Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland in August 2011, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and First Minister Alex Salmond commented ‘We know we have a different society in Scotland…’. Salmond was referring to media reports that claimed that riots had broken out across the UK during that month and was incensed that Scotland had been negatively portrayed when the riots had taken place in a number of English towns and cities. Alex Salmond argued that riots would not happen in Scotland implying that Scottish society was driven by different values, was more socially cohesive and that this was not how things are done in Scotland.
On its own such claims might be dismissed, as they were by his opponents, as a moment of political opportunism. But nonetheless they reflect a strong and growing belief that across a number of issues, Scotland is a society that appears to be increasingly divergent from the rest of the UK and in particular, from England. While it is important to appreciate that ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’ are not homogenous societies, and that there are many similarities in relation to, for instance, patterns of inequality and poverty across the major Scottish and English cities, these views have become reinforced since devolution in 1999. They reflect in no small part, Scottish social policy distinctiveness in relation to the funding of higher education and the abolition of tuition fees for full-time students, free personal care for older people and free NHS prescriptions, a policy also in operation in Wales. The introduction of minimum pricing on alcohol in Scotland, something that the Westminster Government has baulked at, offers another notable example of policy divergence.
Claims about Scottish distinctiveness have, however, been further voiced following the 2010 UK general election outcome which once more highlighted the significantly polarised political landscape between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (This is explored in the accompanying collection The context for the independence debate). The election of a UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government committed to large-scale deficit reduction through the implementation of a range of ‘austerity’ measures, was not only out of step with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of voters in Scotland, but was seriously at odds with the developing political debate in Scotland which, with constitutional change at its centre, offered up the possibility of a different policy path from that being pursued by the Westminster Government. However, budget reductions, public sector job losses, austerity cuts and the impact of financial and economic crisis were in no way less potent in Scotland when compared with other parts of the UK (see: ‘Scotland, The Comprehensive Spending Review and Public Sector Cuts’ in SPA, In Defence of Welfare, Social Policy Association 2011). This reminds us that the existence of reserved powers, including the key areas of taxation and social security, means that the UK Government’s policies continue to impact across Scottish society, irrespective of any arguments around political mandate.