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A progressive Scotland, and an England sliding backwards?

Writing: Charley Rose Jones

“I’m moving to Scotland.” These texts started coming through as soon as the exit poll predicted the gloomy results of the last general election. My friends and family from Brighton and Hove – a loudly Green and Red refuge surrounded by Blue – automatically viewed Scotland as a kind of safety net. As a place they could go that was not filled with people who voted for that misogynistic, xenophobic, idiotic man. As having a brighter future for the left. This was only exacerbated by the emotional significance of Labour’s losses in the North of England; with constituencies going Blue for the first time ever, it was clear that the traditional working-classes, the group that Labour was supposed to represent, felt abandoned. England is now considered by some to be regressing into the kind of ugly form of nationalism that aided colonialism, (with Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy describing Johnson’s Brexit as having “a desperately colonial mindset”), whilst Scotland is being viewed as more and more progressive in comparison. Is Scotland truly more progressive than England, or is Scotland just having a moment?

It is certainly true that Scotland appears to be more progressive than England, a trend that is not necessarily new. For example, Scotland’s willingness to work with other nations is not a recent phenomenon – the Scottish electorate’s desire to remain in the EU, to welcome immigrants and to encourage emigration falls in line with Scotland’s history of international movement and collaboration. Spurred on by Scotland’s decision to vote Remain, Sir Tom Devine has recently done much to highlight that Scotland’s history has been one of migration dating back to medieval times. In this way, Scotland is simply staying true to its more progressive outlook on international relations.

My own day-to-day experiences have suggested that the political and social culture is more progressive in Scotland than in England. For example, I don’t have to pay for my medication here. I tried to: I was sure that the pharmacist thought I was under 16 and so wasn’t charging me, which hurt my ego, but it turns out you just don’t have to pay for your prescription here. Mad. Scotland is also known for having a better, fairer education system that supports working-class students to receive an education, (although the extent to which this has actually helped working-class students in comparison to middle-class students is questionable and being working-class at Edinburgh University is still pretty tough. Erin Lynch wrote a great piece on this for The Rattlecap). Holyrood has embraced electoral reform more readily than Westminster, with the Scottish system already implementing the Additional Member System and the SNP stating they will push for Proportional Representation.

However, at the heart of it, it is difficult to make any judgements about whether Scotland is truly more progressive than England. This is in part because the Scottish people are currently united against a common enemy: Westminster. They are fighting this enemy through the Scottish Nationalist Party as the only viable political party to represent purely Scottish interests down South. Scotland voted to Remain in the European Union and Westminster is forcing them to leave anyway. Westminster has routinely ignored Holyrood’s arguments for, at the very least, a softer Brexit as a compromise for Remain voters up on this side of the border. Now the Labour MP Lisa Nandy is berating the Scottish Nationalists in the English press. Scottish Nationalists seem to have very few friends in Westminster and are thus a comparatively united force. The true test for Scottish progressivism will come if Scotland becomes independent. In the face of independence, Scotland might well become divided with more choices for the future of Scotland and more political parties to choose from.

Whilst Brexit and the recent Tory win has united Scotland, it has divided England. More heartbreakingly, the English working-classes are divided. There is a large group on the Left, (sometimes referred to as the ‘cosmopolitan left’), who have made the traditional working-class their enemy by slagging off the poorer workers from the heartlands in the North that voted Leave and turned Blue. There is now such a huge difference between what it means to be working-class in a place like Brighton and what it means to be working-class in Dudley North, for example, that it seems like an impossible task for Labour to both win back the heartlands and capitalise on the progressive vote that they’ve gained from young people in the cities. Perhaps they will manage, or perhaps an entirely different or new political party will attempt to heal the divide in the Left.

To answer the question I posed earlier as to whether or not Scotland is more progressive than England seems premature. If the litany of elections and referendums over the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the electorate is an unpredictable force right now. Yes, Scotland certainly seems to be heading in a more progressive direction – will this continue if Scotland gains independence? As for England, the current Government is leading us down what appears to be a dark path that often feels like the antipathy of progressiveness, but, as with Scotland, I am reluctant to judge a population based on its current Government. Many people who voted Blue for the first time in 2019 can be won back and England still has the potential for a progressive future.

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