Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 September 2014

UK attitudes on the size of the state

This is a follow up to my post on shrinking the state, but actually it is about something I found when thinking about the Scottish independence referendum, so let me start there. If Scotland votes for independence, it will be because enough Labour voters voted Yes despite Labour’s support for the Union. It seems quite clear from the Scottish Nationalists’ pitch in these closing weeks that the appeal to these voters is that by voting for independence you can ensure you never again have a Conservative government.

Yet there is a puzzle here. England and Scotland are not so different in terms of political attitudes. This is true across a wide range of issues: Scots are only a little more to the left than the English. Furthermore, as John Curtice and Rachel Ormston show here, this difference has not noticeably increased over the last ten years. Let’s focus on the specific issue of the size of the state. Here is the proportion of people who thought taxes should rise to increase spending on health, education and social benefits in each country.

The proportion is generally higher in Scotland, but not by much, and it has been falling in both countries over the last ten years.

When I saw this data, I wondered about what was missing from the chart. Respondents were given two alternative responses: the level of taxation should be less, or it should stay about the same. Here is the same question for the UK as a whole (source: British Social Attitudes survey).

The interesting result is how few people want lower taxes - always below 10%. The changes involve shifts between more spending and taxes to no change, rather than to lower spending and taxes.

In terms of movements over time, it is interesting to compare this with data on the levels of UK government spending and taxes, over a longer period than I gave in my previous post.

 If you think about the turn of the millennium as being the end of the Thatcher era, then the Thatcher years saw a reduction in the size of the state, whether measured in terms of taxes or spending. From the previous chart, it looks like this was against popular opinion at the time, because we saw a sustained rise in the proportion of people wanting a larger state in the 1980s. This proportion started falling over the same period that Labour were increasing the level of public spending, which again makes sense. So there is little evidence of a change in public attitudes here: the state was too small in the 1980s and 1990s, and it began to move towards a level the majority desired during the last Labour government. There is absolutely no public mandate for any renewed shrinking of the state.

Which prompted this thought. As public attitudes either side of the border are not so very different, and given these particular attitudes about the size of the state, perhaps the relevant question is not why the Conservatives and UKIP are so weak in Scotland, but why are they so strong in England? As John Ruddy notes here, in the mid 1950s the Conservatives won over 50% of the Scottish vote. What happened since then was not a collapse at the expense of Labour, but at the expense of the SNP and Liberals.

Perhaps a better way to start thinking about what has been happening is as follows. The big change over time has not involved public attitudes, but the political position on economic issues of the Conservative Party. Just like the Republicans in the US, it has moved substantially to the right, beginning with Thatcher, and continuing under Cameron. Just as with the Tea Party in the US, there is a sizeable minority that wants to go further. However this rightward shift does not reflect majority opinion, and so when enough alternatives exist - as in Scotland - votes have drifted away from the Conservatives to more moderate centre right parties. In a two party system like the US, or with a voting system that favours the two main incumbent parties like the UK, that cannot happen.


  1. I think you misunderstand the support for UKIP. It is not necessarily a right wing party, as understood by mainstream economists anyway.

    It is an anti-globalisation, anti-finance, anti-establishment party that in many ways is picking up the void left from the decimation of unions. It appears anti-state (which economists naively interpret as anti-G/Y) when really they see it as an institution linked to the power of finance and capital and the international classes - which today are the bankers and the international bourgeoisie. They see the EU as part of this axis. Mainstream economists separate large capital and government. The likes of UKIP see them as part of a single entity.

    1. I suppose some of Ukip's supporters might be anti-globalisation or anti-finance, but the policies of the actual party are not.


      As free trade and low tax as any tea bagger could desire.

      They are anti-immigration, which is anti-globalisation, but I am old fashioned enough to associate that with the right, not the left.

    2. "but I am old fashioned enough to associate that with the right, not the left."

      I think such distinctions are becoming largely irrelevant. A lot of the issues are not properly covered in neo-classical economic models and are to do with power and representation.

    3. We now have the same kind of party here in Germany, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/alternative for Germany). They are entering the political scene right now and have entered three regional parliaments in the past month. They got their first elected representatives in the last european elections and successfully applied for membership in the European Tory faction. Their leader is an economics professor, Bernd Lucke and many of their most prominent members are either economists or former lobbyists, though they have also welcomed social conservatives. They first caught national attention because of their anti-Euro/anti-bailout campaign.
      And just last weekend, there was a post-election TV interview with their leader. Another party member was standing in the background holding up a sign that said "Schranken für Banken - keine Eurobonds!", i.e. "Banks need more limits, no Eurobonds!" Of course, banks do not emit Eurobonds, governments do. So it's basically a deceitful deflection of popular anger against big banks onto european integration. They're implying that they take up anti-capitalist messages, but are actually carrying out policies against more european integration. And at the moment, more european integration is not in the interests of Germany's industry.
      It's always the same mechanism of using the current anger against big capital to make government smaller - see the Tea Party.

  2. And which is contrary to Hotelling/median voter models. How far to the right can the Tories move before part of their vote splits off and moves to Labour - especially if Labour consciously keeps in the middle ground?

  3. Nice post. What do you see happening to political power in rUK as a result of Scottish independence being achieved? 50 odd less Scottish Labour MPs would make it much harder for Labour to win in rUK, and consequently make it harder for the Conservatives to lose.

    As for Tory votes 'splitting off', isn't it more appropriate to talk of 'leaving voters behind' as the Party moves ever further to the right to avoid the Eurosceptics joining the UKIPers and to satisfy their financial backers? With no real opposition, would the Conservative Party itself split? Would LibDems pick up more centrist Tory votes? Or would people just stop voting?

    1. I think I read that losing Scotland would increase the number of seats that Labour needs to gain from 68 to 80. Difficult but not impossible? (And the Scottish seats have rarely been decisive in post-war elections.) In what would be a pretty febrile time of recriminations and negotiations, even harder to guess results than usually.

      But, what about this for a possibility?

      1. No overall control in GE 2015.
      2. No referendum in 2017 as a consequence.
      3. Tory ultras mount a reverse takeover of UKIP.
      4. In GE 2020 New UKIP takes all the the votes from the right of the Tory party, but coastal Labour voters have picked up on UKIP's anti-labour policies and mostly stay with Labour.
      5. Labour wins an absolute majority in 2020 (including Clacton). EU has self-reformed (its not just the UK that's unhappy). Overton window has moved substantially to the left so that Labour is right in the middle of it.

  4. Looks like, if the Scots vote yes, they'll do so because they want taxes to stay the same level BUT expect them to decrease in the future, maybe related to NHS cuts?
    Also, the coalition between the Tories and the Liberals was a giant mistake because it subdued the liberals, who for a while represented a kind of third-way/progressive alternative, under the influence of the City of London. It's exactly the kind of "Westminster elite" effect that Mr. Salmond campaigns on. The Liberals tried to be a libertarian and progressive party, but the progressive element got lost in the coalition. A coalition with Labour would have been better. I think this is a reason why recent UK policy has been more to the right than voters intended. The liberals did not govern the way the people expected, and it's showing in the polls.
    But yes, it's also worth thinking about why the conservatives have moved to the right. It's almost a global phenomenon. I like to believe in conspiracy theories here and think that there is a global alliance of extremely wealthy conservatives who try to pull national governments to the right, for example the Koch brothers in the USA (a former libertarian presidential candidate, their father a member of the John Birch society), Sheldon Adelson and his connections to the far right in Israel, the Bush family/Saudi connection, Rupert Murdoch, of course, and the Iran/Contra story (the Reagan government selling arms to the Ayatollah...). The increasing share of wealth that goes to the top 0,001% makes these efforts stronger. The City of London is a main profiteer, if not THE main profiteer of that development.

  5. Why English people buy the types of newspapers they do, a bottom-up Stockholm syndrome to top-down Jeremy Warner Murdochisation, could well be the big political puzzle of the last generation.

    Without the thick English, and its mostly white men who vote disproportately Tory (and Republican), the thick Scots might not be nearing a most non-optimum currency area.

  6. I am sorry but this is all wrong - the attitudes about taxation study is deeply flawed and your analysis relies on replacing good information that contradicts your position in independence with bad information that supports it.
    1) The study doesn't take into account the fact that tax has become far less progressive, peoples attitude to whether taxes should be raised might well have changed simply because they know that the burden of taxes will be distributed unfairly.
    2)The devolved Scottish government has in practice effected measures that favour a larger and more generous state, and the scots regularly vote for parties that promise this. This is far better evidence for Scottish opinion re the state than any social attitude survey, especially one as flawed as this.

    1. I think you misunderstand. The survey evidence is consistent with Scotland wanting a larger state, assuming the number of people responding that they want lower taxation is similar to the UK as whole. My point is that this is not very different from the UK as a whole.

    2. Oh we are all so misunderstood! My point is that you can look at all the surveys you like and that is interesting in its way but is seems a bit perverse to discount the largest survey there is which is voting patterns. These are significantly different. Of course you could argue that voting for labour or the Snp are not votes for a larger state but the burden of proof rests with you if you want to say something so counter-intuitive. The notion that it is just anti-Toryism doesn't stack up - why do people in Scotland consistently vote for parties who promise more state and, in office, have tended to enlarge the state if that is not what they want? Revealed preference may have its problems but it does have a certain basic usefulness in this kind of thing n'est pas?

    3. Please reread my post. Where do I say that voting for Labour or SNP are not votes for a large state? My whole point is that the existence of the SNP allows voters in Scotland to vote for a right of center party that is not anti-state. In England voters do not get that choice.

    4. amazing somehow I drifted off at the last paragraph and then thought I could comment about it mea culpa I shall keep my mouth shut until I read everything at least twice in future, maybe I shall just keep shut full stop. I actually agree it your argument and I have been speculating for a while on UKIP moving to the left like the snp did in the seventies or rather embracing the state as you put it. So there you are man admits he is completely wrong on internet shock, and a shame as your point is much more interesting than the one I invented for you sorry

  7. I think your analysis basically half-right in your conclusion (how often do I say that on here?) but I would actually characterise our (Scotland's) poltical culture as being an example of a broader trend in the UK.

    It's true that the Tories have moved to the right. However, they have also suffered in Scotland AND England & Wales due to the way that Labour and the Lib Dems have moved to the right as well. When it was a matter of the danger of "Benn in 10" and the 1983 Labour manifesto (or even Labour working in a coalition with the Alliance) then it seems that a lot of voters in the 80s who were well to the left of Thatcher preferred her as the lesser of two evils. However, it's been a long time since Labour were threatening to govern in a socialist way, and so the Tories have no appeal to the anti-socialist vote as such. And a right-wing party that is (a) more than centre-right and (b) doesn't have a socialist party as its opposition is in deep trouble. That explains why the Tories haven't actually improved much on their 1997 result in the three subsequent general elections, but it doesn't explain the decline of the Tories in Scotland.

    If one hunts down the dusty old political science books on the UK from the 1950s and (especially) 1960s, one reads things like "One of the distinctive features of the UK political system is how voter alignment matches up with voter social class". In other words, back then middle-class folk in Scotland and the North of England largely voted Conservative/Unionist, while the Southern working classes were just as pro-Labour as their equivalents in Glasgow or Liverpool. Indeed, insofar as Orange and Green voting was in decline in Great Britain (obviously not in Northern Ireland) this was more firmly the case in the 1960s than for nearly a century beforehand. In brief, the UK was a class-aligned political unit to a much greater extent than (say) the USA.

    That's all changed very radically in the last 50 years, for a wide number of reasons. The combination of (a) Labour moving to the right, (b) the Tories being perceived (rightly or wrongly) as anti-Northern/Scottish/Liverpudlian, and (c) Thatcher's serenading of "Essex Man", has created a drastically different political culture. You refer to Curtice and Ormstrom's excellent work; John Curtice also did a very good chapter in the volume "Whatever Happened to Tory Scotland?", in which he pointed out that the Scottish middle classes are now no more likely to vote Conservative than working class people in England. I haven't seen the stats for the North of England, but I'm sure that Liverpool is MORE anti-Tory than Scotland.

    1. (Continued.)

      Looking at Curtice and Ormstrom's work, the conclusion is surprising but inescapable: Scotland is not significantly more left-wing than England, but it is more anti-Tory. This is further backed up by the success of UKIP: they're in many ways more stereotypically "Conservative" than the Tories are today, but they've made a lot of ground in places in which the Tory party has been utterly unwelcome for over a generation. Even in Scotland, where UKIP have practically no presence on the ground, they got over 10% at the last elections, and surprisingly NOT at the expense of the Scottish Tories (who increased their vote share by a tiny amount).

      However, in an international context, this isn't so surprising. You find very rich states in the US voting Democrat and very poor states voting Republican. The South was once solidly Democratic, just as African Americans are solidly Democratic today. The Baltic States do social liberalism with a market-orientated twist far more than almost any other non-microstates. History and regional/national identity matter a lot, and the UK of the 1960s was an exceptional time, even though that's how people often expect politics to be e.g. in the assumption that Scottish people must be drastically poorer than the rest of the UK if we're so anti-Tory.

      More generally, I think that the result (as in the US) has been the development of a rather disfunctional political culture. The SSA evidence suggests that there isn't majority support for universal free university tuition in Scotland, and yet we have it, and it will be very hard for the opposition (Scottish Labour, or "SLAB") to change that, even if they would want to do so. The polling evidence suggests that most English people (even a large proportion of Tory voters!) want to renationalise the railways, and yet it would be very hard to Labour to reverse that.

      (I could go into the various historical events that led to the Tories' reputation as being anti-Scottish, and how they link far better with the Tories' decline in Scottish Westminster elections than alternative explanations, but I suspect I have already gone far beyond anyone's patience to read!)

      Put grimly, I think the evidence suggests that OVERALL Scotland has ended up with a political elite that is to the left of us, and England has ended up with a political elite that is to the right of you. I am actually far more concerned with having our political parties present the sorts of packages of policies that voters want and with politicians that large sections of the country can reasonably see as not opposed to their interests, than I am with all the "devo-max" and "devo-plus" and "federalist" etc. proposals.


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