Recently I found myself in a seminar with old friends and colleagues at the London School of Economics. They are one of the best teams of economists and social scientists you can find working on problems of social policy anywhere in the world, most of them with experience of advising governments and senior politicians – usually Labour governments and politicians.
As our discussion finally dissolved into informal chat I found myself surrounded by professors asking me how the Scots will vote in their referendum on independence, and how I shall vote. It was an expert interrogation conducted by people well aware that their chances of getting a Westminster government that is concerned about the kinds of questions they care about depend heavily on Scottish votes.
They asked me about many of the dilemmas we have been pondering in Scotland in the aftermath of our white paper – and most of them could not understand why any intelligent Scot would be voting for independence. It was an afternoon that compelled me to clarify my own thinking.
What matters most, I said, is not how an independent Scotland will fare. Independence will of course bring teething troubles of many kinds; but the Scots, if they choose to break away, will make their way in the world pretty successfully. What matters most, I said, is what you are doing in England; what kind of country you want to make of the UK; and whether we in Scotland want to be part of it.
The most important question facing Scotland – independent or not – is whether we can enable people living in the central belt and around the Clyde, where the UK’s greatest concentrations of poverty are to be found, to enter our society’s mainstream and gain the opportunities every human being should have. ‘Is Glasgow to belong to Scotland or not?’ is a crude way of posing this question. I used to think we’d stand a better chance of getting the right answer to it if we remain in the UK with the resources of the whole island to help us. Now I am not sure that the rest of the UK – even the relics of its Labour movement – have much interest in that question.
Take a look at the last issue of the left-leaning Fabian Review, journal of the UK’s most venerable political think-tank. It offers a sophisticated analysis of the votes Labour will have to attract if they are to win a majority in the Westminster parliament. How many of them will be new voters? former abstainers? ex-Lib-Dems? ex-Conservatives? In which marginal constituencies are these potential swing voters to be found? (Mainly in the south of England and a few Midlands seats.)
This analysis is followed by chapters written by leading politicians and commentators of the left laying out the policy proposals that polls and focus groups suggest will win these votes for Labour. Policies for the economy, immigration, education, housing and the NHS, for example. But not much about poverty, social security, inequality or social justice – the traditional concerns of radicals – and nothing about Scotland. Most of us could give examples of policy statements by leading Labour politicians that tell the same story.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University – the UK’s principal analyst of political polls – tells us that average Scottish voters are no more egalitarian or progressive than their English counterparts. But a political culture runs deeper than average voters’ responses to the simple questions posed in a mass survey. If you listen to politicians, their civil service advisors and political journalists in the two countries, or just to their more serious radio programmes, different political cultures emerge.
The Scottish ‘political class’ assume that proposals for new policies should help to create a fairer and more equal society where there will be greater social justice. They assume that proposals for solving social problems should be prepared in active consultation with the kinds of people who experience these problems. Of course they do not always live up to these aspirations; but our political class assume that they will be generally accepted by Scottish governments, whoever wins our next elections. They are not contentious. None of that can be said of England.
I could give various examples of the impact of these divergent cultures, but one will have to do. When our first minister was taking questions at the press conference launching the independence white paper, a correspondent from the Daily Telegraph said (roughly speaking – I took no note): ‘Your plans for Scotland’s future are splendid. But in a country with high rates of unemployment and high proportions of pensioners, how can you pay for all this?’ To which Salmond replied: ‘That would indeed be difficult if nothing changes. But an independent Scotland will attract more young workers’. To which the Telegraph man – thinking he had a killer question – said: ‘You mean more immigrants?’. ‘Yes,’ said Salmond. ‘They make an important and creative contribution to our society and we need more of them.’ Could any serious English politician have said this? And if it had been said, would it have passed unnoticed, as it did in Scotland?
We shall all have to make our best guesses at England’s political trends when the referendum comes – eight months before the next Westminster election which may give us a few pointers. But if staying in the UK seems likely to mean living in a country that leaves the European Union (Miliband, if he wins the election, has not yet promised a referendum on that, but neither has he refused one); if it is to be a country that continues to impose increasingly punitive and humiliating sanctions on its poorest citizens who live on social security benefits (Labour spokespersons on this subject seem determined to show they will match the Tories’ brutalities); if the Human Rights Act is to be repealed (as our present home secretary promises); if the UK continues to have the most centralised government in the Western world (strangling local governments and killing off civic leadership); if ‘green’ policies are to have low priority; and if our armed forces are to remain mercenary outriders to American foreign policy; then I would rather get out, whatever the hazards of independence.
It’s a white paper, agreed by the main political parties, on the future plans and priorities, not of Scotland but of the rest of the UK, that I need. I guess I’ll have to place my bet without waiting for that.
Looking further ahead, we have to recognise that a vote for independence – or even a narrow rejection of it – will pose difficult questions for people living in Northern Ireland, Wales, and even the north of England. If the Scots negotiate the reasonably generous settlement that Salmond expects to achieve, there will be others hoping to follow in our footsteps. The referendum is unlikely to be the end of this story. It may lead us into the end-game of the United Kingdom.
David Donnison is a professor emeritus in urban studies at Glasgow University. His books include ‘The Politics of Poverty’ and ‘Speaking to Power’.
This article was first published in Scottish Review, and reproduced by kind permission from Kenneth Roy.