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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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