Our votes and views are not always the same as our actions

Our votes and views are not always the same as our actions

by Bill Jamieson
article from Wednesday 11, March, 2015

HOW PEOPLE VOTE is not always the same as how they say they will vote. And what people really think is not always the same as what they say they think.

These paradoxes have long confounded political commentary, in Scotland as much as anywhere else. Voters can be made to feel that they are not holding the “correct” views – especially the ‘correct’ view as championed by the liberal media. 

In Scotland the consensus liberal view has long been that voters here are notably more progressive than the rest of the UK. 

This view is supported by polls showing that in six weeks’ time Scots voters are set to endorse an SNP programme notably more to the Left in many respects than that of the Labour Party – and certainly the rest of the UK.

The SNP is opposed to immigration controls of the kind advocated by the Conservatives. It has pledged to resist further “austerity” measures, putting a question mark on how far it would support a minority Labour administration pledged to debt and deficit reduction but at a slower rate. 

And it says it is fully behind Scotland’s continued membership of the EU, with senior SNP supporters arguing that in the event of any UK referendum vote to leave the EU, Scotland would insist on remaining a member. 

Scotland has long posed a paradox for the pundits. There can be no doubt of the strength of the swing to the SNP in recent opinion polls. An election outcome anywhere close to what the recent Ashcroft polls are suggesting – an epochal collapse in the Labour vote and an SNP triumph with 40 seats and possibly more – would mark a major shift of power in Scotland.  

But on all three of these issues the assumptions of full-throated voter support are questionable. Poll surveys of Scottish attitudes on holding an EU referendum show little difference with polls across the UK overall – despite what the SNP thinks. 

On fundamental attitudes, voters in Scotland often show themselves to be more conservative (small ‘c’) than the popular perception of a Left of Centre country. 

Former Scotsman editor John McGurk, now my co-editor on the Scot-Buzz website, wrote an intriguing piece on Scot-Buzz this week highlighting a strange anomaly: that while there has been a massive swing towards the SNP, the majority of Scots still prefer to read Right-leaning newspapers – published in England! 

Now we learn this week that almost two-thirds of Scots think immigration should be reduced, according to a poll commissioned by the BBC. It suggests that Scots are almost as negative about immigration as the population in the rest of Britain.

The poll found that 49 per cent wanted to see less immigration, exactly the same proportion as across Britain, and 15 per cent said it should be stopped altogether. This is in contrast to politicians at Holyrood who tend to agree that Scotland needs more skilled migrants.

In the YouGov/BBC poll 64 per cent of people in Scotland wanted immigration reduced or stopped completely. The figure for Britain as a whole was 70 per cent. There’s a difference, certainly, but not nearly as marked as we have been led to think. 

It’s widely believed that Scottish voters are strongly opposed to welfare reform. But the UK government’s welfare reform programme has similar or even greater support in Scotland than in the South of England. Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown made headlines when he said people in Scotland should not “delude” themselves into thinking their general attitude to benefit reforms is different. “The attitudes towards welfare recipients in Scotland are by and large the same as those that exist outside Scotland.”

And on the EU referendum, the SNP may also be out of tune with what Scots really think. 

The assumption has been that Scots are much more favourable to our EU membership and that that there is no appetite in Scotland for a referendum on our membership. But is this the case?

Being an EU member necessarily involves a limitation of the rights of that independent state. A state is no longer entirely free to carry out policies that it might otherwise wish to carry out, or indeed to have a democratic mandate from its own electorate to do so. And there is a considerable democratic deficit within the EU.

Despite this the Scottish Government believes strongly in our continued membership and former leader Gordon Wilson (once ardently opposed to our EU membership) suggested this week that Scotland should declare independence if the rest of the UK votes to leave against its wishes. The Scottish government would have a mandate to retain membership of the EU by leaving the UK.

However, there is relatively little public attitudes data against which to assess whether this view is shared across the population.  

The point here is not that a majority of Scots are in favour of leaving the EU –  a 2013 Ipsos MORI poll indicated that just over half of Scots (53%) would vote to stay in, compared with a third who said they would vote to leave (34%) but that scepticism is more marked than the political class is allowing for. A renegotiation which sought to reduce the powers of the EU has more sympathy than the ‘Left consensus’ would admit.

Professor John Curtice (pictured) has pointed out that Scotland has become more Eurosceptic over the last decade. “Like the rest of the UK, Scotland is now a more Eurosceptic country than it once was…as recently as 2003 only 40 per cent of people in Scotland wanted Britain either to leave the EU or at least to reduce its powers. Now that proportion stands at 60 per cent”.

These readings - on immigration, welfare and the EU – could come back to haunt any administration which acted on the belief that that voters as a whole shared the same views as the “progressive consensus”.


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