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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.

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

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.