Would an independent Scotland set a different poverty standard?

Nick Bailey

The PSE method for measuring poverty is based on a democratic or consensual approach. It is ‘consensual’ in two senses: first, because it uses majority public opinion to determine the poverty standard – the set of items or activities which make up the ‘necessities of life’; and second, because it requires broad agreement across society on what these necessities are.

Analysis of the 2012 data confirm that this agreement continues to hold across a wide range of social divisions – by gender, age, ethnicity, social class and so on. For a UK-wide measure, however, the method also requires that differences between nations or regions are modest. Given the on-going debates about Scottish independence, we have given particular attention to differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

This is partly a question of measurement: can we have a single poverty measure for the whole of the UK or do opinions differ so much between Scotland and the rest that we need two different standards? But it is also linked to broader political questions: would an independent Scotland choose a significantly different social settlement with a more generous social minimum? If Scotland became independent, or even simply gained greater autonomy, would this lead to radically different policies – on the regulation of pay or the level of welfare benefit payments, for example?

The Nationalists certainly believe that the current cuts in welfare expenditure present an opportunity to increase support for independence. And there has been a long-standing and popularly-held view that Scots have a more egalitarian culture or outlook which has been bolstered by the recent tendency for Scots to return more left-of-centre parties in Scottish and Westminster elections.

On the other hand, much survey evidence casts doubt on this self-image. Successive surveys of social attitudes since 1999 have shown that, in Scotland, there tends to be slightly greater concern over levels of inequality in society and slightly greater support for redistribution, but the difference is only about 3 or 4 percentage points and has not changed in that time.

As far as the PSE project is concerned, the results of our survey are quite clear cut: the population of Scotland does not have a different view about the items which constitute necessities of life compared to the rest of the UK. Scots do not hold a different view about the social minimum so the same standard can be used to judge levels of poverty across the whole of the UK. When we compare the proportion of Scots who view each item or activity as a necessity with that for the rest of the UK, there is very close agreement. Figure 1 compares views on adult items and activities. Of the 46 adult items and activities, Scots views about which are necessities differ from the rest of the UK on just one. Of the 30 child items and activities, they differ on just three. But all four of these differences are within the limits of uncertainty which accompany any survey.

Figure 1: Percentage viewing items and activities as necessities: Scotland v Rest of UK

This is an important finding for the PSE-UK project: we can proceed with a single UK standard. And it confirms previous comparisons of views about ‘necessities of life’ north and south of the border, as well as broader analyses of social attitudes.

For debates about independence or devolution, however, the message is more complex. The most notable political difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK in recent years has been the willingness of Scots to vote for more left-of-centre political parties. And when we compare actual living standards with the poverty line defined by the PSE’s democratic method, what is striking is how many people fall short – both in Scotland and in the UK as a whole. Scots may not set a higher standard for the social minimum – but it is just possible that a more autonomous Scotland might actually do something about this.

For further details see PSE results analysis working papers: No 5 Attitudes to 'necessities of life' in Scotland, Maria Gannon and Nick Bailey.

Nick Bailey, University of Glasgow, is a member of the PSE UK research team.

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