Scotland: The World's First Referendum on Inequality?

What the independence campaign has in common with Occupy Wall Street

Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Queen Elizabeth II may be considered the world’s largest landowner—but close to home, in Scotland, her 60,000 acres of rolling hillside don’t amount to much. Her Majesty—who reportedly ranks 17th among Scotland’s private landowners—has got nothing on the Duke of Buccleuch, who holds the top spot with 240,000 acres across Britain (on which sits, among other properties, Drumlanrig: a pink-colored castle with 120 rooms, 17 turrets, 4 towers, and an original Leonardo da Vinci).

That so much space is owned by so few will be of no surprise to ordinary Scots. This state of affairs stretches back to the 16th century, when Scottish nobles used the Reformation as an occasion to grab great swaths of moor and mountainside. Today, more than half of non-public land in Scotland is owned by fewer than 450 people: a fair number of them kilt-clad and castle-bound aristocrats (alternatively “toffs” or “lairds”) who live in expansive (if somewhat drafty) country citadels. According to the historian and land-reform campaigner Jim Hunter, Scotland boasts “the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world.”

Such is the United Kingdom. On the metric of income equality, the U.K. ranks 28th out of 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has warned in recent years that income inequality is growing faster in Britain than in any other wealthy nation.

Now, many Scots want out. On Thursday, voters in Scotland will answer a straightforward Yes/No question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ then Scotland will declare independence and a 307-year-old union will be torn asunder. The U.K. will lose a third of its landmass and almost 10 percent of its population. We, like Macduff (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3), will be left to ask: “Stands Scotland where it did?”

In some quarters, the vote is already being hailed as the world’s first-ever referendum on economic inequality—an event that has less in common with other nationalist votes like Quebec's in 1995 than it does with recent developments such as Occupy Wall Street, the adoption of “the 1 percent” as a global catchphrase, and the runaway success of Thomas Piketty’s 700-page tome on the collateral damage of capitalism. It’s yet another manifestation, in other words, of the increasingly hot debate about rising global inequality and what we should do about it.

Scotland’s pro-independence movement differs from similar movements in places like Catalonia, Kurdistan, and eastern Ukraine in that it does not revolve around hard identifiers like language, religion, and ethnicity (or Russian military backing). What divides Scotland and England is a vocal lilt and a legacy of 14th-century clan warfare—seemingly surmountable obstacles to keeping a country together. As a result, Scottish nationalists have taken to claiming that London is to blame for all of Scotland’s economic ills. They contend that, with independence, Scotland can strike a different kind of compromise with its citizens. They argue that a vote for independence is a vote against inequality.

Throughout the two long years of campaigning for the referendum, there has been remarkably little anti-Englishness or blood-and-soil nationalism on display. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, champion of the Yes Scotland campaign, has come a long way since the 1990s, when he would quote the Scottish warrior William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson in the 1995 Scotland vs. England epic Braveheart) in campaign addresses. If today’s nationalists pit themselves against an ‘Other,’ it is not the average Englishman, but rather the London financier, as a stand-in for capitalism run amok.

In fact, leaders on both sides of the campaign have argued that, economically, Scots get the short end of a short stick. Economic growth in Scotland lags behind the U.K. average, as does GDP per capita and the unemployment rate. Scots tend to be older and sicker than English people—and babies born in Glasgow have the lowest life expectancy in the United Kingdom. More than 800,000 (out of 5.3 million) Scottish residents live in poverty, and income inequality is widening.

Depending on one’s view of things, Scottish nationalists are either the architects of a kinder and more egalitarian society, ready to cast off the yoke of English rule—or (as the pro-union Better Together campaign might argue) pushers of a seductive utopianism who would see inequality and impoverishment reign until “doomsday.”

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Scottish nobles have held their land for centuries, but the issue of land reform has only recently galvanized Scottish voters. In 2012, the Scottish Parliament set up a working group to study the problem of land concentration—and in May, advisors recommended that Scotland place a cap on the amount of land that a single private owner can possess. Salmond has promised to double the amount of land under community ownership—but Conservative Party officials warn that forcing big landowners to sell their property might violate the law. Meanwhile, several reports have raised the profile of the issue. In 2012, The New Statesman reported that the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia receive hundreds of thousands of pounds each year in taxpayer-funded agricultural subsidies. (The magazine dubbed the scheme “aid for aristocrats.”)

In many areas, like income inequality, Scotland and England suffer about equally. And in fact, Scotland enjoys more public spending per head than the rest of the kingdom. But the popular narrative in Scotland holds that Scots have always fared worse than the English. For this, we might blame Margaret Thatcher. In 1955, the Conservatives, or Tories, nabbed more votes in Scotland than any other political party. But this Conservative support was decimated in the 1980s under Thatcher—with her privatizations and “poll tax” and no-holds-barred battle with trade unions. Between 1979 and 1981, Scotland lost 20 percent of its workforce. And many Scots came to believe that the British government in Westminster had it out for them. Today, the Tory party is moribund in Scotland and holds just one of its 59 seats in the U.K. parliament. In July, The Economist described a lasting “Marxist caricature of the British state” in Scotland based on a “myth of vituperative, job-destroying, Scots-hating Tories.”

In the 1990s, Tony Blair’s “New Labour” turn—which included sidelining unions and embracing private enterprise (and invading Iraq)—alienated left-leaning Scots. Today, the Yes Scotland side attracts many a fallen Labourite (though the Labour Party officially backs the ‘no’ vote). A recent Guardian/ICM poll shows that 42 percent of Scots who voted Labour in the last general election will vote ‘yes’ on Thursday.

This figure reflects a conversation I had over and over again in Glasgow this summer, while reporting on the independence campaign. “I voted Labour most of my life, but I don’t believe the Labour Party is a socialist party anymore,” a retiree named Andy Callahan told me. Saffron Dickson, a 16-year-old ‘Yes’ campaigner, said, simply: “Labour broke my dad’s heart.”

However fanciful the ‘Yes’ side’s economic vision might be (and the ‘No’ team has spent two years arguing that what ‘Yes’ says ain’t so), the cause of independence has undeniably appealed to the working class. This referendum is not a proxy class war—but class is an important indicator of Yes/No allegiance. In general, the poorer the Scot, the more likely she is to vote ‘yes.’ The Economic and Social Research Council found that 46 percent of low-income Scots support independence, compared with 27 percent of high-earners. It’s no secret that the Highlands high rollers are largely voting ‘No.’ “The buggers are out to get us!” one “pre-eminent” duke told the Tatler, referring to ‘Yes’ campaigners. Mark Diffley, director of Ipsos MORI Scotland, has described the relative wealth of a voting district as “the variable that really explains what’s going on.”

The Yes Scotland campaign argues that the Scots and English are inherently the same, but have alas gone their separate ways. Scots maintain free university tuition, free personal and nursing care for the elderly, and a wholly public healthcare system. The English “cosset bankers or project [their] might around the world with nuclear missiles and foreign wars.” ‘Yes’s underlying conceit is that it’s England that has changed—and Scotland that has stayed true to Britain and Britishness.

Any historical truth to this claim is overwhelmed by myth. Indeed, a 2013 paper by the University of Glasgow’s Maria Gannon and Nick Bailey shows that Scots and English are about equally supportive of redistribution, and have roughly the same levels of concern about inequality.

This has not stopped Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) from seizing the narrative. Founded in 1934, the SNP spent decades on what some called the “tartan fringe” of Scottish politics. Even through the 1990s, says Michael Keating, director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change, “the SNP was actually quite close with the bankers.” Only after the financial downturn in 2008, Keating argues, did Salmond rebrand the SNP as a social democratic party, of and for the working class.

When I was touring Scotland, I always asked ‘Yes’ supporters what their ideal standalone Scotland might resemble. For many, utopia looked a lot “like Norway!”

Since the referendum campaign began in 2012, more radical factions have, at least rhetorically, pushed ‘Yes’ leftwards. The National Collective, a movement of artistic types, has rallied supporters against “Westminster governments who prioritize ‘wealth creation’ and corporate lobby groups above the things that really matter.” The Radical Independence Campaign (slogan: “Britain is for the rich: Scotland can be Ours”) has mobilized the country’s most deprived regions. Early this week, I spoke to Myshele Haywood, an American sociologist who has lived in Scotland for a decade and is an RIC campaigner. She had just come back from an evening of canvassing. “People are scared, people are confused,” Haywood told me. And “people in working-class areas understand [the referendum] as a class battle more than people in better-off neighborhoods.”

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In June, a folksy President Barack Obama advised Scottish voters: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But Britain is struggling. Poverty has doubled since the 1980s. And income disparity is rising. The U.K. boasts the richest region in Northern Europe (London), but also nine of the 10 poorest. The lowest-earning British households are among Western Europe’s most economically deprived. The bad news keeps coming—and Brits are noticing. “UK poverty on par with former Eastern bloc,” ran a recent Financial Times headline. “Parts of Britain are now poorer than POLAND,” decried the The Daily Mail. The SNP promises that a Scotland free of England could fix things with a big-state approach.

Meanwhile, team ‘No’ has spent the last two years fighting a rather unsexy fight: to keep things as they are, troubled though they may be. ‘No’ campaigners dispute the causes of Scottish inequality, blaming Scotland’s heavy-industry foundations and the tides of globalization rather than Westminster policy. And they argue that a wee, all-alone Scotland would be in a poor position to revive its economy—particularly if Edinburgh found itself outside the European Union, off the British pound, saddled with debt, and held afloat by a rapidly diminishing oil reserve. ‘No’ contends that Salmond, who backs a corporation tax cut, wouldn’t have the cash to build himself a new Norway if he wanted to. (Britain’s three main political parties have pledged to devolve more tax and welfare powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote.)

Each side in the campaign brandishes its own statistics. But through it all, one figure has stuck with me. Scottish Social Attitudes surveys have found that Scots are likely to vote for whichever side would, at the end of the day, leave them £500 ($817) a year better off. At today’s going rate, that wouldn’t quite cover the cost of a new iPhone 6.