much debated question, but with the Independence Referendum now a certainty, a highly pertinent one. If you were to ask your average nationalist whether Scotland is more socially democratic than England, you would receive a resounding yes.
Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, refers with pride to 'Scotland's social democracy', and frequently points to the fact that the Tories have no electoral mandate in Scotland as a supporting argument for independence.
Salmond has a point: if the Tories' punitive economic and social policies strike your average Labour voter in England as utterly unfair and unpalatable, how does your average Scottish voter feel? After all, and as one wag recently highlighted, there are now more Pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs.
In his recent Hugo Young lecture, Salmond argued that the SNP Government 'made a conscious decision to provide certain core universal services, rights or benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere – such as free university tuition, free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies across the public sector.'In order to establish the veracity of this claim, further scrutiny is required.
Free prescription charges may sound good, but is it really justifiable to place an additional burden of cost upon the NHS so that people earning in excess of thirty or forty grand can get free drugs? Likewise, whilst free higher education is fine in principle, it is no longer sustainable in practice. The number of university students has increased exponentially over the past twenty years, to the extent that it is now neither unreasonable nor regressive to expect some form of graduate contribution.
The refusal to introduce fees has placed additional pressure on university departments already starved of funds, and has led to a huge cut in the further education budget. When one remembers that over 20% of the average college intake comes from the two most deprived quintiles of Scottish society, against just 7% of the intake for 'elite' universities, the failure to introduce tuition fees no longer seems quite so progressive.
Free personal care for the elderly, meanwhile, is something of a chimera. The collapse of Southern Cross revealed the startling failings of care for the elderly both north and south of the border, and the Scottish Government's decision to slash the budget of the Scottish Care Inspectorate is unlikely to do much to improve standards.
As for the guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, responsibility lies largely with local councils. This brings us to the 'progressive' policies that Mr Salmond did not mention in his Hugo Young lecture. The five year freeze on Council Tax. After the election, Scottish local authorities were left with little choice other than to accept a real terms cut in Council Tax, embedded within the terms of their Concordat with the Scottish Government. Whilst this may have proved a vote winner, it will, in the long run, penalise the poorest, those most reliant on council services – the elderly, low income or single parent families – hardest. It is certainly not a progressive policy.
Nor are the plans to reduce Corporation Tax. The motivations are obvious: enticing international corporations with a big tax giveaway. However, as inhabitants of low Corporation Tax countries – Greece, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland – will testify, big businesses are adept at shuffling and funnelling their finances, shifting profits from one state to another, whilst ensuring that labour costs are kept to a minimum.
The Institute for Public Policy Research argues that 'Corporation Tax cuts tend to benefit large finance and other businesses that do not provide much employment.'
On paper, corporations may be lured to Scotland; paper is pretty much all it will be. It is unlikely to result in a vast amount of job creation. The most we are likely to see is an office with a telephone manned by a sole employee. Whilst it won't create jobs, it will create a hole in Government finances.
These points are not intended as an attack in the SNP. Some of their policies are progressive, such as the tax on big retailers (the so called 'Tesco Tax'). I merely wish to point out that, contrary to popular opinion, especially in England (hence the commissioning of this piece, perhaps) the SNP is not a unified centre left party. Rather, it is a broad church, fostering a disparate range of interests and ideologies, all united under the flagship banner of Independence.
If Independence were ever achieved, it is possible the SNP would fragment, its members redistributed around the former unionist parties. After all, there would be something rather sinister and jingoistic about a Scottish National Party in an autonomous Scotland, with uncomfortable – even if unmerited – echoes of the BNP.
What many interpret as a national predilection for leftist politics could be construed another way – as hatred and loathing of the Tory party. During the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, I was struck by the large proportion of voters who unthinkingly pledged themselves to Labour. Looking back, it is clear that this was less an endorsement of Labour values than a rejection of Tory ones. In Scotland, people now have another option: the SNP.
Many Scots, especially those concentrated in the shipbuilding, mining, and steel-working heartlands of the Central Belt, share much in common with their counterparts on Merseyside, Tyneside, Yorkshire, and the Welsh valleys.
All the inhabitants of these sadly depressed regions underwent the same bitter martyrdom at the hands of Thatcher's Tories. All were sacrificed upon the altar of the City, their jobs, their pride, their future, offered up to the great gods of finance, newly anointed to feed a recalibrated economy.
This antipathy to the Tories is just as deeply entrenched throughout swathes of Northern England as it is in Scotland. On Merseyside, for example, neither of the two major parties even bothers to campaign – everybody knows who will win, because there is only one option.
However, a loathing of the Tories, whether north or south of the border, does not necessarily translate into an appetite for progressive politics. To illustrate this, let us take a brief look at the latest social attitudes survey – the salient details of which have been compiled and collated by John Curtice and Rachel Ormston. Curtice and Ormston define a social democrat as 'someone who is concerned about economic inequality and believes we should take action to reduce it.'
Their figures indicate that, whilst people in Scotland are 'slightly more concerned than people in England about levels of income inequality' the difference is negligible. In 2010, for example, 78% of people in Scotland, compared to 74% of those in England, said that the gap between those on higher incomes and those on lower incomes was too great, a difference of just 4%.
These figures are on a downward trajectory. In 1999 (the year of devolution) 84% of people in Scotland felt that levels of income inequality were too high, a drop of 6 percentage points over the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament. A similar drop has occurred in England.
The same is evident in people's views on the distribution of wealth. In 2000 71% of people surveyed believed that wealth was unfairly distributed. By 2010, the figure had dropped dramatically by 12 points, to 59%, a 4% gap with people in England, 55% of whom believe that wealth is unfairly distributed.
Finally, whilst an overwhelming majority of Scots are concerned about income inequality (78%), fewer than half of Scotland's (43%), believe that the Government should take action to address this by redistributing wealth. In England, 34% of people believe that the Government should redistribute wealth.
Taken as a whole, there is little here to support Salmond's implied claim that egalitarianism is 'a stronger driving force in Scotland' than in England.
In the course of his Hugo Young lecture, Salmond, referring to the pernicious Public Health Bill making its way through the Commons, 'thanked the Heavens' that Westminster no longer held sway over the NHS in Scotland. He did not mention that this Bill is just as unpopular in England as it would be in Scotland.
If Scotland becomes independent it will not be because its people wish to turn it into 'a beacon for progressive opinion', as Mr Salmond hubristically claims; it will be because the SNP has managed to be all things to all people.
With the Tories nowhere, the Nationalist tactic of cosying up to big business, whilst simultaneously issuing socialist soundbites, will win over disaffected voters on both sides of the political divide.
And, if Labour is not careful, it might just win the day.