Socioeconomics and the Mystery of Alistair Darling’s Beard

I guess I’m one of those ‘poorly educated’ supporters for Yes that Jill Stephenson was keen to assert make up the bulk of the ‘Yes’ campaign support (almost as though she was trying to discourage people from being associated with that perspective, lest they leave themselves open to such an accusation). I read her attack on ‘Yes’ supporters as being ‘less well-educated and less-bright’ just over a month ago.

Education and socioeconomic group of course tie quite closely (although hardly perfectly) together, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to take a look at the definitions of those groups – something I have had a passing involvement in, through putting on displays in heritage material. Here they are:

A- Higher managerial, administrative, professional e.g. Chief executive, senior civil servant, surgeon
B – Intermediate managerial, administrative, professional e.g. bank manager, teacher
C1- Supervisory, clerical, junior managerial e.g. shop floor supervisor, bank clerk, sales person
C2 – Skilled manual workers e.g. electrician, carpenter
D- Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers e.g. assembly line worker, refuse collector, messenger
E – Casual labourers, pensioners, unemployed e.g. pensioners without private pensions and anyone living on basic benefits

So how does this relate to Professor Stephenson’s claims? For an academic, there was a remarkable lack of empirical evidence to back up her claim, solely that it followed on from psephologist John Curtice’s observation that those from a “relatively socially-deprived” background were more likely to vote ‘Yes’ than ‘No’. What Stephenson missed – in a ‘schoolboy academic error’ way – is that support for ‘Yes’ is hardly exclusive to that sort of educational/socioeconomic group breakdown. Without being completely familiar with how those different categories are precisely applied, I would say that I’m probably a B in those terms – and I would be fairly confident that Business for Scotland’s membership (as well as that of Wealthy Nation) is pretty much exclusively As and Bs. Having said that, I might well pass for a D on the street, if you were to judge by appearances – and that was one of the reasons why I got involved in anti-racism.

Edinburgh Students Against Racism (ESAR) was a University of Edinburgh student group, set up by myself and many other students in direct response to the racist murder of a student, Ahmed Sheikh, who had come to Edinburgh from Somalia to study. We did a lot of things in those meetings, sometimes even being too politically contentious for the students’ union (Edinburgh University Students’ Association). Indeed, I can remember dear old Alistair Darling came to one of our meetings, long before the days when he was declaiming so loudly (and without a trace of irony) about how bad it would be to become ‘a foreigner’. He sat there, and was extremely reasonable, looking good, with his strikingly Mephistophelean looks, the black eyebrows contrasting sharply with his white hair and beard. Within a few years, Labour had won a general election – but Alistair’s beard was now nowhere to be seen. As with many, he appeared to have bowed to image consultant pressure to remove it, in order to become more electable. I have always had a mistrust of people prepared to do this, to compromise who they are – who they present themselves to be – for personal political advancement. If they are prepared to do that, what else are they prepared to misrepresent, in order to get what they want from you?

But back to the ESAR group. For me, a driving force was opposition to judging people on appearances and visual prejudices, rather than assessing the human being involved. This became important for me recently, once I had decided to get involved in the Yes campaign – and actually to try canvassing for the first time in my life. As I said, I may not look like socioeconomic/educational group B – so how should I look? I wasn’t keen to compromise, but some of my reticence in doing face-to-face work was entirely on the basis that people might negatively view the ‘Yes’ campaign, simply from seeing me. In other words: ‘What to wear to the revolution?’

Ultimately, I resorted to my principles – putting on a suit, or adopting anything else would seem like a disguise, an inherent deception. Let people see who I was, without any pretense, listen to what I could say to them in conversation, and any visual baggage that they had would probably drift quickly away. I certainly wasn’t going to ‘do a Darling’ and remove a beard in the hope that it might make the argument more persuasive – the argument is supposed to be persuasive because of the inherent democratisation, and acceptance of diversity amongst us, that will hopefully increase with a ‘Yes’ vote and more net migration.

So the question remains: how ‘should’ we look as ‘Yes’ campaigners? Actually, the answer to that is quite easy. Relaxed. Comfortable with ourselves. Happy. Confident.

Because, as September 18th gets closer, it seems we have every right to be.


“We’ve got friends and relations north and south of the border and we don’t want to make each other foreigners.” (Alistair Darling, Euronews, 31 August 2012)


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