Scots, it is frequently stated, are progressive or radical, even left-wing. This, on some readings, gives independence a radical potential. Posed slightly differently, independence is deemed necessary to preserve a welfare state that is cared about here in Scotland but, by implication, not elsewhere. “We’re different up here” is the assertion. But who are we different from? And how different are we?
Given much of current debate around independence is predicated around the idea that there is a gulf in attitude north and south of the border, this is no small matter. Many will assert that we are seeking a progressive future through independence to escape the politics of a UK simultaneously proclaimed to be moving to the right and incapable of change. (In such narratives the oft stated enthusiasm of the SNP to keep levels of corporation tax below those set at Westminster and their intention to grow the financial sector as a share of the Scottish economy seldom get much of a hearing.)
If the comparison is between Scotland (population: five million) and England (53 million), it’s no real surprise to find some diversity of views. Yet even here, a Nuffield Foundation report in 2011 concluded that in terms of being “more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best”. In what, perhaps, should serve as a warning for those who would conflate constitutional and social change they also note that “like England, Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution.”
But what if a less disproportionate comparison is used? A Study for the Red Paper Collective of British Social Attitudes Surveys going back to the mid-1980s examined not the difference between Scotland and England but rather between Scotland and our 15 million closest neighbours, the three northern regions of England.
Looking at a range of measures that might indicate some level of progressive opinion (e.g. role of government in tackling unemployment, support for taxation to fund services, attitude to benefit claimants etc), Scots are no different at all. It can, of course, be argued that during much of this timeframe Scotland operated largely within the same political and economic environment as the three regions sampled, so a degree of congruity is to be expected. This would be to miss the point. It is not simply that Scottish opinion was and is the same as these places – it is that Scots reacted in the same way to the same issues.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, our problems of unemployment, industrial decline and exploitation are much the same. Yet many are increasingly content to define Scottish difficulties as being a national question while issues in the English north are an economic question.
Such an analysis ignores the realities of the political and economic power wielded by business and capital. Much of the Scottish economy is owned and controlled at a UK level. But for the north of England as much as Scotland, ‘the UK’ in this context is really a synonym for the City of London. (See Richard Leonard in The Red Paper on Scotland 2014 .)
In this context, insisting that progress for people in Scotland depends on independence is saying that those with similar problems and outlook to our own must be written off as partners in building something better. Despite problems on Clydeside and Merseyside having similar causes and people feeling the same about them, the response, put bluntly, is a statement that “Connection with you is holding us back”.
Those who advocate such a course seldom show any signs of having considered how Scotland’s retreating from tackling issues on a UK basis, in pursuit of a (quite possibly illusory) sectional advantage, will impact on those they wish to leave behind.
Some of course are explicit in advocating a lifeboat scenario, saying in effect, “It’s all terribly sad for the Scousers, but it’s nothing to do with us”. This attitude suffices for nationalists, who, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, don’t really care about anyone’s country but their own. But for those who would claim to espouse any sort of politics of the left – this is an inadequate response.
The question of whether or not Scotland leaving the UK would be a progressive move depends of course on a range of factors far wider than the convergence of opinion between Scotland and the north of England. But that congruence of attitude is not trivial either.
Their issues of lack of accountability and economic democracy, the consequences of financialisation and external ownership are our issues too. They feel the same way about these things as we do. In such circumstances, surely the burden of proof lies with those who would argue for putting a political divide between us. They should show, rather than simply assert, how independence would improve, or at least do no harm, to our capacity to jointly confront our common problems.
Stephen Low is a member of the Red Paper Collective