2007 - 2022

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


Comments (0)

Leave a Reply to Galen10 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Tocasaid says:

    Read the Statesman article. Interesting stuff. Maybe the ‘Yes’ iniative of having ‘community’ groups isn’t such a bad idea if it can motivate people in working class areas. Wonder which trade unions would be supportive too? Also wonder if it extends to the rural working class? I’m sure there’s many in the crofting areas who’d support a ‘yes’ vote.

    Shows that the ‘Labour’ vote is very supportive of independence – we need to make hay from this.

  2. Angevin_Angel says:

    “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.”

    Hmmm! Amazon, The Donald, Souter, Murdoch, Murray. I think I see a trend in Alex Salmond’s thinking on freedom and there’s nothing collective about it.

  3. Doug Daniel says:

    Another trend, of course, is that Scotland has ALWAYS voted in favour of bringing power to Scotland – 1979 was a Yes vote (regardless of the end result), 1997 was a Yes vote, so there is no reason to think 2014 can’t also be a Yes vote.

    Too many people are only against independence because they’re fairly satisfied with their current lot, particularly folk I work or socialise with. They’re not prevented from getting on with life at the moment, so they see no need for change and are easily duped into believing scare stories. This is extremely frustrating. Why do such people not wonder if things could be even better? Why is “good enough” good enough? For people in my position – decent job, never really had to worry about money while growing up, never had to rely much on public services – it seems support from independence comes purely as an ideological basis. Those who are not interested in politics are probably not concerned whether the people making decisions are based in London or Edinburgh. Those who have gotten a bit too uppity perhaps don’t find the “independence means no more Tories” argument to be particularly strong, perhaps agreeing with their socially destructive policies in certain instances. If your parents weren’t shipyard workers or miners, you perhaps don’t appreciate how utterly destructive recent UK governments have proven to be for Scotland. Maybe you don’t really give a toss about working class soldiers being killed in illegal wars?

    So how do we get these people on board? I ask partly in hope of someone providing an answer, because I try to subtly push such people towards independence, but the first mention of it leads to claims that Scotland couldn’t afford to be independent, that we’re entirely reliant on oil, and no amount of statistics showing otherwise change their minds. One of my colleagues is a student on a placement, and he comes from a fairly affluent area of Aberdeen. He doesn’t really have much interest in politics anyway, and I often point out examples of the UK state doing wrong and point out why Scotland could be better, but I can tell that my efforts to get him interested in voting YES are not winning him over. Perhaps it’s enough that he won’t be going out to vote NO, but I’ll always feel he’s a missed opportunity if I can’t get him excited by independence.

    1. Peter A Bell says:

      Apathy and inertia are powerful forces. As you acknowledge, it can be frustratingly difficult to persuade some people to listen to the arguments, far less motivate them to vote for independence. I don’t pretend to be the one capable of “providing an answer” to this problem. But I would venture a couple of suggestions.

      If you’re anything like myself you will have frequently gritted your teeth on hearing people profess their detachment from politics. You will all too often have heard things like, “I’m not interested in politics!”. Or, “F***Ing politicians! They’re all the f***ing same!”. The response to the former must be to point out ways in which politics touches that individual’s life. Not a general statement that politics affects us all, which will tend to sound platitudinous, but something that is likely to be relevant to that person. Something that will create a personal connection.

      To those who say politicians are “all the same”, I would offer no contradiction. Leaping to the defence of such a widely discredited group is not likely to make the person holding such a view more amenable to listening. Rather, I would point out that, to whatever extent politicians might be viewed as a homogeneous group, it cannot sensibly be argued that political ideas do not differ greatly. It is these political ideas that the person should have regard for, even if they can muster no respect for the politicians who articulate them.

      As to motivating people to vote YES, my feeling is that this will be best achieved by linking the things they want to independence. No matter how comfortable a person is in their personal situation there will almost surely be at least one thing about which they feel strongly. One thing that they would change. If independence is presented to them as a possible means to effect the change they want then that thought alone may be sufficient to counter the apathy and inertia just enough to get the individual listening.

      It’s all about making connections. Firstly, connecting with people. Then connecting those people to ideas.

    2. Dave Coull says:

      Folk from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to vote, but folk from less affluent backgrounds are more likely to favour independence. Simple statement of fact. Therefore, it is vital to get the working class vote out. If your own particular social circle doesn’t happen to be particularly working class, then it is less important to concentrate on your own particular social circle. We need to focus on motivating the working class to turn out and vote. Also, there should be a registration drive. Make sure folk are in fact on the electoral register. And again, folk from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to be registered, whereas folk from less affluent backgrounds are more likely to favour independence but less likely to be registered. Another thing: we have to get young people voting in the referendum. Old folks (like myself) are more likely to vote. In her maiden speech as a Member of the Westminster parliament, way back in 1967, forty five years ago, Winnie Ewing spoke in favour of extending the vote to 16 year olds. I am also in favour of 16 to 18 year olds being able to vote. But even if that doesn’t happen, somebody who is 16 now will be 18, and therefore eligible to vote under current rules, by August 2014 – but ONLY if they are on the electoral register. Yes, I know that’s not a particularly big group, and I’m well aware that older folk like myself will constitute a far bigger group of voters. But that is no reason for ignoring the young. Angus Robertson’s style of campaign worked for getting the SNP elected. But a referendum is not an election, and a party-political style campaign is not going to work. A more radical approach is needed to enthuse the working class to get out and support independence.

  4. raddledoldtart says:

    Seeing “Miss Inverness” on the platform for the No campaign annoyed a lot of people, but she’s hardly got her finger on the pulse of the nation when her job is “private nanny in Nairn” and she has a boyfriend at Sandhurst!!

  5. Craig P says:

    I get the feeling that if you asked a lot of ‘No’ supporters what they would like more of, the answer would be ‘right wing government’. These people have always, or at least since the last 40 years, been terrified of any kind of independence or even devolution as they can only envisage an independent Scotland being ruled in perpetuity by profligate socialists. There’s more of them than we might like to think and they are not all middle class.

    Fortunately the best example for these folks is to compare and contrast the relative competency of the current Holyrood and Westminster administrations. Admittedly the Westminster coalition has the financial crisis to deal with but all that needs to be done is reel off a few choice examples of how various situations have been handled. You will almost certainly need these examples as such people will be ignorant (often through no fault of their own – the Daily Mail or BBC are not exactly going to be trumpeting SNP success) of the true contrast in the levels of competency between the administrations.

    Also mentioning that we get to keep the queen and eventually, Kate Middleton, probably also won’t harm things. That will be an argument for another day…

  6. Angevin_Angel says:

    @Craig P said:

    “These people have always, or at least since the last 40 years, been terrified of any kind of independence or even devolution as they can only envisage an independent Scotland being ruled in perpetuity by profligate socialists”

    I don’t think that way. I still remember that guy De Vink saying on a Newsnight feature, with a little smirk as he said it: “Alex Salmond talks left but he acts right.” (slightly paraphrased)

    Jim Mather said that anyone who thinks an independent Scotland will be right wing is deluded.

    I have no delusions. Salmond, Mather, Russell, Sturgeon, Hyslop, Robertson represent a right wing market embracing militaristic collective.

    The sooner the SNP blow them out of the water, the better.

  7. Angevin_Angel says:


    Jim Mather said that anyone who thinks an independent Scotland will be *left* wing is deluded.

  8. The class “problem” was known to Thatcher and her ilk that is one of the reasons behind the drive to make Scotland a country of home owners.This of course just brought back the private landlords with the “cleaning deposit” just replacing “KEY MONEY” still same old story now we have to fight for social housing and justice all over again.

  9. Galen10 says:

    The YES camp have 2 years to relentlessly hold up a mirror to all that is worst about the current UK political system, and to show how things could and will be better under an independent Scotland.

    The narrative isn’t difficult to construct;

    If you want to retain nuclear weapons on the Clyde, vote NO.
    If you want a continuation of light touch regulation of the financial sector and self-regulation of the media, vote NO.
    If you want to be subjected to a continuation of Tory rule and “there is no plan B”, vote NO.
    If you wants Scots law to be increasingly sidelined by the UK Supreme Court, vote NO.
    If you want to continue with the crypto-medieval aspects of the Unionist settlement, vote NO.
    If you want to retain the House of Lords, vote NO.
    If you want a continuation of the creeping privatisation of the NHS and other public services, vote NO.
    If you want University education to get ever more expensive, vote NO.
    If you want free health care for the elderly to be phased out, vote NO.

    The charge might “naturally” be led by the SNP in the sense that they can set out their stall of what they would do post 2014 “if” they are in power, but the YES campaign generally needs to shift up a gear an ensure that they compare and contrast the potential gains of independence with the dangers inherent in the status quo. It is too easy for the inertia discussed above to become the cosy acceptance that it is better to do nothing, in the mistaken belief that it is a less risky option than voting YES,; the rejoinder has to be that not only are we NOT better together, we are in fact better apart.

    1. David Moynagh says:

      Couldnt have put it better myself. The steel of Wallace’s sword remains keener than anything from Sheffield. We just need to keep it sharp and this applies to presenting arguments in favour of YES thinking.

  10. Derick fae Yell says:

    For the middle classes – how can the likely continuation of free university education and the risk to this that a NO vote represents is a good issue. The ‘Status Quo’ won’t be very quo in the event of a NO vote as Westminster/Whitehall seek to neuter the Scottish Parliament. For the working class, pensions is a good issue (and indeed is one of my own personal motivators). Anybody who has had a manual job is going to be reliant on the state pension. Know the international comparators and ask whether people trust Westminster or the Scottish Parliament to keep pensions safe. For people who are not interested in politics Trust is going to be a deciding factor.

  11. Galen10 says:

    @ David and Derick

    I think some of the issues probably have “general” appeal across class, regional and ideological divides: I’d probably put protecting the NHS and “distinctive” Scottish instiutions like the legal and educational systems in that bracket.

    Obviously certain issues will have greater resonance with some sections of the voting public than others: pensioners and those thinking ahead to their retirement will obviously be more concerned about the implications of independence on free care for the elderly going forward, and the potential impact on pensions… but it is also an issue which concerns others, either because they have parents who are affected, or simply because they think it is an important issue.

    Similarly, some people will be “turned on” more by arguments that a progressive, independent Scotland will not see the kind of cronyism and corruption evident in the MP’s expenses issue, the Leveson inquiry into the media, and the failure to regulate the financial sector adequately.

    Making a virtue out of Scotland getting rid of nukes on the Clyde is a no-brianer, but even in matters of defence and security more generally, it is relatively easy to construct a strong case that an independent Scotland (whether inside NATO or not) will be more secure, have stronger defence forces more suited to its needs, and spend less than we currently do.

    We don’t need to get bogged down in the detail as some (both here and in other forums) have suggested; all we need do is show that Unionist myths have no foundation, and are just a series of bogeymen meant to scare us.

    The dangers of the status quo (or worse of devolution being rolled back) need to be stressed, and we need to win the argument that whilst there are potential risks of independence, these need to be examined against the risks inherent in doing nothing.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.