Two nations, two cultures? Britain is divided by the Trent, not the Tweed.

19 August 2013

1:26 PM

19 August 2013

1:26 PM

Of the many certainties those Scots in favour of independence hold to be self-evident two in particular stand out. First that Scotland and England are fundamentally different places whose political cultures are so divergent  they can no longer sensibly be expected to live together. Secondly that the British state is moribund and impervious to practical reform.

They are nice theories. They persuade Yes voters that independence is both necessary and virtuous. The only wonder is why so many Scots seem so stubbornly hesitant about accepting these obvious truths.

This may have something to do with the fact that neither of them is actually true. At least not obviously true. Take the second article of faith. A sclerotic, hopelessly unreformable British state is, in fact, less sclerotic and more reformable than it sometimes appears. In the first place, of course, it has never been a unitary state and so has always been more diverse – and local – than sometimes recalled.

Secondly, the mere existence of the Scottish parliament (and the assemblies in London, Cardiff and Belfast) demonstrates that the British state is less monolithic than nationalists believe. Add to that the latest Scotland Act which implements the Calman Commission’s reforms and it becomes ever more difficult to make a credible argument that change is impossible. Calman may not be the greatest thing in the history of great things but its proposals are not negligible either.

Granted, it is in the interests of Yes campaigners – whether from the SNP or the far-left – to pretend that a No vote next year kills off any further devolution of responsibility to Edinburgh. It makes sense for them to frame the choice as being between independence and the status quo. And, yes, it is possible that a No vote will persuade Labour and the Conservatives to park the Scottish Question for a generation. The enthusiasm for more Home Rule may evaporate in the aftermath of a No vote.  But it is not guaranteed to do so and in any case that’s an argument for 2015 not a case for a Yes vote in 2014.

Some Yes supporters do, I think, recognise this. Iain Macwhirter for one. He argues in the Guardian today that change is coming even if Scotland votes No. So in this respect he differs from the orthodox pro-independence campaign. But he agrees with the orthodox Yes view that Scotland and England are distinct political cultures.

This is a matter of perspective. Scotland and England may look strikingly different from Glasgow; viewed from Paris, Lisbon or Amsterdam they appear strikingly similar. According to Macwhirter, however:

Scotland is dominated by two parties of the traditional social democratic left: Scottish Labour and the Scottish National party. The standing joke is that there are more giant pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs.

England is dismantling the traditional welfare state through marketisation of the NHS, welfare caps and free schools, while Scotland retains faith in the monolithic health service, social security and universal comprehensive education.

Scotland will likely evolve into a relatively high-tax, high-spend oil-rich Nordic state within the EU, emulating Denmark or Finland. England may seek its own form of independence, probably leaving the EU to become a finance-led market economy with low taxation and diminished social protections.

Well, up to a point. In the first place, this is a caricature of England. Whatever one thinks of the government’s plans for the NHS (and I try to avoid thinking about health policy) it is nonsense to suppose that placing a cap on benefits amounts to “dismantling” the welfare state. Nor, I think, has Michael Gove proposed abandoning universal education. (And if schools are part of the “welfare state” then what isn’t?)

Be that as it may, it is doubtless the case that Scots like to think of themselves as being a morally superior, social-democratic kind of place but, in truth, this is often an example of the Scottish ability to kid or otherwise flatter ourselves. Because while Scots may say they are more left-wing than the English they do not tend, on the whole, to hold very different opinions. Moreover, if there is a geographical dividing line in British politics is should probably be drawn above the Trent not the Tweed.

Some things are universal, however. Mrs Thatcher certainly lacked popularity in Scotland but nearly half a million Scottish families still took advantage of the right to buy their council house (a right now stamped upon by the SNP). They didn’t like to be thought of as the kind of people that liked the Iron Lady but that didn’t prevent them from being, in this respect at least, Tartan Thatcherites.

In any case this notional divergence between social-democratic Scotland and neo-liberal (or whatever other bogey-term you wish to use) England is, to the extent it exists at all, a difference of degree not kind. I mean, YouGov’s polling suggests 80% or so of Scots support a benefits cap.

Support for Scottish distinctiveness is also often more general than particular. According to data collected for the 2010 edition of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, for instance, 63% of Scots think pension payments should be uniform across the United Kingdom, 55% support common levels of unemployment benefit and 58% want taxes levied at pan-UK rates and thresholds.

Similarly, 20% of Scots agree that no students should be expected to pay any tuition fees at university, a view shared by 18% of English respondents. 59% of Scots agree that “ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” and only 55% of English voters take this view. Vive la difference! 

It is true that Scots remain slightly more redistributionist than English voters with 43% agreeing that government should divert income from the well-off to those less well-off whereas only 34% of English people take this view. Nevertheless, as recently as 2005 Scottish and English views on this were identical and the longer-term trend in both countries is away from a redistributionist attitude. (Similarly the percentage of folk troubled by inequality, though high, is lower in both countries than it was 15 years ago.)

Around 40% of Scots favour increased taxation and spending versus 30% of English survey respondents. Again, there is a difference but it is not so great as sometimes claimed. Moreover, enthusiasm for more taxing and more spending has fallen by a third since 2001 and for most of this century the difference between Scottish and English attitudes has been negligible and the trends in Scottish opinion are largely the same as the trends in English opinion.

As John Curtice concluded:

Scotland is more social democratic than England – but the difference is only modest.

However, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the advent of devolution

As a result, the gap between Scotland and England has not widened at all. Rather, opinion in Scotland has moved in parallel with that in England, leaving the difference in outlook between them largely unchanged.

On the one hand, the policy differences that have emerged exaggerate the differences in public opinion that exist, thereby raising questions about the degree to which devolution has necessarily resulted in a better fit between public policy and public opinion in different parts of the UK. On the other hand, devolution has not served to widen the gap between English and Scottish public opinion on some of the central issues facing governments today. To that extent at least, accommodating Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom looks to be no more difficult a job now than it was a decade ago.

Now Professor Curtice may be mistaken and it is certainly arguable that David Cameron’s government may sharpen differences in attitudes in the short-term. But that is still a shoogly nail upon which to hang a theory of irretrievable, irreparable marital breakdown. It does, however, help to explain why Yes campaigners pin so large a proportion on their hopes upon a recovery for the Conservatives south of the border.

That said, perception matters in politics and the perception that the Scots and the English have very different attitudes towards politics is a powerful force in the still-up-for-grabs independence argument. This is so even if the idea of that difference is greater – and certainly more cherished by Byres Road scribes and activists – than its reality. Two nations? Yes. Two cultures? Only up to a point.

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