Saturday, November 27, 2010

'When you make a bet, you're saying something'

(Quote by Al Alvarez)

Just a quick note to say that I have a guest post at Political Betting today, on the subject of how likely Scottish independence is within 10-15 years. Incidentally, although the inspiration for the piece was the absurdly long odds on independence by 2012 that I saw quoted by the bookies a couple of years ago, I couldn’t actually recall what the precise odds were, and was unable to track them down. I’ve since done some more digging and discovered they were in fact an astounding 150/1 with William Hill in May 2008. And this, remember, was during the period that the Scottish Labour Party were saying “bring it on” to an independence referendum!

How Strictly Come Dancing teaches us that AV would be a mildly good thing

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame has written an article for the New York Times about what he sees as the flaws in the voting system used by Dancing with the Stars (the American carbon-copy of Strictly Come Dancing). It's quite an amusing piece for its earnestness and attention to the finest detail, although given my devotion to the Eurovision Song Contest I may not be in the best position to make that observation! But if you've ever wondered how Ann Widdecombe finds it so easy to survive in Strictly despite being placed bottom by the judges week after week, Nate has the answer for you -

"Suppose, for instance, that late in the season, when there are five couples left, four of the five teams receive 9’s across the board from the judges, and the final couple instead receives straight 7’s. In terms of the way the judges normally vote, that is a rather clear verdict: the low-scoring couple has had an inferior performance, and should be eliminated.

But in reality the low-scoring team would need to receive only 24 percent of the votes from the home audience — just barely better than the 20 percent they would get if the audience voted completely at random — to be guaranteed passage into the next round. It doesn’t matter if 24 percent of the audience thought they were the best-performing couple — and the other 76 percent thought they were the worst one! They would still advance to the next episode."

On the latter point, isn't that one of the obvious fatal flaws with any first-past-the-post voting system? Perhaps that irony wouldn't seem so obvious to an American political commentator more used to two-horse races, but it just so happens that is precisely the problem with FPTP that a 'Yes' to AV would remedy, even if it wouldn't address the far greater problem of disproportionality.

Silver goes on to make a series of detailed suggestions about how the voting arrangements on Dancing with the Stars could be improved, such as encouraging the judges to use the full range of possible scores between 1 and 10, rather than clustering most of the contestants between 6 and 10. That's fine in theory, but if the American show is anything like Strictly, the studio audience would probably start a riot if the weakest couples were routinely being given 1s and 2s.

The real problem with the show's voting system has always been the phenonemon of a couple placed in the middle of the leaderboard by the judges finding themselves being abruptly eliminated, simply because the public have a greater incentive to vote for couples at the bottom of the pile who are perceived to be in greater danger. At least this year with the scrapping of the dance-off we've been spared the tedious weekly ritual of the judges sanctimoniously announcing that "it is a travesty that you're in the bottom two, rather than X, Y or Z", neatly ignoring the fact it was partly the said judges' over-the-top criticisms of X, Y and Z that motivated the public to pick up the phone and save them. The obvious solution to this problem is surely to withhold the judges' scores until after the public have voted. I can't see that would detract from the show very much - The X Factor gets by quite happily without the judges scoring each performance out of 10.

But Strictly is just such a peculiar programme. Whatever the horrors of X Factor, at least it's a talent show in the truest sense of people being there on the basis of their talent. The Strictly philosophy is to randomly round up a group of people who for the most part, quite naturally, can't dance - and then get a smug Australian expert to scream abuse at them for weeks on end about their inability to dance. The producers pick contestants for their fame and popularity, not their dancing potential - and then the judges and the show's more humourless devotees work themselves into apoplexy because other people mysteriously treat it as a popularity contest, not as a "serious dancing competition". Bizarre.

UPDATE : Having thought about this some more, I've realised that either the American show must have a slightly different voting system, or else Silver must have misunderstood it. In Strictly, only the judges' rankings of the couples matter, not the raw scores. If anything, that makes it even easier for Widdecombe to survive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mixed news for SNP with Ipsos-Mori

The latest full-scale Scottish poll conducted by Ipsos-Mori contains sobering news for the SNP on the constituency vote, with Labour's lead increasing from three to ten points.  But that story is almost completely reversed on the list vote, with Labour's lead slipping from nine points to four.  Here are the full figures -

Constituency vote

Labour 41% (+4)
SNP 31% (-3)
Conservatives 13% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 11% (-2)
Others 5% (+1)

List vote

Labour 36% (-2)
SNP 32% (+3)
Conservatives 12% (-)
Liberal Democrats 9% (-3)
Others 10% (+1)

Despite the conflicting signals here, and in spite of the fact that the list vote is (in theory at least) the more important of the two, I'd have to say this looks more like bad news than good for the SNP.  The constituency vote is requested first and that will usually give the most accurate indication of the electorate's attitude towards the parties.  However, there's the customary better news on the leaders' ratings, with Alex Salmond comfortably outstripping Iain Gray in the popularity stakes, and with Tavish Scott very tellingly being the only one of the four leaders to suffer a negative rating.  That at least offers some grounds for optimism that the SNP's fortunes may improve once the campaign proper gets underway and the leaders are pushed to the forefront.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Is the ultimate destination of Tavish Scott's logic that Tavish Scott will have to resign?

While most of us were enjoying our Thursday lunch, blissfully unaware of the existential threat that faced Scotland's democracy, Tavish Scott and his hardy band of realists continued with their grim, reluctant preparations for apocalypse.  For a tantalising period yesterday afternoon it had appeared that the scare might just be over - Tavish's now-legendary speech at Holyrood had, it seemed, single-handedly brought about capitulation from the Chief Evildoer (the politician formerly known as John Swinney).  Although the C. E. had impertinently insisted on choosing his own words, Tavish's attack had been so forensic, so devastating, so Obviously True, it was surely apparent to all right-thinking people that the newly-issued apology could only be intended to conform in full with each and every aspect of canonical Tavishian thought on What An Apology Was Required For.

But today, at First Minister's Questions, it became frighteningly clear that may not be entirely the case.  More in anger than sorrow, Tavish had little choice but to return to a war footing on Behalf Of Scotland.  At his fearsome hair-splitting finest, he demanded to know what the C. E. had actually said sorry for - could it really be that the apology was merely for not being forthcoming enough, rather than for actively misleading parliament?  After all, hadn't Tavish provided damning documentary evidence yesterday that the C. E. had repeatedly talked about making decisions on the Scottish Variable Rate when there was no decision to be made?

But, as the First Minister pointed out, there was just one problem here - the SVR had never, at any point, been implementable within less than ten months.  Including the period when Tavish Scott had been Deputy Finance Minister.  So whenever the former Labour/Lib Dem coalition had talked about making a decision not to use the SVR in the following financial year, that had been - according to the inescapable principles of Tavishian thought - a bit of a porky.

By the look on Tavish's face, we were no longer awaiting apocalypse.  Apocalypse had arrived.

Please don't tell me he's the one that's going to have to resign now?  Life's full of these cruel little ironies...

But does anyone give two hoots, Tavish?

I'm always a tad sceptical when I hear claims that Tavish Scott has "demolished" someone, so I'm grateful to Caron for reproducing his speech on the "SVR scandal" in full so we can all make our own minds up.  It certainly sounds like he was terribly excited by the whole thing, which begs the obvious question - why?  After all, it will be recalled that a few months ago, when pressed about his reasons for silencing debate on whether the Scottish people should be allowed a say on their own constitutional future, he informed us that the country had "moved on" and that no-one gave "two hoots about it" anymore.  Well, he was demonstrably wrong about an independence referendum, the principle of which is clearly supported by an overwhelming majority of the public.  But those words would, ironically, have been more accurate if applied to the minor constitutional matter presently in hand (if it can even be called 'constitutional' given that the tax-varying powers remain fully intact).  It was once thought conceivable that the SVR could be used in the foreseeable future, but now that we've woken up to the downsides of such a decision, the country has indeed "moved on".  And, while I haven't seen an opinion poll on the subject, I'd be - to put it mildly - somewhat surprised to learn that the electorate would have preferred that £7 million of extra cuts to public services had been made in order to symbolically 'upkeep' a power that isn't going to be used.  I'd also be a bit surprised if they thought the unilateral demands from HMRC for extra payment were remotely reasonable in the first place, but given the widely-reported spin from the unionist parties we'll have to see on that one.

John Swinney has of course now apologised, very graciously, for the one aspect of this trifling affair for which the government can be legitimately criticised - not being more open with parliament about the problems they were encountering with HMRC.  That apology leaves some of the apocalyptic conclusions Scott was drawing in his speech looking even more bizarre...

"Mr Salmond expects to pass a Budget. To negotiate with other parties. After this."

Yes, Tavish, I think he probably does expect that.  After this.  More pertinently, I think the Scottish public probably do still expect the opposition parties - yes, after this - to engage constructively on a matter of such national importance as the Budget, and will not look kindly on this most blatant and contrived of excuses for yet another round of immature obstructionism.

Perhaps the subtext of the speech can best be summed up in the following terms - "look, guys, I've found yet another wizard excuse for regarding the SNP as untouchables in coalition negotiations".  No wonder he was excited.  But honestly, Tavish, we got the message months ago - to say the body language has been leaking somewhat is a bit of an understatement.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Just one day out of life, it would be, it would be so nice

Casting my eye over political message boards yesterday lunchtime, I was heartily amused at the reaction from many right-wing posters to the shock revelation that the Scottish government could actually decide for itself (!!!!!) whether to mark the Royal Wedding with a bank holiday.  Never mind the fact that there wasn't the slightest indication that the extra day off wouldn't in fact get the nod - the indignation went straight into overdrive without passing go.  "They'd better, or they'll have a riot on their hands!" declared someone smugly, apparently oblivious to the fact that not everyone in the UK regards deprivation of their Royal conjugal fix as an obvious trigger-point for mindless violence.

But hang on a minute - can you think of a single other circumstance in which the Right has ever regarded an extra holiday as acceptable, let alone desirable?  I must have imagined CBI Scotland's apoplexy every time the possibility of a St Andrew's Day holiday is mentioned, let alone the attitute towards more generous maternity or paternity leave.  Yet put an ostentatious ring on a posh woman's finger, and suddenly it's a moral outrage that there's even a theoretical possibility that we won't be getting a random lie-in one day next April.

I even saw a newsreader who felt bold enough to decorate her dutiful explanation that Scotland would make its own decision by adding "let's hope we all get a holiday, though".  Has the world gone mad?  Since when did such blatant breaches of BBC impartiality in support of the workshy provoke nothing more than a cry of "ooh, isn't that sweet" from the decent, hard-working, law-abiding, fox-hunting people of this country?  I demand that they come to their senses immediately and jam the BBC switchboards in protest at this brazen show of leftyism - if it isn't nipped in the bud pronto, we'll be turning into FRANCE.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Artistic freedom is a good thing - but not on weekdays, or at weekends

I haven't yet seen Jimmy McGovern's drama Accused about military life in Afghanistan, although hopefully I'll catch up with it on the BBC iplayer at some point.  But I don't actually need to have seen it to spot the slight flaw in this argument from Con Coughlin in the Telegraph -

"I’m as much in favour of artistic licence as the next man, even if I violently disagree with the views expressed.
But what makes the broadcast of “Accused” so offensive is the fact that the BBC thinks it is a good idea to air this material at a time when we have 10,000 of our service men and women daily risking their lives in Afghanistan."

Well, British troops have now been in Afghanistan for nine years (more than twice as long as the entire span of the First World War), so perhaps we can rest assured that Coughlin isn't necessarily in favour of suppressing artistic freedom for any more than a decade at a time.  Or can we?  After all, does anyone seriously imagine that if the troops were no longer in Afghanistan, but were instead in harm's way somewhere else, he wouldn't still be denouncing the broadcast?  Before Afghanistan, British troops were risking their lives in the Balkans.  Before that, they were being routinely murdered by the IRA.  Just when was this golden window of opportunity during which it was permissible for writers to paint anything other than the officially-sanctioned rosy picture of army life?

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to misread silence : a textbook case

From somewhere in the murky recesses of my memory, I seem to recall that in the early days of devolution, the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition rather casually announced that - for the time being at least - it wasn't going to bother making provision for the collection of the Scottish Variable Rate, thus meaning the parliament's tax-varying power would to all intents and purposes lapse.  It was a responsible way to save public money, we were told.  I think for about thirty seconds I was fairly outraged - it had been less than two years since Scotland had specifically voted for that power in a referendum, and nobody had bothered to make clear at the time that it was merely intended to be a 'potential' power that the Scottish Executive would be allowed to 'purchase' if it so wished.  Although that point of irritation lingered (and is plainly highly pertinent to this day) I couldn't really stay angry with the coalition for their own decision - even I could see that if there was no possibility of the power being used within the relevant timescale, it was a fairly academic point.  The main thing was that the power remained on the statute book, and would be available to future administrations.

I strongly suspect that those who are now expressing synthetic anger in similar circumstances know perfectly well that the same logic applies here.  If anything, the logic is considerably stronger, given that we've now learnt that the powers wouldn't have been available for some time even if the Scottish government had shelled out for them - not to mention the fact that the current system is about to be replaced (without a referendum) with a tax-raising power that the Westminster government apparently intend to force us to pay to upkeep on an ongoing basis.  Bearing all that in mind, I think most people must know in their heart of hearts that (cheap Nat-bashing opportunities aside) to throw away £7 million on the symbolic maintenance of a soon-to-be-defunct power that none of the major parties intend to use in the interim period wouldn't just have been unnecessary - it would have been idiotic.

But it seems that James of Better Nation is one of the few to be genuinely spitting fury over this rather esoteric issue, and is interpreting the silence of many SNP-friendly bloggers as a sign of deep shame or embarrassment.  Well, that's one possibility, but as I pointed out in a comment on his post, there is another one - that nationalist bloggers don't, on the whole, actually give a monkey's about it.  I'd also suggest James was rather foolish to list a number of bloggers that he apparently regards as guilty of supine loyalty, given that in many cases it's not at all difficult to find instances where those people have departed markedly from the party line.  For example, it's only a few weeks since Lallands Peat Worrier went out of his way to publish a guest post that was scathing about the Scottish government's emergency legislation following the Cadder ruling, while Subrosa has always been several billion light-years away from SNP policy on Europe, climate change, and a whole host of other topics.  And many, many nationalists haven't exactly been shy about calling for a homegrown inquiry on Lockerbie, despite the SNP leadership specifically ruling that out.  Given such a track record, the idea that nationalist bloggers would hold back on an issue that touches on their most fundamental political priority of all - the powers of the Scottish Parliament - seems risible.

I suspect James is making the classic 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' mistake of assuming that his own anger about a particular topic must be universal, and that if others are keeping quiet about it they must - as rational people - be secretly fuming.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pope continues to duck the core issue

It's of course very encouraging to see the Pope finally give some ground on his previously absolutist stance on condom use.  But it's more than a little troubling that he very carefully singled out "male prostitutes" as his example of the exceptional circumstances in which it might be justified.  It seems logical to assume that most prostitutes and their clients are perfectly well aware that they are straying well beyond the strictures of the church anyway, so would always have been less likely to be influenced by the teachings on condoms.  The biggest single problem with the previous stance was in fact the way it discouraged the use of condoms by Catholics within marriage, even when it's absolutely essential to protect the health of one partner.

So why has Pope Benedict chosen to leave a degree of ambiguity over the really core issue?  I can only assume it's because any acceptance of contraception within wedlock, for whatever reason, would implicitly concede the point that married sex can be 'recreational', and doesn't happen for the sole purpose of producing children.  If so, the fact that people's lives are still being put at risk simply to uphold a world view that is so totally and demonstrably divorced from the way the real world works - and always has worked - just beggars belief.