Is Scotland More Egalitarian than England?

It is often argued that Scotland is more left-wing than England. After all, the relative weakness of the Conservative party north of the border would seem a clear testament to that being the case. And the claim, which has often been made by SNP spokespersons, fits one of the key arguments that the party presents in favour of independence, that is, that for so long as it is part of the Union, Scotland is always at risk of having the realisation of its preferences stymied by the less progressive views of those living south of the border.

Today, sees the publication of a new analysis that casts fresh light on the validity of the claim that Scotland has a more egalitarian outlook. It comes in the form of a chapter in this year’s British Social Attitudes report. The chapter takes advantage of the fact that the most recent British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys asked their respondents exactly the same set of questions about their attitudes towards inequality – making it possible to compare systematically attitudes on the two sides of the border towards a subject that was central to the vision of an independent Scotland put forward by the SNP in the 2014 referendum.

To say that someone is on the ‘left’ is usually taken to mean that they dislike high levels of inequality and believe that the government should be aiming to reduce it. The chapter suggests that the claim that such an outlook is more common north of the border is partly true – but perhaps not as much as is sometimes suggested.

There are some differences.

For example, people in Scotland (45%) are more likely than their counterparts in England (34%) to feel that it is wrong that people on higher incomes can buy better education than those on lower incomes. There is a similar gap when the same question is asked about health care – 42% in Scotland think that is wrong compared with 32% in England.

Scotland’s somewhat more egalitarian streak also comes through when people are asked whether taxes in Britain for those on higher incomes are too high or too low. North of the border, 44% say they are too low, compared with 36% further south.

At the same time, nearly three-quarters of people in Scotland (72%) feel that the distribution of income in Britain is unfair, compared with slightly less than two-thirds (64%) in England.

Yet, these figures also reveal that the differences between the two nations are but ones of degree. On both sides of the border most people think that the distribution of income is unfair, in both countries a majority do not necessarily think that being able to buy better education or health care is wrong, and in both places over half do not think that taxes on high earners are too low.

Meanwhile, when respondents were presented with pictorial images of the kind of society in which they would like to live, in both countries the most popular image (picked by 51% in Scotland and 50% in England) is a society in which only a few are at the top and only a few at the bottom, while most are in the middle.

At the same time, the two countries are almost at one when people are asked how successful they think the government has been at reducing income inequality, with 64% of people in Scotland and 60% in England saying the government has been unsuccessful in doing so.

In short, the image that emerges from the research is that Scotland is far from being at odds with England in its dislike of inequality and is only a little more inclined to do something about it. If so, this raises interesting questions about the extent to which the temper of public opinion in an independent Scotland would prove more supportive of steps to reduce inequality than is public opinion across the UK now.

Still, perhaps the most interesting part of this research is that it forms part of a multinational study called the International Social Survey Programme. This means, among other things, that the same questions have also been asked in the four Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, with whom it is often argued that Scotland has an affinity. Consequently, it will now also eventually be possible to put this claim to a systematic test so far as public attitudes are concerned. We will keep you posted on the results.

‘An Unequal Union? Attitudes towards Inequality in England and Scotland’, by James Yarde and Robert Wishart is published today as part of British Social Attitudes: the 37th report and can be downloaded here.

P.S. Also released today is a summary of some of the key trends over time collected by British Social Attitudes since the annual survey started in 1983. Included are data on national identity in England, which have been collected every year since the 1990s. Contrary to the claim that the pro-Brexit vote was further evidence of a rising sense of English identity south of the border, in fact more people than ever now prefer to say they are British (53%) rather than English (28%).  Not so much of an ‘English backlash’ it seems after all.

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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.