It is tempting to think that the Scottish population is more left wing than its English counterpart and, therefore, to hope that an independent Scotland would pursue more left-wing policies. There are several measures of left-right wing from which to choose, but I think that the ‘socialist-laissez faire’ scale tends to be the one that gets most attention – directly in campaigns such as the Common Weal, and indirectly in Scottish Government-initiated discussions of the future of the welfare state and public services, which hang on proxy debates of things like the ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘privatisation’.
A post-devolution Scottish Government has also developed a reputation for pursuing ‘universalist’ policies – in areas such as higher education (tuition fees), health (e.g. prescriptions) and social care (care for older people) – and has elected parties that generally compete to occupy centre-left territory (or, at least, the only party portraying itself as centre-right, the Scottish Conservative Party, doesn’t do well). On the face of it, you can see some sort of divide between Scottish and UK (Westminster) politics – for example, the UK entertains more right-wing political party competition and governments more willing to shift from state to market based policies.
Would this difference continue in an independent Scotland?
I suppose you can now see where this is going. I’m about to give you a list of things that should make you pause:
- This difference does not seem to be driven by massive differences in social attitudes – Scottish attitudes do not seem to be markedly different from the rest of the UK. Instead, the Scottish population shares many attitudes with those in many English regions, and it may often be the south of England that is distinctive within the UK.
- Many of the differences are in spending, when the Scottish budget was generally higher than the English equivalent and, more importantly, so high that Scottish Governments often did not spend it all. So far, there have not been too many ‘hard choices’ to make.
- Independence would produce a much closer link between taxation and spending. At the moment, people are largely voting for parties producing policies from a fixed budget. They are not considering the effect of spending on taxation – and no party, so far, has made a serious argument for a tax rise to fund social programmes.
- It is difficult to see the effects of Scottish policies where it really matters – in, for example, income based measures of equality. Scotland remains a remarkably unequal society when we compare the rhetoric on universalism and egalitarianism with how we actually live. A major assault on inequality seems to require a major attempt to use the tax and benefits system to redistribute income. This could happen in an independent Scotland, but it has not really featured in the debate. If anything, the only major party to discuss future plans, has emphasised a reduction in taxation (the plan to reduce corporation taxes to encourage inward investment).
So, what could happen is that we continue with a political system that encourages parties to compete on left-wing issues and policies, but does not punish them when their policies are half-hearted, or have limited effects, in practice.