Two Different Countries? Scottish and English Attitudes to Equality and Europe

There has perhaps been no clearer indication of the fragility of the Union. This weekend the SNP are gathered in Perth laying out the case for Scottish independence, while in London the IPPR think tank are holding a Festival of Englishness. The two countries would seem intent on going their separate ways.

Indeed, part of the nationalist case as to why Scotland should leave the UK rests on the claim that public opinion in England is now very different from that north of the border. Unlike Scotland, England is willing to vote for the Conservatives – and would thus appear to be much less concerned than its northern neighbour about creating a more equal society.  Unlike Scotland too, many are willing to vote for UKIP – thereby suggesting that people south of the border take a more hostile view to being part of the European Union.  So, the nationalist argument goes, if Scotland is to create the more equal society that it evidently wants, and if it is to cement its relationship with the European Union, it needs to back independence when it gets the chance to do so next September.

But is Scotland a markedly more egalitarian, more social democratic society in its social outlook? And is it much keener on its links with Brussels?  After all how people vote at election time depends on a variety of factors, of which what a party stands for is only one. Although they may be greater than ever before, we should not presume that the differences between Scotland and England in the way that they vote are necessarily an accurate reflection of whatever gap exists in their political attitudes.

Certainly previous research has cast some doubt on the degree to which the balance of opinion in Scotland is more social democratic than in England. It has suggested that Scotland is somewhat more likely to be concerned about inequality and to be more supportive of attempts by government to reduce it, but not to the extent that might be anticipated by the differences in the way that they vote. Equally, previous research has suggested that Scotland is somewhat more favourable to the European Union, but not overwhelmingly so.

In a new paper, published today  entitled ‘What Does England Want?’, we update the picture. We compare the level of concern about inequality in England with that in Scotland. And equally we compare attitudes towards Europe in Scotland with those in the rest of the UK.  It suggests that the differences in the balance of public opinion on these two subjects remain considerably narrower than much public discourse implies.

When it comes to levels of concern about inequality, the two countries often look rather similar indeed. For example, the 61% of people in Scotland who think that ‘there is one law for the rich and one for the poor’ is fully matched by the 63% of people in England who take the same view.

On the other hand, people in Scotland are somewhat more likely to agree that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’.  And above all, they are more likely to feel strongly that government should do something about inequality. In Scotland 20% strongly agree that ‘the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off’, whereas only 14% of people in England do.

Nevertheless, what emerges is a picture whereby the balance of opinion in Scotland is only a little more social democratic than that in England, and certainly to nothing like the extent that the relative weakness of the Conservative party north of the border might lead us to expect.

Meanwhile, an analysis of opinion poll data collected during the course of this year suggests that whereas across Britain as a whole only 37% would vote to stay in the European Union, in Scotland that figure is rather higher, 43% – a difference of six points. Equally, the proportion who would vote to leave is six points lower in Scotland. While that difference is potentially enough to alter the majority outcome, it is not enough to suggest that there is a far stronger groundswell in favour of the European project north of the border.

So those who hope that independence would pave the way for Scotland to become a markedly more social democratic country that in addition would wish to be in the European fast lane should perhaps not set their expectations too high. At present at least, what Scotland wants looks too similar to what England wants for us to assume that is what would happen.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.