense elsewhere, Dieter.

      • Telegraph Moderator

        Analysis of IP addresses shows that “Dean Jackson” is located in Moscow and we believe that he is a Russian propganda agent.

      • Alfred E. Neuman

        Probably Muslim Jews, and no doubt the same ones who faked the JFK assassination, World War One, the death of Marat, and the existence of Pluto.

  • The Masked Marvel

    An unhelpful combination of values in that chart.

  • SquirrelTowers

    Scots have voted for Labour at every Westminster election since 1955, but by the time of the 2015 election will have had Conservative governments they didn’t want for 38 of the last 68 years…. what to believe eh, that statistic or this survey…hummm

    • whs1954

      And by the same token the county of Surrey gets Labour governments while Labour candidates routinely come third in almost all the Surrey constituencies. That is how being part of a nation works.

      • P_S_W

        Scots who voted Conservative also will have had Labour governments for 30 out of the last 68 years by SquirrelTowers calculations.
        I’m kind of wondering what the point is. Is he trying to suggest that everyone in Scotland votes Labour? I seriously doubt that.

        • Des Demona

          No they don’t all vote labour but only around 18% vote Tory in a general election.

  • chouenlai

    The Baroness ended any Tory hope in Scotland. I don’t blame her, indeed I bless her memory, but there was something about Mrs Thatcher the Scots could not abide. Even the middle class ones. I think it was something to do with spending within one’s budget.

    • John Lea

      There is certainly something in what you write, but you have to remember that Mrs T was also deeply unpopular across large areas of England – especially northern England – as well.

    • P_S_W

      Let’s be a little fairer. Whilst Thatcher has ultimate responsibility for the Poll Tax, it was the Scottish Conservatives that:
      1. pushed for the Poll Tax to be rolled out in Scotland first
      2. pushed for a big bang approach rather than a transition

      • Chris Reid

        Mrs Thatcher did not push the poll tax on Scotland – the Poll Tax was “tried” in Scotland because the rateable values were due for renewal two years before the English. The usual paranoia up here thought it meant the Scots were being singled out. It could have been the other way round. She was also blamed for the crushing blows to industry, but the often unreasonable demands of the Union were the what spoiled industry and not only in Scotland.

  • edlancey

    How can Labour promote “Better Together” when they hate Britain ?

  • LadyDingDong

    I was never in favour of the destruction of the UK but the moment devolution was foisted on us by the criminal Labtards, what we are seeing today was sadly inevitable. The panic from Better Together is a waste of energy; regardless of whether it is Yes or No, the Union is finished – it’s just a matter of when. England and Scotland are a warring couple who are staying together for the sake of the children but sooner or later they must part, and I will be glad so I don’t have to constantly listen to the lies and arguments. History will show the Scots that they made the wrong decision for the sake of Salmond’s vanity and Labtard’s constitutional gerrymandering madness, but let the welfare addicts reap what they sow and let’s have som peace and quiet.

    • you_kid

      It was obvious from day one that Milipede would hold the ‘balance of power’ in all of this. I suggest you focus on his role in the entire affair, what he is saying, what he is not saying. You all are letting him off too lightly.

      This really is a much more interesting topic and should deliver ample insights on these very pages. Why were they never explored?

    • Damaris Tighe

      “the moment devolution was foisted on us … what we are seeing today was sadly inevitable”: yes, there seems to be an unstoppable momentum in these things. Another example is civil unions (which I supported) which morphed into SSM. Legal abortion became in effect abortion on demand. That’s why I find assisted suicide such a dangerous idea.

    • wardancer

      37 opinion polls in three years and the only one to put the Yes vote in the lead is by a mere 1% and the whole country suffers an anuerysm. A poll released yesterday put the NO lead ahead by 4 points, this was ignored in favour of screaming headlines about that 1%. The No campaign can and will win.

  • ManOfKent

    I do wish people would stop trying to proves their ambiguous theories by using superficial garbled salami sliced jigsaw puzzles of anonymous statistics particularly when its involves trendless single annual snapshots such as BSAS.

    Such articles as this really are menaingless!

  • Denis_Cooper

    To the extent that people in Scotland harbour these delusions it may be because they don’t often hear them being challenged by credible public figures. And now it seems to have reached the point where any such challenge will be shouted down, at best. I was struck by a comment from Sky’s reporter in Scotland last night, when he said that he didn’t see many windows with “no” posters partly because people who supported “no” feared that their windows would be put in if they displayed a poster.

    • you_kid

      But but but the NO camp had a 22% lead – they were in the vast majority – they will clearly win this – everyone you speak to on the streets says they will vote NO – it’s so obvious – so what do all these NO campaigers fear most?

      Their own?

      • Alexsandr

        but but but the pollsters have been clear they dont have the confidence in their results that they do for normal elections.
        They say elections are easier to predict because one can study trends from history. but this referendum is a one off so there is no history so the poll results may possibly be inaccurate.
        im not betting.

        • you_kid

          I never bet – ever. It’s a devil’s game.
          I just have to live with the fact that I am always right.

      • Denis_Cooper
        • you_kid

          Ah come on, this so is poor. There are extremists in every camp. I am not interested in extremists, they a boring. I am interested why none of you explore the role of LABOUR in all of this. Are they no longer the enemy?

    • Erictheowl

      Speaking as someone living in the middle of this, this is absolutely my experience. I know any amount of people who are in the No camp who would really not dare to exhibit any poster or sign of this, or even wear a small button badge.

      Equally, I personally know people who have had their vehicles (cars, vans, even a Land Rover) vandalised for having a No sticker and two who have had things thrown at their windows for the same reason. This in a generally quiet, pleasant area – of Edinburgh!

      If you have anything verging on an English accent, you can expect routine verbal abuse every time you open your mouth, and even “friends” who are in the Yes camp can be quite nasty, under the guise of ‘just joking’.

      Whichever way things go, Scotland is and will be radically different, and it is worrying that whichever way things go, there will be nearly half the population who bitterly disagree with the result.

      Not a happy state of affairs, and I have spent the last months looking into when I am going to move to in the next year or so. My instinct is sooner rather than later, if there is a Yes vote, before my house loses its value, or even the possibility of some sort of Mugabe-style land grab.

    • Chris Reid

      That is so true. You see time and a time again any NO poster vandalised and indeed there is hard evidence of some being put up time and time again and then repeatedly destroyed. And no one says they are voting No in company for fear one is the minority. We hear all those who are voting Yes voicing their opinions and putting posters on their windows, cars, even within the small community where I live. In company yesterday, I had the temerity to wear a small “no” badge and was pounced upon by a lady – whom I thought was going to challenge me – but instead quietly asked where she could get one, whereupon a flood of conversation started to discover these “silent” people were all no. So this might well have a bearing on the 18th where the SECRET ballot will determine the real “sovereign” will of the people.

  • figurewizard

    Quite frankly this if Scotland want to swallow Salmond’s nonsense on currency union, the EU and getting away with defaulting on their debts they’re welcome to it; just so long as they understand that once they have gone they can never be welcomed back.

    • chouenlai

      Right on.

      • Span Ows

        I think this is how most English feel. looking forward to Salmond with big cow/dog/puss-in-boots eyes and his begging bowl out.

  • beenzrgud

    If the Scots have been persuaded they are different even though in actual fact they aren’t, then when those who have done the persuading start making policy surely it will move Scotland further from the actual position of the Scots. I suspect that what may happen is that Scots will be further persuaded that what they thought they didn’t want is actually what they want and is what is best for them.

  • ohforheavensake

    Political allegiance is surely a matter of belief: therefore, if Scots believe they are more left wing, aren’t they actually more left wing?

    Similarly, values are imagined: they’re not innate- they have to be socially constructed. So if Scots imagine specific ‘Scottish values’, then surely those values exist?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Not necessarly as a moment’s thought will tell you. What policies do they support? Are these more or less left wing than the general? Can you be left wing and not believe in higher taxes? Do the Scots want to pay more tax? No. They want the English to pay more tax and then give it to them.

      • Tim Morrison

        One reason I want to be independent is that people will never be able to say that we Socts want to be subsidized. That’s the point.

        • Fergus Pickering

          You Socts? Is it something to do with socks? I’ll subsidise you. You can have ALL my old socts.

        • Ed  

          “People will never be able to say that we Scots want to be subsidized”.

          You’re rather late. They’ve been saying it for years.

          • Tim Morrison

            I should of course have said – will never be able to say again’

    • Shinsei1967

      Classic case of people generally supporting a whole raft of policies and then changing their minds when they are told these are Tory policies.

    • you_kid

      The SNP is the replacement surrogate of a non-existent Conservative/UKI Party in Scotland. Why is this so difficult to grasp?

      • Alexsandr

        tories have 15 MSP’s. inaccurate post 🙁

        • you_kid

          Okay, gotcha. Delete ‘non-existent’ and space out in bold ‘replacement surrogate’.

      • chouenlai

        I totally disagree. How can the trendy leftie policies that Salmond pushes, be a tartan stand in for Toryism ? As for UKIP, Farage got out of Scotland unscathed physically, just.

        • you_kid

          You all fail because you all still think in left and right.

          Who taught you to think like that? Boarding school? Re-education camps? Baden Powell? The army? What is wrong with you all?

          • whs1954

            How ought we all to be thinking, then?

            • you_kid

              … in right and wrong.

              • Ed  

                Right is right, and left is wrong. That’s how it works. Ask any Venezuelan or Zimbabwean.

      • ohforheavensake

        Because the SNP are firmly on the left of Scottish politics.

      • John Lea

        Utter nonsense. As others on here have noted, the SNP are a socialist party – on many issues they are more left-wing that Scottish Labour (and that takes some doing!).

    • Ed  

      If I draw a picture of a gun, does that mean I’m going to shoot you?

      It seems there’s quite a bit of repression among the Scots these days; speaking up against independence carries with it a risk of violence.

      The image may not accurately reflect what’s underneath.

  • Ron Todd

    Are meritocracy and a dependence on a large state sector compatible?

  • Colonel Mustard

    Censorship of what? Newspapers? Blogs? The Internet? Books? Films? Political parties? Reports about abuse? Reports about unnecessary deaths in hospitals?

    • you_kid

      Right wing liars, lying and lies. Either you* were lying liars three weeks back, or you* are lying liars now. Which one is it?

      *not you personally