Friday, September 8, 2017

Could the sort-of-rise of "BUSP" be a boon for the independence movement?

Much synthetic excitement in the unionist media today about the exploits of an "obscure unionist party" that narrowly beat the SNP into third place in the Fortissat by-election - a feat that looks considerably less impressive when you realise that the same party came within a whisker of taking a seat in the same ward at the local elections in May.  (It also looks like they've probably hoovered up the support lost by an independent candidate with past links to the Orange Order, who saw his vote share halved since May.)

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that the snappily-named "A Better Britain - Unionist Party" (aka "BUSP") is entirely confined to a Fortissat ghetto.  Largely unnoticed, they somehow took 1% of the list vote in Glasgow at the Holyrood election last year - more than the Women's Equality Party and the same as RISE.  If the Fortissat result emboldens them to put up more candidates in future, it's probably going to be beneficial from a pro-independence point of view - they would split the unionist vote in a Westminster first-past-the-post election, making it slightly easier for the SNP to hold off challenges from Labour and the Tories, and as long as they stay below roughly 5% of the vote in any of the Holyrood regions they choose to stand in, they'll harm the chances of Labour and the Tories taking list seats while not winning any of their own.

An endorsement of sorts for the new party has come from the predictable direction of Stephen Daisley, who described them as a "centrist", "Labourish" unionist party.  Well, let's see - they're standing former Tory candidates, they want to abolish the Scottish Parliament, and are in favour of the hardest of hard Brexits (and not just to "respect the will of the people" either).  I dare say that must look like the epitome of moderation to the Daily Mail's favourite "centre-right socialist".

*  *  *

Today has seen more of the so-called "metrosplaining" that Stormfront Lite is so renowned for -

"The Lib Dems are the one party fully united on what should come next on Brexit and who can be relied upon, more or less, to vote as a bloc. But there are only 12 of them."

And there are 35 SNP MPs, which is a rather bigger number.  On what planet is the SNP not fully united on what should come next on Brexit (ie. remaining in the single market and retaining freedom of movement)?  On what planet will they not be voting as a bloc?  No answer to either of those questions is forthcoming, although the SNP do get a cursory mention later on in the piece -

"Not everyone is all that bothered about Brexit. Some parties, notably the SNP, see it as just another tool for pursuing an entirely different agenda."

Just how ignorant would you have to be of the modern SNP to think that, because their number one objective is independence, they can't really be "that bothered" about Brexit?  It's like saying that the Tory obsession with Europe is all an affectation because their first love is the free market economy.  In reality, the European project has aroused extremely strong passions in the SNP since the 1970s - initial hostility gave way to strong support, albeit the constant along the way has been opposition to the Common Fisheries Policy in its present form.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Blow for the Tories in Fortissat and Cardonald by-elections

As I suspected might happen, Labour have won both of today's local by-elections - although as is often the case with STV by-elections, the results require a fair bit of interpretation, and classifications like "Labour hold" or "Labour gain" are not really adequate.

Cardonald by-election result :

Labour 48.6% (+10.1)
SNP 36.7% (-7.5)
Conservatives 10.3% (-1.7)
Greens 2.7% (+0.2)
Liberal Democrats 1.5% (n/a)
Scottish Libertarians 0.2% (n/a)

This is technically a "Labour hold", but it's arguably the worse of the two results for the SNP because they won the popular vote in the ward in May, and have since suffered a swing of 8.8% - enough to put Labour ahead if repeated nationwide.

Fortissat by-election result :

Labour 38.5% (+2.0)
A Better Britain - Unionist 23.3% (+12.2)
SNP 20.6% (-8.4)
Conservatives 11.5% (-1.8)
Independent - Cefferty 5.0% (-5.1)
Greens 0.7% (n/a)
UKIP 0.5% (n/a)

This is officially a "Labour gain from the Conservatives", even though Labour comfortably won the popular vote in May with the SNP in second place. The drop in the SNP's vote is slightly steeper than in Cardonald, but probably more important is the fact that the swing to Labour is more modest at only 5.2%, which would actually leave the SNP narrowly ahead if repeated across the country.

The average swing in the two by-elections is roughly 7%, implying an extremely tight race between SNP and Labour nationally - which has been very much the message of recent polling subsamples. Juteman told us the other day that a full-scale Scottish poll from Panelbase appeared to be in the field, which if true would be the first poll of its type from any firm since the general election. If I was a betting man, I would guess that it will show a very small SNP lead, but on tonight's figures it's obviously impossible to rule out a small Labour lead. I'd be very, very surprised if Labour have powered miles ahead, though - there's no evidence at all to support that notion.

Even though the Labour gain from Tory in Fortissat is a bit of a technicality, it's reasonable to say that both results are mildly disappointing for the Tories - their vote is down in both wards in spite of Tory voters being traditionally more likely to make it to the polling stations in low turnout local by-elections. It could be a sign that Peak Tory was reached in May and June, and that there's been some modest slippage since then.

I haven't been able to find details of lower preference transfers in Fortissat yet, but what happened in Cardonald was pretty incredible (if not surprising) - 253 Tory voters transferred to Labour, and only 35 to the SNP.  It really does appear that Tory voters hate the idea of their own country governing itself to such an extent that they'd rather vote for a party led by the far-left.  Who in the 1970s or 80s would ever have thought we'd reach this point?

Oddly, although the Scottish Libertarians are a pro-independence party, not a single one of their twelve voters transferred to the SNP.  Four went to the Greens, two to the Tories, two to the Lib Dems, one to Labour, and three votes were non-transferable.

Two key by-elections today

You may not be aware of this, but today (Thursday) marks the biggest electoral test in Scotland since the general election on June 8th, with two crucial local government by-elections taking place in the west of the central belt.  The Fortissat by-election in North Lanarkshire could almost have been devised as an illustration of just how barmy the world of STV by-elections is - the Tories are defending a seat in a ward where Labour won the popular vote, and yet if the SNP don't gain the seat, they will lose their hard-won position as the outright largest party on the council.  Doesn't sound entirely fair, does it?!  Meanwhile, in the Cardonald by-election, Labour are defending a seat in a ward where the SNP narrowly won the popular vote, meaning on the face of it that the SNP have a golden opportunity to increase their representation on Glasgow City Council from 39 seats to 40, edging them closer to the 43 required for an absolute majority.

The only other real-life election we've seen in Scotland since June 8th was the Elgin City North by-election in mid-July, which resulted in a moral triumph for the SNP - they didn't quite win the seat, but there was a negligible swing from SNP to Tory, implying (if that ward is typical) that things hadn't got any worse for the SNP since the general election in places where the Tories are their main opponents.  But the limited polling evidence of late has suggested that the main problem for the SNP is no longer the Tories, but Labour.  So today's two contests in SNP-Labour battleground areas may tell us quite a bit.  Given that Labour won the popular vote in Fortissat in May, I'd suggest they're quite strong favourites to gain that seat because there appears to have been a nationwide swing towards them over the intervening months.  It's a different story in Cardonald where the SNP start with a bit of a cushion, but even there Labour probably ought to be regarded as slight favourites.  If you want to do something about that, here is a public service announcement I spotted on Twitter -

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Deny a shared language, deny a shared history, deny a shared culture…deny who you are

A guest post by Edward Freeman

I feel I must chime in on the subject of Scots language deniers, who are, I think, usually in that group of people we can call “proud Scots but”. I am a trained United Nations translator, with degrees in languages, linguistics and whatnot (especially whatnot). I am now retired, but I routinely translated into English from Russian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and I can cope with Dutch and German (having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria). There are various others in the Romance and Slavic groups that I can cope with too. Shove in Latin and ancient Greek as well - I had a peculiar education. It is certainly true that the more languages you learn, the easier it gets. It is also true that language is the thing that distinguishes humans from other animals, and is probably our supreme intellectual achievement as a species.

I also spent years in Kenya, where English and Swahili are the official languages, though English is preferred for official business and Swahili is more widely used for interethnic communication, except with us wazungu. There are 47 tribes in Kenya, a few of them very small - and not counting the wazungu - and basically they all have their own languages, though languages shared between different tribes bring the total down to about 42. (I'm keeping this as simple as I can.)

Swahili has many native speakers, though not as many as in neighbouring Tanzania, where it is - or rather, was - the sole official language. In origin, Swahili is a creole between a Bantu substrate and the Arabic used by the Arab traders and slavers who travelled up and down the African east coast in sync with the monsoon winds. Its pre-eminence as a trading language allowed it to penetrate far into the interior, as far as modern-day Rwanda and even the eastern DRC.

It is probably worth pointing out that the Europeans did not exactly “discover” Africa; the locals knew it was there all the time, and other outsiders frequently “discovered” it before Europeans ever did.

English, obviously, is a much later linguistic add-on, but it is actively kept up because it is so useful, internationally, and for the formal (as opposed to the traditional) legal system, because it is based on English common law. English is also used in education and general official business, of course.

There is a distinctive form of Kenyan / East African English - which I really enjoy, frankly - an example would be "the cahs clashed buttock to buttock" = the cars reversed into each each other at speed. It remains English, though, as English as American and Indian and Downton Abbey English. And, of course, Scottish English.

Most of the tribal, home-grown languages are Bantu-based, including Swahili, which has many native speakers - down on the Coast in particular - whereas the others are Nilotic, except, of course, English. The Bantu-based ones maintain varying degrees of intercomprehensibility - Kikamba and Kikuyu are pretty close, for example, and contiguous geographically, and as people in those tribes / groups live in such close proximity to each other (not to mention intermarriage), there's a high degree of interoperability, if you can call it that. If I do mention intermarriage, it will be to say only that exogamy is very widespread, and the UK's Royals should probably have done a bit more of it.

There is a great deal of harmless amusement derived from people's varying accents in Swahili and so on, depending on their own native languages, and the funny ways they speak the closely related Bantu languages. Kisii and Embu come to mind in that respect (Embu has front rounded vowels, like French (3) – or Glaswegian (1) – unless I’m confusing Embu with Meru).

If you want to get a better idea of the complexity involved in all this, have a look at this short article in Wikipedia. If you look at the table on the right of that page, you will see the language “Gikuyu”. This is Kikuyu, and the reason for the G is because the language is currently undergoing an active process of dissimilation. I know about this because I gave one of my colleagues at the UN in Nairobi, a native speaker of Luganda (Buganda), the majority (Bantu) language of Uganda, some assistance with her linguistics MA dissertation – she ran her English-language examples by me, and explained what she was up to with the rest of her dissertation in return.

The Nilotic group of languages are a different kettle of fish entirely. Completely different, and rather difficult to get one's head around, for me, anyway. I am most familiar with Maa, as spoken by the Maasai, though one of my foster sons is Luo.

The Nilotic group and the Bantu group are in different categories of language entirely, like Arabic and English. English - Kiingereza in Swahili - is in a completely different language group from either. Swahili is a creole of Bantu and Arabic, as I said, and the Bantu languages and Arabic again are in two completely different language groups. English and Russian, in contrast, are in the same, Indo-European group, as are Greek, Hindi, and Farsi (Persian/Iranian). That’s right, I said “in the same” language group. As is Gaelic.

So, my "houseboy" Ntosho (Alex) Ole Kisaika, a Maasai (as is obvious from his name), grew up speaking Maa and Swahili and English, all three of them refined at school – primary school only - picked up more Kikuyu when he came to live in Nairobi, and could communicate with my Kamba guy Augustine in English, Swahili and Kikuyu. Meanwhile, Augustine was cheerfully picking up more Kikuyu himself, and some Maa from Alex and my Maasai foster son Lekishon.

It is far more common, worldwide, to be at least bilingual than it is to be a monoglot. Of course, it is far easier when you grow up with it. Many Scots are at least to some degree bilingual between Scottish English and Scots, but because it comes naturally to them, they don't even realize it. Bilingualism is very good for the brain - all the studies show it. Multilingualism is even better, in my view. Monoglots, alas, even the ones who only think they are monoglots, are the only ones who do not recognize this, because they simply do not know from experience, or do not realize that they do. Doubting Thomases! Take my word for it, you monoglots, or call me a liar!

Nairobi urban dialect is known as Sheng, a composite of Swahili and English favoured by smart young things who want, like all young people, to bamboozle their fuddy-duddy old parents. Of course, all my guys could use that as well. Example: "sasa" in Swahili means "now". Spoken with extended first vowel, short second, and rising intonation, accompanied by quickly raising the chin, in Sheng it is a greeting which I gloss as "Wassup?" Sheng is not a creole, or a pidgin; I don't think it ever can be, actually, not least because in order to use it you have to be heading towards bilingualism already, so you don’t actually need to put together a new language to communicate.

Note to readers - this is from Wikipedia: "Creoles also differ from pidgins in that, while a pidgin has a highly simplified linguistic structure that develops as a means of establishing communication between two or more disparate language groups, a creole language is more complex, used for day-to-day purposes in a community, and acquired by children as a native language. Creole languages, therefore, have a fully developed vocabulary and system of grammar."

The exception to the rule of multilingualism in Kenya is - you guessed it - the native English speakers among the white tribe. One of the reasons I got to be so well liked among the non-wazungu was because at least I tried! So, monoglots, next time you hear someone furren not getting their English quite right, do please think before you sneer?

My guy Alex never spoke English with a native speaker until he was well into his 20s, Augustine a bit earlier. Both are very smart cookies. I am proud that we can call each other friends. Rafiki.

Remember: Maa, Swahili, English - are in three different, unrelated language groups entirely, with Swahili partially composed of a fourth - like English, Chinese, and Arabic, with a bit of an admixture of Algonquian into one of them. My guys spoke all three of those, and learned them without the aid of bilingual dictionaries, because such things are rare, not very good at all, or far too expensive for poor Kenyans living in rural areas. Or they simply do not exist, because no one has ever compiled them. Pretty amazing, eh, to learn another language when the only book you have in common is the Bible, originally translated more and less badly or well by non-native-speaking European missionaries?

And yes - Scots IS a separate but closely related language to English. I just wish I were more fluent in it.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Have London Tory ministers been heeding siren voices about the SNP?

Faisal Islam, the Sky News political editor, had a 22-part thread on Twitter last night in which he suggested that the Tories are moving towards something a little mushier than their previous preferred Hard Brexit model.  There may be some truth in that, but one part of the thread leapt out as very obviously wrong -

As I've noted before, it's important to separate out two different questions - a) have the SNP concluded that an early general election is undesirable? and b) would they vote in favour of an early general election if the option was put before the Commons?  If Faisal Islam is correct, the Tories are making the huge mistake of assuming that if the answer to a) is "yes", the answer to b) must by definition be "no".  They may have been encouraged in that view by listening too much to so-called metrosplainers such as Mike Smithson of Stormfront Lite, who has repeatedly pushed the idea that the SNP will inevitably vote for their own self-interest and help block an early election.  Tory ministers really need to get out more and start listening to people who understand Scottish politics - although in truth they should have long since learned the lesson themselves by now.  Have they really not noticed how toxic the Tory brand has been for decades among the pool of voters which the SNP and Labour compete over?  Or have they fallen for their own propaganda, and think that Scotland is suddenly relaxed about Tory rule now that Ruth Davidson is here?

The reality is that it doesn't actually matter whether the SNP have privately reached the view that an early election is more of a threat than an opportunity, or even whether they think it would be a certain disaster.  They would have no choice but to vote to bring down the Tory government, because the long-term consequences of doing anything else hardly bear thinking about.  There would be no point in avoiding a short-term hit if the price is decades of Labour taunts about the SNP helping to keep the Tories in power.  I doubt if there's a single SNP MP who doesn't fully understand that point.

In any event, it's far from clear that the SNP should fear an early election.  The danger they face in the central belt has been well-rehearsed, but the flip-side of the coin is that they look well-placed to regain a few rural constituencies from the Tories.  It hardly needs to be stated what a psychological boost it would be if Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond were to quickly regain their former seats.

*  *  *

Memo to Anas Sarwar : There's little point in pitching yourself as the unity candidate who will bring Corbynites and moderates together, if you're then going to unveil a long list of the usual suspects (such as Iain "the Snarl" Gray, Ian Murray, the Daily Mail's very own Alan Roden, Catherine Stihler and Jackie Baillie) as your loyal supporters.  You might as well just have the words Chicken Coup : The Sequel tattooed on your forehead.  Severin Carrell's initial claim that Sarwar was the man to watch because he would have Corbynites flocking to his cause is looking more and more eccentric with every passing day.

The Labour selectorate are faced with a genuine dilemma, though.  Whether wisely or unwisely, Nicola Sturgeon has nailed her colours to the mast today with a breathtakingly radical programme for government that will make it much harder for a Leonard-led Labour to outflank the SNP on the left.  For all Ruth Davidson's half-hearted claims that the SNP have nicked one or two Tory policies, I can't see anything in there that could reasonably be described as right-of-centre - but there's quite a bit that's to the left of even Corbyn himself.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Sarwar is seething, Leonard is livid and Rowley is raging as two new subsamples show the SNP way ahead of Labour

I find it pays to aim for maximum alliterative inclusivity at moments of particular chaos for Labour.

The Scottish subsample from the new Britain-wide Survation poll shows something quite rare and exotic - a Tory lead.  The figures are: Conservatives 36%, SNP 33%, Labour 21%, Liberal Democrats 10%.  Survation's subsamples are particularly tiny, and the Tory lead can be explained by the fact that there are too many Tory voters from June in the sample.  By contrast, the SNP's sizeable advantage over Labour can't be dismissed quite so easily - there are too few respondents who recall voting Labour in June, but there are also too few who recall voting SNP.

Meanwhile, a new Scottish subsample from YouGov, which unlike Survation's is probably weighted correctly, puts the SNP into the 40s for the first time since the general election.  The full figures are:  SNP 40%, Labour 26%, Conservatives 23%, Liberal Democrats 5%, Greens 4%, UKIP 1%.

It seems to me there are grounds for cautious optimism here.  Thirteen subsamples out of the twenty conducted since the election have shown the SNP ahead of Labour.  Eleven out of twenty have given the SNP an outright lead, with seven putting Labour ahead.  Survation's new subsample is only the second one to put the Tories in front.  As the Tories have been third most of the time, it seems highly unlikely that they hold the lead - it looks very much like an SNP v Labour battle at the moment, and it also increasingly looks like the SNP have the upper hand.

*  *  *

Stephen Daisley has today continued his determined quest to make himself the laughing-stock of linguists throughout the world.  There may be continued debate over whether Scots should be regarded as a language in its own right or as a dialect of English, but nobody who understands the subject - literally nobody - describes Scots as "slang English" or an "accent".

Actually, I do have another question as well.  Stephen is well known for regarding himself as a "Zionist", to such an extent that he once penned an article that referred to the 1967 invasion of Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem as "the liberation".  (Seriously.)  So what I'm wondering is this.   If Stephen had been around more than a century ago when Hebrew was a dead language but was in the process of being artificially revived, would he have advised people not to bother with it and to learn a "real language" that might be of some use in a job interview?  I mean, if enough people had taken that attitude, self-evidently Hebrew would not currently be the dominant language in the State of Israel.  Would that be a good thing or a bad thing, Stephen?

Can a Leonard change Labour's spots?

We've all been having tremendous fun over the last week with the almost comical obscurity of Richard Leonard, a man who somehow stands on the brink of becoming leader of the third-largest party in the Scottish Parliament, in spite of the fact that nobody seems to know anything about him.  Ever since the leadership election was triggered, I've been trying to find out personal details as basic as what age he is, and have so far drawn a blank.  But we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture here.  I entirely stand by what I said on Twitter the other day -

"A rational party would hear the news that Anas Sarwar is standing for leader, and think 'OK, we must elect whoever stands against him'."

It looks like that will mean electing Leonard, and actually, Labour could probably do worse.  At least he's relatively articulate and isn't another dreary Blairite clone.  He does seem to be hopelessly stuck in the 1950s as far as Scottish identity and constitutional politics are concerned, but I suspect much the same is true of just about every other leading Scottish Labour figure as well.  Because he's a Corbynite, it's doubtless only a matter of time before Owen Jones declares "the SNP should FEAR him", and there may be a tiny grain of truth in that in the sense that the SNP will be disappointed if Labour fail to make their customary mistake of electing the weakest candidate.  (However, neither Leonard nor Sarwar are in remotely the same class as Nicola Sturgeon, or even Ruth Davidson for that matter, and assuming this is the last leadership election before 2021, it's suddenly very hard to imagine Labour posing much of a threat at the next Holyrood election.)

Is there any case at all to be made that Leonard could end up doing even worse than Sarwar would have done?  In a rather ugly development, the Labour "moderates" are already zeroing in on Leonard's English accent as a potential issue, and I suspect clueless metrosplainers in the London media will be along any moment now to "warn" that the SNP will make hay with Leonard's Englishness.  In reality, of course, nothing could be further from the truth - the SNP's vision for Scotland is of a country where there is no barrier to someone like Leonard holding the highest office.  But, there again, the SNP do not control the prejudices of ordinary voters.  The good news for Leonard is that the last time Scotland had political leaders with English accents (Malcolm Bruce and Ian Lang), they achieved tolerably good election results in the context of the period.  It's conceivable that a Labour leader might face a slightly greater handicap, given that a successful Labour party is more reliant on working-class votes than either the Lib Dems or the Tories.  But I doubt if it would be the enormous problem that some people are rather conveniently suggesting.

No, I think the bigger issue is that Leonard's left-wing credentials could herald the beginning of the end of the informal unionist alliance that harmed the SNP in June.  We've begun to take it as read that the first priority of unionist voters will always be to keep the SNP out, but that could rapidly change if Tory supporters start to feel (rightly or wrongly) that a Corbyn premiership is a more immediate threat than an independent Scotland.  In this year's election, even leaving aside the fact that a Labour victory seemed an extremely remote prospect, Tories in Scotland who voted tactically for Labour could tell themselves that they weren't 'really' voting for Corbyn, because Scottish Labour was still controlled by 'moderates' like Dugdale and Sarwar.  It's a stretch to imagine that a Leonard leadership will result in those people doing a 180 degree turn and tactically voting for the SNP to keep Corbyn out, but they may well just revert to their natural home of the Tories, thus making it a little easier for the SNP to hold seats in former Labour heartlands.