Lesley Riddoch: Are Scots really as gloomy as the rest of the UK?

A poll found 86 per cent think the UK needs a strong leader but only 21 per cent think the next PM will be up to the job PA. Photo: Sean Dempsey.
A poll found 86 per cent think the UK needs a strong leader but only 21 per cent think the next PM will be up to the job PA. Photo: Sean Dempsey.
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Britain is divided, pessimistic, angry, polarised and torn apart by social class, geography and Brexit. For some reason, these findings of the grandly titled “Mood of the Nation” survey, are meant to come as a surprise.

69 per cent of Britons feel pessimistic about national unity. 75 per cent say British politics is not fit for purpose. One in five people expects to be a victim of violent crime or to witness attacks on friends or family members. 83 per cent feel let down by the political establishment & 73 per cent believe the country has become an international laughing stock. Leave voters and elderly people are almost twice as optimistic about the future as twenty-somethings and Remain voters.

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But these disparate groups also agree on a few things. A staggering 86 per cent think the UK needs a strong leader but only 21 per cent think the next Prime Minister will be up to the job. There is Britain’s problem in a baffling nutshell.

The mismatch between longed-for political superhero and typical party leader clearly contributes massively to voter-dissatisfaction. If voters think a “strong” Putin/Trump or Farage style leader (not a strong democracy) is the solution to Britain’s problems, it’s no wonder they feel anxious and despairing, since no-one angling for the Tory (or Labour) leadership is single-handedly up to that mammoth task.

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However, those contradictory responses lead me to conclude that very few Scots were included in this measure of “the national mood.” Scots have shortcomings, but the naïve belief that a single human being can “fix” the nation ain’t generally one of them. Our political debate revolves around the location and control of powers, institutions, democratic rules, taxes and weapon systems – individuals (with the possible exception of Boris) less so.

As usual, Scots examining this “major new survey” don’t know if the findings include them or if London-based data has been extrapolated to cover the whole of Britain.

And the pollsters don’t feel obliged to even explain.

This matters. If only a meaningless handful of Scots was involved in the survey commissioned by strategy consultants, Britain Thinks (a thousand is usually the minimum meaningful sample size), it’ll be mildly annoying for us, but also a missed opportunity for the vexed southern electorate to get much-needed perspective on the real nature of “Britain-wide” gloom -- what generates it, what minimises it and therefore what might help English voters escape it.

A massive poll conducted last year by the BBC, came up with the same overall pessimistic verdict, but drilled down further to discover that English folk were most gloomy, despite demographic dominance of every British institution from the BBC to the Commons while independence and Remain-voting Scots – thwarted in both referendums – were actually the cheeriest folk in Britain.

Union supporters might argue that this is simply because Scots have the best of both worlds. There’s a more likely explanation.

Scotland’s Yes voters remain upbeat, no matter the setbacks, because most are already mentally and emotionally detached from the failing institutions of the UK, have a clear, un-romanticised view of Britain’s imperial past and a shared vision, motivation or goal – call it what you will, but it keeps folk feeling hopeful, and that optimism might even have rubbed off on No voters and Conservatives who were found to be statistically more pessimistic. Love them or hate them, the Scottish Government believes better days lie ahead, and the BBC poll demonstrated that such conviction really matters in setting a benchmark for voter optimism.

More Scots surveyed believed that the country’s best days were in the future (36%) than in the past (29%). This was a marked contrast to England, where 49% said the country was better in the past while only 17% felt the best days were yet to come.

According to the BBC’s own website; “Polling experts said data showing greater optimism about the future in Scotland and Wales was largely down to responses from independence supporters in these areas.”

Contrast the plight of folk in England with a false vision of past glory, a set of hard-to-eject Tory politicians on an endless, dignity-reducing mission to cut public services without a lifeboat, parachute or escape route in sight. No wonder gloom abounds.

The BBC survey also found that 51 per cent of Scots surveyed thought Scotland was better than most other countries in the world. Just 6 per cent thought it was worse. That could mean we have an o’er guid conceit of ourselves – “wha’s like us” -- but it could also mean Scots know we are blessed compared to the majority of poorer nations across the world and our gubbed, hopeless southern neighbours who still hope a strong leader can save them.

Just for the record, the BBC’s 2018 survey, spoke to more than 1,000 people in Scotland, a similar number in Wales and more than 20,000 in England. The Britain Thinks’ sample total was just two thousand people.

Does it matter if commentators and London based politicians think the whole UK is covered in a uniform blanket of despair? Will the Britain Thinks diagnosis of mass hopelessness be dismissed as a national nervous breakdown, or sourced to the pervasive elitism of British politics, the absence of grassroots democracy and the festering presence of nihilism and consumerism?

Last week a Scottish commentator objected to Nicola Sturgeon’s talk of Scottish values. Values are indeed slippery things to define, but a life without them, without their clear, unapologetic shaping influence in politics produces precisely the kind of despair felt south of the border today.

That’s why Rory Stewart has become a breath of fresh air amidst the stale, dishonesty of the Tory leadership campaign. I wouldn’t vote for a man who describes himself as the economic conservative who’ll get Brexit finished first. But he’s right to talk about trust. Essentially Rory Stewart is riding high amongst actual voters (if not the smaller cohort of octogenarian Tory members) because he sounds like he wouldn’t sell his granny.

If Scots do emerge as cheerier than English voters in this latest research, our optimism will have little to do with geography and everything to do with political culture, parliament, institutions and civic life, all of which explicitly reject Britain’s failed experiment with market supremacy.

Sooner or later that totally un-surveyed penny will drop.