Is Scotland so different from the rest of the UK?

“We do not see any borders from space. We just see a unique planet with a thin, fragile atmosphere, suspended in a vast and hostile darkness. From up here it is crystal clear that on Earth we are one humanity, we eventually all share the same fate."  

So said German astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station in July. His inspiring observation was made after witnessing an exchange of rocket fire between Israel and Gaza from 248 miles above the Earth, and lamenting the false divisions people create among themselves. However, the sentiment could equally be applied to the United Kingdom today, on the eve of a referendum that could rend it asunder forever.

The quote was paraphrased by Eddie Izzard at a Let’s Stay Together rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday. There are no borders between the nations of the UK, he said, because “We tore them down”. A Yes vote on Friday morning would be the first step towards rebuilding them. 

This referendum campaign has been fought on the premise of false divisions. There are claims that the keystone of Scottish identity, in contrast to English identity, is a commitment to social democracy. Yet there were over 438,000 votes cast in Scotland for the Conservatives, UKIP, and BNP in 2010 on a turnout of just shy of 2.5 million. In the European Parliament Elections earlier this year, 28% of the vote went to the Tories and UKIP combined. Clearly being Scottish does not mean you are a social democrat by default.

Anyway, other findings show that the English are far from being a people wedded to economic liberalism and opposed to social democracy. A progressive majority has been in evidence in England in every election for at least three decades. Even in the 1979 election, the combined Labour-Liberal vote overwhelmed Thatcher’s Tory ‘majority’. The key to unlocking social democracy in the UK is not through disintegration of the Union, but a proportional voting system for the UK parliament- one sadly rejected in 2011, by Scots as well as the English, Welsh, and Northern Irish.

Polling data further emphasises the harmony of political opinions across the UK. A YouGov survey of November 2013 revealed that 66% of Britons thought the railways should be run in the public sector. In South England it was 65%; in Scotland, 69%: hardly worlds apart. Scottish and UK sentiment are in lockstep on nationalisation of the Post Office, energy companies, and NHS too.

More tellingly, social attitudes among Scottish, English, and Welsh people trend very closely together. Research cited in a Spectator article by Professor Ailsa Henderson at the University of Edinburgh shows that feelings towards welfarism, state intervention in industry, and the notion of censorship are even across the three nations. If the Scottish education system taught students so differently from the rest of the UK- as is sometimes asserted by nationalists- would the data not have shown a divergence between Scottish attitudes and English/Welsh attitudes?      

What about political engagement? Is the romantic notion that the Scottish are more active citizens, eager to participate in political decision-making, borne out by the facts? No, according to the Hansard Society’s annual audit of political engagement. In 2013, only 5% of Scots played an active part in a political campaign, 2% attended a political meeting, and 6% took part in a public consultation. The figures for South England, meanwhile, were 9%, 3%, and 10% respectively.

Historians and nationalists alike argue that Scotland is fundamentally more radical than the rest of the UK. Yet the statistical evidence suggests this is not a universal phenomenon across the country. Even if it were, it would not necessarily make Scotland incompatible with the concept of Union.  

The biggest mistake any campaign can make is thinking that anybody and everybody can be turned to its way of thinking given enough time or pressure. Both Yes and No would have us believe that the Scottish people are naturally of one mind, and that those who do not see their point of view have been blown off course by the lies pedalled by the other side. That is not true. The Scottish people, like the British in general, are a varied bunch. In such a polity, a flexible and resilient democratic structure is best suited to peacefully managing competing interests. We have that now. We will fight to improve on it.

What we should not do is build new borders between peoples who share so much, over phantasmal notions of separateness. We can all do better than that.

This article, like all publications of the Young Fabians, represents not the collective views of the Society but only the views of the author

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