The Scottish Yes campaign’s class problem

Working class Scots are more likely to support independence but less likely to vote than their middle class counterparts.

Left-wing supporters of the Union often accuse the Scottish National Party (SNP) of pursuing constitutional change at the expense of focusing on more concrete issues like the economic crisis and its implications for ordinary Scots. The assumption which informs this criticism is that nationalists are more interested in questions of identity than they are in those of class. Recent political history suggests this is largely true, but it overlooks one crucial point: there is a clear class dynamic to the constitutional debate in Scotland.

In the 1979 referendum on devolution, 57 per cent of working class Scots voted in favour of a Scottish legislative assembly, whereas 60 per cent of middle class Scots voted against. In 1997, 91 per cent of working class voters backed the creation of a Scottish Parliament compared to 69 per cent of middle class voters. A similar pattern emerges when it comes to independence. In January, Ipsos-MORI published a poll which showed that support for full Scottish self-government registers much higher among Scots living in deprived parts of the country (58 per cent) than it does among those living in affluent areas (27 per cent).

The divide between a Scottish working class with radical constitutional instincts and a Scottish middle class with more conservative ones poses a serious challenge to the pro-independence coalition ahead of the 2014 referendum. In Scotland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, middle class people are significantly more likely to vote than their working class counterparts. Indeed, according to the Scottish Election Study, between 1997 and 2007 the average turnout in all parliamentary elections in Scotland (Westminster, Holyrood and European) among voters in the highest and intermediate social class categories was 40 per cent and 36 per cent respectively, while the figure for those in the lowest group was 24 per cent.
 
If this trend continues the likelihood of a majority Yes vote in the referendum is extremely slim, which raises the question: what kind of campaign should the SNP and its allies run? One option is to focus on winning middle class voters over to the idea of independence - a considerable challenge given the constituency’s traditional loyalty to the Union. Another is to try to ‘expand the electorate’ as Barack Obama did to great effect in the 2008 US presidential election. If successful, this would ensure a higher working class turnout than at previous ballots. A further option is to build a campaign which appeals to both middle class and working class interests, but this risks promoting conflicting narratives.
 
There is little in the SNP’s recent past which indicates how it might deal with the class cleavage at the heart of the independence debate - its approach to the issue of class has always been rather disjointed. In the 1970s it advanced a broadly social democratic agenda, pledging to wage a "war on poverty" by raising tax thresholds, increasing child benefits and establishing a universal minimum income, but did so while rejecting what one 1978 policy document called "the extremes of outdated class politics". In the early 1980s efforts were made by a radical left-wing faction within the party to give nationalism a distinctive socialist identity, but this failed when a dispute with the leadership resulted in the faction’s expulsion.
 
The experience of Thatcherism was formative for the current generation of SNP leaders. The socially destructive effects of Thatcher’s flagship economic policies (Scottish unemployment and poverty rates nearly doubled during her period in office) consolidated the centre-left consensus in the party but didn’t contribute to the development of a coherent class strategy. The continuing lack of any such strategy has been made apparent in recent years by the leadership’s simultaneous championing of the Irish laissez-faire experiment and the Nordic social model.
 
With leading members from both the socialist left - like Dennis Canavan and Colin Fox - and the Scottish business elite - like George Mathewson and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh - the make-up of the Yes Scotland coalition reflects the SNP’s ill-defined perspective on class. If the independence campaign is to be successful, its organisers need to develop a much clearer position - and quickly.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond at the launch of the 'Yes' campaign for Scottish independence in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.