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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.