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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.