29 June 2011

Scottish N(/n)ationalism & class-based politics...

A peaty crony recently sent me an account of a conversation overheard in a bar in the Southside of Glasgow.  The characters are a group of men in middle-to-late middle age. They are smartly dressed, prosperous, with a taste for the finer things in life. Natty watches hang from their joints and swanky shoes are an immediate concern. Sipping a second or third drink, they pass around plates of salade niçoise and moules marinières, discuss the architecture of British cathedrals - when their discussion noisily turns to the working classes. Despite their snobberies and their habits of consumption, none of the speakers show any remote sense of restraint discussing this topic. Their discussion isn't abashed with bourgeois fumblings and they do not envisage working class fellow-citizens as external observers might.  Despite their objective circumstances, and tastes, and manners, and expenditures - each of these men feels themselves to be, at bottom, working class characters.

During May's Holyrood election campaign, I analysed the SNP's party political broadcast with reference to this curious (and often Labour-voting) archetype, which I contended was very accurately depicted by the broadcast's skeptical protagonist, played by Jimmy Chisholm. A number of you found the lineaments of this character recognisable. Last week, I noted but didn't really delve into the class-based  data, generated by Professor James Mitchell et al in the Scottish Election Study 2011. One of the profoundly interesting aspects of the data as generated - positively inviting speculation - is its inclusion of subjective class-identifiers and a contrasting "objective" class identifier, which is to say, a consistent standard applied across the Study sample, based on the occupation of the head of household. These numbers are preliminary, borrowed from slides in which the researchers involved in the Study have presented their findings. Some important points of detail are absent - but this is a blog, not a peer-reviewed social scientific labour, so I don't have to feel too embarrassed about speculation and best-guesses. 

Firstly, the middle classes. I have written before about some of the curiosities which surround the Scotch bourgeois. They are often conceived as Anglicised - and by dint of that, of attenuated Scottishness - the burdens of national representation being devolved onto the working classes, often dominated by urban, west coast sounds and images. Although I have not enlarged on the proposition before here, one of the most irritating manifestations of this tendency is Scottish theatre. All too often, I have sat in middle class audiences, watching middle class actors perform material composed by middle class authors - cheerfully playing out yet another plucky-working-class-touchstone-of-authenticity type tale, without any sense of embarrassment. It is a complex issue, which I'm conscious that I'm only touching on here. I am certainly not attempting to make the case for banishing such material for our stages, nor indeed denying that such parliamo Glasgow offerings are without their charms. It is just the almost hegemonic status of such dramatic material and the delusions it fosters that I find problematic.  The crucial point is the tied presence and absence of the Scottish bourgeoisie. To paraphase (I think) Christopher Whyte or Cairns Craig, it conspires at its own invisibility.

There is also a curious gendered aspect of this. All credit to Gerry Hassan, one of the few folk in our public life to try to talk about Scottish masculinities. Gerry has contended that men are everywhere and nowhere - and that too often, we lack a vocabulary, range of images and narratives about what it means to be a Scottish man.  The same point can be made, forcibly, about Scottish bourgeois masculinities, which are doubly silenced, both on the gendered and classed register. I've made the point previously, in a closer look at some elements of the small body of gender research we have, which engages with Scotland. As some of you may know, for the time being, I live in Oxford. I am always surprised when folk tell me that the town is "very English", struck by the contrast with Edinburgh. Both places are strongly associated with their respective institutions of learning, representations of them overwhelmingly defined by their bourgeois citizens (in the case of the latter, prompting Irvine Welsh's strong dislocating reaction, in Trainspotting) . In English terms, Oxford is also very much part of the South - which are least suggests questions about who dominates representations of Englishness, who can claim to encapsulate its authentic qualities? While Oxford is able to assume such a national mantle without much difficulty, Edinburgh continues to be problematic. Pleasingly paradoxically, the Scottishness of the Scots capital is at best suspect - and has been for some time.  This is just a hastily composed gallimaufry - but I think begins to suggest some of the interest of thinking in a more nuanced way about the commonplace understandings of social class - and what is inexpressible or difficult to express, expelled from our public discourses by embarrassment or long neglect.

While the terse quantitative data of the Scottish Election Survey has limited explanatory potential in such a complex field - its findings are not without their impressionistic interest. Firstly, look at the data on subjective identification as middle class....

Respondents subjectively identifying as middle class...
  • SNP ~ 37%
  • Labour ~ 16%
  • Tories ~ 22%
  • Liberals ~ 8%
  • Greens ~ 9%
  • Others ~ 8%

And according to social grading's objective criteria...

AB voters (upper middle & middle classes)...
  • SNP ~ 41%
  • Labour ~ 25%
  • Tories ~ 14%
  • Liberals ~ 5%
  • Greens ~ 8%
  • Others ~ 7%


C1 voters (lower middle classes)
  • SNP ~ 41%
  • Labour ~ 25%
  • Tories ~ 17%
  • Liberals ~ 8%
  • Greens ~ 6%
  • Others ~ 3%

Professor Mitchell's slides do not record the brute number of people we are talking about here - so it is impossible at this point to see whether subjective identifications as middle class are significantly smaller than those identified as such by "objective" social grading criteria. I suspect so. It is the discrepancies which strike me as particularly interesting. For example, amongst AB and C1 respondents, the Conservative vote is 14% and 17% respectively - but amongst those who subjectively identify as middle class, it runs between 5% and 8% higher at 22%. Although it would be important to look at how many folk we are actually talking about - these findings might suggest an interesting correlation between self-identifying as middle class and voting Tory. Certainly, in anecdotal form, I know a number of folk who recount the idea that certain people of their acquaintance started voting Tory, as a signifier of their conceit of themselves and place in the world. Further to the characters with which this blogpost opened, it is equally interesting to note that Labour support ran at 25% amongst AB and C1 voters - but only 16% of those subjectively identifying as bourgeois voted Labour. Again, we have to be careful here*. The SES data, as presently presented, doesn't allow us easily to compare across subjective and objective categories. We don't know the actual numbers of respondents in each group, so at the moment, we cannot tell for sure (but can guess) how far the objective and subjective class categories overlap. However, the fact that there is a 9% difference between objective classification as middle class, and subjective identification as middle class amongst Labour voters, might well suggest that a significant number of them either believe themselves to be working class, or abstain from a class-based analysis altogether. We'd have to see the figures and not just the percentages, to be sure. As those who read my post the other day will have seen, the working class data (subjective and objective) breaks down as follows...

Respondents subjectively identifying as working class...
  • SNP ~ 47%
  • Labour ~ 33%
  • Tories ~ 7%
  • Liberals ~ 4%
  • Greens ~ 3%
  • Others ~ 6%
C2DE voters (working classes)...
  • SNP ~ 47%
  • Labour ~ 28%
  • Tories ~ 9%
  • Liberals ~ 4%
  • Greens ~ 4%
  • Others ~ 8%

Again, we don't have numbers of respondents - only percentages - but a few interesting points can be picked up. Firstly, while the SNP vote is stable across subjective and objective categories - the Labour vote decreases by a not insignificant 5% when one moves into the objective register. Bluntly, 5% of the Labour vote conceives of itself as working class, but isn't according to occupational criteria. Interestingly, despite protestations to the contrary, the Greenies are attracting only tiny percentages amongst working class respondents, whether subjectively or objectively defined.  Finally, and in some respects, perhaps most interestingly, are the results under the third subjective class category - those who do not identify with any class at all. The data is striking:

Respondents subjectively identifying as having no class...
  • SNP ~ 53%
  • Labour ~ 17%
  • Tories ~ 14%
  • Liberals ~ 4%
  • Greens ~ 4%
  • Others ~ 8%

A truly walloping lead for the Nationalists, 36% ahead of their nearest Labour rivals. There is a fascinating ideological aspect to this. One aspect of Scottish Nationalism - and indeed nationalism as such - which has historically concerned (some) socialists and communists, is its capacity to leech energy from the class struggle. In place of a united working class, contending against the rapacious bourgeoisie, you have nationalist division between English and Welsh and Scottish workers, whose energies are dispersed rather than united by a nationalist politics. I don't share the view - but I know a number of folk who would still hold to and proselytise for it. Unlike the social grading data and the subjective identifiers, we are unable at this point to set subjectivity beside objective criteria, and see how else we might categorise these "classless" respondent, and where in the brute boxes of ABC1 and C2DE most of them might fit - or how they are distributed across social grades. This is a pity, but it does pose a few pungent questions. First and foremost, what are the characteristics of these "classless voters"? Given how problematic middle-class identities can be in Scotland - indeed as I remember, David McCrone once suggested that there is a strong version of Scottish nationalism, which sees class as a wholly alien and English fixation - what does the SNP's majority amongst respondents of this character suggest about N(/n)ationalism's appeal?

Answers and speculation on a postcard, please...

*I'm obliged to James Mackenzie for pointing this out.


  1. Richard Thomson29 June 2011 at 20:39

    Interesting stuff. For some reason, this came to mind while I was reading...


  2. Richard,

    Many thanks for that! McNaughtan and I have clearly haunted a few of the same bars - I can see why you summoned it to mind. Although these bar gentleman don't quite entertain the same false consciousness as the Labour cooncillor sketched - they are undoubtedly cut from similar cloth.

  3. So you thinking, Lallands, the concept of 'We're aw Jock Tamsons bairns' is not just mythic it is manifest in the Scottish character?

    Makes sense as until 1707 the high born and the scruffs all lived up the same close in towns like Edinburgh. Artisans/merchants at street level their Lordships and ladies on the first landing, the new professional class on the second and so on up the seven flights or so as more folk were packed into less and less. A very different condition to the high heid yins in London.

    Its hard not to imagine that as their Lordships jobbies in the gutter mingled with those of the cowherd in a Grassmarket close that familiarity lead if not to contempt but a levelling down of some form.

  4. Great to see you did write this as you were hoping to! Lots to think about and discuss.

    One thing that strikes me immediately about the whole representations-of-Scottishness aspect of your post: the *actual* Glasgow working class (as opposed to the jolly mythical version you talk about) is possibly the most reviled population in Scotland. TV shows like The Scheme* (shown UK-wide - unlike the excellent Limmy's Show) are ensuring this attitude travels south also.

    So I am now thinking that this fetishisation by the middle classes, such as the theatre scene you describe, is analogous to the kind of consumption of African American and "world" music by white middle classes everywhere. Laughing at black comedians, worshipping an acceptably middle-class-sounding black US president, enjoying films about black heroes of the past (hence non-threatening) like Malcolm X, etc., all without ever really challenging a deeply racist system or ones own racism.

    A little frisson of radical, but watch which way you head home from the Citz, wouldn't want to bump into any NEDS [snigger snigger]!!

    That's what leaves a bad taste in my mouth about the whole thing.

    There is much much more to say about this topic and many people who have studied these issues much more thoroughly than me- just what came to me first.

    * NB: The Scheme isn't set in Glasgow of course. But I'm sure that'll be too fine a point for those watching from outwith Scotland.

  5. Peter,

    There are a range of ways of reading the data - which engage with a further problematic idea - how should "class" be conceived of anyway? As noted, the ABC1 C2DE social grading is based on asserting that "head of household" occupation is an appropriate guide to the class of respondents. Although I was making fun of the middle class Labour voter, and his delusions of his saltiness - you can make a strong case that we experience class in ways that stretch far beyond how many pounds we get in our monthly pay packet.

    I've largely glossed over these issues here. Certainly, I'd be willing to accept the idea that there is a dominant account of Scottishness, which emphasises an egalitarian tradition. This tradition is, as McCrone himself argues, sufficiently vague to allow a range of folk to identify with it, despite the incompatible definitions and social programmes they might derive from this simple egalitarian rhetoric. In this respect, we are not so different from other parts of the world. Talking to Australian and Irish and Canadian and American friends, many can recognise in their own dominant conceptions of their respective countries, a similar idea. All recognise that such public overtures of classlessness generally sit cheek-by-jowl with economic and social inequalities, paradoxically untroubled by the gap between the two claims.

    With "class" thinking being rooted in the English Other, disavowed in the National self. While on one reading, you might see this disavowal of class distinction as emancipatory - contrawise, we might argue that the limited ways in which we are able to see and talk about social class in Scotland obscures rather than illuminates its real influence. Sometimes, disavowal can be socially reactionary.

  6. That's *absolutely excellent* data.

    I wish the same poll had asked the independence question - my belief, honestly held, is that many Unionist Scots vote SNP in Holyrood elections because Labour and the Tories and the LDs are demonstrably disgraceful, but don't actually want Scots independence (see the 2010 UK elections, where Scots votes for pro-Union parties actually rose). If I were a Scots pollster, or poll commissioner (ie "newspaper"), then the correlation between "are you voting SNP" and "do you support Scots independence" would be the most interesting question to ask.

  7. Morag Eyrie,

    I dare say you'll recall a number of the themes (and points) raised here from our previous discussions! I was tempted - but didn't - describe some of these middle class representations as a bizarre sort of Scottish internal "Orientalism". You may an interesting point about the two-headedness of much of this, neatly captured by the all-too-plausible Citizens example you mentioned. By astonishing coincidence, I recently heard this song from Phil Ochs, which very much speaks to the American 1970s version constituency you describe, "Love me, I'm a Liberal."

  8. john b,

    In point of fact, the researchers did ask about attitudes to the constitution. While they've only published three sets of slides, collating some of their findings - I anticipate the Scottish Election Study folk will be making more available over the next few weeks and months. I think it is Dr Johns' slides you are after. Links to all of the available data from the Study can be found here.

  9. P.S.

    If it is data you are after, I also covered findings from the most recent post-Holyrood election poll on independence, earlier this month.

  10. Ah, The C word how terribly unfashionable and brave of you to attempt to get to grips with such emotional minefield.LPW- Ya bas'

    Aff the tap o ma heid some points.

    1 Is there not a key difference here between the welfare state middle and the private sector middle class in how they view politics and society at large.

    2 Why do all Glaswegians think they are proles?

    3 Apart from notable exceptions why are their so very few decent bourgeois novels from Scotland.

    4 If you a bare legged urchin until the age of 18 and experience all manner of degradations at what point do you become objectively middle class - is this when the first salary is in (paid monthly) and you necking your first glass of Blue Nun?