Scots ‘are more right-wing than the English’, shouted the Telegraph recently, taking not a little pleasure in a new report that told us something counter-intuitive following the recent SNP landslide on an anti-austerity ticket.
What else don’t we know about the politics of Scotland? Here’s five things that tend to be overlooked or forgotten – starting with some more detail on the story in question.
1. Scottish voters are not all that left wing
The Telegraph piece drew on a new report by David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling, which tells the less-dramatic story that Scottish and English social attitudes are often very similar when you ask them about things like economic inequality and criminal justice. In truth, this should really only be a surprise if you have been putting your hands over your ears for the past ten years and singing la-la-la whenever an academic says, “Well, actually …”.
My impression is that the new mission in life, for academics studying social attitudes, is to rid us of the notion that the Scottish population is more left wing than the rest of the UK. Studies over the years have pointed out that huge policy divergences such as Scottish/English tuition fees were not driven by different levels of support for policy change. There is support in Scotland to maintain existing policy differences (such as tuition fees, free personal care, and prescription charges) – but not produce new ones such as in social security entitlement.
The difference mainly boils down to voters in Scotland being far more likely to elect parties that appear more left wing than their Westminster counterparts. Previous research has found that Scots are more likely to define themselves as working class than their English counterparts, and that a demand for greater powers is often more to do with a desire for self-determination than to make different policies.
2. The SNP used to be tiny
If you are enjoying your formative years just now you may not appreciate just how weird it is to see the SNP become the dominant force in local, Scottish parliament and Westminster elections. Look at how many Westminster seats were won by the SNP in general elections since 1945: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 7, 11, 2, 2, 3, 3, 6, 5, 6, 6, 56. It won more in 2015 than it won in all of those other elections put together.
The same goes for membership. It might be more than 100,000 now, but in 2003 it was less than 10,000. The irony for Scottish Labour is that, although it has long seen the SNP as its powerful enemy, and a key Labour figure famously described devolution’s ability to “kill nationalism stone dead”, the SNP only truly became an electoral force when it could benefit from the Scottish parliament’s more proportional electoral system and use it as a platform from 1999.
It is hard to see how there could have been a referendum without that platform, not to mention the fact that the SNP was able to form a majority Scottish government (though the system was designed by Labour to make this virtually impossible).
3. Labour rescued the Tories in Scotland
The second-most grateful party to Labour in Scotland should be the Conservative party, which benefited from the very thing it opposed. The Scottish parliament’s more proportional system allows the Tories to translate about 15%-17% of the Scottish vote into roughly that amount of Scottish parliament seats. In Westminster this level of support in Scotland gets the party one MP (or between 1997 and 2001, one fewer than that).
Ruth Davidson, the kick-boxing Scottish Conservative leader and former BBC journalist was herself elected to the Scottish parliament through the regional list rather than by winning a seat. Nevertheless she made clear during the leaders debates for this year’s election that she doesn’t believe in proportional representation.
Paradoxically the SNP loudly makes the case for proportional representation at UK elections, even though it would have gained far fewer seats had such a system existed this year. More curiously still, a good handful of those would have gone to the Tories.
4. Tories were once bigger than SNP is today
The only party to have commanded a majority of the Scottish vote in a post-war UK election is the Conservative party: 50.1% in 1955. Anthony Eden had just taken over from Winston Churchill as prime minister, and was still months away from the Suez crisis.
The Tory victory that year in Scotland translated into just over half of the Scottish seats. This is more than even the SNP managed in 2015 (50.0%), which translated into 56 of 59. And in spite of the Thatcher years, the Conservatives pretty much managed to remain Scotland’s second-most successful party in Westminster until it all went spectacularly wrong from 1997.
5. SNP’s chief spin doctor is ex-Daily Mail
You might be tempted to think that the Daily Mail hates the SNP and all that it stands for. Choice headlines include: Scottish homeowners are fleeing to England to escape the SNP as ‘bullying’ nationalists create ‘divided and xenophobic’ country; The terrifying prospect of the Scots ruling England is now all too real; and Let the Scots sail off on another doomed adventure. They’ll go bust again - and come back begging.
This is fairly polite rhetoric compared to the descriptions of Daily Mail journalists by many independence supporters. Yet the party and this bastion of Middle England also have a symbiotic relationship, and the ties between the SNP and their most critical newspapers are closer than you might think – as summed up by the SNP promoting a former Scottish political editor at the Scottish Daily Mail to head of communications. Stuart Nicolson’s position might explain why the Mail’s write-up of SNP special advisers just before the independence referendum was fairly tame compared to its usual standards.