Scotland: not as different from England as you think. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid
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Social democratic Scotland: a country that doesn't exist

Attitudes north of the border are almost identical to attitudes in the rest of the UK

There is a great myth that Scotland is bursting with left-wingers. 45 per cent of its population plumped for independence from England because it is a nicer and more generous country. Scotland’s political views are why it could never elect a right-wing government. 

It is certainly a seductive notion. But there is nothing exceptional about Scotland: the political views of the Scots are remarkably similar to those of the English, as the British Social Attitudes Survey makes clear. 

Take tuition fees. No policy is seen as a better encapsulation of the differing political climates north and south of the border: while tuition fees were trebled, to £9,000, in England and Wales in 2010, all fees in Scotland were completely scraped in 2008. Yet the countries have almost identical opinions on fees: 67 per cent of English people believe some students should pay, but 64 per cent of Scots do too. While 21 per cent of English people advocate no students paying fees, only 26 per cent of Scots hold the view – a drop of 13 per cent in the last 15 years. 

The picture is similar on different issues. While Scots are 9 per cent less likely to want to leave the EU, those in England and Wales are actually more likely to want to increase the EU’s powers or work towards the formation of a single European government than Scots. Majorities in both England and Scotland want to remain in the EU. The discrepancy is no greater on welfare. Voters north of the border are only 7 per cent more likely to favour increasing spending on health, education and social benefits. Scotland might be a little to the left of England – and it is only a little – but the notion that there is an ideological chasm between the two countries is hogwash. 

“You’d expect there to be a big difference in public opinion but there just isn’t,” says Rachel Ormston, co-head of attitudes at social researcher ScotCen. “Scotland and England tend to track each other. If England moves to the right, Scotland tends to move to the right as well.” 

Even more significant is that, Ormston says, “there is not that much change over time” in the relative ideological positions of England and Scotland. The rise of the SNP and the vote on Scottish independence has not induced any leftward surge north of the border. 

All of which exposes the claims that Scotland is intrinsically different to England as SNP bluster. And, while Labour’s complacency north of the border has rightly been castigated, it also asks some fundamental questions of the Conservative Party. For decades the party has given the impression of meekly accepting its fate in Scotland, but there was nothing inevitable about its decimation there. 

So the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson now has a great opportunity. If Scotland’s main parties are to enter in a bidding war on the left, it will open up political space for the Conservative Party - if it can forge a centrist image - to mop up Scottish voters who do not consider themselves avowedly left wing. As the Social Attitudes Survey reminds us, there are a lot of them.

This article was originally published on May 2015. Read Tim on Labour’s nightmare: The Tories threaten its dominance of the ethnic minority vote

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit