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Class Becomes a Factor in Scotland's Drive for Independence

As the gap narrows between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps, whether or not the UK splits apart may come down to how much Scots earn.


“Don’t leave us”: That was David Cameron’s plea to Scotland last week.

In an emotionally charged speech delivered at the Olympic Park in East London, site of the 2012 Games, the British prime minister appealed to Scots’ shared sense of Britishness, calling for them to vote “no” to independence in a referendum scheduled for September.

Cameron’s interjection came after a series of opinion polls showed that the “no” campaign’s once-commanding lead is dwindling.

But experts suggest that it’s economics — not identity — that may become the determining factor when Scots go to the polls.

More than half of them say they’d vote to leave the United Kingdom if they would earn 500 pounds — around $800 — more a year. Just 15 percent would back independence if they would be worse off by the same amount, according to an annual survey of Scottish social attitudes.

Social class is becoming an increasingly salient factor in the independence debate, with poorer Scots far more likely to support a break with the United Kingdom.

Data published by polling company Ipsos Mori in December showed that almost half of those living in the most deprived parts of the country intended to vote for independence, compared to just a quarter in the wealthiest areas.

“The difference between the most affluent neighborhoods and the most deprived neighborhoods is now bigger than at any time in the last couple of years and it’s growing,” says Mark Diffley, director of Ipsos Mori Scotland.

That may help explain why the independence debate has largely fractured along the lines of political right and left.

The Scottish National Party — the referendum’s prime advocate that’s now in its second term in control of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh — has outlined a broadly center-left vision of independence. In a major policy paper published in November, the party made a commitment to universal childcare, a written constitution and an increase in the minimum wage in line with inflation.

"Yes leans to the left much more explicitly, whereas Better Together [the No campaign] tries to be all things to all people, but has been seen as leaning more to the right,” says James Mitchell, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh.

Since the Conservatives last won a majority of seats in Scotland in 1955, this corner of Britain has been the preserve of the left. Of the 59 lawmakers Scotland sends to the British parliament in London, just one is a Tory. Labour and Scottish nationalists have dominated the Edinburgh parliament since devolution more than a decade and a half ago.

“The perception in Scotland is that Scotland is not as conservative as England and therefore you are getting that relationship between class and national identity coming together,” Mitchell says.

With most right-of-center voters expected to reject independence, the referendum will probably be won or lost on the opposite, much larger, side of the political aisle.

Supporters of the Labour Party, which advocates a “no” vote, will be the “key battleground” in the months leading up to Sept. 18, Mitchell says. Although those voters generally favor more devolution and are skeptical about full independence, they could be won over by the nationalists’ argument, especially if the Conservatives look likely to win the 2015 UK general election.

Even farther to the left, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has largely succeeded in uniting Scotland’s diffuse and fractious left behind the cause of independence.

RIC has organized canvassing and voter registration drives in some of the poorest parts of the country.

Pete Ramand, a member of RIC and the author of Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, says those with the smallest stake in the status quo are most likely to support constitutional change.

“People are afraid of change,” he says. “But if you’re living in any one of the housing schemes in Scotland, and you don’t have a good job, what fear of change do you really have? It can’t really get that much worse than it is right now.”

Not everyone in Scotland’s referendum debate divides neatly into the left-right, yes-no equation, however.

George Galloway, the controversial lawmaker who represented Glasgow for almost two decades and famously appeared before a US Senate investigation into the UN’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq before the US invasion, says independence would lead to right-wing governments on both sides of the border.

“Everyone on both sides of the border will be worse off,” he told an audience in Edinburgh earlier this month.

Some on the right also believe independence would be a boon for private enterprise.

“Scotland is very used to being a dependent region and the main activity of Scottish politicians since the welfare state has been trying to get money out London,” says Michael Fry, a historian who founded Wealthy Nation, a right-of-center group advocating a “yes” vote. “That needs to change and if we were independent, that would change.”