Gerry Hassan: Our differences and commonalities

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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Politicians must tread carefully when dealing with the values, institutions and history that divide yet unite us with the rest of the UK, writes Gerry Hassan

Scotland is different. Everybody who lives or works here or knows anything about Scotland recognises this.

Scotland has had a distinctive history, traditions, institutions and set of experiences. Unlike Wales, it never fully disappeared, even at the height of unionist Britain, and remained a legal and administrative entity and not part of “Greater England”. All of this meant that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was relatively simple and straightforward, building on the legacy of more than a century of administrative devolution.

In recent years a counter-story to the distinctive thesis has arisen, put forward most noticeably by Prof John Curtice and the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) Survey. This version of Scotland postulates that we are only marginally more left-wing than England. Two examples suffice from their data: 78 per cent of Scots compared to 74 per cent of English voters said the gap between high and low incomes was too large. When invited to agree with action to rectify this, only 43 per cent of Scots said they supported government redistribution compared to 34 per cent in England.

This has become the predominant academic account of present-day Scotland, posing itself as the evidence based view in opposition to what it claims is a more emotional and instinctual feeling of distinctiveness.

Yet the argument that Scotland isn’t that different has to be qualified, and has been guilty of over-reach. Examine Scots and English voting patterns at UK elections. Between the years 1945-74 there was little difference between the two nations, with an average gap (measured by Labour versus Tory lead) of a mere 5.8 per cent.

However, in 1979 this gap widened to 20.6 per cent with the election of Mrs Thatcher, as more Scots voted Labour and more English for the Tories. Then in 1987, as she won a historic third term and Labour won 50 seats in Scotland, it expanded to what was then a record gap of 35.1 per cent.

This then declined dramatically when Labour won big in 1997 across Britain, but it didn’t go away. In the 2010 Cameron near-victory it went off the graph again, as Scotland voted Labour and England more Tory. The 2010 picture is of a record gap of 36.8 per cent, made up of a Labour Scottish lead of 25.3 per cent and 11.5 per cent Tory English lead.

The divergence between the Scots and English voting was a huge part of home rule politics in the 1980s, but seems less crucial at the moment – because of the Scottish Parliament, the referendum and the existence of a coalition (rather than Tory) government. But it is one of the tectonic plates of Scottish politics and could erupt at some point in the near future, when we ever face the prospect of a majority Conservative government elected with few Scots votes.

The distinctiveness north and south of the Border can also be found in attitudes to public services. A May 2013 Ipsos- Mori Scotland survey revealed that 58 per cent of Scots believed that publically-owned services were more professional and reliable compared to 19 per cent who choose privately-run public services. The comparable figures for England and Wales were 30 per cent for the public sector and 29 per cent for the private sector.

In another question, 50 per cent of Scots believed that the public sector provides better value for money, whereas in England and Wales it was 25 per cent. This illustrates in this area the contrasting dynamics of two political cultures. In England and Westminster, the discussion is of entire swathes of the public realm being privatised or outsourced, from the NHS, to Royal Mail, and defence contracting. In Scotland, the debate in the public and among policy-makers is within the context of predominantly publically-owned and run services.

Does this mean that the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) Surveys are wrong in finding that Scotland is only marginally more left-wing? Well, yes and no. What the SSA has to do is ask more detailed questions and address those areas where there are significant divergences. And at the same time stop over-selling or 
over-interpreting their data.

All public opinion data should carry a health warning when thrown into a heated political battlefield. That was evident this week, when YouGov’s 59:29 poll on independence was found to be using leading information before asking voters. The same was true of the Panelbase survey commissioned by the SNP; however YouGov have regularly been doing this and from their findings it looks like this has affected the overall results.

There will always be controversies about polling methods, interpretations, and the role of academics, but what matters most is politics. The difference/divergence debate is used by all sides in Scotland’s political community.

Unionist opinion wants to emphasise that Scotland is not that distinctive from the rest of the UK, and stress not just the 300 years of shared history, but what binds us together now. Championing common values makes it easier to argue that the UK works for most Scots.

Nationalists want to claim that Scotland is diverging from the path of the rest of British politics, by which they mean English politics, and that Scotland has to safeguard its own set of values through independence. Behind this is a belief that English politics are set on a rightward trajectory which even the election of a Labour Government would find impossible to correct.

The truth is a little more nuanced and subtle. Scotland is a distinctive country and political culture on many criteria. We don’t vote Tory in any numbers, have a different attitude to the public sector and abhor the marketisation and privatisation of successive Westminster administrations.

Yet there are also commonalities across the UK which cannot be completely ignored – of shared values, institutions and history. Most of these might be weakened in recent times, but they still exist and matter.

The battle around this terrain is critical in next year’s big vote. But it matters also in the struggle over what kind of Scotland people want to live in, and the values we want to see our public institutions be shaped by. There is within these diverse nations a sense of divergence between them, but also common ground, some of it contentious, against centralisation, London rule and the economic status quo. Who in Scotland and the UK can speak for this divided politics and statehood is a challenge equally for unionists, nationalists and democrats.