John Curtice and Rachel Ormston: You think Scots are the lefties, right?

An analysis of social attitudes shows that the claim that puts Scotland to the political left of England is on less certain grounds now than it was ten years ago

IT IS a claim that is often made. Scotland is markedly more left-wing than England. After all, England voted for Margaret Thatcher and, more recently, David Cameron, but Scotland never did. Indeed, Scotland and England have never been further apart in their partisan sympathies than they are now.

Yet votes in the ballot box do not just reflect voters' views on the issues of the day. A voter who believes in more government spending may well not feel able to vote Labour if, at the same time, they doubt the party's ability to manage the economy. And even if they are voting on the issues, voters may well be pulled in two directions. The voter who believes in independence but also wants tax cuts could well struggle to decide whether to back the Conservatives or the SNP.

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So perhaps we should give the conventional wisdom a closer look. How sound does it appear to be if instead of looking at how people vote, we examine what a representative sample of adults in Scotland say when asked their views directly - and compare their responses with those obtained from an equivalent sample in England?

This is precisely one of the key questions that the latest Scottish and British Social Attitudes surveys have sought to address.

We should first, of course, decide what we mean by "left-wing". We would suggest that the key difference between those on the left and those on the right lies in their attitude towards equality, and the degree to which the government should take action to promote it.

Those on the left incline to the view that society is better off if there is greater equality. Equality ensures the vulnerable and the disadvantaged receive their due deserts. Everyone gets the opportunity to develop and use their talents to the full - for the benefit of all.

Those on the right, on the other hand, say that those who achieve most should enjoy greater rewards, as the free market usually dictates. Otherwise the potential wealth creators in our society will not have sufficient incentive to deploy their talent and energy, to the detriment of all of us.

Where people stand in this debate reveals itself in a variety of ways.Those on the left can be expected to feel that there is too much income inequality, that government benefits for the less well-off are too low, and believe the government should redistribute resources from the better-off to the less well-off through the way it which it taxes and spends - all stances with which those on the right would typically disagree.

As you can see from the statistics in the graphic above, when issues like these are put them directly, those living in Scotland are indeed somewhat more likely than those in England to give what might be considered a "left-wing" response.

For example, more than two-fifths (43 per cent) of people in Scotland agree that "the government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off", but only around a third (34 per cent) in England. Just over two-fifths (41 per cent) of people in Scotland feel it is wrong that people with higher incomes can buy better health care, compared with a little under a quarter (24 per cent) in England.

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So far, then, the conventional wisdom appears to be confirmed. But a second look suggests it is a wisdom that can all too easily be exaggerated.

First, many of the differences between Scotland and England in our table are relatively small. They average just some eight points or so. That is considerably less than the 14-point difference between Labour's share of the vote on the two sides of the Border last May, let alone the 23-point gap in the Conservative performance.

Secondly, while Scotland may be somewhat more left-wing than England, this does not necessarily mean that a majority of Scots always adopt a left-wing stance. Fewer than half back higher taxation and spending, or feel that unemployment benefit is too low.

Indeed, it would seem that Scotland only enjoys a left-wing majority on issues where England does so, too.

Meanwhile, we should not presume either that people in Scotland necessarily hold on to their left-wing views through thick and thin. That becomes apparent in the statistics which compare the incidence of left-wing views now with the position a decade ago, and shows they are somewhat less commonplace than they were not so very long ago.

In 2000, as many as 71 per cent agreed that "ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation's wealth"; now that proportion is as much as 13 points lower. Support for more taxation and spending has fallen just as precipitously, from 54 per cent to 40 per cent. Much the same pattern is to be found in the remaining items in the table.

So, while Scotland may still be somewhat more left-wing than England, it is evidently no longer as left-wing as it was. Indeed, in this respect public opinion in Scotland has mimicked similar trends in England.

For example, ten years ago, as many as 51 per cent of people in England wanted more tax and spend. Now that figure is only 30 per cent.The rapid growth in public expenditure under the UK Labour government might have been in tune with public opinion when it was first instigated, but once the public's wish for better public services was met, the demand fell off - in Scotland as well as in England.

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Similarly, ten years ago, 40 per cent of people in England felt that unemployment benefit was too low, a figure that now lies at just 23 per cent - even though the onset of the recession might have been expected to have resulted in greater sympathy for those out of work.

Perhaps the rhetoric in recent years, from Labour as well as the Conservatives, that people should be got off welfare into work has helped undermine that sympathy - and on both sides of the Border.

Despite the advent of devolution and what sometimes appears to be a very different set of political arguments in Scotland, public opinion here is apparently still influenced by UK-wide political debates and developments in much the same manner as it is in England. Recently, at least, those debates and developments have served to chip away at Scotland's left-leaning inclinations.

Our examination evidently leaves us with something of a puzzle. Why is the belief that Scotland is markedly more left-wing apparently still so widespread when the reality is rather more prosaic? Perhaps, one clue is to be found when we look at national identity and whether this is bound up with left-wing views. It seems that it is. Those who say they are either exclusively Scottish or else that they are "more Scottish than British" are more likely than those (in Scotland) who say they are British to express a left-wing point of view. For example, no less than 48 per cent of those who say they are exclusively or primarily Scottish agree that the government should redistribute income to the less well-off. Only 32 per cent of those who feel mainly or wholly British do so.

For some, at least, being on the left is apparently part and parcel of what it is to be Scottish. Perhaps what they are inclined to forget is that not everyone agrees with them.

John Curtice is research consultant to the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) and professor of politics at Strathclyde University. Rachel Ormston is a research director at ScotCen. The 2010 SSA interviewed face-to-face a representative sample of 1,495 adults in Scotland between June and October.