Deprivation in Glasgow. Photo: Getty
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Scottish independence: how inequality is fragmenting our nation

We are now a nation torn apart (soon perhaps literally) by inequality, and the danger is Scotland is merely the beginning

With Scotland about to vote on independence, there’s been much hand-wringing as to what may be the root cause of a possible Yes vote. One of the more popular and plausible observations is that a significant number of Scottish voters feel that political parties in Westminster do not represent them. It’s a compelling argument given not all of our politicians exude ‘everyman/woman’ qualities. But the problem is far greater than our political class.

We are now a nation torn apart (on Thursday perhaps literally) by inequality, and the danger is Scotland is merely the beginning. The simple truth is that material differences create social distances, and in the UK these material differences are vast.

Huge numbers of people in Scotland feel that the Westminster village is a long way from them, but so do people on the Mozart Estate in theLondon borough of Westminster. This goes beyond a simple lack of political representation, it is a growing feeling of distance between people, an increasing sense that a small number of people are soaring into the stratosphere while the rest of us are left behind.

And this is not just a gulf between the elite and the poorest. Since the financial crisis, people on middle incomes have become poorer while theinvestments of the rich have steadily gained value, or at least those able to invest in top FTSE companies. 

One of the perceived successes of the Yes campaign in Scotland is that is has mobilised huge numbers of social housing tenants – people often written off as so alienated from politics as to be very unlikely to vote (or as a Better Together strategist reportedly put it "people with mattresses in their gardens do not win elections"). This should tell all politicians something – that writing off those worst affected in our unequal society is not only deeply unjust, it may also be politically damaging. 

One of the few political parties well-positioned to benefit from this is of course UKIP, who claim to be a "people's army" ready to "topple the establishment". UKIP appeals to "the left behind", who now constitute vast swathes of the population. It is an intoxicating offer for the swelling numbers of people struggling to pay the bills and make ends meet.

There are short-term steps the political establishment can take to repair relations with the electorate and reengage with those worst affected by inequality. Part of that is to mind its language. Statements about mattresses in gardens obviously do not help, but neither do references to "middle earners" paying higher-rates of income tax, a statement patently untrue but allowed to swirl around public debate on taxation.

However, most of the steps necessary to reunify our nation are longer-term and less superficial. We do live in a nation run by elites. Only 7 per cent of people go to private school, but 71 per cent of senior judges do, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Permanent Secretaries, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List and the list goes on. The transition from this deeply elitist society to a fairer and more equal one will not be achieved overnight.

But steps can be taken to keep the nation together, whatever is left after Thursday. Over 80 per cent of people think the gap between the richest and the rest is too wide. The government that takes power in Westminster in 2015 must make it a priority policy goal to reduce that gap, while the nation still has enough coherence to be effectively governed.

Duncan Exley is director of The Equality Trust

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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