Friday, 16 May 2014

Game Over for the UK? Anti-Westminster Sentiment – A Manifestation of the Scottish Independence Campaign or Part of Wider UK Concerns?

Mark Shephard from the University of Strathclyde evaluates anti-Westminster sentiment in the run up to the independence referendum.

On Sunday 4th May 2014, The Sunday Herald publicly backed the ‘Yes’ campaign on its front page stating “Sunday Herald says Yes”. The BBC published an online news story on this announcement and opened this up to online comments.[i] The second highest-rated comment by ‘Mark’ (incidentally not me) notes how, “Scotland wants independence from Westminster, NOT the UK”, and goes on to argue that, “the entire UK…declare independence from Westminster”, because, “Westminster has already shown that they are only interested in London”.  The third highest-rated comment by ‘allan’ illustrates that this is not just about Scotland: “north of Watford would benefit from getting away from these parasites in Westminster”. The fifth highest-rated comment by ‘revolutionnow999’ continued a rather prevalent and populist theme that the government acts in the interests of London and the south east and so why would anyone in Scotland vote for a continuation of that?

Other ‘highest-rated’ comments make it clear that they wish to disassociate English as being synonymous with Westminster, for example, ‘Etrigan’ states, ‘Love England, love the English, hate Westminster’, while the highest-rated comment by ‘JustAThought’ states that the “referendum is not about being anti-English”. While there are the odd anti-English (and anti-Scottish…) comments out there, it is quite noticeable that Westminster and Westminster politicians get plenty more fire, for instance, ‘High Treason’ is concerned about the “diktat of London”, and ‘Drunken Hobo’ asks that those having to pay £9,000 tuition fees should, “(G)et angry at Westminster for ripping you off, not Scotland”. 

Of course, ‘highest-rated’ might just indicate that one side is more organised than the other and research by Shephard and Quinlan (2014) does indeed point to a greater online presence and activity for those wanting Yes to independence.[ii] However, this is not just about a highly organised and orchestrated Yes campaign as there are clearly indications in the online comments (as noted above), that other parts of the UK are disaffected with Westminster (which is often also connected in comments to London and the South-East).

Indeed, latest research by the Hansard Society (2014) auditing political engagement and public expectations of politicians in finds that the effects of the 2009 expenses scandal are still weighing heavily in the minds of the British public. Only 21% of those surveyed thought that politicians were behaving in a more professional way than they were a few years ago. Moreover, 67% felt that politicians were out of touch in that they ‘don’t understand the daily lives of people like me’, and only 34% (down from 47% in 2013) think that the UK Parliament can hold the government to account.[iii]

Besides the legacy of the expenses scandals, why are people still so negative about Westminster and its politicians? A Google search for ‘David Cameron’ quickly takes you to links about ‘salary’ and ‘stop the 11% pay rise for MPs’. If you combine this with regular references to Cameron and others’ Etonian backgrounds (not to mention the much higher proportion of privately educated MPs compared with the general public), then compound this with prolonged economic difficulties and rather prevalent perceptions about associated spending cuts hitting the most vulnerable at the same time as relentless examples are provided of top level pay increases outstripping those of the median worker, it is not hard to see why levels of disgruntlement persist.

Other irritations you regularly hear about include the frequency of news stories on how much average house prices have increased in London 2013 to 2014 (up 12.4% to £414,490) compared with other areas in the UK, for example, Blaenau Gwent (down 15.7% to £61,860)[iv], or how UK weather maps tilt London and the South to the fore,  and just to rub it in, regular summer pictures of people basking in the sun in London and the South-East while it is pouring with rain in many other parts of the UK. Consequently, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out where the anti-Westminster/London/South-East sentiment is coming from.

Moreover, in Scotland the additional problem for Westminster is that of political legitimacy. Scotland has 59 MPs and only one of these is Conservative, yet the Conservatives are the main coalition partner in power at Westminster. Of course, we could count votes (16.7%) and not seats (1.7%) in Scotland and then the position looks slightly more legitimate for the Conservatives. To be fair, we might also want to include the Liberal Democrats in the calculation as they are also in government at Westminster. However, even if we aggregate the two parties, we are talking 35.6% of the votes and only 20.3% of the seats. If we also consider that the Liberal Democrats lost nine of their 11 constituency seats (and two of their five regional seats) at the Scottish Parliament elections of 2011 in the wake of the university tuition fees policy u-turn, then the political legitimacy of the Westminster coalition parties in Scotland is a serious issue. This arguably makes it harder for the Labour Party to work with the Westminster coalition parties as part of the Better Together campaign in Scotland.

Will the ‘Better Together’ promise of a little more devolution for Scotland do the trick? Even if the short-term answer is probably aye, the long-term answer is probably nay. While polling trends continue to show a likely No vote in the independence referendum, support for Yes has increased over time and we know that Yes supporters are more likely to turnout than No supporters.[v] Moreover, what about other parts of England, and Wales and Northern Ireland who also continue to show widespread concerns with the status quo? Aside from candidate selection, income and housing policies and the need for a little more media sensitivity, it strikes me there are two viable solutions to the ongoing political predicament (including the West Lothian question): federalism (creating regional hubs while also resolving asymmetry of population sizes) or independence(s). At the moment one of these options is theoretical. The referendum for Scottish Independence is on 18 September 2014.


Mark Shephard
University of Strathclyde 

Dr Mark Shephard is a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde and has been exploring social media comments and the independence referendum since 2012. 



[i] BBC News Online (30 April 2014) ‘Sunday Herald Newspaper Backs Independence Campaign’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-27274460 (date accessed: 6 May 2014)

[ii] Mark Shephard and Stephen Quinlan (2014) ‘Tipping Point Online, Tripping Point Offline’, Discover Society, http://www.discoversociety.org/2014/04/01/tipping-point-online-tripping-point-offline/ (date accessed: 6 May 2014)
[iii] Hansard Society (2014) Audit of Political Engagement, 11, http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Audit-of-Political-Engagement-11-2014.pdf (date accessed: 6 May 2014), p.74 and p.94.

[iv] BBC News Online (30 April 2014) ‘Blaenau Gwent house prices show biggest annual fall’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-27226634 (date accessed: 6 May 2014)

[v] Jan Eichhorn (2014) ‘Who Will Turn Up and Who Will Stay at Home?’ The Potential Impact of Differences in Turnout’, http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2014/05/who-will-turn-up-and-who-will-stay-home-the-potential-impact-of-differences-in-turnout/ (date accessed: 6 May 2014).

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