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New in-depth polling points to contrary and inconsistent views on Scotland's public spending. What is going on?
If you want to be successful in politics you need to get comfortable with the idea that voters comfortably hold contradictory beliefs.
People want more spending and lower taxes. They favour the death penalty but describe themselves as pro-life. They vote for tighter controls on borders for people entering their country but complain when they find themselves queuing at passport control when on holiday.
It’s impossible for voters to hold entirely consistent views. They don't spend much time questioning whether their personal values are applied equally to different issues, or even to the same issue at different times. This drives us ideologues who run political campaigns crazy, but most people simply don’t share our need to have rules governing their political views. They are constantly, unconsciously reconciling conflicting opinions towards the same issue according to their feelings.
The job of a campaigner is to activate those feelings that encourage voters to view an issue in a way that helps your argument. More importantly, your job is to make sure you aren’t encouraging those feelings that help voters see the world from your opponent’s point of view.
We saw an example of this in the debate over Scotland’s finances over the last few days.
First The Facts…
Two respected think tanks told us what anyone who has looked at Scotland’s finances already knows: leaving the UK would come at great cost to the funding of public services like the NHS.
The Insititute for Fiscal Studies looked at all parties manifestos and reminded us of the uncomfortable truth behind exceptionalist claims of Scots being more willing to pay for social democratic policies:
“All three manifestos reflect a degree of consensus on what might be termed a Scottish model of the welfare state. This is, and would continue to be, paid for largely by the transfer of cash from the rest of the UK which allows funding for devolved services to be around 30% higher per person than what is spent on comparable services in England.”
Meanwhile, another report today by the Institute for Government confirmed what the IFS had already concluded a couple of weeks ago.
“There are many reasons why the people of Scotland or Wales might want to seek independence from the UK, or why the people of Northern Ireland might want to be part of a united Ireland. However, one cost of doing so would be that they would no longer be able to benefit from the redistribution of resources that currently takes place across the UK. The larger the deficit that they have is, the harder the case for independence becomes.”
Little wonder Nicola Sturgeon has done no analysis of the economics of leaving the UK. The findings of these reports on the costs of Scexit - cuts to spending, more expensive borrowing, higher taxes - aren’t exactly what you’d choose to put on a leaflet.
None of this is new. It has long been established that Scotland benefits greatly from transfers of billions of pounds every year, as does every part of the UK other than the South East. This is our share of the kitty and we’d be daft to give it up.
The reason I start with the policy is that another report today into the politics of these arguments reminded us that facts and feelings aren’t always aligned.
…and Now the Feelings
Lord Ashcroft’s regular polling reports are always full of qualitative data to pore over and the kind of quantitative nuggets from focus groups that make politicians self-conscious.
There are so many questions to explore in his latest data dump. For example, is the UK Chancellor having a higher approval rating than the Scottish Finance Minister a sign that voters value his decisions on furlough and NHS funding but can’t bring themselves to credit Johnson? Is there a risk that people who are against leaving the UK might support leaving just to shut everyone up? Has anyone ever had such a dramatic fall in their personal ratings as Alex Salmond? But these are for another time.
The findings that illustrate my point on voters holding contradictory views are on the funding transferred around the UK. Knowing that it is beyond any reasonable doubt that we benefit from funding transfers from other parts of the UK, you might look at the numbers in the chart below and despair.
More voters believe something objectively untrue - that we put more money into the UK than we get out - than believe the truth. With mirror opposite results from Yes and No voters, it is tempting to conclude that polarisation means the overwhelming weight of evidence just isn’t admitted into partisan minds. That would be a mistake.
Take a look at the same issue examined in a different way and you see that voters recognise that leaving the UK means cuts to public spending.
What is going on here? I think it’s the impact of something I’ve written about before. If, in the public spending debate, you adopt a frame which is about Scotland not paying our way or being subsidised then voters will become indignant on behalf of their nation. Of course when you ask if they pay their way they will answer yes. They see the deductions in their pay packets every month. Do they feel they or their community gets enough back? Probably not.
Arguing about whether we are subsidised expects voters to be grateful for getting what, as part of the UK, is our right: getting our share of UK funding just like other parts of the UK.
Remove the nationalistic frame and nearly a majority say it is “absolutely true” that leaving the UK means “painful cuts in public spending”. Just a quarter say that it is “not true at all”. It isn’t that people won’t accept that Scexit means cuts, it’s that they react when the argument is made the wrong way.
Nationalists frame the public spending debate as us-and-them. They talk about how us, the Scots, aren’t gifted anything by them. Rather than reinforcing the frame of us-and-them we should break it and remind people that, for as long as we are in the UK, us is them.
As I wrote in more detail here, those that oppose nationalism should argue that Nicola Sturgeon wants us to give up our share of the UK funding that means we get higher spending on the NHS and schools. That idea of ‘our share’ makes our case a positive defence of public services rather than stepping into the SNP’s nationalist frame. Instead, it spings a trap for them: they have to explain why more money for public services is a bad thing. They’ve done this already in the Growth Commission, making a case that our budget is unsustainable and that it requires cutting. In reality, like the farmer filling up the hole with water at night, they are selling us a solution to a problem only they create.
There’s a pessimism and fatalism about people all over the world who find themselves fighting populists in polarised political systems. As we watch voters choose self-destructive politics we’re tempted to think that nothing matters. Ashcroft’s poll should shake us out of that. One in ten say they have changed their mind more than once on whether to leave the UK. The percentage saying they support leaving the UK in this poll, after everything, is less than the 45% vote recorded in 2014.
The argument is there to be won.
More on Borders
Another finding in the Ashcroft poll was that more than two-thirds of voters believe that it is absolutely true that “Scotland would spend years negotiating with the UK Government over the detailed terms of independence.” Just one in ten think that is not true at all. The focus group findings too suggest some voters have watched the chaotic negotiations about exiting the European Union and decided a repeat of that on the terms of exiting the UK Union aren’t for them.
Channel Four News carried a must-watch report with three experts giving their views on the new border with England that Scexit would create. The key clips are in the Twitter thread below:
As the First Minister of Northern Ireland resigns over the border Brexit has created, her counterpart in Scotland is still leaning on her old argument that Johnson’s promises on no border for Northern Ireland proves there won’t be one for Scotland. She must be the last person in UK politics to believe this. Even normally SNP-sympathising commentators like Iain Macwhirter have lost patience with Nicola Sturgeon’s nonsense:
“The EU will not be in the business of giving similar special status to Scotland: allowing it to remain part of the UK while rejoining the single market. It cannot risk another porous border weakening the integrity of the EU. This means a hard border in the true sense of the word – customs declarations, non-tariff barriers and possibly tariffs on goods passing through. The UK, for its part, will want immigration checks to avoid Scotland becoming a back door from Europe.”
The issue is a nationalists’ nightmare. It is complex but well understood after five years of Brexit negotiations. So flimsy reassurances won’t cut it. Any border arrangement relies on the agreement from nations so they can’t fall back on their usual ‘Scotland will decide’ response. This issue will run and run.
In Case You Missed It
The Government that cut bus routes mismanaged our railways and leaves ferries to rust on the slipway has shown it will invest in transport for some.
This in The New Statesman an interesting read on the divisions in Scottish nationalism.
Here is FT’s damning assessment of the SNP’s record on education.