Gregor Gall: Class divide in independence debate

Alexander argued that through shared social struggle workers can advance collective interests. Picture: Getty
Alexander argued that through shared social struggle workers can advance collective interests. Picture: Getty
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Polling reveals that the lower social class in Scotland is conflicted over the way to vote, writes Gregor Gall

A seemingly left-wing argument for voting against independence came from an unlikely source recently. Über-Blairite Labour MP Douglas Alexander wrote in our sister newspaper Scotland on Sunday that citizens should vote to maintain the Union out of a sense of class instinct and loyalty.

He opined: “Struggle, solidarity and social justice – three things that mean for me, we as Scots do better together as part of the family of nations within the UK than we do alone.” He continued: “Our belief, my belief, is that when we see injustice, we stand and fight to change it. For at a deeper moral level, walking away is not and never can be an act of, or the basis for, solidarity. Solidarity is my response to struggle [against poverty and injustice].”

Fine words indeed. This kind of class appeal has hitherto been the preserve of the Red Paper Collective, of which Labour MSP Neil Findlay is the foremost public figure. Yet just the week before, Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, made the contrary argument. Closing the final plenary at the second Radical Independence Campaign conference, he acknowledged that the issue of independence was a class issue, but drew the opposite conclusion: “This is a class conflict, this [referendum]. Rich people are voting No.” In other words, to advance the cause of the majority class against the minority class, independence – of a radical kind – was advocated.

Alexander argued that it is only through shared social struggle – north and south of the Border – that workers can advance their collective interests. Thus, the class interest of workers in Paisley, Preston, Portsmouth and Pontypridd are best advanced through united struggle because it lays the basis for class strength. McAlpine’s argument was predicated upon the view that to break out of the stranglehold of mainstream politics, independence is necessary. Thus, the politics of Britain (despite devolution) are dominated by Westminster process, which itself has been colonised by neo-liberalism. Under this, Labour has shed its social democratic skin and no longer cares sufficiently about struggle, solidarity and social justice for the majority.

Class will no doubt progress to become a cornerstone of the debate because not only will arguments become sharpened and deepened as polling day approaches, but also because notions of class are embedded in the Scottish psyche.

Surprisingly, most citizens in Scotland identity themselves as “working-class”, even though they are objectively “middle-class”. The subjective trumps the objective because former working-class citizens want to retain close links with where they came from and what this represents to them (even though, economically, they long ceased to be working-class).

But the concept of class becomes even trickier when intertwined with national identity. Being “Scottish” has come to mean being politically progressive, best described as social democratic. Part of being Scottish is also that the social democratic outlook is anchored on what it is to be “working- class”. So, in addition to most Scots in Scotland feeling “working-class”, they also feel “Scottish”.

Applying this phenomenon to the voting intentions is a fraught business. One reason is that polling is seldom done by social groups. Another is that there are two widely divergent narratives about where class instinct leads, as Alexander and McAlpine demonstrate. But, of course, the added and complicating factor is that there are powerful subjective notions at work of what class identity is. So, if one was to shine a light through the prism of class, it would be refracted in several different ways.

Fortunately, the TNS-BMRB research organisation has published polling by social class on the independence question since the late 2000s. Putting the AB and C1 classes together as the white collar (or non-manual) occupations and the C2 and DE classes together as the blue collar (or manual) occupations reveals that support among the lower social classes for independence is significantly higher than it is among the higher social classes. Over polls, the former supported independence within the range of 20-30 per cent, while the latter did so by 25-40 per cent.

What is of note, though, is that not only has the level of support for independence fallen among both from 2011, but it has never obtained a majority in the C2DE composite group.

Although not based on class, the most recent Ipsos-Mori poll found for the first time that there were more people in the most deprived parts of Scotland supporting independence than opposing it. Some 45 per cent backed leaving the Union, while 42 per cent supported staying. This was in marked contrast to the country’s better-off areas, where the No side measured 68 per cent (to 26 per cent Yes).

Previous Ipsos-Mori polling found that among social classes, support for independence was highest in the most deprived parts of Scotland (in the low forties) and lowest among the better-off areas (in the low twenties).

It seems that the lower social class in Scotland is conflicted over the way to vote. Even when the Yes side obtains, say, a third of support, this does not mean the No side obtains the remaining two-thirds. This is because around a third are “don’t knows”. By contrast, however, the higher class has no such ambiguous response. The No side does obtain majority support among the AB group.

The more clearly conflicted feelings among the C1, C2, D and E social classes reflects not only contrasting notions of the implications of what class means as per Alexander and McAlpine, but also about what class means to people as individuals in a subjective sense.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford