We now turn to the Scottish Government’s second principal argument of an instrumental character as to why Scotland should become an independent country: that it would be better able to respond to the more social democratic ethos that is thought to pervade Scottish society, and create a more equal society than the UK is at present.
One way of approaching how far this argument appears to be persuasive in the eyes of the Scottish public is to take much the same approach as we did in respect of the economy: we can examine whether or not people expect independence to result in more or less inequality within Scotland. Respondents were asked to answer the following question using a five-point scale from “a lot bigger” to “a lot smaller”:
As a result of independence, would the gap between rich and poor in Scotland be bigger, smaller or would it make no difference?
As many as 49 per cent say that independence would not make any difference. As many as a quarter say that the gap would become bigger, while only 16 per cent believe it would be smaller (Table 3.7). This does not immediately suggest that the argument has a strong resonance.
One of the ways in which the goal of a more equal society might be pursued is through the provision of better public services. Here public opinion in Scotland is rather more optimistic. Scottish Social Attitudes respondents were asked:
As a result of independence, do you think the Scottish Government would have more money available to spend on public services, less money, or would it make no difference?
As many as 32 per cent think that an independent Scotland would have more money to spend on public services, slightly more than the 30 per cent who feel it would have less. The balance of opinion in response to this question looks much the same as it did in respect of the economy, a picture that makes sense given that the amount of money any independent Scottish government would have to spend would depend on the buoyancy of the nation’s economy.
However, in addition to looking at people’s expectations of what independence might or might not bring in respect of greater equality, we might also ask how far there is support in Scotland for some of the kinds of public policy that might be thought to be commensurate with the pursuit of a more equal society. One such policy is the relatively generous provision of welfare benefits, such as for the unemployed. However, as Table 3.8 shows, echoing a pattern that has been evident for some time across Britain as a whole (as shown in the Benefits and the cost of living chapter, by Ben Baumberg), people in Scotland have become less generous in their attitudes towards the provision of benefits for the unemployed when they are posed the question:
Which of these two statements comes closest to your own view?
Benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship
Benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs
Now only 26 per cent feel that “benefits for the unemployed are too low and cause hardship” compared with 45 per cent in 2001. Conversely, over the same period the proportion who think unemployment benefits are too high and discourage people from finding jobs has doubled from 26 per cent to 52 per cent. This does not particularly suggest that, in the immediate future at least, the government of an independent Scotland would be facing public pressure to develop a more generous welfare system, at least so far as benefits for the unemployed are concerned.
Equally – and again mirroring wider trends across the UK – enthusiasm for more ‘tax and spend’ appears to have diminished from what it was in the early days of the last Labour government, before that government began to embark on a substantial expansion of public expenditure (Table 3.9). This becomes apparent in the responses given to the question:
Suppose the government had to choose between the three options on this card.
Which do you think it should choose?
Reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits
Keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now
Increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits
Back in 2001 as many as 63 per cent of people in Scotland said that taxes should increase and more should be spent on “health, education and social benefits”. But just five years later, in 2006, that figure had fallen to 41 per cent, and it has remained at more or less that level ever since. Once again, it is not immediately obvious that there would be marked public pressure in the early years of an independent Scotland for a much bigger role for the state.
Still, what we see here does not necessarily mean that support for the idea of a more equal Scotland – and a belief that independence would help bring that about – is not one of the features of the referendum debate that inclines people to vote in one way rather than the other. Indeed, as Table 3.10 shows, those who think that, as a result of independence, the gap between rich and poor would be smaller, and that there would be more money to spend on public services are more likely to say they will vote Yes than are those of the opposite view.
However, we should remember that very few people (just two per cent of our sample) think that the gap between rich and poor would be “a lot” smaller. On this issue the vast majority of people are in one of the three middle rows, and the difference between the level of Yes support amongst those who think the gap would be a little smaller (53 per cent) and those who think it would be a little bigger (25 per cent) is, at 28 percentage points, much lower than for any of the equivalent responses about economic issues (bar taxes) as seen in Table 3.4. In short, people’s views on whether inequality would or would not be reduced in an independent Scotland make relatively little difference to their chances of being a Yes or a No voter.
True, how much money people think there might be to spend on public services seems to matter rather more, but even here we should note, for example, that at 77 per cent, the level of support for independence amongst those who think that there would be a lot more money to spend is less than the figure of 86 per cent amongst those who think the economy would be a lot better.
Meanwhile, people’s views about specific welfare policies do not seem to distinguish Yes from No voters very well at all. At 33 per cent, the proportion of those who would like more tax and spend who are inclined to vote Yes is only a little higher than the equivalent proportion amongst those who are either content for taxes and spending to remain as they are, or maybe even think they should be reduced (26 per cent). The picture is only a little different when it comes to people’s views about benefits for the unemployed. Just 37 per cent of those who think that these benefits are too low reckon they will vote Yes, a figure not markedly different from the 26 per cent figure for those who think benefits are too high.
However, there is another side to the referendum debate about welfare that we should also address. If Scotland were to become independent, it would mean that benefits such as those for the unemployed and those above retirement age would have to be funded out of tax revenues raised in Scotland. On the other hand, if Scotland remains part of the UK, then so long as responsibility for those is not transferred to the Scottish Parliament, such benefits will continue to be funded out of the UK-wide pool of taxation. Some of those arguing against independence suggest that such an arrangement makes it more likely that Scotland would be able to afford the kinds of benefits that help ensure a more equal society in which people are insured against some of the social risks that occur in everyday life (Scottish Labour Devolution Commission, 2014).
There seems to be not inconsiderable sympathy for that view, as is evident when respondents to Scottish Social Attitudes were asked:
What about the cost of paying benefits to people in Scotland who lose their job through no fault of their own? Regardless of what happens at present, should the money to pay this come from the taxes collected across the UK as a whole, or from those collected in Scotland only?
No less than 58 per cent of people in Scotland believe that the benefits paid to unemployed people in Scotland should be funded out of taxes collected from across the UK as a whole; only 36 per cent reckon they should be financed solely out of revenues raised north of the border. Equally, when asked an equivalent question about the “government old age pension”, as many as 61 per cent said that it should be funded out of UK-wide taxation, while only 34 per cent felt it should be paid for out of Scottish revenues, as can be seen in Table 2.9 of the chapter on Scotland, also by John Curtice. Moreover, these views do appear to be quite strongly related to whether someone is inclined to vote Yes or No (Table 3.11). For example, amongst those who think that pensions should be funded out of UK taxes as a whole, nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) are inclined to vote No, while just one in seven (14 per cent) say they will vote Yes. Conversely, amongst those who think that pensions should be funded out of Scotland’s taxes, just a little under a quarter (24 per cent) are minded to vote No while well over half (58 per cent) state they will vote Yes. The picture is almost exactly the same in respect of unemployment benefit.
So the second instrumental debate about whether independence would herald a more equal society, underpinned by a social democratic orientation to policy, appears to be less important in voters’ minds than the
debate about the possible economic consequences of independence. Relatively few believe that the gap between rich and poor would be smaller in an independent Scotland, while it is far from clear that, in the short term at least, public opinion in Scotland would be pushing for more tax and spend or a more generous welfare system than it has at present. Rather there seems to be an inclination to retain a UK-wide system of funding welfare. Above all, apart from the question of how welfare should be funded, these perceptions and beliefs about equality and welfare seem to be less effective at distinguishing between Yes and No voters than are voters’ views about the economic consequences of leaving the UK. So far as the practical consequences of independence at least are concerned, it would seem that that economics matters more to voters than equality.
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- Much the same pattern of response was obtained when three of the four questions (on the economy, the standard of living and taxes) were previously asked on the 2011 and 2012 surveys.
- Bases for Table 3.4 are as follows:
The picture was much the same when the question was also asked in 2012: then 47 per cent said it would not make any difference, 25 per cent that the gap would be bigger and just 19 per cent that it would be smaller.
Bases for Table 3.10 are as follows:
Note that neither sex, age or social class proved to be significant independently of the considerations that were included in the model. So the gender, age and class differences identified earlier in the chapter simply reflect differences between these groups in the incidence of identity and/or perceptions of the consequences of independence.
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