Scots aren’t better than the English … or worse. We’re the same … but our political cultures are worlds apart
Herald Scotland, By Iain Macwhirter
THERE was a sting in the tail of the Cowdenbeath by-election.
It came as little surprise that Labour won with an increased majority but when we learned the LibDems had come fifth behind Ukip, the twittersphere ignited.
Was this confirmation that the Scots aren’t so different after all? Is the myth of communitarian Scotland just that? Are voters here just as receptive to the anti-Europe/anti-scroungers party as voters in England? Well, in short, no.
Both Ukip and the LibDems lost their deposits in Cowdenbeath, returning 610 votes and 425 respectively. This completes an unbroken chain of losses for Nigel Farage’s party in Scotland. And the reason the LibDems did so badly was essentially because of their alliance with the Tories in Westminster, which meant their hapless candidate had to defend the bedroom tax. Supporting Tory benefit reforms is electoral suicide in Scottish elections.
Scotland remains as resistant as ever to not only Faragism, but also Conservatism. Yet, this apparently self-evident truth has come under challenge recently by London-based commentators, who resent the idea that the Scots are somehow more right-on than voters in England. The Times columnist, David Aaronovitch, last week took Scottish writer Lesley Riddoch to task for peddling such ideas. He’s even invented a word for it: "othering", which apparently means making arbitrary, moral distinctions between Scots and English people.
"The Yes campaign", Aaronovitch wrote, "is sophisticated and fights clear of the old anti-Sassenach stuff that used to characterise some nationalism. No woad or bare bottoms, but rather a constant suggestion that – sadly – the Scots are one thing and the English are another, and that they are becoming less alike. Regrettably, too, the Scots are a bit nicer, a bit more progressive, a bit warmer towards the poor and could be a whole lot more of those things if only they were independent."
Aaronovitch thinks we’re just hiding our woad behind a gloss of liberalism. So, for the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear that Scots are no better or worse than English people, morally or in any other respect. This has nothing to do with genetics or national character, but political culture. It is simply that there is no significant party of the political right in Scotland any more.
The Tories were wiped out in Scotland in 1997, and remain profoundly unpopular, with only one MP. They were only saved from oblivion by the creation of the Scottish Parliament they opposed, and even there they have made virtually no progress despite being led by an attractive and intelligent young woman who happens to be a lesbian.
This difference in political culture pre-dates the referendum and the Yes Campaign, and it isn’t really to do with nationalism. In the 1980s, I used to drive London journalists and politicians around solidly middle-class constituencies like Edinburgh South and invite them to guess the label of the local MP. They couldn’t believe they weren’t Tory. Labour only began to lose its grip on Scottish politics when Tony Blair began to emulate the politics of Margaret Thatcher.
This different political culture has led to a markedly different pattern of public provision, and an enduring commitment to universalism. Hence free personal care and the abolition of tuition fees; free prescriptions and the SNP’s childcare promise. Many of the themes that dominate Westminster are irrelevant here. Very few Scots send their children to private schools, so commitment to the comprehensive system remains firm. Michael Gove may be a Scot, but his free schools have aroused little interest here.
Nor are there moves to break up the health service, bring in private providers or subject the NHS to the market-based reforms being introduced in England. The last big private hospital to be built in Scotland, UCI in Clydebank, was nationalised in 2004. As last week’s BBC1 Question Time demonstrated, opposition to Coalition welfare reforms is considerably stronger in Scotland.
Scots vote in a different way to people in the Home Counties because of their history and social circumstances, not because of their genes or their national identity. Scots do not have a problem with dual nationality – Scottish and British. Scots have arguably been more committed to the idea of Britain than the English over the last 200 years. What Scotland didn’t buy into was the abandonment of what used to be called the post-war consensus: universalism and the welfare state.
London commentators see Scottish nationalism as essentially racist, and believe that Alex Salmond is only pretending to be a social democrat to better foment antagonism. But Scots don’t hate English people. If they did they’d never have tolerated the half-million or so who have come to live in Scotland in the last 25 years – the biggest inward migration since the Irish came at the end of the 19th century. That led to Orange marches and sectarianism, but the English invasion hasn’t led to anti-English riots. The number of racist incidents against English people fell by 17% in 2011-12 and is vanishingly small. The Highlands speaks with an English accent these days – and a surprising number will be voting Yes.
This difference in political culture between Scotland and England has a lot to do with Scotland’s economic history. The industrial recessions destroyed working-class communities in west-central Scotland, but even in middle-class areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow there was a sense of betrayal. Scots regarded the UK as a project devised for the mutual benefit of Scotland and England – the two nations which voluntarily entered the Union and had fought together in two world wars.
But in the last 30 years, London and the southeast has carved itself off from the rest of Britain and devised a post-industrial economy based on financial services and neo-liberal tax policies. This has not only made the UK a more unequal society, it has also concentrated wealth in the southeast – as evidenced by London house prices. As the metropolis has expanded it has drawn huge numbers of skilled workers and professionals from Scotland, as well as capital and oil revenues of up to £12 billion a year.
If Scots appear to be more sympathetic towards benefit claimants, it is because many are only a few pay-checks away from Benefits Street themselves. Nor do they resent immigrants, realising they are in much the same boat. Anyway, Scots have been all over the world since the Middle Ages so it would be a bit rich to reject people who want to come here.
This isn’t "othering"; it isn’t the manufacturing of difference, an attempt to create antagonism between north and south. As in the US, there is simply a different history and different political outlooks between the northern states and the southern ones. Scotland has broadly kept faith with the social democratic values that are being discarded in Westminster, where even Labour has had to start sounding tough on benefits and immigrants because it is vying for Tory votes.
What Scots have to decide in September is whether their political culture is still viable in a UK dominated by London. It’s not an easy question.