Scottish Parliament Chamber

Scotland has its own political class...just like Westminster

Published: 23 January 2020

It is commonplace in Britain to identify a “political class”, out of touch with the general population. It was promised that the Scottish Parliament would broaden recruitment of MSPs, becoming more representative to class, ethnicity, gender, education and former careers. But, Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen, and Paul Cairney, University of Stirling, argue that we have not seen such a divergence between MSPs and MPs. 

It is commonplace in Britain to identify a “political class” or “professional politician” that is out of touch with the general population.

People have many different ideas about what makes MPs out of touch.

Examples include: they do not have a prior connection to their local constituency; they have limited knowledge or experience of the “real world” because they did not have a “proper job” before election; or they are not trustworthy, since they are in politics for themselves.

Some people think of MPs as a group that, as a whole, does not share the same social background – gender, race, class, education, occupation – as the general population.

Others reserve particular ire for the idea of a subset of highly privileged or “posh” – and usually male and white – MPs who went to private school, then Oxbridge, then only worked in a job relating to politics before becoming elected. 

These arguments were a feature of devolution debates in the 1990s. Advocates of “new Scottish politics” often promised that a new Scottish Parliament would broaden recruitment, notably to increase the proportion of women, but also to become more representative in relation to class, ethnicity, education, and former careers. 

Such reforms are left to individual political parties, such as when Labour traditionally led the way in the recruitment of women.  There is no institutional provision for diversity. As a result, following a brief honeymoon period after devolution, we have not really seen a major divergence in social backgrounds between MSPs and MPs.

Rather, there has been a tendency towards convergence, in which roughly one-third of elected representatives are women and the vast majority have attended university. 

In some respects, Scotland has lagged behind Westminster, since almost all parliamentary representatives in Scotland are white. The main differences have to do with the different party balance between Westminster and Holyrood.

There are fewer privately educated politicians in Scotland, and few are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, with Glasgow University being the largest source of recruitment). That, however, was true of Scottish MPs before devolution. 

As to occupation, MPs in Scotland are not remarkably different from their counterparts across the rest of the UK. In the post-war decades, Scottish Labour recruited more MPs from the old blue-collar working class occupations and the Conservatives more from aristocrats and landowners than their counterparts in England.

Amongst MSPs, this has been reversed, with a common middle class background predominating. Many such occupations – such as in law or education – were once described as “politics facilitating” because they offered the skills or connections conducive to seeking election. 

Now, the main focus is on the occupations that may be used as a stepping stone towards elected office, such as MP and party assistants, members of think tanks or interest groups sympathetic to particular parties, and work in public relations or the media, close the political centre. These jobs support potential candidates until they are elected, since candidacy is an increasingly time-consuming task. In many cases, the jobs also help them become elected because they give them essential links to party recruitment.  

An even smaller pool, from jobs related directly to Westminster or government, may help newly elected MPs achieve rapid promotion within their parties. The proportion of candidates in these jobs, “instrumental” to elected office, are difficult to identify precisely, but we tend to find that somewhere between one-third and one-half of MPs and MSPs have held a job that acts as a source of income and stepping stone to candidacy. Overall, there is a “political class” in Scotland just as there is a “political class” in London.

It is difficult to come to too many conclusions about how worrying these trends should be, for three main reasons. 

First, in their book The Good Politician, Nick Clarke and colleagues show that most electors are more interested in more general indicators of MP trustworthiness. They seek “honest”, “sincere”, and “genuine” politicians with a grasp of “everyday life” and in touch with “ordinary people”. A tendency to recruit from the same small proportion of the population seems to undermine the chance that Westminster politicians engage in “ordinary” life, but it does not undermine their honesty and sincerity. 

Second, there can be unintended consequences to a too-ambitious shopping list of reforms to the political class. For example, in their article The Politics of Local Presence, Sarah Childs and Philip Cowley suggest that (for example) the insistence on a local candidate can overshadow attempts to secure more women or people of colour in elected positions. 

Third, electors want politicians who share their beliefs, and are committed to turning those beliefs into policy. During periods of fierce competition on constitutional and other issues, these beliefs seem to trump shared backgrounds.

Electors seem to trust their politicians if they want the same things, and distrust them if they don’t.

This article was originally published by The Herald

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