Class was central to the Scottish independence referendum, writes Matt Myers. The low-waged, unemployed and young were more likely to vote Yes –so why did enough working class people vote No that the vote was lost?
In the aftermath of the referendum one thing remains clear: the vote was neither about dry constitutionality, nor nationalism per se, but existed in a class context. Class is central in explaining why people voted the way they did. Class is also critical in explaining why levels of disposable income, life expectancy, rates of unemployment, and rates of wage growth over the past 15 years, corresponded to why some voted Yes and others voted No. Yet it cannot explain everything. Good or bad ‘class consciousness’ cannot be simply extrapolated from voting data. Instead voting patterns in the referendum, although clearly showing clear evidence of the role of the class, were formed in a number of specific contexts that ward us against knee-jerk conclusions.
Yet before the narrative of the referendum is subsumed into dry elite doublespeak over constitutional changes, which will ignore the root of the social and class context that gave rise to the referendum, we can draw some key conclusions from the data available so far:
- What is clear is that the more prosperous the area, the higher the No vote. The higher the life expectancy, the higher the No vote. The higher the rate of unemployment, the higher the Yes vote. Those areas where workers had seen higher wage growth in the past 10 years saw, such as Orkney and the Scottish Borders, were more likely to vote No than areas with lower wage growth, like Glasgow. The young were more likely to vote Yes than the old. A young unemployed person living in Easterhouse, after all, has less of a stake in the system than members of the employed middle classes in Aberdeen or Edinburgh.
- Yet this does not mean that the Yes campaign represented the working classes on one side, and the No campaign the bosses on the other. If that had been the case then Yes would have won by a landslide, but it didn’t. Instead many of those at the bottom continued to support No, and much of the working classes, trade unionists, and working people were not convinced to Yes. What is clear is that this division was complex and dynamic.
- Our definition of class can never be reducible to sociological parameters of occupation or income or other such variables, even if these are often related to the experiences of class. Class can never be simply ‘read-off’ from the voting data, but is instead a dynamic and changing expression of political-economic inequalities of power. The 60% of Scottish Labour supporters that sided with No, mostly working class, did not side with No because they were cowards or all heartfelt Unionists. Instead it was probably fear of the future, of uncertainty, for their pensions, savings, and livelihoods, that overrode widespread feelings of alienation from Westminster and the campaign of hope stressed by the Yes campaign. Fear of uncertainty is not just an existential anxiety of financial markets or of the suburban petit-bourgeois, but can be a cross class, cross gender, cross age phenomenon – as is proved by the high proportion of 18-24 year olds voting No (probably concerned with imminent job prospects, compared to 16-17 year olds). Similarly, large no votes in the Highlands or in defense industries, whose working people (like those in fishing) are reliant on either EU subsidies, the price of Sterling, or Westminster defence policy, correspond to the perceived threat to their livelihoods that independence may have brought. Just because the working class has the potential power – electorally, numerically, and industrially – to transform society, does not mean it is not critically divided amongst itself. The divisions within the people at the bottom is how the state and the elite survive in power. This referendum shows that this disunion is still with us.
- The Left clearly was critical in the referendum. The left and the radical left – exemplified by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) – were key in shifting major working class areas like Glasgow and Dundee to Yes. This ensured an unusually high turnout in these areas compared to all previous elections. The fact that Yes won 40% of previous Labour voters against the calls of nearly the whole national party is a product of this mobilization. Yet it was not the case that the RIC nearly ‘wot won it’. Turnout was unusually high everywhere, including in No areas. The RIC may have been critical in some key areas in getting disillusioned and alienated people to vote Yes. Yet this was in geographically specific areas, often in places at the brunt of experiences of neoliberalism, but also of older processes of deindustrialization and post-war housing experiments. The power of the No campaign was that it could also mobilise through very different tactics and political dynamics, backed-to-the-hilt by the Establishment – especially where it could play on existing fears of workers and the middle classes alike.
- The more economically secure sections of Scottish society won the referendum for No. Without extraneous factors like rapid inflation, economic catastrophe, or war, a complete reversal of previous loyalties was unlikely if not impossible. The polls show us that the SNP was not able to break out of its original voter base, even in its heartlands. This can be better explained by middle class fears of the alleged consequences of independence on their economic status, rather than lack of nationalist zeal. The British middle classes have always sided with the establishment, even in the 1930s. It would have taken something special for the Scottish contingent to reject this trend. The threat to sterling (and so jobs, pensions, and incomes from savings and rent) was critical again in Scotland, like it was for the Tory faithful who allowed Conservative dominance in the interwar period. Fear over inflation, the bête noire of the middle class throughout British 20th century history, trumped dissatisfaction with Westminster. The Ashcroft poll clearly shows the division in the referendum was between the politically alienated who hoped to project the ideal of a social democratic country onto an independent Scotland, and those who feared the economic consequences more than they hoped for change. This is clearly a question of class and political priorities rather than just national identity.
For those in the rest of the UK seeking a radical alternative to the current state of politics, there is much expectation from the results. Yet this does not mean that we should not see the complexity of the vote, and the underlying dynamics of why the vote stayed with the Union. The political space for a radical politics has been shaped in Scotland, as it has been in Spain and Greece. A popular grass roots campaign, led largely by the left, has proven it can speak to the hopes of hundreds of thousands of working people. And although the political center has held, there is clearly a mass feeling that our rulers cannot rule in the same way. Never in the past 30 years has this happened as seriously as on 18 September. The task now is to bring the spirit of the referendum to the rest of Britain.