The political reputation Scotland has within the rest of the United Kingdom is, jokes aside, for being a bastion of socialism, red in tooth and claw . It is generally viewed and reported as a Labour fiefdom, almost a national rotten burgh – a place where even the nationalists are socialists.
This stereotype is, like most, a sweeping generalisation based upon a kernel of truth – but with many examples that make the reality far more complex. Understanding that complexity is important not just for political strategists of all parties, but also for those who seek to report and comment upon Scottish politics – and for those who wish to consider the ramifications for UK politics, such as possible general election outcomes.
In short, Scotland is not all the same and this is often (although not always) reflected in how people vote. In this column, I shall seek to touch on some of those differences and explain how they impact on political allegiances – and also how they may impact on September’s independence referendum.
Firstly, some aspects of economic performance. Despite what nationalists like to say, for most of the period since the Acts of Union in 1707 Scotland has been a strong economic power, contributing to the total economic performance of the kingdom of Great Britain that in 1801 became the United Kingdom. Like all economies going through industrialisation and urbanisation, localised problems surfaced from time to time, but the general industrial malaise that befell Scotland after the second World War should be traced to the uncompetitiveness in world markets of its dominant heavy industries.
This problem was only addressed by Margaret Thatcher when she rejected the corporatist planning of Macmillan, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan, and allowed industries in Britain to fail and for new industries to take their place. Although it underwent an economic shock, Scotland benefited and is now the third most economically successful region of the UK (after London and the South East), and has been 3rd or 4th for the last thirty years.
Within Scotland there are wide disparities, as in most regions, with economic hardship often being felt especially in greater Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. For instance, take Edinburgh and Aberdeen out of the economy and Scotland would be in desperate need of aid. The reverse of this effect is also true: take Greater Glasgow out of Scotland and its sick man of Europe ranking in practically every health or social deprivation statistic would disappear (e.g. life expectancy, heart disease, liver disease, smoking and alcoholism rates, various cancers etc).
While financial services and retail operations have grown manufacturing has declined – although thanks to food and drinks, engineering and technologies, manufacturing has become specialised rather than extinguished. Most notably, government as an employer has grown considerably with professionals in education, health and government agencies making the most sedate suburbs now reliant on the taxpayer.
Over time, this economic change has brought political change, by the end of the 1990s Labour and the Liberal Democrats had become the respectable parties for white collar professionals in Scotland. Glasgow lost its last Conservative MP in 1982, and Edinburgh lost two in 1987 and its last two in the 1997 wipe-out. The SNP were apt to win Conservative-held seats (thus being branded Tartan Tories) by becoming a home not only for a relative small percentage of nationalists (they always came fourth behind the other parties in the general elections of 1983, 1987 and 1992) but as a refuge for Conservatives that had lost faith and would not vote Labour – and others wishing to keep Tories out. Some urban seats were won by the SNP in famous by-elections, only to be lost again in general elections.
In the general elections of the 1980s and 1990s, the Scottish Conservatives found themselves under massed assault; from Labour and Liberals/LibDems in the generally affluent suburbs of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Greater Glasgow, and from the SNP and Liberals/Lib Dems in the rural seats such as in the Highlands, Grampians, Ayrshire, Perthsire and Dumfriesshire. Tactical voting undoubtedly played a part, with voters identifying the party most likely to unseat a Tory and acting accordingly. The 1997 election still saw 493,059 or 17.5 per cent of Scots vote Conservative, but no seats returned – while the Liberal Democrats won 10 seats on 13 per cent and the SNP 6 seats on 22 per cent.
Blairism was especially attractive as Labour continued to look distinctly Scottish (by comparison with the Conservatives) through Edinburgh-born Blair, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Reid, George Robertson et al, and its attraction to professional and managerial classes by the abandoning of hard ideology.
In the general election of 2010, only one Conservative was elected (as in 2001 and 2005) and the prognosis for 2015 is not especially encouraging. Although polling suggests a slight improvement in overall support it remains unclear where further seats can be won from Labour if voters continue to vote tactically to keep Conservatives from winning. If the nationalists lose the referendum then some of their seats could become vulnerable, and while there is talk of Lib Dems being under pressure the most likely loss is East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) – to Labour!
In 2010, Labour actually increased its vote share by 2.5 per cent and improved many of its majorities – even in target Conservative seats where they had been placed second – and it is this overall performance that helps maintain the stereotype.
Following devolution in 1999 and two terms of a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalitions at the Holyrood parliament the voters decided they wanted a change in 2007 – and seeing the SNP as the de facto opposition – made it the largest party. Rather than force another election where they might lose further seats (having fallen back from 18 to 17) the Conservatives chose to let the SNP rule as a minority government.
In 2011, after four years of doing nothing controversial that might scare the voters, and on the back of Labour’s wrecking of the UK economy that had resulted in an austerity-focussed Conservative-LibDem Coalition at Westminster, the SNP was given an absolute majority even in a proportional voting system. The key to this breakthrough was that it at last began to make serious gains in Labour territory in West Central Scotland that had previously shown a tribal loyalty. It is no coincidence that many SNP politicians are to the left of Labour.
If Scotland were to vote Yes in the forthcoming referendum, it is impossible to say what impact this would have on the outcome planned general election of 2015. While there would be genuine outrage that Scots MPs might decide the party of government it is highly unlikely the elections would not be held in Scottish divisions – Scots would at that point still be members of the United Kingdom and entitled to representation (see my previous column here). It might be that they would not change the party arithmetic – or be instructed to not vote on matters outside of Scotland but they would most likely be there and remain active.
Currently there are 41 Labour MPs, 11 Liberal Democrats, six SNP and one Conservative from Scotland. If those members were to be lost through the departure of Scotland the Westminster figures would change from 306 to 305 Conservatives; 258 to 217 Labour; 57 to 46 Liberal Democrats; and six fewer seats held by “others”. If a general election is then held (a Labour government might not have an overall majority with or without Liberal Democrat support) a UK Conservative government would be easier to obtain – but is by no means a certainty.
How will Scotland vote in the referendum on the basis of the foregoing? If previous votes in the devolution referendums are anything to go by we can expect nationalists to perform especially poorly in Liberal Democrat areas such as Orkney and Shetlands, much of the highlands and the borders. Unfortunately these areas are not known for being highly populated.
The key will be how the SNP does in Labour’s heartlands and thus far it has not looked certain. The polling suggesting that the No camp remains in front with the general rule of thumb that those with higher incomes are least likely to vote Yes. Polling by Ipsos Mori showed in December that almost half of those living in the most deprived parts of the country intended to vote for independence, compared to just a quarter in the wealthiest areas. But, going back to the beginning, Scotland is not as poor as the SNP might suggest and it has to make a bigger impact if it is to take the lead in the polls. Similarly, across age groups the No camp remains in the lead with even the youngest being against independence with the highest support being amongst 35-45 year olds and then reducing as voters get older.
Within the genders, men are generally more disposed to vote for independence than women, which is why the nationalists are retailing free childcare as a lead item in their White Paper. This may now all have changed; following the most recent political dogfights over currency union and EU membership an impression may have been made on swing voters. New polls are therefore eagerly awaited by both sides.
The lesson is simple enough. Scotland is not as homogenous as many politicians like to suggest; it is divided in many ways, north and south, urban and rural, east and west, by religion and class – in that way it resembles the rest of the UK, although the SNP would never admit it.