In the debate that surrounds the referendum it is common to hear that Scotland has a more pronounced sense of social justice than the rest of the UK. Having lived in Scotland for around 25 years I feel this to be the case. But am I falling for a ‘wha’s like us’ mythology?
This vision of a fairer, more equitable Scottish psyche took centre stage at a recent referendum debate in Edinburgh and lots of heads nodded in agreement with the speakers. However, I was challenged to think about this by an American woman who posed the question, “What makes you think that individuals or corporations in Scotland will behave any differently than their English counterparts post-independence?”
I’m writing this from the recently relocated Glasgow Women’s Library in Bridgeton. Travelling to the east end of Glasgow from my home in Perthshire it is difficult to justify the feeling that Scotland is somehow more egalitarian than England. And you don’t have to compare areas 50 miles apart to see an inequality gap. A Save the Children report published in 2013 found that a child born in the east end of Glasgow can expect to live 28 years less that a child born in Lenzie just a few miles away. Twenty Eight years.
It is possible to argue that this inequality is wholly down to the policies of the Westminster government and that an independent Scotland would close that gap, but there has been a parliament at Holyrood with a devolved healthcare budget since 2004 and expecting a massive improvement post-September seems a tad unrealistic.
Scotland, to it’s great credit, has an education system free of tuition fees to Scots who study at Scottish universities. Whether this can be maintained in the current economic climate post-referendum irrespective of the outcome is open to question but even if it is, access to higher education for all young people gives an impression of of equality in education which does not really exist. I live in Crieff just a few yards from the entrance to Morrisons Academy, not the best or most expensive of Scotland’s public schools but well attended nonetheless. Cycling from Crieff to nearby Comrie I passed a small playing field being used as a car park for visitors attending the sorts day of a local preparatory school. The ranks of 4×4’s with tailgates open to reveal picnic hampers and glasses of bubbly resembled more a day at Royal Ascot than the sports day at my son’s primary school. The public school system is as alive and well in Scotland as it is in England. Scotland’s public schools have the same dubious charitable status as English public schools at a time when Holyrood controls charity law and the education budget. A quarter of children in Edinburgh are privately educated. A stroll through St Andrews during term time is an interesting experience and illuminates a place even more remote from the east end of Glasgow than is Crieff. In 2013 St Andrews University took only 19 children from working class backrounds. 40% of the intake were privately educated. For comparison, Oxford and Cambridge University have 43.2% and 36.7% respectively, intake form public schools.
It is common for opinions to be voiced pro-independence in response to the Tory elite in Westminster. But Scotland has always been ruled by elites, from Robert the Bruce descended from Scot-Norman-Gaelic nobility through to the owners of Scotland’s great estates. Fewer than 500 people own more than half of Scotland so to assert that the ruling class in Scotland is different than in England is disingenuous. The Scotland Land Reform Bill goes some way to address land inequality but wont make massive inroads into who owns Scotland and is being opposed by the owners of the large estates.
As things stand, as the American woman suggested, we are not that different to our neighbours over the border. Whatever happens on 18th those of us who would like to see a fairer society need to work hard to create the kind of society we would like to see. The ‘wha’s like us’ delusion just will not do.