Saturday, January 28, 2012

My response to the Scottish Government's referendum consultation

It's a sure sign of the genuineness of the Scottish Government's consultation on the referendum that it's so much harder to respond to than the UK government's parallel 'consultation' - it's actually interested in people's views on a range of points (some of them quite technical), rather than setting up a series of questions that are supposed to have only one answer, in order to provide some PR glitter to a pre-determined outcome. However, I did of course respond to the UK consultation (there's still time to have your own go at defusing the trick questions!), so it would seem very strange not to respond to the Scottish one as well. I've had to skip quite a few of the questions, though, because I simply don't have a strong view on them one way or the other. Here's what I've come up with...

1. What are your views on the referendum question and the design of the ballot paper?

The proposed referendum question is simple, direct, unambiguous, easy to understand, and neutrally-worded. I would strongly urge that no alterations or additions are made to the wording that might compromise this neutrality.

The ballot paper is refreshingly uncluttered, and is unlikely to cause voters any difficulties.

2. What are your views on the proposed timetable and voting arrangements?

I strongly welcome the proposal that a simple majority should be sufficient for either the 'Yes' or 'No' side to win the referendum. Any system with arbitrary 'thresholds' that allows one side to be declared the legal 'winner' in spite of having secured fewer votes than the 'losing' side is a grotesque parody of the democratic principle.

The timetable laid out is the most appropriate one, allowing sufficient time for public consideration and debate of the issues surrounding the most momentous democratic decision this country has ever taken, while also ensuring a resolution well before the end of the five-year parliamentary term.

3. What are your views on the inclusion of a second question in the referendum and
the voting system that could be used?

There is now such overwhelming evidence of public interest in the proposal for full devolution that to exclude this option from the ballot paper could only be seen as an effort to thwart an expression of democratic will, and to cynically force a large fraction of the electorate to give their 'support' to one of only two options, both of which they oppose. This is clearly unacceptable, and it is highly significant that opponents of the inclusion of a full devolution option have now resorted to technical arguments about the supposed 'impossibility' of a fair multi-option referendum, rather than directly arguing against the obvious desirability of allowing the public the broadest possible choice. Most of these technical objections are transparently bogus and/or inconsistent. For instance, when a preferential voting system was thought to be a possibility, it was suggested that this could allow independence to win on a 'minority vote' - and yet many who put that argument forward supported a Yes vote in the recent referendum on the Westminster electoral system, on the very grounds that only preferential voting could ensure that the winner of a multi-candidate election has the backing of a majority of voters. When the obvious alternative to preferential voting for this referendum was proposed (a two-question poll), it was then suggested that this could lead to a 'contradictory' outcome, with both full devolution and independence receiving majority support - and yet many who are now putting that argument forward raised no objection to the format of the 1997 devolution referendum, which could also have produced a 'contradictory' outcome had the public agreed that the Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers, but failed to agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament in the first place!

However, in spite of the dubious motivations of those raising the objections, it is important that the referendum is not only fair, but is seen and agreed to be fair. So I would urge the Scottish Government to take the critics at their word, and to select a format for a two-question referendum that strips away all of the stated objections, however thin. Two possibilities occur to me. Firstly, there could be a gateway question asking about the principle of greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, followed by a second question asking : "IF greater powers as proposed in Question 1 are approved, which of the following options would you prefer - full devolution or independence?" The second possibility is a 'run-off' format, in which voters are first asked a single question on independence. If there is a Yes vote, the referendum is concluded, but if there is a No vote, a second ballot on full devolution is automatically triggered, perhaps two weeks later. This format would remove any potential confusion about what people are voting on at any given time, and would completely exclude any possibility of 'contradictory mandates'.

The 'run-off' possibility could also be considered in circumstances in which the UK parliament passes unreasonable legislation designed to ban the Scottish parliament from asking a second question. The Scottish parliament could instead pass legislation for a consultative referendum on full devolution to be automatically triggered by a No vote in any single-question independence referendum held under UK legislative constraints. The principle of automaticity is vitally important to prevent the outcome of a 'forced choice' referendum being misrepresented by those who wish to thwart the democratic will of the electorate. A prime example of how such gross misrepresentation can be attempted is the repeated claims of Roy Hattersley that the 'Yes' vote to devolution in 1997 somehow represented a rejection of independence - in spite of the fact that independence was not on the ballot paper, and that the vast majority of independence supporters had voted in favour of devolution as the best option on offer!

7. What are your views on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 years who
are eligible to be registered on the electoral register?

I am strongly in favour of this proposal. Although the decision on independence has been characterised by both sides as "the most important we will take in our lifetimes", in truth decisions on consenting to sex, marrying, having children, etc, etc, are far more important from the point of view of the individual. If 16 and 17 year olds are deemed mature enough to consent to sex and to marry, they are surely mature enough to help determine their country's future. I am also deeply concerned that those who seek to deny 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in the referendum are only doing so because they fear young people will vote the 'wrong' way - a suspicion which is not allayed by the fact that some who supposedly support votes at 16 in principle are mysteriously opposed to it for this particular referendum. This is a profoundly anti-democratic impulse that must be resisted.

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Click HERE to submit your own response to the consultation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Kilclooney's baloney

I've just caught up with the extraordinary letter to the Scotsman a couple of weeks ago from Lord Kilclooney (former Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party), suggesting that Scotland should be subject to an Irish-style "partition" if the majority of the country votes Yes to independence, but a specific area votes No.

"Northern Ireland remained within the UK as was the desire of most people in that part of Ireland. Should there ever be a majority in Scotland for independence it should not be binding on all the people of Scotland.

If, say, Strathclyde or the Lowlands prefer to remain in the UK then that decision should be honoured by a partition of Scotland."

Hmmm. Well, what leaps out at me straight away is that there were two counties of Northern Ireland itself, Fermanagh and Tyrone, that had nationalist majorities at the time of partition in the early 1920s. The desire of "most people in that part of Ireland" to leave the United Kingdom was flagrantly ignored, in the interests of keeping the minority unionist population of those two counties snugly inside their beloved bunker statelet.

So in line with the intriguing new 'Kilclooney Doctrine', it must surely be long past time to right that historic wrong? Given the beliefs he set out in his letter, the noble lord can surely have no objection to the counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh and Derry (the latter two now having nationalist majorities as well) exercising the right to decide their own constitutional future individually, without the requirement for any 'permission' from the unionist majority in Northern Ireland as a whole?

Oh wait - I think I'm hearing objections. How mysterious.

In truth, of course, Kilclooney is guilty of a very obvious logical fallacy. If, for example, South Ayrshire was to vote No to independence in the referendum, that is not the same thing as saying that they would prefer to leave Scotland in the event of independence. There is simply no Scottish equivalent of the regionally-based "if Ireland isn't in the UK, we're not Irish at all" phenomenon. If such a thing existed, it would have to be taken seriously by all of us who believe in self-determination - but it doesn't. We'd have noticed by now.

All the same, it would still be highly entertaining to hear Lord Kilclooney's convoluted explanation for why individual counties of Scotland have the right to choose their own constitutional future, but individual counties of Northern Ireland do not. No less entertaining has been the general hysteria and intemperate language from the NI unionist ranks in response to the events of the last few weeks. My message to them would be this - Northern Ireland has the right to self-determination every bit as much as Scotland does. But that is not the same thing as a right to demand that others stick around to provide you with an identity.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Lib Dem message to Scotland : stop being so 'difficult'

I really should know better by now, but given the special occasion, I thought I might as well pop round to PB yesterday to put up some kind of defence of the nationalist position against the inevitable onslaught. It turned into yet another four-hour epic. It's hard to choose the 'highlight', but perhaps I'd marginally give the nod to this exchange with Liberal Democrat poster MrsB, who innocently claims that she supports votes at 16, but that it's simply impossible to implement (yes, really!).

MrsB : James I have said this before and I will say it again now. The legal age for voting in the UK (which Scotland is still part of) is 18.

I support voting at 16. Currently it is not legally possible.

It might be possible to get votes at 16 through at Westminster before the referendum but I really really doubt it.

Therefore the issue of whether 16 or 17 year olds should get a vote in the referendum is a non-starter.

Without that change to the legislation actually running such a referendum which had any credibility would be impossible. There would be no electoral roll for the 16 year olds, though some 17 year olds would be on it because their 18th birthday would fall during the year. How would you ensure that all 16 year olds got the vote fairly? And don't say "use the school rolls" because I am pretty sure that would not be allowed under Data Protection legislation. It wouldn't be comprehensive anyway.

Like I say, I am in favour of the principle of voting at 16. However, when it comes to the referendum I don't see how it is possible to make it happen.

Me : MrsB, a simple question : do you support or oppose Michael Moore's proposal to ban 16 and 17 year olds from voting in the referendum? If you support it, please don't insult our intelligence by pretending that your support for votes at 16 is meaningful.

I'm reminded of Mo Mowlam's wry reply to her Tory counterpart : "I welcome his support for the Good Friday Agreement. I now look forward to that support extending to the actual contents of the Agreement."

MrsB : Under current UK law 16 and 17 year olds cannot vote in ANY elections. Why should they be entitled to vote in just the one referendum in one part of the UK? That is not correct.

Were there to be a piece of legislation lowering the voting age to 16 it would apply to all elections and referenda and would be fair. But we are not going to get that.

So yes, I do support Michael Moore's position. But it would be better if he made more of the point about the legal voting age and so that it would be more difficult for Nats to depict him as someone trying to find an excuse for stopping people voting for independence.

Me : "Why should they be entitled to vote in just the one referendum in one part of the UK?"

MrsB, as has been pointed out to you several times, the SNP are in favour of giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote for ALL elections - just as the Lib Dems are supposed to be. The difference is that they are trying to implement their own policy, whereas the Lib Dems are moving heaven and earth to block theirs - just as they are doing on enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Bizarre. Just bizarre.

"But it would be better if he made more of the point about the legal voting age and so that it would be more difficult for Nats to depict him as someone trying to find an excuse for stopping people voting for independence."

It would never be difficult for us to make that 'depiction', because that's exactly what he's doing, and even the dogs on the street know it.

MrsB : FFS James, stop distorting things.

This is very simple.

If there was a way to get the voting age changed to 16 for all elections before the referendum is held then 16 year olds could vote in it.

There isn't. So they won't be able to.

Answer this for me: if the voting age is not lowered from 18 before the referendum, do you think 16 year olds would be able to vote in the referendum?

And stop being silly about who is trying to manipulate what. The unionists are indeed pushing it - but they are amateurs beside Salmond. Both sides are at it, so stop pretending the SNP are whiter than white.

Me : Oh, come off it, Mrs B. This is the argument of mock-liberals down the centuries - of course we want Africans to govern themselves (or whatever), but it's too soon, they're not ready, there are immense practical difficulties...come to think of it, you're sounding just like Sir Humphrey.

Time to make up your mind whether you really believe in all those radical Lib Dem policies, or if it's just words.

"if the voting age is not lowered from 18 before the referendum, do you think 16 year olds would be able to vote in the referendum?"

If the Scottish Parliament legislates to lower the voting age for the referendum, then your question is a nonsense. Get out of the "Westminster is God" mindset.

MrsB : Dear James

Being this difficult even with people who basically agree with you but just take account of inconvenient reality, suggests that you are not going to be able to win many people over to the same side of the argument as you.

Can I suggest you make sure you are not involved in the independence campaign?

Love Mrs B

Me : MrsB, if you "basically agree" with me, stop supporting Michael Moore's plan to ban young adults from voting. If you do support that plan (and you've already confirmed that you do) then you do not "basically agree" with me - you in fact disagree with me.

Can I respectfully suggest that you do not take part in Lib Dem campaigning at the next GE? After all, not all voters (of any age) are looking for a passive-aggressive mother figure who tells them that by disagreeing with her they are simply being "difficult". We don't want your party's poll ratings going down any further, now, do we?



* * *

Nobody does comedy quite like Malcolm Rifkind. Not content with claiming that the proposed referendum question (which even Ruth Davidson accepted was fair and clear) is somehow biased, he then suggested that his own preferred wording of "do you want to leave the United Kingdom after 300 years?" was not remotely "emotive". Tell you what, Malcolm, why not chuck in "cast adrift without food, warmth or shelter" to make it even less emotive?

* * *

If you're looking for a soothing time-out from the nationalist v unionist War of the Worlds, I can highly recommend a listen to Darcy DaSilva's performance at Celtic Connections on Saturday. I particularly liked her rendition of Blackbird, the middle song of the three.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More evidence of the London media's selective attention-span on independence polling

I'm not really in the strongest position to criticise anyone for talking too much about tiny polling subsamples, although I'm sure Anthony Wells would haul the Guardian over the coals for earnestly reporting the Scottish findings of their independence polling as if the figures were meaningful. What really gets my goat, though, is these words...

"The Scotland-only results necessarily rely on a much smaller sample, but are in line with the findings of other recent polls in suggesting that Salmond has a mountain to climb.

A recent YouGov survey of Scottish voters for Channel 4 news pointed to a 61%-39% referendum defeat for independence."

Two points - a) they're not really in line even with the YouGov poll, which showed the Yes vote nine points higher, and b) they're certainly not in line with the full-scale ICM poll published just one day earlier which showed the Yes vote a mere three points behind the No vote. So why mention the YouGov figures as an example of "other recent polls" but not ICM? It's hard not to see this as yet further affirmation of my theory that the London media have settled in advance on a narrative of "polls show little appetite for independence", and will turn a deaf ear to each and every piece of contrary evidence.

Oh, and a last thought - given that the referendum will be held in more than two-and-a-half years' time, and not next Wednesday, is it really reasonable to characterise the challenge of getting from 39% to 50% as a "mountain to climb"?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Explanatory note for deceased archbishops : why a disarming joke about haggis probably doesn't make Alex Salmond a fascist

It tells you all you need to know about Archbishop Cranmer's rambling attempt last week to paint Alex Salmond as an "evil" anti-English "racist" that the one and only scrap of 'evidence' he could come up with is this piece of throwaway whimsy from three years ago -

"ALEX Salmond has waded into the haggis wars after claims our national dish was invented in England.

The First Minister spoke out following the discovery of an English haggis recipe from 1615.

He said: "I don't mind the English claiming haggis as their own, as long as they leave us our country.

"But haggis is our institution and we will defend it to the last.

"This haggis grab is akin to a land grab and it's a sign of its culinary success now as a swanky dish.""

In all apparent seriousness, Cranmer asks what the reaction would have been had Nick Griffin suggested that Asians were making a "land grab" on "our country". Hmmm. I think I can spot where you may be going slightly astray here, "Your Grace" (yawn), and it can be explained in four remarkably short words : it was a joke. A rather disarming joke at that, evoking and poking fun at a stereotype-rich fantasy world in which Scot Nats are obsessed with defending the honour of shortbread, haggis and the Bay City Rollers, and routinely accuse the dastardly English of "land grabs". What's even more amusing is that it probably would never even have occurred to Salmond that anyone would be daft enough, or have a sufficiently prejudiced and fossilised perception of Scottish national identity, to take a single word of what he said remotely seriously. And let's face it, the First Minister doesn't exactly do deadpan, so it's not as if the clues are hard to spot.

Lesson of the day : never underestimate the daftness, prejudice, and fossilisation of deceased Church of England archbishops. Many thanks, "Your Grace" (yawn). Seriously, I once saw secret filming of Nick Griffin pointing to the white skin on his arm and saying "that is my identity". Anyone who can't discern the difference between that repulsive worldview and a light-hearted joke about haggis needs some knots in their head untangled as a matter of some urgency.

So what separates Alex Salmond's attitude to "the English" from Nick Griffin's attitude to Asians? How many centuries have you got? To be getting on with, let's confine ourselves to just one topical example - namely, that the SNP want eligibility to vote in the independence referendum to be determined solely by residence. Scots, English, Welsh, Irish, Polish, Pakistanis, etc, etc, all voting as equal citizens to decide the future of the country where they live. Not exactly a proposition that Nick Griffin would jump at. Compare it also to the rather desperate efforts of some unionist politicians to base the referendum franchise on Scottish "birth-right".

My own question to Cranmer is the usual one that applies whenever the "bigotry" card is played by unionists - could you please spell out in precise terms how it would be possible to argue for Scottish statehood without people like you lazily portraying it as racism? Is it as simple as excising all references to haggis from the Salmond Joke Book, or are you seriously claiming that it is literally impossible to be a Scottish nationalist without also being an 'evil racist'? If it's the latter, given that you are a British nationalist who is considerably less complimentary about continental Europeans than Alex Salmond is about our neighbours and friends in England, what precisely is this magical difference between Scottish and British nationalism that makes one deplorable in all circumstances and the other the Stuff of the Divine?

* * *

If you thought nothing could top the Cranmer piece, try this barking mad claim from Biased BBC that the Today programme is biased in favour of Scottish independence -

"Some wonderful fantasy talk about "Scottish Oil", of course, and not a mention that Scotland has stunningly high levels of Sovietised Statism that is only possible care of the huge taxes that flow from south of the border care of the Barnett Formula."

Let me get this straight - a failure to point out that oil that we all know exists does not in fact exist, or that oil that we all know is in Scottish waters is not in fact in Scottish waters, and a failure to remind listeners that Scotland has a "Soviet" public sector, represents 'pro-independence propaganda'? Righty-ho. Personally, I think David Dimbleby showed absurd pro-SNP bias by merely telling Nicola Sturgeon that she was forbidden to talk about Scottish issues on a Glasgow edition of Question Time - he really should have tasered her or something.

In other news, the Daily Mail today unveiled its campaign for Martin Schulz to be the first President of the United States of Europe.