Contrary to his subsequent assertions, the protest which greeted Nigel Farage on his trip to Edinburgh last week was not motivated by anti-British or anti-English “hatred”. Most of the students who heckled the UKIP leader outside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile were in no way associated with the SNP or the independence movement, while those who were belonged to a group – the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) – which is at best sceptical of nationalism. The intensity of the demonstrators was nonetheless notable: Farage himself said he had never experienced anything like it before. UKIP’s persistent unpopularity in Scotland confirms that Scotland and England are now on separate political trajectories.
Recent polling data bears this out. In May, Ipsos MORI published new research which showed that 40 per cent of Scots backed higher taxes in exchange for increased investment in public services, compared to 30 per cent of English people. The research also suggested that Scottish voters were twice as likely as their English counterparts to view the public sector as the best mechanism for service delivery. A similar discrepancy exists on the European question. When Ipsos MORI canvassed opinion in February, it found that 53 per cent of Scots wanted to remain part of the EU. An earlier poll revealed roughly the same proportion of English respondents wanted to leave.
A common unionist response to this Anglo-Scots divide is to highlight the apparent closeness of voting patterns in Scotland and northern England and identify the conservative south as the real outlier. But here, again, there are significant disparities: although the Tories took just 17 per cent of the vote in Scotland at the 2010 general election, they secured a respectable 31 per cent in the English north. More worrying still from a unionist perspective, these specific electoral and policy differences are framed by a broader, separatist trend in Scottish public opinion: on health, education, welfare and tax – although not defence and foreign affairs – most Scots now want Holyrood, not Westminster, to make the decisions.
Why does Scotland sit outside the British – or at least the English – political mainstream? Certainly, the emergence in the 1960s and ’70s of a credible, left-leaning nationalist movement helped pull the centre of Scottish political gravity in a more progressive direction. This shift was consolidated during the ’80s, when Scotland’s opposition to Thatcherism fused demands for social and economic justice with the campaign for home rule, reinforcing the perception that social democracy was an inherent feature of Scottish national identity. The establishment in 1999 of a new seat of Scottish political authority – one which would go on to challenge Westminster’s right to speak for Scotland on a range of issues – has been another important factor.
One further reason may be the effectiveness with which some politicians exploit the myth of Scottish egalitarianism to preserve what remains of Scotland’s welfare state, as happened last autumn during a debate over higher education funding. When Johann Lamont signalled her support for the introduction of university tuition fees, she was merely bringing Scottish Labour’s position into line with majority opinion: a 2011 poll for the Scotsman showed that nearly two-thirds of Scots believed students should pay something towards their degrees. Yet, in the ensuing publicity battle Lamont was trounced by the SNP, which worked together with civil society organisations to defend the principle of free universal education, ostensibly on the grounds that course tariffs would be inconsistent with Scotland’sdistinctive tradition of “democratic intellectualism”.
Devolution was meant to act as a constitutional adhesive, but so far it seems only to have strengthened the internal logic and momentum of Scottish political life: if Holyrood is capable of running the Scottish health system competently, why not the benefits system too? And if benefits, why not the economy? And if the economy, why not defence? The polls continue to suggest Scots will reject independence next year. But whatever the outcome of the referendum a substantial transfer of power from London to Edinburgh seems inevitable sometime in the near future.
Unionism’s crisis could be terminal. The only party – Labour – with any meaningful claim to ‘one nation’ status faces what is beginning to look like an insurmountable task – that of reconciling Scotland’s aspiration for more responsive government with electoral pressures at the British level. Ed Miliband has to persuade Scots that their values and interests match those of voters living in England’s increasingly parochial rural and suburban south. But they don’t. The UK may survive beyond 2014. As the gradualists in the SNP have long predicted, however, Britain’s constitutional structure will struggle to hold the strain indefinitely.