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28 March 2015

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

By Tim Wigmore

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.” 

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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