Scotland Divided! Poverty, class and nation

In the rush to build a fairer Scotland, we must start by acknowledging our own deep inequalities.

Gerry Mooney
12 May 2014

Glasgow tower blocks, Wikimedia/Thomas Nugent

Thinking about what a radically different Scottish society would look like is of course key to the ongoing arguments around Scotland’s constitutional future. In this debate questions revolving around inequality, equality, social justice and fairness have come to the fore. The idea of Scotland as a bastion of a collective, egalitarian and socially just political and public culture – not least in comparison to assumed differences with England – a society in which distinctive ‘Scottish values’ are held to shape attitudes to issues around social policy – is one that we need to treat with the upmost caution – but at the same time we cannot ignore the potency of such beliefs. They also help to inform the ensuing debates about social welfare in Scotland – and what a Scottish welfare state might look like – and in no small part also shape claims that such a Scottish welfare system would be considerably less harsh and punitive than that being driven by the current UK Coalition Government.

However, there is no doubt the political landscape of Scotland is distinctive in important respects. Looking back over the past 15 years of devolution, it is also possible to show that in some ways social policies pursued in Scotland have been more progressive than those emanating from London, even if key areas of social welfare remain under the control of the Westminster Government. However, this should not blind us to the fact that there are major social problems that have impacted on Scottish society for much of the past century and which continue to have far reaching and negative consequences today. Foremost among these is the issue of poverty. The publication by CPAG of Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, paints a dire picture of the extent of poverty and disadvantage in Scotland. According to the data for 2013 presented in the book:

  • 870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population).

  • 200,000 children in Scotland still live in poverty (20% of all children).

  • Poverty in Scotland is significantly higher than in many other European countries

  • Poverty exists across Scotland. Nearly all local authorities in Scotland have council wards where over 20% of their children live in poverty.

During the first ten years of devolution, a period when New Labour were in power, there was a much welcomed fall in the levels of poverty in Scotland, particularly child poverty. However, the picture for the immediate future shows not only that the modest reductions have been halted but there will be an increase in the levels of poverty in Scotland, as in other areas of the UK. By 2020 it is estimated that an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will be living in poverty.

The SNP Scottish Government have repeatedly emphasised that while independence is the only way in which Scotland will be protected from the kinds of strategies being implemented by the UK Coalition partners, which it is argued are working not only to increase the numbers in poverty but also to increasingly punish those in poverty, there also claims that in some relatively ill-defined ways Scotland has also been protected from the worst effects of UK government policy-making.

However, Poverty in Scotland 2014 also demonstrates in very stark terms that UK Government ‘austerity’ measures are having a far reaching impact across much of Scottish society. The Scottish Government estimates that somewhere between £1.6bn (around £480 for every adult of working age) and £2bn will be cut from Scottish household incomes, and it further calculates that the cumulative impact of UK welfare reforms over the five years to 2014-2015 could result in the welfare bill for Scotland being reduced by over £4.5 billion.

‘Austerity’ represents little more than class warfare on the part of the Tories and their allies. All too often though this is overlooked as austerity is presented as little more than a ‘technical’ policy. Class informs the independence debate in other ways though. The prospect of a Scotland with no more Tory governments is hugely attractive and something that the Better Together campaign struggle to combat – and which posed particular problems not least for the Labour Party which as a result of its involvement along with the Tories and Liberal Democrats leaves it open to attacks from socialists and the SNP. Labour is being outflanked on the left by the idea that a new Scotland built around what might have been seen in some ways as ‘old Labour’ values and policies. The slogan often deployed by advocates of independence – More Giant Pandas than Tory MPs – is not only about the ‘Democratic Deficit’ that many feel characterises the political landscape of Scotland – with the country ruled by a UK government whose two partners came a poor third and fourth in the last general election in Scotland – but also is being deployed to distance ‘Scotland’ from the policies pursued by the UK Government that appear widely out of step with the views of the majority of people in Scotland. The punitive, anti-welfare and anti-immigration political atmosphere which appears to be rising in parts of England seems very distant to the dominant political landscape in Scotland.

This should not lead to some kind of uncritical romanticisation of Scottish society, as a unified nation, a homogenous land of consensus and shared values –of ‘Scottish egalitarianism’ and ‘Scottish social democracy’. Scotland is a deeply divided, unequal and unfair society – as are the other countries in the UK. But the potential of independence has enabled possibility of a Scotland in which such problems would be addressed.

Imagining a different kind of Scotland had involved numerous activists, campaign organisations, trade unions. Support for independence has grown in the first half of 2014 – but negative campaigning by the Pro-Union side means that there is still plenty of work to be done to win a majority to the pro-independence case. However, evidence from the ScotCen Social Research and others has found that support for independence is highly uneven across the country – and is markedly shaped by class. Poorer voters in the most deprived parts of Scotland are much more likely to vote for independence. ScotCen found that 40% of those on incomes below £14,300 supported independence with only 27% among households on £44,200 and above.

However, class has largely remained on the side-lines of the debate – even if victories over the Bedroom Tax in Scotland very much reflect the mobilisation of working class organisations across the country. While the pro-independence campaigns have largely shied away from claims about ‘Scottishness’, the idea of Scotland as a nation, an imagined community, exerts a powerful pull on people.

However, it is the interplay between nation and class which is shaping the referendum debate and the future direction of Scottish society. Arguing that Scotland should be free of nuclear weapons – something that the vast majority of people in Scotland support – and spending money on welfare and public services indicates this only too well. But the battle for a fairer Scotland takes us well beyond the use of rhetoric that portrays Scotland and the Scottish nation as essentially ‘fair’; therein lying the dangerous portrayal of one of the most divided and unequal societies in Europe as in some way classless.

Poverty, inequality and the pursuit of equality have in different ways become key fault lines in the independence debate. As implied in the subtitle of the new Poverty in Scotland book, the Independence Referendum and Beyond, the issues of poverty and inequality and how they can be tackled go well beyond the issues of constitutional change alone, involve a wide ranging rethinking of how Scottish society should be organised. The independence debate has however given scope for such issues to be explored and for new ways of thinking to be developed. In this there is much to be welcomed.

Poverty in Scotland 2014: The Independence Referendum and Beyond, is published by the Child Poverty Action Group and is available (together with a sample chapter) from:

The Open University has a range of freely learning resources around the Independence Debate and Social Welfare on its OpenLearn website at:


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