Indy debate is shaped by class, research says

During seminar work it is discussed as to why the middle classes are solidly pro-union. Picture: Jane Barlow
During seminar work it is discussed as to why the middle classes are solidly pro-union. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Student findings make surprising reading, says Paul Gilfillan

As a lecturer in sociology, I chat with many students who are researching some aspect of the independence referendum, and students researching middle-class people in and around Edinburgh tell me this class is unionist to their core and will vote no in September. During seminar work we discuss why the middle classes are solidly pro-union, and I encourage students to consider the basic proposition that this alignment of class and politics in favour of unionism is an example of social determination; that if there is unanimity between a class and a political-come-constitutional position, then there must be a clear benefit that accrues to the middle classes as a result of being in a political union with England. And this benefit is not difficult to locate.

While we are familiar with the idea that there is a democratic deficit in Scotland thanks to its political union with England, such a description only matters if you vote for the SNP or Labour or one of the small socialist parties. If you vote Conservative in Scotland, however, you enjoy a democratic surplus or a union dividend thanks to political union with England. Crudely put, then, while a left-leaning voter may be mad not to vote yes to independence, any middle-class Conservative voter would similarly be mad to vote to end the union in September.

Sociologists, then, teach their students the constitutional views of middle-class Scots are socially determined insofar as their political choices do not turn upon any great consideration of national self-determination or meditation upon sovereignty, but upon the mundane, material and “vulgar” realities of social class and the good common sense of recognising a constitutional set up that is to one’s advantage.

But, another task for students is to account for the absence of any clear recognition in Scottish public and political life this alignment exists; that the alignment of class interests and maintaining the status quo is core to the unionist cause. It seems middle-class commentators, journalists and politicians are loathe to admit unionism is kept alive by good old-fashioned material self-interest, as if to admit to such a thing is a shameful secret.

More generally, the denial of social determination is endemic in class-based societies. In my experience, middle-class people normally dislike being called “middle-class people” as they feel offended by being aggregated into a crude collective category. Certainly their unionist representatives much prefer to talk about “the economy” and refer to three successful centuries of union as what keeps unionism alive. To judge their political behaviour more sociologically, however, the middle classes follow their class interest as anyone would expect them to do, but to judge by the discourse of their representatives whether in the press or parliament, they seem ashamed to admit to this basic truth, and portray themselves as acting in the national interest or every other interest except their own class interest.

If a middle-class person reading this has stuck with me until now, they will perhaps have suspected me of unfairly singling out the middle classes. What, then, of the working classes? When researching this social class my students similarly report a clear alignment between being working class and favouring independence and, again, this alignment is not the result of any prolonged meditation upon the different constitutional options they have open to them, but is rather another straight forward example of social determination. Again, the social determination at work is not difficult to spot but is blindingly obvious, that is independence will mean greater political representation of this class’s interests where there is a lack of such as a result of the union.

In the referendum debate, sociology students see social determination everywhere as they are trained to see it, and are trained to recognise those who deny social determination is at work, and that powerful social groups are up to their necks in denying they are up to their necks in social determinations. As I tell my students, to understand Scotland it is not necessary to be a nationalist, but the student who stares blankly at nationalism and fails to suspect its imminent success in September has failed to appropriate the sociological imagination in this part of the world at this point in time.

• Paul Gilfillan is programme leader, BSc psychology and sociology, at Queen Margaret University


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