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17 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

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

By Duncan Exley

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. 

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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