Scotland is another country, according to the Evening Standard, the New York Times, the Guardian and half my Twitter stream. It is different from the rest of the UK and certainly different from England. When you look at the electoral map, it’s hard to argue with that.
Then again, when you look at the electoral map, Scotland looks different from the rest of Europe too. In most of the world’s older democracies, the main political divide is between the conservative right and the liberal or social democratic left. The extent to which these parties dominate varies. In the US, no other parties get a look in but even in countries with more proportional systems and more parties, the two biggest ones are usually centre-left and centre-right. In the European Parliament, this pattern is replicated in the groupings of national parties. Regardless of their electoral systems, most countries in the developed world have a big red party and a big blue party. The Americans have the colours the other way round but the division is essentially the same.
So what happened in Scotland? It seems to have neither.
First to go was the big blue party. Scotland, more Conservative than the rest of the UK in the 1950s, had almost abandoned the party by the 2000s.
Is this because Scotland has become a socialist or social democratic country? Could it really be that a country which, within living memory, was largely Conservative, has shifted irretrievably to the left and no longer has a right wing? If so, it would be unlike almost anywhere else. Where have Scotland’s conservatives gone?
Some of Scottish Conservatism’s demise, says Nick Pearce, was due to a gradual decline in working class identification with Protestantism and the empire.
[A]s the foremost historian of modern Scotland, Tom Devine, argued in his magisterial work The Scottish Nation (1700- 2007) the Conservative Party began to lose support in Scotland when its role as a Protestant party of the Union and Empire waned in the early 1960s. In 1964, it dropped the title Unionist, in favour of the anglicised Conservative. As Devine recounts, it steadily lost the skilled Protestant working class, as Britishness and sectarianism lost their appeal, while its Clydeside industrial class leaders were replaced by anglicised lairds and aristocrats.
In other words, as Ian McWhirter says, the nature of Scottish patriotism has changed. Most countries have a patriotic right but in Scotland, Britishness and unionism have become less important to that sense of identity. At least some of the Scottish Tories, he says, turned into Scottish Nationalists.
But how can that be? Isn’t the SNP left-wing? Not really, or at least, its economic policies are not. As the IFS said, its policies on public spending cuts are, if anything, slightly to the right of Labour. Until 2 months ago, the SNP was proposing cuts to corporation tax and, since 2010, it has cut NHS spending in real-terms. It is, says John McDermott, a lot less radical than you might think. It has its socially conservative wing too. Some of its members were bitterly opposed to gay marriage and a few of its MSPs voted against it.
The SNP hasn’t moved that far to the left because, as Alex Massie says, a lot of its supporters are quite right-wing.
This isn’t really surprising. Surveys of social attitudes keep showing that there is very little difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Like everywhere else, Scotland has its socialists, social democrats, economic and social liberals, fiscal and social conservatives, big staters and small staters. The only odd thing about Scotland is that all of these manage to co-exist within the SNP.
Notwithstanding what I said earlier, there are some democracies where there isn’t a big red party and a big blue party. In a few cases, there is democratic one party rule. This is usually where, due to a liberation struggle or other national trauma, one party has become identified with the nation. Japan’s Liberal Democrats, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, South Africa’s ANC and, closer to home, Ireland’s almost ideology-free Fianna Fail, dominated their countries for decades.
Scotland now has the look of a liberation state. The SNP has pulled off that ‘we are the nation’ trick. As John McDermott says, “Scotland has become a democratic one-party state.” Like other national liberation parties, the SNP has subsumed divisions of class, religion and region into a sense of nationhood. This enables it to adopt an essentially centrist position while pulling in support from both left and right.
Will Hutton puts in succinctly:
The potency of Scottish nationalism is that it has combined a vision of Scotland’s alleged particularity (the besetting sin of all nationalisms) with a vision of deploying the co-dependency of private and public as the route to a fairer society and more dynamic economy.
The Nationalists have got away with this because the other parties have let them. The Conservatives had enough votes in England for their demise in Scotland not to matter and Labour didn’t believe the SNP could annex its turf. Now, though, in their exasperation, both parties are colluding with the myth of Scottish exceptionalism and considering changing their names north of the border. If Scotland had completely different party names from England and Wales, that would only further emphasise the difference.
Some Conservatives want to be shot of the whole place. Boris Johnson was talking about a federal state as the results of the election became clear. This is a formula for keeping the the flag, the submarine bases and the seat on the UN Security Council while limiting the influence the Scottish politics might have over the rest of the UK. Keeping the appearance of the Union while ring-fencing the Scots on their own reservation.
But, while Scotland’s map shows an almost clean sweep for the SNP, much of this is due to our first past the post electoral system. The party’s support is distributed in the optimum way to deliver the most seats. It took fewer votes to elect an SNP MP than it did for any other party. 50 percent of the vote was enough to turn the map yellow.
This map of second placed parties, produced by Crooked Timber, gives a glimpse of how Scotland used to vote.
Peel away the SNP wallpaper and we see old Scotland, with its red central belt, Conservative south and north-east and Liberal highlands. While the SNP has conquered enough of Scotland’s political left, right and centre to give it the look of a one-party state, there is enough opposition left to suggest that it might be a bit early for the other parties to throw in their towels.
Just because people voted SNP, says Gideon Rachman, it still doesn’t mean they want independence.
Last week’s general election results, in which the SNP won all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats, has created the impression of an irresistible surge of support for independence. But, even now, only about half of Scots actually voted for the party.
Expressing nationalist sentiment in a general election is a risk-free way of venting emotion. Voting for independence would be quite another matter since it would raise — once again — difficult questions about currency unions and tax revenues.
It’s easy to emphasise difference. Talk to foreigners, though, and they will tell you how similar they think we all are. As Chris Deerin puts it, the same people but with different accents. The political map makes things look more different than they really are. There is nothing to suggest that Scotland is a different country other than the electoral performance, under a skewed system, of a party that has promoted that exceptionalism almost unchallenged. If it isn’t challenged, though, it will become true. If Scotland believes it is different it will eventually become different. The other parties seem to be accepting this almost without question. If they carry on like this, Scotland really will become another country.
Jan Eichhorn of Edinburgh University shows that there has been no increase in feelings of an exclusively Scottish identity among people in Scotland. If anything, the reverse is true. The proportion of Scots rejecting the British identity and seeing themselves only as Scots is lower now than it was a decade ago.
The SNP’s victory cannot, therefore, be attributed to a rising sense of Scottishness as defined in opposition to the rest of the UK.
To just make the point absolutely clear: Scottish identity or sentiment has not been increasing, but decreasing gradually since the advent of devolution. There has not been a higher relative level of emphasising Britishness in Scotland than in the year when the referendum on its independence was held.
[T]his tells us an important message about SNP support: The SNP has not gained voters because it could increase the feeling of national identity, but has done so for other reasons.
Crucially, commentators need to stop painting a picture in which the majority of Scotland predominantly base their political decision making mostly on their national identity. There has been no rise in nationalistic sentiment in Scotland. As we (amongst others) have repeatedly shown in our research, the strongest determinants of both independence and SNP support were pragmatic evaluations about economic prospects, trustworthiness and political personnel. For most people in Scotland the SNP is a normal party, that they like, hate or are indifferent to, but those evaluations for most are based on whether people agree with their policies and how they evaluate their representation.
If commentators want to understand why the SNP is successful, they need to make a greater effort at properly understanding how public attitudes are formed in Scotland. Suggesting that it is down to sentiment is lazy at best, but actually misrepresenting the majority of Scottish voters. For political parties trying to challenge the SNP, first and foremost Scottish Labour, a similar message applies: to have a chance of engaging them successfully, they need to stop focusing mostly on high-level questions about different types of nationality. Instead they need to challenge the SNP on concrete policy debates around issues that affect people’s lives and which voters in Scotland are much more likely to base their votes on than identity-driven arguments.
In other words, SNP support has very little to do with an increase in Scottish nationalism and a lot to do with the failure of the mainstream parties. If Scotland does become another country, it will not be because the SNP won it but because our political establishment lost it.