Saturday, May 14, 2011

Eurovision 2011 prediction : the final

Welcome along to my fourth annual attempt to predict the result of the Eurovision Song Contest final. Now, as I may possibly have made reference to once or twice before, I successfully picked the winner in 2008, 2009 and 2010 - and for good measure I got the top three in the correct order last year. So what does that tell you? Yup, that's right, it tells you that the law of averages is about to kick in and as a result I'm going to fall flat on my face. But am I deterred? Pah! Not a bit of it.

To my mind the three class songs in the field are France, Germany and Hungary. The fact that 50% of the vote goes to juries comprised of musical professionals should mean that the cream has a fair chance of rising to the top this time, but even so I think we can safely rule Hungary out of contention. Kati Wolf's vocals have been a wee bit shy of perfect, and in any case dance tracks have such an atrocious record in the public vote that I'm not sure even a good placing with the juries will be able to save her.

As I mentioned when I ventured my pre-rehearsals prediction a few weeks ago, I think the puzzle at the heart of this Eurovision is whether France will win by a country mile, or won't win at all - I don't think there's going to be a middle way. I'm not really any closer to solving that puzzle, and if younger televoters don't go for the song, it wouldn't completely surprise me if France finished well down the leaderboard. But the next question is "if not France, then who?", and having watched the semi-finals and seen some of the rehearsals, no-one is really leaping out at me. The obvious answer a couple of weeks ago might have appeared to be the UK's Blue, but the general view is that they've been underperforming. Jedward are clearly going down a storm for Ireland assisted by some inspired staging (and also by the fact that the "backing" vocalists are doing the singing for them), but it's hard not to feel that the juries will mark them less favourably than the public. So, almost by default, I'm plumping for France as the winners, but without a huge amount of confidence. Here is my top five...

Winners - France (Sognu - Amaury Vassili)
2nd - Germany (Taken By a Stranger - Lena Meyer-Landrut)
3rd - Ireland (Lipstick - Jedward)
4th - UK (I Can - Blue)
5th - Denmark (New Tomorrow - A Friend in London)

Possible dark horses - Austria, Estonia

Of the obvious favourites, I've left out Azerbaijan simply because I don't think the song is strong enough, although it certainly can't be discounted altogether because it's beautifully staged and choreographed. I changed my mind at least five times about whether to have Denmark or Austria in fifth place - Austria have the better singer and a more favourable draw, but I think the anthemic Danish song is slightly more memorable.

I have Lena of Germany pipping Jedward to second place for a couple of reasons - we know from past experience that she'll nail the vocals on the night, and she'll probably be preferred by the juries. But for all that and everything, Taken By a Stranger is such a laid-back, offbeat, ice-cool entry that I just struggle to see it winning Eurovision outright. So I suppose what I'm saying is that if France do falter, Jedward may find themselves next in line for victory, which is...well, a startling thought.

With Ireland, France and the UK all in genuine contention, tonight's result could have some significance in the overall history of the contest. If either France or the UK win, they'll move clear of the other and of Luxembourg to become the second most successful country in Eurovision history with six victories - just one behind Ireland. But if Ireland notch up their eighth win, they'll move three clear of the others once again. One curiosity is that six of Ireland's seven victories to date occurred in the 1980s and 90s, whereas the most recent of France's wins was as far back as 1977 - although to be fair they couldn't have come much closer in 1991, losing to Sweden on the countback rule.

One prediction that is an absolute banker for this evening is that the UK public will want to award twelve points to Ireland (although whether the UK jury will play ball with that is another matter). And Ireland may even return the compliment, although I must admit that when I heard the Icelandic entry the first thought that went through my head was "douze points from Ireland".

It's your future, it's your choice, and your weapon is your voice

First of all, apologies to the people who left comments on this blog over the last two or three days. Blogger has been having some kind of unspecified problem - it was on read-only mode for about twenty-four hours, and midway through that period whole posts and comments started disappearing into the ether. However, I realised to my relief a few minutes ago that they're still accessible via the feed, so if they don't reappear of their own accord I'll try to restore them manually at some point.

Anyway, what I was going to do before I was so rudely interrupted was shamelessly blow my own trumpet about correctly predicting nine of the ten qualifiers in the second Eurovision semi-final - although just for the moment I can't prove that, because it's one of the posts that has since vanished! The one qualifier I didn't have on my list was Ukraine, which is irritating because I had it on my original list before I realised I'd forgotten all about Moldova.

Which brings me neatly on to my highlight of the evening - Scott Mills earnestly writing off Moldova's chances on the grounds of sheer silliness. This is the Eurovision after all - rarely has a gasp of disbelief been so utterly predictable an hour-and-a-half in advance!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

YouGov poll sends Alastair Campbell homewards tae think again

Alastair Campbell is one of a few members of the London establishment who have rather desperately been flying a kite in recent days to see if the idea of a UK-wide referendum to decide on whether Scotland could become independent would gain any traction. In other words, 91% of the people making the decision would not actually live in Scotland - not so much national self-determination as a hostage situation. I'd love to see how popular he'd become if he extended that logic to its natural conclusion by suggesting that the UK would need the permission of voters in Germany, Poland, France and Italy if it ever wanted to withdraw from the European Union! In any case, he's been given his answer loud and clear in a new YouGov poll -

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has pledged to hold a referendum of the Scottish people on Scotland becoming an independent country. Some people think English and Welsh voters should also be able to vote on whether Scotland remains in the UK or becomes an independent country, other people are opposed to there being a referendum at all. Which of the following best reflects your view?

The decision on whether Scotland stays in the UK should be made by Scottish
voters alone - 67%

Voters in England and Wales should also have a vote on whether Scotland
remains part of the UK - 9%

There should not be a referendum on Scottish independence at all - 19%

And even amongst English and Welsh voters themselves there is a majority of 42% to 34% against Campbell's wheeze. Well, there's our Alistair for you - always with his finger right on the pulse.

It has to be said the headline figures on support for independence itself (among Scottish voters) make for less encouraging reading...

Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?

Support Scottish independence - 29%

Oppose Scottish independence - 58%

I think we're going to continue to find, though, that the numbers on independence vary wildly depending on the pollster and the precise wording used. In recent years, YouGov has been consistently less favourable for what we can now loosely call the 'Yes side'. Although this particular wording is somewhat less skewed than others they've used in the past, such as 'completely separate from the rest of the United Kingdom', I'd argue that it's still far from ideal. On past form, it seems likely that removing the words "from the rest of the United Kingdom" from the end of the question would make a statistically significant difference.

One phenomenon that's been observed in recent years is that whenever the issue of independence comes under scrutiny in the heat of an election campaign, the numbers in favour of independence seem to go down. I think there's a limit to what that can tell us, though, because the SNP's strategy in that scenario has invariably been not to full-bloodedly defend the idea of independence itself, but rather to 'decouple' it (to use Sally Magnusson's favourite word) from the idea of voting SNP. So, if you effectively only have the 'No side' talking about independence the impact on the poll figures is not that surprising - but that quite obviously will not be what happens in the run-up to the referendum.

Of course, the real beauty of the SNP now having a parliamentary majority is that they can assess movement in public opinion over the coming years as they make the case for independence, and then reach a strategic decision on what the format of the plebiscite should be. In recent days, John Rentoul has been having a riotous time on Twitter smugly suggesting that the question of whether Scotland would vote to become independent was one of his #QTWTAINs (Questions To Which The Answer Is No) - although of course I'd suggest it's more of a #WWDWBWASJ (Well Why Don't We Bloody Wait And See, John?). But intriguingly he seemed rather less sure of himself when he spotted an article pointing out that it was perfectly possible that the SNP would go for a multi-option or multi-question referendum - he observed that this would be "too canny by half". Now, would that be a #SRTWTAIG (Snide Remark To Which The Answer Is "Gotcha"), John?

An independent Scotland would just be far too modern for Michael Kelly's taste

NOTE : I'm reposting this (backdated) because it vanished when Blogger was down.

A curious line of thinking from Michael Kelly on Newsnight last night. He claimed that the SNP's stated intention to retain the monarchy in an independent Scotland was worthless, because it's inevitable that a modern, 21st Century nation would want an elected Head of State. Given that he evidently regarded this as some kind of 'warning', it seems we can draw three rather extraordinary conclusions -

1) The UK is not a modern, 21st Century nation, and this is a GOOD THING.

2) An independent Scotland would, on the other hand, be a modern, 21st Century nation, and that would be a BAD THING.

3) Kelly feels that Scotland's much-vaunted affection for the Royal Family is so shallow that there isn't even the remotest chance of us wanting to follow the example of Canada, New Zealand and more than a dozen other independent countries by retaining the monarchy. And yet he's inviting us to 'fear' the loss of something we supposedly don't really care about.

There's Labour logic for you.

Also on the same programme, we had Angus Macleod reassure us that the SNP has long since moved on from the dark days of the early 90s when it believed in "separatism and compulsory kilt-wearing". Well, that's a relief. But does anyone else suspect that he might just be getting the early 90s mixed up with either a) the early 50s, or b) a figment of Alan Cochrane's imagination?

And don't get me started on Paxman and his sudden urge to know all about the "nuts and bolts" of independence - but only if condensed into sentences containing no more than three syllables. Apart from anything else, it doesn't seem to have even occurred to him that the shape the SNP would like an independent Scotland to take, and the shape it actually would take, are not necessarily one and the same thing. For example, the SNP don't want Scotland to be part of NATO, but they would just be one of many players in a democratic decision-making process that would take place after independence, not before.

Eurovision 2011 prediction : Thursday's semi-final

NOTE : I'm reposting this (backdated) because it vanished when Blogger was down.

The big news from the rehearsals for the second semi-final is that two of the early favourites to win the contest outright, Estonia and Sweden, may be struggling to even qualify for the final. Having watched the performances on YouTube, I must say I can't really see what the problem is - Estonia in particular looks and sounds near-enough identical to the national final performance that won so many plaudits. But of course that may not be the best guide - the sound quality on the YouTube videos isn't great, and you're only seeing the performance from one fixed shot. Nevertheless, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that I still expect both to make it through, although clearly I'm going to have to revise my prediction from a few weeks ago that Estonia were heading for victory!

So to my full prediction for tonight. I had ten countries pencilled in, but then I realised that I'd left Moldova out by mistake - and they're surely likely to make the cut courtesy of an insane visual performance featuring Ku Klux Klan hats (well, not really, but if you can imagine black Ku Klux Klan hats you get the idea) plus a random fairy riding a unicycle. I've had to strike Ukraine off my original list as a result, although I'm not entirely sure about that, if only because they have one of the most stunning backdrops. Anyway, this is what I'm left with...


So, yes, I'm predicting that Jedward will make the final, and terrifyingly the consensus seems to be that they're absolutely storming through.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Holyrood's disgrace

If today's events hadn't been so devastating for our democracy, I'd be laughing right now. Absurd though it may seem, the Scottish Parliament has just installed one of the losing candidates as its Presiding Officer. It was clearly the settled will of the chamber for Hugh Henry to be PO, as evidenced by his crushing victory over Christine Grahame and Tricia Marwick with an overwhelming 38.6% of the vote. Now, if it had been serious, that should have been it, innit, that's the British Way. But no. Under the crazy standing orders, we instead moved on to a farcical "second round" which allowed some MSPs to have their votes counted more than once, and after which a confused looking Ms Marwick was somehow declared the winner. Even more disgracefully, the second round is estimated to have cost decent, hard-working families up and down the land an eye-popping seven hundred and forty-eight billion pounds, as the extra ballot papers had to be specially shipped in from Brazil, and because Johann Lamont broke her pencil. Let's face it - we've just made ourselves the laughing-stock of the world.

When oh when is Holyrood going to restore some dignity to this country by introducing simple, cheap, fair One Person, One Vote? Isn't that what we fought the war for?

I can't hold back, I can't go back, I must be free

Some Eurovision semi-finals are extremely predictable, some produce thrills and spills, and tonight's was definitely in the latter category. I was wrong about three of the ten qualifiers I had pencilled in, but they weren't the three I thought I might be wrong about (if that makes sense). One of the biggest shocks was Norway's elimination. I'd always had mixed feelings about the song, though - I thought the chorus was very strong, but the rest of it was excruciatingly bad (especially the lyrics). Albania's failure has taken most people by surprise as well, although to be fair it was the performer who was considered impressive, rather than the song itself.

I'm pleased that my gut feeling that Switzerland might just sneak through was borne out, and I'm absolutely delighted to be proved wrong in leaving Hungary off my list. It was undoubtedly the class entry of the field, although I still don't hold out a lot of hope for it in the final. As for myself, I ended up voting for both Poland and Serbia - that was down to the language issue, but I must admit the Polish song has really grown on me, and I was a bit sad that it didn't make the cut.

Nothing I saw changed my view that this is the weakest Eurovision in terms of musical quality since Stockholm in 2000, but the staging can cover up a multitude of sins, and it was an enjoyable show. Roll on the delights of Thursday...which may or may not include Jedward. Here they come, here they come, dum da dum da dum da dum.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Presiding Officer dilemma for SNP

Interesting to read the hints in both the Scotsman and Herald this morning that the SNP majority in Holyrood may coalesce behind "one of their own" (either Tricia Marwick or Christine Grahame) in the vote to select the new Presiding Officer tomorrow. If true, there are fairly obvious pros and cons...

Pros -

1. It would remove the danger that a Presiding Officer from the opposition ranks would do what John McTernan suggested, and pull a fast one by ruling an independence referendum bill out of order.

2. It would infuriate Tavish. In fact, it sounds like the mere possibility of it is already infuriating Tavish.

Cons -

1. It might look a bit tribal given that this is generally regarded as being Labour's 'turn'.

2. It would reduce the SNP's absolute parliamentary majority from a potential ten to eight. Of course, that's still a position that would have been beyond our wildest ravings a week ago, but who knows when an extra vote might come in handy? It's worth remembering that the SNP are now more vulnerable to having to face Holyrood by-elections than the other parties due to holding 53 of the 73 constituency seats. I gather that they also used up their full complement of candidates in Central Scotland, so if any of the list seats fell vacant in that region they couldn't be replaced. Of course it's still highly unlikely that such a solid majority would be significantly reduced over the course of the parliamentary term, let alone wiped out, but with five long years ahead you just never know.

Or to put it another way, you'd need to have a crystal ball to know what the most rational thing to do is!

UPDATE : I see that Labour's Hugh Henry has explicitly made clear that he would not use his powers as Presiding Officer to block a referendum bill, and indeed has added that he thinks opposition members should stop "carping on" about the validity of such a bill. So I'd suggest that removes the main argument against the SNP installing a Labour Presiding Officer.

* * *

What an absolute tragedy about David Cairns. I dare say I've criticised him on this blog at some point, but he came across as a genuinely lovely guy. He also has the important legacy of overturning the ban on Catholic priests becoming MPs - in some ways an even more pernicious piece of discrimination than the one on Catholics being able to accede to the throne.

Eurovision 2011 prediction : Tuesday's semi-final

I've been so wrapped up in the Holyrood election and its aftermath that I've barely paid any attention at all to the Eurovision rehearsals this year. Anyway, I thought it was high time I got my priorities straight, so I've put myself through a bit of a crash-course over the last hour or two. In no particular order, these are the ten countries I think might qualify from the first semi-final...


I'm more than a touch surprised to find myself including Albania in that list, and with a fair bit of confidence at that - I didn't hold out much hope for them after I first heard the song back in December, but the traditional Cinderella effect has kicked in yet again. Compared to other predictions I've seen, the song I seem to be going out on a limb with is Switzerland - but I'm guessing its simplicity and charm might just see it through. Strictly on merit, Hungary really should be on the list and Russia shouldn't, but I've learnt from long experience that you don't get anywhere from a) betting on dance tracks at Eurovision, or b) betting against Russia at Eurovision. Hungary seem to have had problems in the rehearsals in any case.

This is the semi that UK viewers are allowed to vote in. I of course have my long-standing personal rule of only voting for songs performed entirely in a language other than English, but depressingly that doesn't leave me with many options on this occasion. Although Portugal are sticking with their usual practice of singing in their native tongue, I'm afraid I won't be able to vote for them for a fourth successive year - the song is unspeakably dreadful. So that only leaves Poland and Serbia. I'll need to have a think...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Is this the unanswerable case for SNP involvement in the next round of UK leaders' debates?

Well done to Stewart Stevenson MSP for spotting this incredible statistic -

"SNP now have 77 elected Parliamentarians, same as LibDems - Scot/Wales/UK/EU LD=5/5/55/12 SNP=69/0/6/2"

There's a slight error there, because the Liberal Democrats actually have 57 seats at Westminster. Nevertheless, if you take the SNP and their sister party Plaid Cymru together, they are clearly ahead of the Lib Dems by 92 to 79, which I would have thought is the final nail in the coffin of any notion that the Lib Dems have a 'national' presence that gives them a special entitlement to participation in televised general election debates that the nationalist parties do not share.

Of course the SNP shouldn't even need to pray in aid their strength in the Scottish or European Parliaments - their established position in Westminster politics ought to be reason enough. They have had continuous parliamentary representation since 1967, and are comfortably beyond the threshold of seats that affords official recognition as a Westminster parliamentary party. They outpolled both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in one of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom at the last election (in spite of the debates being rigged against them), and won more seats than the Conservatives. They also stood in 59 constituencies - two more than the number of seats that were required for Nick Clegg to become Deputy Prime Minister. And, of course, just like two of the three parties that actually did feature in the 2010 debates, they are a 'territorial' party, rather than a UK-wide one. However, if these facts aren't enough, the SNP's thorough-going dominance of the Scottish political scene over the next five years is going to make their total exclusion from the debates look ever more ludicrous.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A toast to Nick Clegg, the accidental midwife of Scotland's independence referendum

I have a kind of cherished personal memory of the moment on 2005 general election night when it suddenly dawned on me that the unfolding result was almost ideal for the SNP. That would have seemed a peculiar thing to say out loud at the time - in spite of a couple of constituency gains, Alex Salmond's resumption of the leadership had failed to prevent the party recording its lowest share of the vote since 1987, and unexpectedly slipping behind the Liberal Democrats on the popular vote for the first time since the same year. The political X Factor everyone was marvelling at in Scotland was not the Alex Salmond Factor, but the Charles Kennedy Factor. However, as we all know, Scottish Parliament elections are a very different proposition, and looking ahead two years it just seemed to me that a perfect storm was brewing. By the time of the 2007 Holyrood vote, a tired UK Labour government would be bang in the middle of its third term, with the SNP the obvious recipient of any protest vote. Better still, Labour had done just about well enough in 2005 to make it likely that Tony Blair, weighed down by the baggage of Iraq, would still be in harness as Prime Minister. And of course that's exactly how it all played out - the timing really couldn't have been better. If Blair had called it a day even a few weeks earlier than he did, the 2007 election would have been fought in the midst of a Brown honeymoon, and it seems likely that Labour would have clung on to power.

But while my crystal ball was almost uncannily accurate in 2005, I must admit it couldn't have been more faulty in 2010. I'd been convinced all along that, once again, the SNP's Holyrood hopes hinged almost entirely upon Labour somehow clinging on to power at Westminster. It seemed obvious that with (to coin a phrase) "the Tories back", many of the disgruntled 2007 switchers would revert to the Labour fold in 2011. On that fateful day in May that began with expectations of a Labour-Lib Dem deal, but ended with David Cameron walking up the steps of Downing Street, I felt a sense of hopelessness welling up inside me twice over - firstly because I quite simply despaired at the thought of a Tory-led government, and secondly because it seemed to me that the SNP's period in office was about to draw to a close through no fault of their own. I dearly hoped I was wrong - but the opinion polls in subsequent months followed a depressingly predictable pattern.

Yet here we are a year later with - almost unbelievably - an SNP majority government in place, and with the benefit of hindsight it's now clear that, just like 2005, the cards dealt by the 2010 general election prepared the ground for that outcome in almost ideal fashion. With either a Tory or a Labour majority at Westminster, the shift of the Lib Dem vote en masse to the SNP would never have happened. With a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, any backlash against Nick Clegg's party may well have seen a lot of the votes move in the obvious anti-Labour direction of the Tories. There was of course a direct swing from Labour to SNP on Thursday anyway, so perhaps a second term for Alex Salmond would still have been on the cards without Lib Dem assistance. But would there have been anything like 69 SNP seats if Clegg hadn't fallen for Cameron's charms twelve months ago? I doubt it.

So here's to you, Nick. You made a catastrophic decision, but just as Margaret Thatcher was the unwitting midwife of Scottish Home Rule, so it appears the hapless federal Lib Dem leader is the midwife of the independence referendum that so many thought could never happen.