Saturday, September 24, 2022

How English voters react to the new Thatcherism over coming days could be decisive for the Scottish independence project

One type of context we sometimes lose when we think about political history is the sense of shock in the moment about certain developments.  People didn't know Churchill would be proved right about Germany in the 1930s - they thought the opposite.  People didn't know the communist bloc would fall in the 1980s - in fact they expected it to persist indefinitely, albeit perhaps in a reformed state.  And people in Scotland did not see Thatcherism coming in the late 1970s.  The 1979 Tory manifesto was far from the first post-war Tory manifesto to promise wide-scale privatisation or other right-wing measures, but once in office Conservative governments had always tended to chart a more moderate course.  If you look back at the coverage of the 1979 election, there was no real sense that Mrs Thatcher's win would represent a decisive break from the past - except in the obvious sense that she herself would be Britain's first female Prime Minister.

So when Scots experienced the effects of Thatcherism, they didn't just think to themselves "well, this is what we expect from Westminster".  In fact, what they had come to expect from Westminster over decades was effectively social democracy, a large public sector and a healthy welfare state - and when they started getting the total opposite, with no prospect of any respite, it was a bewildering shock that fundamentally changed Scottish attitudes to the United Kingdom.  The modest majority for devolution in the 1979 referendum (disregarded by our Westminster masters) quickly became a massive majority or "settled will" as John Smith put it.  Although support for full independence remained in the minority, it pretty much doubled from where it had languished in the 1970s - meaning that the Thatcher period marked the moment when independence went from being a fringe pursuit to something that people could just about imagine actually happening.

But there was an additional necessary ingredient for this transformation, and that was the fact that Thatcherism was for a long time popular in England.  The Tories introduced a type of simplistic transactional electoral politics that really seemed to work for them - give us your vote and you'll get 1p off the basic rate of income tax in return.  The 1983 and 1987 landslides increased the sense of Scottish despair that change could ever come from Westminster, and in turn stiffened the resolve to seek a solution in the form of self-government.

Yesterday marked one of those historical moments of shock and rupture when we realised that after twelve years of Tory rule, we suddenly have a full-fat Thatcherite Restoration that we didn't really see coming.  We know how Scots tend to react to Thatcherism, so we already know what the effect of that psychological jolt is likely to be in these parts.  All of the optimistic noises from the mainstream media about how Nicola Sturgeon is "under intense pressure" to replicate the Tory tax cuts will cut very little ice with most Scottish voters.  But what we don't yet know is whether the return to transactional electoral offers will open up a 1980s-style schism between Scottish and English voters, with the latter eagerly re-electing the Tory government to bag their tax cuts.  If that does happen, independence could become near-enough inevitable.

However, I'm a bit sceptical as to whether English voters will actually react in the way Truss and Kwarteng appear to expect.  Remember that even Mrs Thatcher eventually over-reached herself on tax.  The whole point of the poll tax was to export transactional politics to local elections, with Tory councils offering a low and very specific flat tax rate that could be easily compared by voters to a higher 'bid' from Labour.  But instead English voters focused on the injustice of the whole principle of a flat-rate tax which took no account of people's ability to pay, and they concluded in many cases that Tory rule would actually leave them worse off.  It's quite possible that yesterday's mini-budget will generate a similar perception in England due to the emphasis on tax cuts for the wealthiest.  There's also the problem that the mini-budget is being blasted by experts as fiscally irresponsible and potentially even crisis-inducing, which is not the sort of critique that Mrs Thatcher's chancellors ever had to face.  If Kwarteng's gamble backfires, it could destroy the Tories' most potent line of attack against Labour - ie. that only the Tories can be trusted to manage the economy responsibly.

It could well be that the 2024 general election will come round with Scottish voters in a mood to escape this new Thatcherism, but with English voters in a very similar mood, which would not quite be the perfect storm that the independence movement is looking for.  But, there again, it wouldn't totally surprise me if the next batch of opinion polls shows a swing at GB level to the Tories, and then we'd be able to credibly portray independence as the only way out of this nightmare. So the next few days could be crucial.

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The incident with The Sun makes the case eloquently for crowdfunded opinion polls commissioned by pro-indy alternative media outlets like Scot Goes Pop.  Not only did The Sun get their pollster to ask truly ridiculous questions (like "did you CRY after the Queen died?") to try to artificially generate a picture of Scotland being at one with the rest of the UK, they also then brazenly lied about the poll's results.  Because the data tables hadn't been published at that point, it took a long time for us to discover we were being lied to about the supposedly "plummeting Yes vote", and by that point some of the damage was already done in terms of public perception.  But with crowdfunded polls for a pro-indy outlet, we get to choose which questions are asked, and we can also make very sure the results are reported accurately right from the start.  I'm continuing to fundraise for a seventh Scot Goes Pop poll, and also more generally to help keep Scot Goes Pop going - it's been slow progress this time (totally understandable given the cost of living crisis) but we're gradually getting there.  If you'd like to donate, here are the various options...

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1 comment:

  1. “There's also the problem that the mini-budget is being blasted by experts as fiscally irresponsible and potentially even crisis-inducing, which is not the sort of critique that Mrs Thatcher's chancellors ever had to face.”

    Didn’t a whole load of economists publish an open letter against Thatcher’s economic and monetary policies early in her government?