Yes Scotland and the Class Question
The language of class has been pretty thoroughly scrubbed from Scotland’s political vocabulary over the course of the last ten or fifteen years. But with a referendum on the break-up of Britain scheduled for the Autumn of 2014, it may have to be rediscovered. This is for one simple yet frequently overlooked reason: there is a clear class dynamic to the constitutional debate in Scotland.
In the 1979 referendum on devolution, 57 per cent of working class Scots voted in favour of a Scottish legislative assembly, whereas 60 per cent of middle class Scots voted against. In 1997, 91 per cent of working class voters backed the creation of a Scottish Parliament compared to 69 per cent of middle class voters. This is pattern is repeated when it comes to the issue of independence. In January, Ipsos MORI published a poll which showed that support for full Scottish self-government registers much higher among Scots living in deprived parts of the country (58 per cent) than it does among those living in affluent areas (27 per cent).
This divide – between a Scottish working class with radical constitutional instincts and a Scottish middle class with more conservative ones – poses a serious challenge to the pro-independence coalition and its hopes of securing a majority Yes vote in 2014. In Scotland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, middle class people are significantly more likely to vote than their working class counterparts. Indeed, according to the Scottish Election Study, between 1997 and 2007 the average turnout in all parliamentary elections in Scotland (Westminster, Holyrood and European) among voters in the highest and intermediate social class categories was 40 per cent and 36 per cent respectively, while the figure for those in the lowest group was 24 per cent.
So how might the SNP and its allies deal with this challenge? They have three options. The first is to focus on winning middle class voters over to the idea of independence – a considerable challenge given the constituency’s traditional loyalty to the Union. The second is to try to ‘expand the electorate’ as Barack Obama did to great effect in the 2008 US presidential election. If successful, this would ensure a higher working class turnout than at previous ballots. The third is to build a campaign which appeals to both middle class and working class interests.
Any campaign which concentrates on maximising the turnout of one section of the electorate and simply ignores the others is unlikely to succeed, so the Yes Scotland coalition should adopt the third option as the basis of its referendum strategy. But in order to avoid promoting conflicting narratives, it should aim to emphasise areas in which the interests of the Scottish middle class and Scottish working class converge. Intermediate professional groups – such as teachers, social workers and nurses – are typically defined as middle class yet constitute the backbone of the public sector unions currently subject to attack from the UK Coalition Government. Equally, Yes Scotland should avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping the working class by association with poverty and marginality. It must speak to the interests of all those whose living standards are being threatened by Westminster’s austerity agenda. This includes the many relatively well-paid and secure workers who man the stations of the welfare state but have a history of supporting the Labour Party.
Frustratingly, the make-up of the Yes Scotland coalition – which has board members drawn from the socialist left as well as the Scottish business elite – reflects the SNP’s rather disjointed approach to the issue of class. In the 1970s, the SNP advanced a broadly social democratic agenda, pledging to wage a ‘War on Poverty’ by raising tax thresholds, increasing child benefits and establishing a universal minimum income, but did so while rejecting what one 1978 policy document called ‘the extremes of outdated class politics’. In the early 1980s the left-wing 79 Group made efforts to give the party a distinctive socialist identity, but this grated against then leader Gordon Wilson’s traditionalist sensibilities and in time the 79 Group was expelled.
The experience of Thatcherism was formative for the current generation of SNP leaders. The socially destructive effects of Thatcher’s flagship economic policies (Scottish unemployment and poverty rates nearly doubled during her period in office) consolidated the centre-left consensus in the party but didn’t contribute to the development of a coherent class strategy. The continuing lack of any such strategy has been made apparent in recent years by Alex Salmond’s simultaneous championing of the Irish laissez-faire experiment and the Nordic social model.
Yet even if the official independence campaign does develop a much clearer position on the class question, a focus on the political economy of the independence referendum cannot become a substitute for the much broader political and cultural work that needs to be done. Advocates of independence should engage artists, intellectuals, musicians and writers in a project aimed at challenging the hegemony of the British state in Scottish political and cultural life. The fact that the launch of the Yes campaign was criticised by unionist press and politicians for parading too much ‘Holywood glamour’ (with the benedictions of Alan Cumming and Brian Cox attracting particular derision) shouldn’t detract from the urgency of this effort.
The hope that independence might promote a cultural renaissance is not something Scots should be embarrassed about. The aim of any Yes campaign worth its salt must be to embolden the desire for intellectual and cultural development at the same time as relating it to the immediate, concrete need to re-found Scottish economic life on a more egalitarian basis. An independence campaign grounded solely on the argument that abandoning the Union will save Scots a few pounds every year in not good enough – and won‘t be effective. A much bolder and more radical vision is required, one which places independence at the heart of a debate about Scotland’s social and political future. As one late nationalist intellectual remarked at the end of the 1980s: “We must argue on basics, like freedom and democracy and equality. Scotland should be the ideological proving ground of those who want a collectivist view of democracy and freedom. It could yet to prove to be the ultimate betrayal by the Scottish thinking classes, if they fail to use the Scottish experience to restate the case for collectivism, to see off the market view of freedom.”
This is an extended version of an article which originally appeared in the New Statesman.
See here: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/07/scottish-yes-campaign%E2%80%99s-class-problem