The Myth of left wing Scotland

I was talking to someone the other day about the independence referendum – you know in that way where you have to initiate the conversation, as most normal people don’t have independence as top of their agenda. But, they said, Scotland is a left-wing country, and independence will mean we can finally be rid of those Tories – you guys in Labour are happy to have us under a vicious Tory Government, hell bent on destroying the NHS and so on.

Leaving aside the fact that the last thing I want is to have a Tory Government at Westminster, or the fact that nothing that they do to the NHS, or the Education system doesn’t affect us up here – they’re all devolved, but is Scotland a left-wing country? Have we really been “oppressed” all these years by Tory majorities in England forcing their policies on us?

I’ve long been surprised that an area like Angus has always struggled to elect Labour representatives – it’s often been described to me as a very conservative (small ‘c’) place. The high point was in the late 70’s/early 80’s when there were 3 district councillors – out of 22. But that obviously isn’t true across Scotland – Glasgow has long been a Labour stronghold.

I suppose a lot depends on how you classify some parties as being on the left or right. But for a generation after the Second World War, politics was a two party game – the classic left vs. right battle. Many voters from this time are still alive, while many others had their views shaped during it. So I collated the figures for every general election since 1945, and graphed them to see if there was any trend.

What we can see is that for nearly 20 years, the vote of the two major parties was very stable, and the rise of the Liberals in the 1960s seems to be mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. The post war high for the left was 1966, but still less than 50%. After this point, the SNP gains in support, but this seems to be actually at the expense of both the conservative and Labour parties – although marginally more so of the Tories. 1964 was the start of a continuous downward trend for the blues, with, interestingly enough; a stabilisation through the Thatcher years, and 1997 saw a slump to their present level of approximately 15%.

The Labour vote has stabilised at around 41% – with good years such as 1997 (45.6%) balancing out the bad years like 1983(35.1%). This is only slightly down on the 30 year post war average of 45.1%.

What this shows is that Scotland has actually been a slightly right of centre country, with right wing parties having a slight advantage in the post war years. Labour has lost on average about 5% of its vote, probably equally to the nationalists and the liberals.

But since the 1970’s, the Liberal and SNP vote has increased from 12% (11.8% in 1966) to average 35-40% (the high point was 2005, a post 97 low for Labour). Where have they got those votes from? It’s clear from these figures that many people, who used to vote tory, are now voting Lib Dem and SNP. We found out in 2010 the effect that those right wingers in the Liberal Democrats affected the outcome.

I wonder how long it will take people to realise that the SNP isn’t a left wing party either.


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12 Responses to The Myth of left wing Scotland

  1. Dave Coull says:

    Regarding being surprised that an area like Angus doesn’t elect Labour councillors, I’m old enough to remember when Ferryden had its own Independent Labour Party branch. Both my father and my uncle were active in that. And my mother actually met my father through both of them being involved in Ferryden ILP. I remember as a kid going to the Christmas party at the ILP Rooms in Ferryden. I remember when Ferryden elected a Labour councillor to Angus Council. But I also remember what a disappointment Labour members of Angus Council turned out to be in practice.

    You say the SNP isn’t a “left-wing” party. Well, it’s certainly far too right wing for me. I didn’t vote for them at the last election, and I probably won’t vote for them at the next. BUT IT’S MORE LEFT WING THAN THE LABOUR PARTY NOWADAYS. And while Scotland may not be a particularly “left wing country”, on at least some issues, the population of Scotland generally tends to be a bit more “left wing” than that of England – and distinctly more “left-wing” than the line peddled by New Labour (or whatever they are calling themselves nowadays).

    One obvious example is TRIDENT. The majority of folk in Scotland would prefer to be rid of the thing. A large majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, including not just the SNP and the Greens but also most Labour and LibDem MSPs (when they’re not keeping shtum because the party heid yins want them to be quiet) would definitely prefer to be rid of the thing. In a genuinely free vote in the Scottish Parliament, the Tory minority would find themselves very isolated on this issue.

    Is there any hope of ridding Scotland, and the UK, of nuclear weapons? Yes. But only by Scotland becoming independent. The British establishment is far too hung up on the legacy of Empire and “punching above our weight” and “having a seat at the top table” to be serious about nuclear disarmament. As an independent country, we can get rid of Trident – and, frankly, that will be the end of the UK’s nuclear pretensions, because they’ve got nowhere else to put it.

    Another reason for voting for independence in the referendum is that this would IMMEDIATELY rid us of the biggest single obstacle to democracy – the House of Lords. A large majority of Members of Parliament at Westminster are not elected. None of the Westminster-based parties are ever going to change that, because it is far too convenient for them to be able to use the House of Lords as a comfortable retirement home for pensioned off party hacks. Only through independence can we get rid of this biggest of all obstacles to radical change.

    And of course the third big reason for voting for independence is that an independent Scotland is far less likely to get dragged into illegal wars like the Labour Party’s very own war criminal, Tony Blair, got us into.

    • gerard1986 says:

      Excellent analysis and I also remember seeing the social attitudes survey which smashed the left-wing myth. One of the previous comments stated that the wish for Trident to be removed was an indicator of Scotland being more socially just than rUK. I disagree, people all over the UK are abhorred by the existence of nuclear weapons so the fact Scots feel this way proves nothing with regards the need for independence.

      The idea that the HoL is a barrier to democracy is wrong. It is not used to its full potential, yes, but it serves as a forum to check and balance any extreme legislation from the HoC. It could be improved by being directly elected by the people but to say its presence is a reason to vote for separation is absurd. Holyrood, with the presence of a majority government, requires such a chamber. The checks and balances normally offered by the committee system have disappeared in this parliament. It didn’t have to be this way but the SNP MSPs have no backbone and do as they’re told.

      John your post is very good as it dismantles the argument many in the Yes Scotland camp feel will deliver victory. They know that people have bought into one myth, that Labour are not left of centre, and so push this nonsense (of a left wing utopia) on them in the hope that they can deceive the electorate into believing all will be left wing post independence and that the ‘true’ Labour Party will return.

      It is clear that those who spout this nonsense are not true socialists/democratic socialists for if they were they could not support independence at the expense of their comrades in rUK. If they are right about one thing in the Scottish psyche – we believe in solidarity. There is no solidarity in isolation.

  2. jruddy says:

    I dont think the SNP can be described as left wing. Yes it has some left wing policies – designed cynically to attract former Labour voters. But it also has many right wing policies – cynically designed to attract former Tory voters.

    As for whether Scotland is a left wing country, Severin Carrell on twitter pointed me at some research from the Social Attitudes Survey which indicates that Scotland is only marginally more left wing than England (for instance, 20% of people in Scotland believe all students shoudnt pay tuition fees, against 18% in England). And in fact, since the advent of devolution, Scotland has become less left-wing.

    Of course, the problem with nuclear weapons, is that it doesnt matter if you have them or not, whether your country is neutral or not. They present a real danger to the people of Scotland whether they are located here, in England or anywhere. The answer is to rid the entire planet of them.

    Out of interest when did Ferryden elect a Labour councillor? I only read the back issues of the Montrose Review back to the late 70’s, but didnt find any success for Labour in local elections. Arbroath returned 2 councillors, one of who was Matt Kerr of minature railway fame.

  3. Dave Coull says:

    Whether you describe the SNP as “left wing” or not is fairly irrelevant, so far as I’m concerned. There’s going to be a referendum on independence. In a referendum, regardless of the result, no politician gets elected to public office at any level whatsoever, and no political party gets to form an administration at any level whatsoever. The question which matters is what side you take in that non-party-political referendum. I know quite a few Labour Party members who will be supporting the pro-independence side.

    The SNP isn’t “left wing”, it’s just a wee bit more “left”, on some issues, than the ultra-right-wing party that the Labour Party has become. Yes of course it would be desirable to rid the whole planet of nuclear weapons. But you have to start somewhere. And the best place to start is by Scotland getting rid of Trident. And no, that does NOT mean it would go to England, or Wales. The reasons why it would mean the UK would have to scrap Trident are set out in great detail by the CND in their pamphlet “Trident: Nowhere to go”

    Getting rid of Trident would be a massive signal to the whole world that it’s time for everybody to get serious about disarmament.

    An independent Scotland could also avoid getting dragged into reckless adventures like the Labour Party’s very own war criminal Tony Blair got us into.

    And like I said, independence would immediately rid us of the House of Lords, something Westminster is never going to do.

    Alec Nicholl was a Labour councillor from Ferryden. He initially stood as a Labour candidate, with the full support of the local Labour Party, but he switched to calling himself an “Independent” (“but , really, lads, I’m still Labour…….”) when elected. John West was also a Labour councillor from Ferryden if I remember correctly.

    • jruddy says:

      Which is not addressing the point of the post. One of the many benefits, we on the left are told, of an independent Scotland, is that we will enter a left-wing utopia, because “Scotland is a left-wing country”, and we will become a “progressive beacon”. The truth is it never was a left wing country, and hence there is no guarantee it will vote in a left wing government after independence. In fact, the evidence points to a right wing one.

  4. Marian Craig says:

    The SNP is not a left party by any means. They are a centrist party with both right and left wing policies that are combined in order to try to win over the majority of the electorate. Furthermore, when deciding whether a party is left or right, it is important to look at the effect of their policies. The SNP’s popular free prescriptions and free university tuition fees are not as free as they first appear and in the case of higher education, fail to attract students from the poorest backgrounds. Very good blog btw John – enjoyed reading it!

  5. Dave Coull says:

    The only party I ever actually canvassed for was the Labour Party. I remember, on election day 1964, being sent to get a very elderly resident of Dorward House, a fellow Ferrydener, out to vote. But I’ve never been a member of any party. When I lived in Devon, I once voted LibDem. But that was only because I knew the Tory candidate personally, couldn’t stand him, and was voting tactically to try to keep him out. (It didn’t work. Devon is very Tory.)

    From my point of view, BOTH the present day Labour Party and the SNP are conservative parties. Note I say they’re “conservative” parties. The terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” don’t mean very much. They come from the seating arrangements in the French royal parliament. By pure accident, those who thought it outrageous to suggest any change at all happened to sit on the right, while those who thought maybe there should be a few little changes happened to sit on the left. But terms arising out of the seating arrangements in the Royal parliament of France are a very vague way of describing politics in the Twenty First Century.

    It is pointless to argue about whether Scotland (or any country) is “left wing” or not. The thing which is NOT pointless is arguing about what we actually do, and what policies we support. There is going to be a non-party political referendum on independence. I say vote for independence in that referendum. I say that will lead to three, specific, progressive outcomes.

    (1) Westminster is never going to get rid of that entrenched barrier to democracy, the House of Lords, because all parties at Westminster have a vested interest in keeping it; but independence would immediately rid us of Their Lordships.

    (2) Westminster is never going to get rid of nuclear weapons, because even without the Empire the UK is still wedded to the idea of “punching above our weight”, and nukes as a hugely expensive symbol of power; but the parliament of an independent Scotland, regardless of whether it had an SNP or a Labour majority, would be certain to want rid of Trident’

    (3) Westminster, both under the Labour war criminal Tony Blair, and under the Tory militarist David Cameron, continues to send troops to distant places like Afghanistan and Iraq; an independent Scotland, under any conceivable government, would be far more reluctant to get dragged into pointless wars.

  6. I don’t really care whether a party is “left wing”, “right wing”or whatever and I think it’s time we moved on beyond that dichotomy. One of the biggest problems with Westminster is that it’s basically a 2 party system where “the bosses, the rich, the city etc” fund one party and the unions fund the other. This is horribly divisive and we can never have good governance or a decent country that way. Just think back to Thatcher, Hillsborough, the miners etc. The UK is a country utterly divided along class, wealth and geographic lines. It does not work.

    It also means places like Glasgow, Liverpool and other of the poorest areas in Britain have been virutal one party states at local level with Labour parties that are corrupt, bullying and do absolutely nothing for the areas. But there has no danger of Labour ever losing them because there is no alternative and no copetition. Couple these with a Blairite government in Westminster that’s moving rightward and a Tory one that’s shifting far right and it’s that is the worst of all possible worlds for such areas.

    I like the SNP because I don’t see them as particularly left or right on most issues and they’re a breath of fresh air from those politics as usual. I see them as social demoratic, working more along European lines. They’re more about building consensus and working with people and organisations to bring about change. And it’s change that’s sorely, badly needed, whatever your take on independence. The other thing I like about the SNP is something I did like about some of the last Labour government – making evidence based policy rather than pure ideology or what’s popular. (And no one could say either minimum pricing or equal marriage are simply safe, popular vote winners). That’s what I’d like to see Scotland move towards: a more consensual, evidence based, social democracy that does what works rather than swing between two ideological poles, neither of which have a hope of working; both of which create divisions.

  7. Merinus says:

    If this is a graph of total percentage of all votes cast (and I think it is..?) then how much of this activity do you think might be tactical voting? And what on earth was going on in October 74? While Labour stayed stable, look at that swing from Conservative to SNP! There’s a story there.

  8. Beth Greene says:

    The question of “right wing” and “left wing” has and should have vital significance to a country of 5m people with well over half a million unemployed and where one in four households have a disabled person.Right wing signifies capitalism and today it works to extreme, left wing signifies a more balanced approach to democracy, I don’t believe we should dismiss the difference. Just 74 Scots control the wealth of Scotland which is something that should concern all.
    On the question of independence. With the world and home financial crisis and a country where the hospitality industry contributes to a major part of revenue, independence would be suicide at the current time. Already questions are being asked globally how independence would affect prices and tax rates and the truth is no one can give an honest answer. I’m not convinced the higher levels of SNP actually believe in “glorious” independence either. The questions of taxation, employment, housing, wages, disability, banking, benefits, industry, etc, with independence haven’t been answered in any constructive manner, Quite simply they can’t be answered successfully by SNP. The general opinion amongst people I communicate with is that independence is not something wanted or needed at this time.
    Back to the left/right argument. While there are some sections of SNP membership who express democratic opinions the party leadership most definitely do not. I support controlled capitalism but its clear by Salmond’s sometimes dubious billionaire supporters that the interest in high level corporate takes precedence over small industry and creating a specifically Scottish market.

    Then there is the question of EU and NATO and trident. The U turns are troubling and as much as I detest trident NATO membership is aligned to it.. Until such a time that the nuclear issue is resolved Scotland would have no alternative to retaining trident even as an independent nation.
    Scottish Labour is committed to progressing Scottish policies and interests, the party has valiantly been refounding and embracing Scottish interests more than ever before. Its a valuable step forward for the party and Scotland. I have every faith in Scottish Labour representing my children and country. I most certainly won’t support independence. .

  9. Pingback: Looking at the #indyref from Montreal | cosmopolitan scum

  10. bishopshouse says:

    I spent my formative years in Scotland and at that time some 40 years ago SNP was just Tory with a Nationalist face. In one area I lived in MPs used to be alternately SNP and Conservative. I remember having argument with boyfriend who blamed all the clearances on England and as I was born in England with English parents I got blamed. I pointed out the Lairds may have sounded English but they were Scots and my ancestors were some of the tenants that got thrown out. If you look at Scottish History when England is blamed for various things they usually got helped by Scots wanting power in Scotland. Why is that relevant? The chant has changed little from blaming the English for everything to the now if we leave we won’t have to suffer at the hands of the English. Wonder who they will find to blame if they are independent. Racisim in Scotland is already alarmingly high and bullying the English has become quite ferocious in the Highlands but what never happened before was the amount of attacks and abuse of people from ethnic minorities. One wonders what manner of monsters have this Nationalism brought out from under the rocks?

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