Bill Jamieson: What does Scotland really think?

THE views of Scotland’s biggest political parties are at odds with voters’ views on a range of key issues, writes Bill Jamieson.

Scots' attitudes to immigration and a EU referendum are more in tune with the UK. Picture: John Devlin
Scots' attitudes to immigration and a EU referendum are more in tune with the UK. Picture: John Devlin
Scots' attitudes to immigration and a EU referendum are more in tune with the UK. Picture: John Devlin

What does Scotland think? What does Holyrood believe we think? What is it that we really think?

What we think is not always the same as what the political elite would wish us to think. And what we really think is not always the same as what we say we think.

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Welcome to Paradox Street, one where we never walk alone. This strange passageway of mirrors – what we say we are and what we really are – has long confounded commentary, in Scotland as much as anywhere else.

It’s always been true that voters can hold views different to the ones they are expected to hold. They can be made to feel that they are not holding the “correct” views.

In Scotland, and in Holyrood particularly, the view has prevailed that we are notably more progressive – “enlightened” in the bien pensant lexicon – than the rest of the UK.

This view is supported by polls showing that, in six weeks’ time, Scots voters are set to endorse an SNP programme notably more progressive and to the left than the Labour Party – and certainly the rest of the UK.

The SNP is opposed to immigration controls. Indeed, it has sought to encourage immigration.

It has pledged to resist further “austerity” measures, putting a question mark on how far it would support a minority Labour administration pledged to debt and deficit reduction but at a slower rate.

And it says it is fully behind Scotland’s continued membership of the EU, with the former party leader now arguing that in the event of any UK referendum vote to leave the EU, Scotland should insist on remaining a member.

But there is a paradox for the pundits.

There can be no doubt of the strength of the swing to the SNP in recent opinion polls. An election outcome anywhere close to what the recent Ashcroft polls are suggesting would mark a major shift of opinion in Scotland.

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But on all three of these issues the assumptions of full-throated voter support are questionable. Poll surveys of Scottish attitudes on holding an EU referendum show little difference with polls across the UK overall – despite what Holyrood thinks.

Now we learn that almost two-thirds of Scots think immigration should be reduced. According to a YouGov/BBC poll this week, Scots are almost as negative about immigration as the population in the rest of Britain.

It found that 49 per cent wanted to see less immigration, exactly the same proportion as across Britain, and 15 per cent said it should be stopped altogether. This is in contrast to politicians at Holyrood who tend to agree that Scotland needs more skilled migrants.

So, on immigration curbs, 64 per cent of people in Scotland want immigration reduced or stopped completely. The figure for Britain as a whole was 70 per cent. There’s a difference, certainly, but not nearly as marked as we have been led to think.

Now it’s certainly true in Scotland that support for further immigration is widely evident across the Holyrood political spectrum and across business. We have not suffered the same challenges as those in many English cities where immigrant numbers have been much higher. In Scotland the economic – and demographic – case has been powerfully put.

But this does not appear to be the case among Scottish voters. Indeed, not only does there seem to be a far smaller difference between Scottish attitudes and those in the rest of the UK, but this has also been the case for some considerable time.

And this is not the only issue where Holyrood MSPs and St Andrew’s House seem to be out of touch with voter views.

It’s widely believed that Scottish voters are strongly opposed to welfare reform. But the UK welfare reform programme has similar or even greater support in Scotland than in the south of England.

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Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown made headlines a while back when he said people in Scotland should not “delude” themselves into thinking their general attitude to benefit reforms is different. “The attitudes towards welfare recipients in Scotland,” he pointed out, “are by and large the same as those that exist outside Scotland.”

And on the EU referendum, the Holyrood elite may also be out of tune with what Scots really think. The assumption has been that Scots are much more favourable to our EU membership and that there is no appetite in Scotland for a referendum on our membership. But is this the case?

Former leader Gordon Wilson (once ardently opposed to our EU membership) suggested this week that Scotland should declare independence if the rest of the UK votes to leave against its wishes. The Scottish Government would, he argued, have a mandate to retain membership of the EU by leaving the UK.

But on holding a referendum on our membership, and on attitudes to the EU, what do Scottish voters think?

A 2013 Ipsos Mori poll found that more than half of Scots (58 per cent) think there should be a referendum on Britain’s EU membership compared with just over a third who disagree. Support for a referendum is highest among those living in Scotland’s most deprived areas. Conservative and SNP voters are also more likely to think there should be a referendum (65 per cent and 63 per cent respectively).

When asked how they would vote in a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU, just over half of Scots said they would vote to stay in (53 per cent), compared with a third who said they would vote to leave (34 per cent).

Professor John Curtice has frequently pointed out that Scotland has become more Eurosceptic over the last decade. “Like the rest of the UK, Scotland is now a more Eurosceptic country than it once was… as recently as 2003, only 40 per cent of people in Scotland wanted Britain either to leave the EU or at least to reduce its powers. Now that proportion stands at 60 per cent”.

These readings – on immigration, welfare and the EU – could come back to haunt any administration which acted on the belief that voters as a whole shared the same views as the “progressive consensus”. It should not expect the mirrors on Paradox Street to be a flattering reflection of its own views.