THE YES VOTE – NATIONALISM OR DESPAIR?
The attached chart shows that most (71%) of the variation in the Yes vote share in the Referendum across Scottish local authorities can be explained by the percentage of the population living on means tested benefits or tax credits, as defined in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. This is a very strong effect by any standards and suggests that other explanations – such as pre-existing commitment to nationalism as shown by the previous SNP vote, or religious affiliation – have little power. The chart suggests that actual preference for independence is no greater than it was known to be already – i.e. at most one third of the electorate. This is indicated by the evidence in the chart that a hypothetical local authority with no one on benefits would have voted No by 73% to 27%.
The chart also shows that the significance of the Yes vote in Glasgow has been overstated. The city was absolutely in line with the national trend, once deprivation is taken into account. Dundee and Highlands, by contrast, had clearly bigger Yes votes than the national trend would suggest, while Orkney, Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway had lower Yes votes.
A 1 percentage point increase in the percentage of population on benefits increased the Yes vote by 1.3 percentage points. This shows that the ‘benefits’ effect cannot have been due simply to voting by people currently on benefits. Also, Lord Ashcroft’s poll at http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2014/09/scotland-voted/ has only 10% of voters saying that benefits were among the two or three most important influences on their vote. So the ‘benefits’ effect is probably both representing people on benefits and proxying for something else. What is the something else?
The Catholic archbishop of Glasgow has argued (Herald, 23/9/2014) that ‘despair and deprivation’ were key factors in the vote, because too many people ‘feel threatened and disheartened by poor life chances’. He seems to be right. Certainly, the Yes campaign appeared to gain enormous traction through constant references to issues such as the bedroom tax and the growth of Food Banks, while Labour Party dissidents like Bob Holman specifically campaigned to win over disadvantaged people to Yes.
The claim that independence would help the disadvantaged is based on hope, not evidence. Bob Holman likes to attack the Westminster parliament for its social privilege – but Scottish MSPs are four times more likely to have gone to private schools than their constituents (Herald, 7/4/2014), and there are more ex-manual workers in the House of Lords than there are in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP largely represents constituencies which were previously Tory. And the SNP’s record in government is hardly encouraging – a 25% cut in further education funding while universities stay free, a council tax freeze which cuts services on which poor people rely but disproportionately benefits the better-off, an almost total lack of progressive labour market policies. Not to mention, of course, that a post-independence Scotland would be beset by funding problems, due to factors such as the costs of setting up a new state, the need to build up currency reserves, the loss of tax revenue from companies moving south, higher borrowing costs, unfavourable EU entry terms, and loss of population due to discriminatory policies against migrants from the rest of the UK. The Irish Free State in the 1920s and 1930s offers a salutary warning – it cut old age pensions and school meals to pay for lucrative new state jobs, lost more population after independence than before, and by repudiating its debt (the ‘land annuities’), provoked a trade war with the UK which caused lasting damage to the Irish economy.
Nevertheless there is a lot of work for the Labour movement to do. The lesson that it was neoliberal policies, mainly of the Tories since Thatcher, which nearly lost the Union, while it was the Labour movement that saved it, needs to be hammered home. It has to challenge the Yes campaigners now to shift their energies to delivering the policies and programmes to tackle disadvantage which lie within the soon-to-be expanded powers of the Scottish Parliament. And it has to show that neoliberalism can be defeated across the UK.