Some truths are so appealing even facts can’t refute them.
Received wisdom is particularly enervating in politics because it calcifies myth and frustrates free-ranging debate.
We already have enough blind faith in Scottish affairs so a new poll on public attitudes towards welfare is to be welcomed for delivering a dose of reality.
The YouGov survey for the Scottish Conservatives shows a towering 65% of Scots in favour of the coalition government’s cap on benefits. The payment ceiling limits financial assistance to couples and single parents to £26,000, with ministers arguing that people should not receive more in benefits than the average family income.
David Cameron says a re-elected Conservative government would aim to reduce the cap to £23,000, and the poll finds 54% of Scots in agreement with the Tory Prime Minister.
These findings build on a healthy body of data showing that Scotland is philosophically indecisive, in places conventionally collectivist, in others surprisingly right-wing.
A 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos-MORI for the Department of Work and Pensions probed UK-wide views on housing benefits. On the “bedroom tax”, 37% of Scots gave their backing to coalition’s policy of scrapping the “spare room subsidy” while 44% were unfavourable to the idea.
Scottish respondents were on a knife-edge on the general question of cutting state support to those living in social rented housing – 39% were in favour and 38% against. These spreads of opinion do not bespeak a country united in revulsion at Tory welfare reforms.
A 2015 Scottish Government study into attitudes towards poverty, inequality and welfare also portrays a country deeply conflicted in its views of the role of the state in correcting inequality. When asked whether the government should redistribute wealth from the well-off to the worst-off, 48% say yes.
But ask our thoughts about the mechanism by which such transfers are achieved and it’s a different story. Forty-eight percent want to keep levels of taxation and spending where they are at present while 44% want to hike them.
In some ways, Scots unconsciously echo their national bogeyman Margaret Thatcher in their emphasis on individual over social causes of poverty and exclusion. More than seven in ten voters believe child poverty is caused by negative lifestyle choices, such as the refusal of parents to find work. Less than three in ten identify societal causes.
It’s not quite a case of there being no such thing as society, but we certainly assign it little weight in tackling inequality.
Public sentiment on unemployment benefits is hardly progressive either, with 47% of Scots saying payments are too high and disincentivise work. It’s not just Norman Tebbit who thinks people should get on their bike.
At the start of the year, the left-wing pro-independence website Wings over Scotland commissioned a series of Panelbase surveys comparing public attitudes in Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom. The results were the occasion for a collective intake of breath amongst the Wish Trees for Yes set, as they discovered a Scotland outwith Byres Road and beyond the pages of the Sunday Herald.
Here they encountered backing for capital punishment, the monarchy, and nuclear weapons and opposition to immigration and defence spending cuts. This wasn’t the Scotland on whose behalf they had fought and sweat and interpretive-danced to cast off the shackles of Westminster neoliberalism. This was a country at one with key centre-right assumptions. It was almost as if Scotland was just like… England.
But that couldn’t be. The myth of Scottish difference is pivotal to a certain strain of nationalism. England is a foreign country, greedy where Scotland is generous, mean-spirited where Scotland is compassionate. Scotland shouldn’t be independent simply for democratic reasons but for moral ones: We’re better than them.
Are we, though? Comparing Scottish and English attitudes towards inequality, tax, and wealth redistribution, John Curtice and Rachel Ormston concluded in 2011 that “Scotland is more social democratic than England – but the difference is only modest”. Moreover, they discovered, “Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the advent of devolution”.
How much of this modest distinction is the work of our syrupy self-image as an egalitarian people who are all Jock Tamson’s bairns? Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation, by all means, but not an imaginary nation. Scotland is not a saint-like country, devoutly selfless and committed to realising socio-economic harmony here on earth. We are a bundle of contradictory instincts — sometimes honourable, sometimes base — just like every other nation.
In recent years, Scottish Labour has strained to talk to our lofty ideals while governing to our more material desires. In doing so, it has tangled itself up to the point where it seems neither sincere about social justice nor serious about economic growth. The SNP will most likely do the same because it too believes this head-versus-heart dichotomy is something to be triangulated away.
But what if someone were to embrace it? What if a political leader were to make a pitch to that aspect of our political character that wants lower taxes, choice in public services, and a good deal more thrift with taxpayers’ money? What if there was a party that recognised that people outside Newton Mearns and Milngavie are aspirational too?
That party would be liberal in temperament and progressive in vision but sceptical of grand schemes and unfunded good intentions. It would be a compassionate and socially conscious movement but one in rebellion against the statist orthodoxy. It would not be a conservative party but a radical one, leading a permanent revolution in education, enterprise, and public services.
There is a forgotten Scotland out there. Who will stand up for it?