Monday, May 21, 2018

Earl of Dumbarton ROCKED by new SHOCK poll that suggests monarchy could be DOOMED

There's a new poll out today that has a bit of something for everyone - republican-minded Yessers are delighted that it shows only a minority of the Scottish public are in favour of retaining the monarchy, whereas the unionist side are claiming it shows opposition to independence.  You won't be surprised to hear, though, that not everything is quite as it seems.

First things first: this is not an independence poll.  If you want to know whether people think Scotland should be an independent country, you ask "Should Scotland be an independent country?", or use very similar wording.  If you turn the question on its head and ask whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, you tend to get a slightly different result.  That may seem inexplicable, but there are lots of people in the middle who aren't really that bothered one way or the other, and who have a different instinctive reaction depending on how the question is framed.  What makes this poll even less meaningful is that it isn't even about Scotland specifically - it asks about whether the union of four nations should continue in roughly its current form.  If you're a voter with no particularly strong view about Scottish independence, it's highly unlikely that you would give a negative answer to that question.  You would feel like you were tearing someone else's house down because of your uncertainty about where the best interests of your own country lie - ie. just one country out of the four.  You'd have to be a very committed Yesser to reply in that way - and as it happens a healthy enough 30% did so.  A further 18% declined to give a view.

Apologies to any disappointed unionists, then, but this poll does not show an increase in opposition to independence.  It's just a practical demonstration of the obvious point that if you ask a different question you get a different answer.  I have no idea what the poll would have shown if it had asked the standard independence question, but it's safe to assume that the Yes vote would have been significantly higher than 30%.  And as has already been pointed out on Wings Over Scotland, another question in the same poll found that 34% of the Scottish public have become less supportive of the union in recent years, and only 20% have become more supportive.  That's the only genuine indication offered by the poll of the direction of travel.

You might be wondering about the credibility of the poll's methodology.  It was conducted by Deltapoll, which is an entirely new outfit and as far as I can see is not yet a member of the British Polling Council.  However, it was set up by two extremely well-known people from the polling industry (Martin Boon and Joe Twyman), so it's unlikely to be a Mickey Mouse operation.  Apparently the sample size in Scotland was around 500, which is large enough to be taken seriously - albeit only just.  The margin of error is therefore a little higher than it would be for a poll of 1000 or 2000 people.

The poll has Westminster voting intention numbers, which annoyingly are only presented with the Don't Knows left in, but a rough recalculation gives the following -

SNP 36%
Labour 29%
Conservatives 24%
Liberal Democrats 7%
Greens 3%

Just to reiterate - those figures are only approximate, because they're my own calculation with Don't Knows removed.  Not quite as good for the SNP as some recent full-scale Scottish polls from other firms, but bearing in mind the unusually small sample size, there's certainly no cause for alarm.  Even on these numbers, the SNP would be regaining seats from the Tories.

On the monarchy results, the fact that only 41% of the Scottish public support the monarchy doesn't tell anything like the whole story, because only 28% are actively opposed.  Nevertheless, it would have been unthinkable a few decades ago for the hostile and the uncommitted to have a majority between them, so perhaps the establishment should be a tad concerned.  In view of the other results, no-one can really say that the poll was distorted by having too many Nats in the sample!

Last but not least, the poll found that 54% of respondents regard themselves as primarily or wholly Scottish.  Only 14% regard themselves as primarily or wholly British.  31% feel that they are equally Scottish and British.  That's pretty much in line with what the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has been showing of late.  It remains the case that the independence campaign could win a majority if they persuade people to remove the word "but" from the sentence "I feel Scottish, but..."

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Twitter poll suggests a virtual three-way tie in the SNP depute leadership contest

Just out of curiosity, I decided to run a poll on Twitter yesterday to see how people were planning to vote in the SNP depute leadership election (or how they had already voted).  I genuinely had no idea what to expect, and the final results are pretty remarkable.  With 661 votes cast, there is virtual deadlock between the three candidates, who all have a percentage share in the 30s and are all within 6% of each other.

Now, I'll be honest and say I don't know how much should be read into this.  Obviously a social media poll is a long, long, long way from being scientifically rigorous, because participation is completely self-selecting.  On the plus side, though, Twitter does restrict people to one vote per account, which means the result should at least be properly representative of the views of those who actually took part (ie. it hasn't been significantly distorted by individuals casting multiple votes).

It may be that people who follow me on Twitter are disproportionately likely to be pro-McEleny (and maybe even pro-Hepburn), in which case the poll might be underestimating Keith Brown's true support - although bear in mind that the poll was retweeted by 70 people, which hopefully should have given it a wider reach among supporters of all candidates.  It's also conceivable that social media polls in general are likely to exclude small 'c' conservative members of the SNP, who again might be more inclined to vote for Keith Brown.  However, I still think the poll is a useful exercise, because if the actual result bears no resemblance to the poll result, at least we'll know in future that the balance of opinion on social media is not a reliable guide to the views of the wider membership.

For what it's worth, though, if the actual result is similar to the poll, it seems likely that Julie Hepburn would be declared the winner after second preferences are distributed.  I would imagine that many Chris McEleny voters have done the same thing as me and given their second preference to Hepburn.  If Keith Brown does top the first preference vote, he's going to need a much more substantial lead to be confident of holding on for the win - and that may be true regardless of whether Hepburn or McEleny is his opponent in the second count.

At the very least we can say that there is considerable uncertainty over who is going to become depute leader, and that on the basis of the very limited information that currently exists, it would be foolish to dismiss the chances of any of the three candidates.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The case for Chris McEleny

As you probably know, voting is now open in the SNP depute leadership election, and if you're part of the 2%+ of the entire population of Scotland that are members of the SNP, you have until 8th June to cast your vote.  I'm proud to have just cast my own first preference vote for Chris McEleny.  Whatever happens from here, it's reasonable to state that Mr McEleny's presence in the contest has had a positive impact - his forthright statement that an independence referendum should be held within the next eighteen months has prodded the other two candidates to go further on the referendum issue than perhaps they otherwise would have done.  Julie Hepburn has now said absolutely explicitly that the mandate for a pre-2021 referendum should be used, and while Keith Brown is still the most cautious of the three candidates, he has acknowledged at least the possibility of a referendum taking place in as little as twelve months.  So it's no longer the case that a vote for Keith Brown is specifically a vote against an early referendum - but it still troubles me greatly that Mr Brown hasn't (as far as I'm aware) completely excluded the possibility of letting the pre-2021 mandate expire.  I think it's fair to say that a vote for Chris McEleny is still by some distance the most emphatic way to vote in favour of an early referendum.  There are no ifs, buts, maybes or get-out clauses in his pitch, and the message that the membership will be sending if he wins this contest will be absolutely unmistakeable.

Apart from his distinctive stance on referendum timing, Mr McEleny has prioritised the value of local government and community politics.  But one other thing that has appealed to me is the directness of his language about the failure of the mainstream media to cover Scottish politics impartially.  There's a well-meaning but misguided tendency among some senior SNP people to say that we must never blame the media for the 2014 referendum result, because the real failure lay with ourselves for not getting the message across effectively.  In other words, victory in the future will depend only on an improvement within ourselves, not on an improvement in external players such as the media.  That always sounds like a mantra lifted straight from a self-help book, and it has the enormous shortcoming of not actually being true - or at least of not being the whole truth.  Of course the media are horrendously biased against independence, and of course that was one factor in the narrow defeat in 2014, and of course we should be demanding better - especially from the broadcast media, which is theoretically obliged by law to be impartial in its coverage.

I'll make no bones about it - if Chris McEleny doesn't win, I hope Julie Hepburn does, and I've given her my second preference vote without any hesitation.  This has the feel of a contest that could be a lot closer than was initially anticipated.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Is Sarah Smith auditioning (again) to become Scottish Tory press officer?

As you probably know by now, the Scottish Parliament voted at 5pm today to deny legislative consent for Westminster's EU Withdrawal Bill, and did so by a thumping 93 to 30 margin.  It would be an unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention for the UK government to proceed without consent, but that is apparently what they are minded to do.  So we're now into uncharted waters twice over - not only are we heading towards the first clear breach of the Sewel Convention, but we're also awaiting a date in the Supreme Court as the UK government makes its first ever attempt to have legislation of the elected Scottish Parliament struck down by judges.

It's probably fair to say that you wouldn't quite have a full appreciation of the significance of these events if you've been relying on the "analysis" of the BBC's Scotland Editor Sarah Smith, which has been embedded into the main online BBC article on the subject.  According to her, this won't actually be the first overruling of the Scottish Parliament by Westminster - it supposedly happened last year when Theresa May said no to an independence referendum, and nobody cared then, and nobody will care now.

Just a few snags with that -

1) It's a fictionalised version of what happened last year.  Nobody has a clue whether Theresa May would have got away with saying "no" to an independence referendum, because she didn't say "no" to a request that was actually pressed.  She was given respite by Nicola Sturgeon's voluntary decision to put the request on hold for a year or so.  The day of reckoning is yet to come, but perhaps isn't too far off.

2) It's an utterly bogus and irrelevant comparison anyway.  It is not within the devolved competence of Holyrood to require Westminster to pass a Section 30 order, so the "now is not the time" schtick (as outrageous and undemocratic as it was) did not represent a breach of the Sewel Convention or of the devolution settlement.  The current plans to transfer powers from Edinburgh back to London without consent most certainly do.

3) How dare a BBC editor tell her viewers what they care about and what they don't care about?  That's pure propaganda, and is exactly the sort of thing a Tory spin doctor would say - "the people of Scotland don't care about this, they want Nicola Sturgeon to get on with the day job, etc, etc".  By contrast, and not unreasonably, the SNP line is that of course the people of Scotland care about protecting the devolution settlement they voted for so emphatically in the referendum of 1997.  What business is it of a BBC editor to adjudicate for herself, on the basis of no supporting evidence that I'm aware of, that the Tory spin is factual and the SNP perspective is not?  (Especially given that any alleged public apathy has been cultivated by the BBC burying its own coverage of the power-grab wherever humanly possible.)

It's particularly ironic to recall that Sarah Smith is the daughter of the late John Smith - the man who popularised the view that devolution is the "settled will" of the Scottish people.  I wonder what he would have made of his daughter's notion that people don't actually care about their own settled will.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Have the Sunday Herald built bridges after last week's misjudgements? (Spoiler: No, they've doubled down by going Full Leask with a disgraceful front page attack on Alex Salmond.)

You might remember a while back that CommonSpace took a brief financial hit after running an attack piece about Wings Over Scotland that had a particularly ill-judged and highly provocative headline.  Robin McAlpine very deftly rescued the situation a few days later with an article that didn't really acknowledge that CommonSpace was responsible for its own mistake, but that nevertheless struck a sufficiently conciliatory tone that by all accounts a lot of cancelled subscriptions were swiftly renewed.  The Sunday Herald has found itself in a very similar pickle in recent days after a number of missteps in last week's edition that disappointed many loyal readers, and infuriated others.

Most obviously, there was the front page photo from the pro-independence march in Glasgow that gave the completely distorted impression that those on the march waving saltires and the Union Jack-wielding counter-protestors were roughly equal in numbers.  (The reality was that there were tens of thousands of the former and only a couple of dozen of the latter.)  An obvious defence is that it was simply a very striking and thus publication-worthy image, but that doesn't really wash, because it was used to complement coverage in text that was similarly distorted, ie. that gave the impression that the only real significance of the march was that it had caused 'division' and brought about an 'ugly' stand-off.

Eyebrows were also raised at an apparent new editorial line that Nicola Sturgeon should 'prioritise' a UK-wide re-run of the EU referendum (one that might well see Scotland outvoted yet again) over a second independence referendum.  From a journalistic point of view there's nothing wrong with that new stance, but when you've built up a loyal readership on the specific basis that you are a pro-independence paper, you shouldn't really be surprised that those readers feel there has been a breach of trust if you start actively undermining the campaign for independence.  If a paper's collective views on self-determination and the constitution have 'evolved', that's fine, but probably the best thing to do is be up-front and honest about it, and allow readers to decide whether the time has come to look for a new 'home'.  Claiming earnestly to still be pro-independence while simultaneously pushing a blatantly indy-sceptic news agenda is only going to lead to confusion and resentment.

You might have thought that the Sunday Herald would have reflected on the damage done last week, and would be in full-on bridge-building mode this week.  That they would have followed the wise example of Robin McAlpine by making moves to reassure disgruntled readers that nothing had changed and that we're all still on the same side.  But not a bit of it.  Instead, they've doubled down with a front page that sends an unmistakeable message that a great deal has changed.  It contains what I can only describe as a despicable attack on Alex Salmond that in none-too-subtle fashion pursues the barking mad "the Russians are everywhere!" agenda of Mr David Leask from the paper's anti-independence daily sister publication.  Leask of course always strenuously denies that his weird obsession with smearing Salmond represents in any sense a grudge against the SNP or against the pro-independence movement, but to hold that line he's had to draw a wildly implausible distinction between a so-called "real" or "mainstream" SNP that has supposedly disowned Salmond (have you noticed anyone actually doing that?) and the "Trumpist" or "Putin stooge" interlopers led by Salmond himself.  As I've noted before, it's a bit of a stretch to ask people to accept that a politician who was leader of the SNP until only three-and-a-half years ago, who indeed has been leader of the SNP for roughly one-quarter of the party's entire existence, and who led the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, is somehow not "real" SNP.  In fact, the question might reasonably be asked: if Alex Salmond of all people is not "real" SNP, then who the hell is? We haven't heard a credible answer to that question from Leask or the Herald so far.  Perhaps the Sunday Herald can come up with one now that they appear to be foolishly going down the same path.

I know that defenders of the front page story will point out that the Sunday Herald can't be expected to let its pro-independence views get in the way of reporting the news.  But the snag is that the comments of Mr Litvinenko's widow about Alex Salmond are not a news story that has just spontaneously appeared out of thin air.  She presumably didn't ring up the Sunday Herald offices and say "I've just got to get this off my chest, guys".  They sought her out and solicited a view from her about a subject that she might well not have given much thought to otherwise.  It's a piece of "news" that has been artificially generated by the Sunday Herald completely from scratch.  They knew exactly what they were doing, and all I can say is this: if for whatever reason you're out to "get" Alex Salmond, you might as well own what you're doing, because people can see straight through you anyway.

We're told that the editor of the Sunday Herald has responded to the criticisms of last week's paper in a special article.  I can't find it online yet, but judging by David Leask's excitement it looks set to be quite a belligerent response of a "the problem is the readers, not the journalism" variety.  It's precisely that kind of attitude that is killing the traditional media.  Sooner or later journalists are going to have to comes to terms with the fact that the days of a passive audience that never answers back, and that doesn't have anywhere else to go, are long over.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Eurovision 2018: Prediction for Saturday's grand final

So I got a slightly patchier 7 out of 10 qualifiers right on Thursday.  The three I didn't pick out were the Netherlands, Serbia and Slovenia.  Country music isn't really my thing (as I discovered conclusively on a hellish trip to Millport circa 1995), so that's probably why I underestimated the Netherlands' chances, but I can see why they went through.  I'm delighted to have been wrong about Serbia, which sent an uncompromising piece of ethnic music in the Serbian language and deservedly didn't pay any sort of penalty.  I must say I have absolutely no idea how Slovenia managed to get through, but I suppose there always has to be one that leaves you scratching your head.  I know some people will shrug their shoulders and say "that's the Balkan bloc vote for you", but in fact Slovenia has traditionally benefited much less from neighbourly voting than the other ex-Yugoslav nations.

On to tonight, then.  Until a few days ago, it looked like this year's contest was going to be a simple case of working out whether the overwhelming favourites (Israel) would meet expectations, or would spectacularly fail on the night as quite a few overwhelming favourites have done in the past.  But, remarkably, Israel do not even go into tonight's final as favourites, because they were dramatically overtaken by Cyprus as the rehearsal videos started to filter through.  A couple of days ago, the betting odds seemed to be pointing towards a straight fight between Cyprus and Israel with everyone else as also-rans, but then Ireland stormed out of nowhere into a decent third place.

I'm not sure I can make much sense of all that.  I agree that Cyprus is a much more plausible winner than Israel, but it's just one of several strong songs/performances that are all roughly on a par with each other, so I can't understand why it's in quite such a commanding position in the betting.  My guess is that the Irish surge is due to a couple of factors - a) the favourable position in the draw, and b) the publicity over a Chinese TV station being banned from broadcasting Eurovision because they censored two men dancing together as part of the staging of the Irish song.  In other words, people seem to be putting their money on the story behind the song, rather than the song itself.  That can sometimes be a dangerous thing to do - if a story is enough, why didn't Bosnia come close to winning in 1993?

What I've just said makes it sound like I don't rate the Irish song.  In fact, the opposite is true - it's one of my personal favourites, and it's beautifully sung.  I just fear that it's too low-key to do much damage.  Just occasionally, very gentle songs can stand out so effectively among all the identikit screeching that they win by a mile - last year's Portuguese winner is an excellent example, of course, as is Ireland's own victory in 1994 with Rock'n'Roll Kids.  But for what it's worth, my gut feeling is that it probably won't happen this time.

My suspicion is that Cyprus will be in the mix tonight, but that their main competitors will not be Israel and Ireland, but Norway and Sweden.  I struggle to separate Cyprus, Norway and Sweden, but I think Norway (in spite of having the most irritatingly catchy song of the evening) is perhaps the least likely of the three to win if only because of its place in the draw.  Probably just as well, because the mind boggles as to how insufferable Alexander Rybak would become if he has anything more to be smug about.  Cyprus v Sweden is almost a coin-toss as far as I'm concerned, but I'll cop out and go with the conventional wisdom that Cyprus will win.  I expect it to be a close one, though.

Here's my full prediction -

Winners: Cyprus (Fuego - Eleni Foureira)
2nd: Sweden (Dance You Off - Benjamin Ingrosso)
3rd: Norway (That's How You Write A Song - Alexander Rybak)
4th: Estonia (La Forza - Elina Nechayeva)
5th: France (Mercy - Madame Monsieur)

Possible dark horses: Austria, Australia

UPDATE (7.20pm): Of course, another potential explanation for the sudden Irish surge in the betting is that the full results of Tuesday's semi-final (which are supposed to be absolutely secret until the end of the contest) might have been leaked.  Unlikely, but possible.  If so, it could be Dublin next year.

Friday, May 11, 2018

How does the SNP's near-total exclusion from BBC Question Time compare to the treatment of the Liberal Democrats when they were the UK's third party?

There's an indisputable fact of political arithmetic that our broadcasters need to be urgently reacquainted with.  The SNP are not only the third largest party in the elected chamber of the UK Parliament, they're also an unusually strong third party by historical standards.  They have 35 seats at present.  Compare that to the Liberal Party, which was of course the third party for almost all of the period from the end of the Second World War until they were merged out of existence in March 1988.  During those four-and-a-bit decades, the Liberals never won more than 17 seats in a general election - less than half of the SNP's current tally.  Things didn't improve much for the new Liberal Democrat party in the immediate period after the merger with the SDP - they started with 19 seats, and only won 20 in the 1992 general election.  They didn't make a significant breakthrough until 1997, when with the help of massive anti-Tory tactical voting they won 46 seats - although even that wasn't dramatically better than what the SNP currently have.

It's true that there was a very brief spell between 1981 and 1983, when - simply because of defections from Labour to the SDP - it can be argued that the third force in British politics was slightly stronger in parliamentary terms than the SNP are now.  But in the 1983 election, the vast majority of the defectors lost their seats, and the Liberal-SDP Alliance fell back to a combined total of just 23.  That means for fifty of the fifty-two years between 1945 and 1997, the third-largest force in the Commons had fewer seats than the 35 held by the SNP at the moment.

The BBC's Question Time programme has been running since 1979, so it covered the last eighteen of those fifty-two years.  Here's the obvious question: how did the show treat the Liberals, the Liberal-SDP Alliance and the Liberal Democrats during the period between 1979 and 1997?  Answer: much, much, much, much more favourably than it currently treats the SNP.  It's true that there wasn't a Liberal representative on the panel every single week, but there was certainly one on the majority of occasions, and there were long spells where the absence of a Liberal was an exception rather than the norm.   To take a random example, let's look at the spring of 1994 - a time when the Liberal Democrats had just 22 seats in the Commons.  On 24th March, Liz Lynne was on Question Time.  In the next edition on 14th April, Shirley Williams was on.  The following week on 21st April, David Alton was on.  The week after that on 28th April, Charles Kennedy was on.  The next edition was on 12th May, and Menzies Campbell was on the panel.  And on and on it went.

By contrast, and despite their 35 seats, the SNP have been included in just TWO of the last TWENTY-TWO editions of the programme.  This is in spite of the fact that there are now five spots on the panel every week, rather than the old standard of four.  There's actually space for more plurality than there was in the 1980s and 1990s, and yet somehow we end up with less because there simply must be a comedian, journalist or "broadcaster" on the panel, instead of the UK's third-largest political party.

What the BBC are doing is so blatant, it's almost getting to the point of being funny.  Almost.  How can they possibly justify such an extreme disparity between their current treatment of the SNP, and their treatment of former third parties?  They would probably pray in aid the fact that the SNP has a smaller share of the UK popular vote than the Lib Dems did in the early-to-mid 90s.  But nevertheless we have the electoral system we do, and you can't just pick and choose when it suits you to acknowledge the result that the system has actually produced.  Broadcasters are expected to have regard for both the popular vote and a party's strength in terms of elected representatives.  That being the case, if the Lib Dems were on Question Time almost every week when they had 20-odd seats, the most natural compromise would now see the SNP appearing in roughly half of all episodes.  Not one episode in every eleven.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Eurovision 2018: Prediction for Thursday's second semi-final

So I correctly picked eight out of the ten qualifiers in the first semi.  The two I overlooked were Austria and Ireland, which is really odd, because those are genuinely two of my personal favourites.  I should have had more faith, but I thought the Irish song would suffer from being low-key, and with Austria I don't think I got a full sense from the rehearsal videos of just how effective the staging was.  The live vocal was superb as well.  I still don't think Ireland will do any damage in the grand final, but Austria just might.

As for tonight, here are the ten countries I think will make it through -


Russia is my 'wildcard' pick out of that lot.  Most people expect it to fall short, and it may well do...but Russia are the kings of political voting, and political voting at the Eurovision most certainly isn't dead.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Eurovision 2018: Prediction for Tuesday's first semi-final

Yes, it's that time of the year again, and with non-heartfelt apologies to the handful of people who traditionally storm off in disgust at this point, here is the eleventh (gasp!) running of the annual ritual of the Scot Goes Pop Eurovision prediction.  As David Dimbleby used to say about the BBC exit poll, it's sometimes accurate...sometimes not so accurate.  2010 was my golden year when I got almost everything right, although I've correctly picked the winner for five of the last ten years.  Sometimes that was relatively easy because there's often an overwhelming favourite, but I've noticed over the years that overwhelming favourites for the Eurovision tend to go one of two ways - they either win by a landslide as expected, or they crash and burn and don't even get close to winning.  In a sense, the latter is what happened to last year's Italian song Occidentali's Karma (although admittedly by that point it had been caught in the late betting by Portugal).

This year, as you may know, there's once again been an overwhelming favourite over the last few weeks in the shape of Israel.  I must say I have my doubts about whether it will win, although I'd better be cautious in case my own personal tastes are interfering with my judgement.  But I have a suspicion that the juries won't go for it, and that it may even be a bit too 'challenging' for a lot of televoters.  [UPDATE: And I see in an echo of last year that Israel has just been unexpectedly displaced as bookies' favourite by Cyprus.]

I don't think Israel will have any great problem qualifying from tonight's semi, though.  In no particular order, here are the ten countries I think will make it through...

Czech Republic

Of those, the one I'm least sure of is Greece - although with Cyprus in the same semi, there's a guarantee of points from at least one source!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Saturday's march in pictures

I know you've already seen hundreds of these over the last 48 hours, but just for the hell of it, here's how Saturday's march looked from my vantage-point(s).  One thing I enjoyed about it was the chance to see Glasgow with fresh eyes - although I'd been on almost all of the streets before, they somehow knit together differently when you take an unfamiliar route.  You also have more time to look around you and take it all in when you're walking right down the middle of the road very slowly.

As you can see, I was sporting some designer stubble and a hangover for the occasion.  (NB: Not really a hangover - just lack of sleep.  11.30am on a Saturday, guys?  What were you trying to do - finish us off for good?)

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Does the Sunday Herald really think the SNP should campaign to let another country decide our constitutional future again?

Naming no names, but it's been bitterly disappointing to see a small number of people on the pro-indy side making negative comments about yesterday's historic march.  Here's what I don't understand: I can see the logic (albeit I don't necessarily agree with it) of avoiding marches during election campaign periods when there's canvassing work to be done.  I can see the logic (albeit I don't necessarily agree with it) of saying there were dangers attached to the protest outside the BBC just before the 2014 referendum.  But what exactly was the problem with yesterday?  There is no election on the immediate horizon, and the march was simply making the positive case for independence.  It created visibility, excitement (lots of passers-by stopped to take photos) and a sense of momentum.  I can't see any downside, unless you're seriously worrying about the annoyance factor of a few minutes of traffic delays on a Saturday afternoon, which is getting into the realms of the ridiculous in a country that is well-used to coping with the minor disruption caused by Orange walks.

I'd have to conclude that the negativity in some quarters boils down to a cringe factor - a feeling that the pro-independence movement, uniquely among the political movements of the world, can only succeed by apologising for its existence and getting back into its box in case anyone finds the sight of it too irritating.  Good luck in trying to win people over to a massive constitutional change in that manner.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Herald seems to think the only significance of the march is that a couple of dozen Union Jack-waving counter-protestors turned up to shout at the tens of thousands of pro-indy marchers.  You'd be tempted to conclude that anyone could sabotage a march or rally of absolutely any size by just rounding up a handful of mates - although in practice I doubt if you'd get the same publicity for your stunt if the march or rally was about any other subject.  This appears to be an indy-specific phenomenon.

Despite being a pro-independence paper, the Sunday Herald are also now taking an official editorial position that Nicola Sturgeon should change policy and campaign for a second UK-wide referendum on EU membership.  As Dr Philippa Whitford pointed out, it would be a bit odd for the SNP to do that unless there was the slightest prospect of Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreeing to a referendum in which a 'double mandate' is required - meaning departure from the EU couldn't happen unless Scotland itself voted Leave.  Without that safeguard (and it's clearly a non-starter as far as the unionist parties are concerned), the SNP would be backing a referendum that would deny this country its right to self-determination, and thus breach the party's raison d'etre.  It's completely unthinkable.  And in any case, even with the SNP's support, a second EU vote still wouldn't happen anyway because of the realities of parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster.  The SNP would effectively be sending a message to the public that "we don't really need an independence referendum, because there's another way of staying in the EU", when we all know perfectly well that isn't true, and that an independence referendum is the only available way to preserve EU membership (or indeed even single market membership).  Why on earth would we try to sabotage our own lifeboat?

I would also note that it's rather disingenuous for the Sunday Herald editorial to claim that they're not asking Ms Sturgeon to make a choice between a second indyref and a second EU referendum, given that the thrust of Paul Hutcheon's front page piece is that the latter has to be "prioritised" over the former.  This, let's face it, is a newspaper that now seems to want the push for independence to be put firmly on the backburner to make way for an utterly doomed UK-wide campaign to cancel Brexit.  I hope (and this time am reasonably confident) that the SNP leadership will give short shrift to that idea.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Jeremy Corbyn is now jointly responsible for the destruction of the devolution settlement

I've been trying to make sense of what happened in the House of Lords on Wednesday without putting myself through the torture of reading every single word of the debate in Hansard.  Having done a skim-read, it looks like the story of the session was of government amendments on the power-grab being passed on the nod, while non-government amendments that would have made the Bill more reconcilable with the devolution settlement were withdrawn without even being put to a vote.  That probably happened partly because no-one outside the SNP (who aren't represented in the Lords) is truly passionate about protecting devolution, and also because the UK government fobbed off the proposers of the amendments with the vague possibility that changes might still be made at Third Reading after further negotiations.  I'm not an expert on parliamentary procedure, but a Google search reveals that amendments can indeed be made at Third Reading in the Lords, although in practice any such changes tend not to be substantive.

Here's the thing: at the start of the week, Richard Leonard made clear that the 'deal' on offer wasn't good enough and that the UK government would have to compromise further.  So why on earth did Labour roll over in the Lords just two days later and effectively remove the last remaining obstacle (other than the Supreme Court) to the government imposing the existing 'deal' without Holyrood's consent?  Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them outnumber the Tories in the Lords, so if the will had been there to defeat the government and strengthen Nicola Sturgeon's negotiating hand, that's probably what would have happened.  Unless you truly believe that some heroic stand is suddenly going to be made at Third Reading, it's clear enough that the Labour leadership has put a directive out that the power-grab is to be enabled, not resisted.  That means in the worst-case scenario, if the Continuity Bill is struck down by judges, Jeremy Corbyn will be the co-author along with Theresa May of a substantial reduction in the Scottish Parliament's powers.  He shouldn't be allowed to conceal his responsibility for the decision he's made. 

The House of Lords is also collectively culpable as an institution.  We hear so much about how the Lords is "an anachronism that works" and how it functions counterintuitively as a guarantor of democracy.  But that all depends on the strict adherence to conventions, without which the unwritten constitution would start to fall apart.  Over the decades, the Salisbury Convention (requiring that the Lords must allow any manifesto commitment of the elected government to pass) has been more or less religiously followed.  Why, then, are the Lords allowing a coach and horses to be driven through the equally important Sewel Convention, without which the devolution settlement is rendered a sham?  If you're conceited enough to think you're an unelected custodian of the constitution, you can't arbitrarily pick and choose which parts of the constitution you think are worth the bother of upholding.  Or if you do, you should expect unsettling consequences to flow.

*  *  *

From what I've written above you can see that I hold no brief for Labour, but my eyes still rolled to the heavens a number of times overnight at Laura Kuenssberg's transparent attempts to get a "disaster for Labour in the local elections" narrative to take root.  John McDonnell made a fairly unanswerable point at the start of the results programme - he reminded everyone that Labour took just 27% of the vote in the local elections last May, but then 40% in the general election only one month later, which should have been utterly impossible if the conventional wisdom was to be believed.  But that reality-check didn't deter Ms Kuenssberg from breathlessly telling us throughout the night that Labour's performance was falling well short of what is supposedly "needed" to put the party on course for a general election victory.  Question: if a 27% showing in May 2017 didn't preclude Labour from coming very close to victory in June 2017, why on earth would a mid-30s showing in May 2018 prevent Labour from winning an election that might still be two, three or four years away?

The reality is that the Corbyn surge at the general election was dependent on demographic groups that are less likely to turn out in local elections.  The polarisation of public opinion on Brexit is perhaps also undermining the usual phenomenon of casual protest voting for opposition parties in mid-term elections.  It's no longer the case that you can automatically say "Labour need to be twelve points ahead now if they want to win the general election by four."  It may actually be that people voted yesterday in a very similar way to how they would have voted if they were electing a government.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Whatever happened to Scotland's "second government"?

The Twitter account of Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson is generally of most use if for some reason you enjoy being trolled on a slow-burn setting, but in fairness he came up with something genuinely intriguing and surprising today.  It appears that the Scotland Office has been quietly renamed as "the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland", and its Edinburgh base is not even using that name - it's now just calling itself "the UK government".  The message appears to be that the former Scotland Office isn't so much a government department, but rather the UK government's "embassy" in Edinburgh.  That seems a distinctly odd way of selling the notion that we're all one big happy family and that London is in no sense the capital of a different country.

Under David Cameron the schtick used to be that "Scotland has two governments", and continuing to brand the UK government's presence in Edinburgh with the word "Scotland" seemed the ideal way of underlining that point.  But I suspect Theresa May's hardline British nationalism is getting in the way of strategic good sense here.  Everything British must be uniformly British with a Union Jack on it, and if that creates a Scottish backlash there's always "now is not the time" and "non-consent is consent" to fall back on.  The lack of a public announcement of the name change (which would generally be expected) is a strong clue that officials or ministers at some level understood that the whole thing wasn't really such a wizard idea.

Judging from the revision history of the relevant Wikipedia article, it looks like someone first spotted the change in early January of this year.  Before that, the department name was given as "the Scotland Office", and afterwards as "the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, informally known as the Scotland Office".

I do hope someone is going to ask the Prime Minister how much the pointless rebranding has cost hard-working families up and down this precious united country.

Scot Goes Pop is 10 years old today!

I'm not quite sure whether I should be excited or terrified about this milestone, but there's no point denying it - the calendar doesn't lie.  It all started on 3rd May 2008 with this post about Plaid Cymru's impressive (but under-reported) gains in the Welsh local elections, and Boris Johnson ousting Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London.  If memory serves me right, the blog was read by literally only three or four people on the first day, and I had to actively promote it just to get that far.

By complete chance I had a huge political story to get my teeth into a couple of days later, when Wendy Alexander (then Scottish Labour leader) started hinting that Labour was about to make an unanticipated U-turn by supporting an independence referendum.  What unfolded from there is one of the most dramatic, but strangely also one of the least-remembered, episodes in recent Scottish political history.  If Ms Alexander hadn't been ousted as leader a few months later, the likelihood is that the first independence referendum would have taken place in 2010 rather than 2014, and would effectively have been jointly sponsored by the SNP and Labour.  We can only speculate as to how differently things might have turned out as a result.

All the same, being a Eurovision fan, the vast bulk of my blogging for the remainder of May 2008 was non-political and was instead dedicated to the upcoming song contest in Belgrade.  The blog was basically a diary for my own benefit - practically nobody was reading it, although I was excited to get a sudden spike of search engine traffic on Eurovision weekend itself.  I can't remember if it was the Saturday or Sunday, but on one or other of those days I hit the giddy heights of 71 unique visitors - which for two or three years afterwards I regarded as the benchmark for an exceptionally successful day.

I abandoned the blog for the time being at the end of the 2008 Eurovision season - it was too time-consuming, and I couldn't quite work out why I was even bothering with it.  But at the start of 2009, the commissioning of Andrew Lloyd-Webber to write the UK's Eurovision entry caught my imagination, and I felt the sudden urge to start writing again.  So Scot Goes Pop was revived as an essentially Eurovision blog, with just the occasional political post chucked in here or there.  But strangely enough it was the political posts that started attracting comments (I think this was the first one to be published), and that was probably the biggest factor in the blog eventually becoming politics first, Eurovision second.

The ten year history of Scot Goes Pop can basically be split into two distinct halves, with a short transition in between.  There was the period up to early 2013 when the daily audience was typically in the dozens or at most the hundreds, and the period since 2014 which has seen thousands of unique readers per day, and tens of thousands per month.  There's no magical secret to how the transformation from obscure personal blog to leading alternative media site occurred - it was simply down to the chance factor of the independence referendum, and the fact that people were suddenly looking for something (hard polling information without the customary unionist spin) that only Scot Goes Pop seemed to be providing.  I wasn't doing anything different to before, and the spontaneous change required quite a tricky mental adjustment.  I had to get used to the fact that if I said something that was a bit too close to the bone for some people, it was likely to get a strong reaction, whereas in the past nobody would have noticed or given a monkey's.

At present, if the website Traffic Estimate is to be believed, Scot Goes Pop is the fifth most-read alternative media site in Scotland, with approximately 80,400 unique visits in the last thirty days.  That places it only just behind CommonSpace (a site that enjoys far more free exposure in the mainstream media) which is in fourth place with 84,500 unique visits.  Indeed, for several consecutive weeks earlier this year, Scot Goes Pop was estimated to be slightly ahead of CommonSpace.  Quite a contrast from the days when I considered myself freakishly lucky to get 71 visitors on a Eurovision weekend!

Would I recommend this blogging lark to others?  Well, put it this way.  As a direct result of writing Scot Goes Pop, I've been interviewed on TV four times, and on radio twice.  I've written more than ten articles for The National newspaper.  I've been a columnist for the International Business Times, the TalkRadio website, and iScot magazine.  I've addressed a rally outside the Scottish Parliament.  I've participated in a theatre show (of sorts).  I've taken part in umpteen short films, podcasts and live-streams - including the blind terror of a 55-minute live debate with Tommy Sheridan.

So think carefully before taking the plunge.  You might imagine you're safe enough when you start out with an audience of two men and a dog.  But you just never quite know what you're letting yourself in for...

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Cost of Caution

What will Scotland's situation be eighteen years from now?  I mean that quite literally - how will things be on Friday, 2nd May 2036, which unless the relevant legislation changes will be the day after the ninth Scottish Parliament election?  My iScot column for this month ponders that very question.  It's an 'alternative future' look at how events may have played out if the SNP leadership heeds the siren voices and allows its current mandate for a pre-2021 referendum to expire.  In that scenario, will Scotland be independent by 2036?  Or will it at least be on the brink of independence?  Surely all that pragmatism and prudence and patience and caution and carefulness and canniness must have paid off handsomely?  Here's a sneak preview: no.

But you can find out for yourself, because the article is available to read on Twitter HERE.  Needless to say, you should still buy the whole magazine - a digital copy can be bought inexpensively HERE.

Oh, and an advance warning: today we're looking ahead exactly eighteen years, but tomorrow we'll be looking back exactly ten years.  More on that in due course...

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

More red faces at Labour propaganda site as "exclusive poll" finds electorate split down the middle on whether independence should be a priority

For the second time in a few short weeks, CommonSpace's very favourite Labour propaganda site "The Red Robin" has come bob-bob-bobbin' along with some dubious coverage of Scottish polling.  In fairness, this time they've jointly commissioned the poll themselves, and they've used a proper BPC pollster so that we can see the datasets.  They may wish they hadn't done that, though, because the datasets reveal that either Survation or the Labour propagandists themselves made a schoolboy howler when framing one of the questions, which asked for views on the coalition SNP-Green government led by Nicola Sturgeon.  Somebody had better let Patrick Harvie know that he's been Deputy First Minister all this time, because I'm fairly sure he's still in the dark about it.

The website claims that the poll shows voters want the Scottish government to prioritise public services over independence.  At best, that's a rather misleading claim, because respondents were never actually presented with that straight choice.  Instead, they were asked separately whether the Scottish government should be prioritising the improvement of public services, and unsurprisingly gave a resounding yes to what is essentially an "Are motherhood and apple pie good things?" question.  When asked if they thought independence should be a priority, they were split roughly down the middle - 36% said yes, and 41% said no, which is more or less a statistical tie once the margin of error is taken into account.  Again, it was always utterly predictable that the result on that question would closely reflect what we already know about public opinion on independence itself - ie. that approximately half are in favour and approximately half are opposed.  What the Labour propagandists think they've proved with the new figures is anyone's guess.

Even more mysterious is what they think they were proving by asking whether respondents would prefer a Labour government or a Conservative government at Westminster.  For what very little it's worth, 60% said they preferred Labour and 40% said the Tories.  That's right up there with the poll that found that 97% agree with the statement that "the Pope is a Catholic" - except of course that 60% is a much lower number than 97%, and is humiliatingly low for a party that once utterly dominated the politics of Scotland.  How far must they have fallen to have reached the stage where 4 in 10 of the population prefer the hated Tories to them?

If the Labour propagandists had got the emphatic result they evidently expected on that question, we'd have been entitled to ask why they didn't ask more salient questions, such as "Do you agree that your preference for Labour over the Tories means you should never vote SNP in a Westminster election?"  But it seems Labour's problems run much deeper than the fact that voters are not returning to the fold from the SNP (or not in sufficient numbers, anyway).

*  *  *

Your cut-out-and-keep guide to what is and is not news (source: the mainstream media) - 

The fact that the UK government want to use Brexit as an excuse for removing powers from the Scottish Parliament: Not News

The fact that the Scottish Tories failed to make good on their promise to use their "influence" to ensure that the EU Withdrawal Bill was amended at the Commons stage to prevent the power-grab: Not News

The fact that the Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly, and on a cross-party basis, to pass an emergency Continuity Bill to protect devolution from the power-grab: Not News

The fact that the Tories, having been soundly defeated on the floor of the Scottish Parliament, are going to the Supreme Court in London in an attempt to have the Continuity Bill struck down: Not News

The fact that the Welsh Government caved in and accepted the power-grab, thus allegedly leaving Nicola Sturgeon "isolated" and "under pressure": HOLD THE FRONT PAGE

The fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats belatedly backed Nicola Sturgeon's decision to continue resisting the power-grab, thus demonstrating she is neither "isolated" nor "under pressure": Not News

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The inconvenient truth the media don't want you to know about: the Scottish government's negotiating position may have just been strengthened

I'm sure by now you've heard the unanimous verdict in the unionist media that the Welsh government's cave-in on the power grab has left Nicola Sturgeon "isolated", "under pressure", etc, etc.  But what the media don't want you to know is that the Welsh decision may actually have significantly strengthened the Scottish Government's negotiating position in one key respect.  Here's how.

Earlier today, a BBC Wales political correspondent appeared on BBC Scotland, and claimed that the Labour government in Wales had made a strategic decision to "bank" the concessions made by the UK government so far, because of the fear that London might not deliver them if a formal agreement wasn't reached.  He added that the Welsh government remained more than happy to "piggyback" on any further concessions secured by the Scottish government.  (If true, this raises the obvious question of why Scottish Labour are sabotaging their Welsh colleagues' strategy by demanding that Nicola Sturgeon should back down.)  I've no idea how much credence to give to the idea that London could have backtracked on the offers they'd already made, but let's assume for the sake of argument that there was something in it.  Now that there is a formal agreement between London and Cardiff, the concessions made until now are to all intents and purposes locked in as far as Scotland is concerned as well.  It would be politically inconceivable for the UK government to grab more power from the Scottish Parliament than from the Welsh Assembly.  What that means is that Nicola Sturgeon now has much less to lose from the rest of the negotiations than she previously did.  If the UK government fail to offer anything more of substance, she can afford to stand her ground on the Continuity Bill safe in the knowledge that, even in the worst-case scenario of the Supreme Court striking the Bill down outright, the deal announced with Wales would still be the minimum that would have to be delivered in Scotland.  There is no real option for London to row back on that.

In snooker parlance, Nicola Sturgeon suddenly has the luxury of a 'shot to nothing'.  Not too shabby for someone who is supposedly "isolated" and "under pressure".

Monday, April 23, 2018

How a vote to stay in the customs union could trigger another snap general election

As I've noted a number of times before, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has an uncanny habit of making political predictions that either prove correct, or that prove a hell of a lot closer to being correct than the conventional wisdom of the moment.  For example, although he wrongly predicted a Conservative majority at last year's general election, he nevertheless stuck his neck out and said that the Corbyn surge being picked up by the polls was real, at a time when most commentators were absolutely convinced it wasn't.

That said, I'm extremely unsure about the logic that has led him to conclude today that Theresa May can't use the threat of Corbyn as Prime Minister to bring Tory rebels into line, and that she will therefore probably be forced into making a U-turn on remaining in the EU customs union.  Basically Bush makes the point that under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister can't designate a vote on the customs union as a vote of confidence in the government.  So Remainer rebels would know that even if that vote was lost, and even if Theresa May felt compelled to resign as a result, the most likely outcome would be a Tory Brexiteer such as Michael Gove becoming PM, rather than Jeremy Corbyn.  And then the new Brexiteer PM would have his hands tied by the pro-customs union arithmetic in the Commons anyway.

I think what this ignores is that staying in the customs union would cross enough of a red line for anti-European Tory MPs that they might actually prefer taking their chances with a snap general election, in the hope of getting a rebel-proof Tory majority that could overturn what had been decided.  So if Gove or Boris Johnson stood in a leadership contest, they could find themselves under tremendous pressure to indicate that they will call an election in short order.  And as we learned last year, if a Tory PM asks parliament to approve an early general election, the Labour opposition does not say no.  What that means in the first instance is that pro-European Tories will know that rebelling on the customs union might lead to a general election that would carry not one but two possible risks - a) that Corbyn might win, or b) that the parliamentary arithmetic might become much more favourable for a Hard Brexit than is currently the case.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sorry, Mr Wishart, but you are factually wrong: there is no "indy-gap"

So, with a certain amount of weariness, I've taken a look at Pete Wishart's latest 'contribution to the debate' on the timing of a second independence referendum (at least this time it's not a phoney 'right of reply').  First things first: let's deal with the outright inaccuracy which essentially proves that Pete hasn't been bothering to properly read the many responses to his previous articles.  As I and others have pointed out to him again and again and again, his notion that there is a so-called 'indy-gap' (meaning that there is supposedly far less support for the holding of an early referendum that there is for independence itself) is simply not borne out by the evidence.  Both of the two most recent polls, from Ipsos-Mori and Panelbase respectively, have shown that support for an early referendum is essentially identical to support for independence.  But Pete isn't letting the evidence get in the way of his mythologising, and yesterday doubled down by ludicrously claiming that: "Optimal conditions are not when a significant gap exists between support for independence and support for an ‘early’ independence referendum. Every test of public opinion has shown that this gap is real..."

Every test?  What?  If the two most recent opinion polls on independence do not qualify as 'tests of public opinion', what the hell is he even talking about?  Pete can't be allowed to get away with this false claim indefinitely - he's been proved factually wrong on the 'indy-gap' point, and as the old saying goes, he's entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts.

The alarm bells in the cynical part of my brain were ringing when I saw that Pete had started his post by noting that it was a good thing that the SNP depute leadership contest looked set to be dominated by the issue of indyref timing.  Pete of course pondered the idea of standing himself for depute on a "delay" platform, but decided against it because he didn't have enough support to mount a credible challenge.  I do hope that he isn't now planning to misrepresent a hypothetical victory for Keith Brown as an endorsement of "delay".  It's true that Mr Brown had until recently come across as the most sceptical of the three candidates about an early indyref, but he was always a long way from Pete's position of actively campaigning for the current mandate to be allowed to expire.  Personally, I'll be voting for Chris McEleny because I want to give the most emphatic thumbs-up possible to an early referendum, but regardless of which candidate wins, there will be no endorsement of the Wishart position.  I believe the Wishart position is essentially an unelectable one, and I also believe that Pete clearly acknowledged that fact by pulling out of the race.  You can't stand aside because of lack of support and then still claim a proxy victory later on.

In the second paragraph of his post, Pete says this: "We are so close to securing our historic objective that to throw away a victory that we’ve so patiently and constructively worked for over the decades through impatience would be the worst type of defeat." Would that really be the worst type of defeat?  What about if we opt not to use our mandate for a referendum, and then fail to secure another mandate for another twenty years?  (Twenty years is, after all, a mere four elections, and given the way the Additional Member System works, it's far from implausible that the pro-indy parties in combination could repeatedly fall just short of the magic number of 65 seats, even if the SNP itself remains relatively popular and manages to stay in minority government.)  And what if over that interminable period, there are prolonged spells where the polls make obvious that a referendum could have been won, but we're powerless to do anything about it because we don't have the parliamentary arithmetic to call a referendum?  That's a defeat every bit as real as a defeat in an early referendum.  It takes independence - you know, the prize we've so patiently and constructively worked for over the decades - off the table for a generation, and it does so because we threw away a golden opportunity out of fear.  How is that sort of defeat any better than one that we might suffer by having the moral courage of using our mandate and actually trusting the verdict of the electorate?  It plainly isn't any better.  It's a million times worse.  Democracy is something we should be running towards, not away from.

Pete says: "I want to see evidence [the referendum] can be won."  That's a bit disingenuous, isn't it?  He doesn't want evidence that it can be won, because we already have that.  He actually wants evidence that it definitely will be won, which is a lovely idea, but in the real world no such evidence is even possible.  Huge and rapid swings in public opinion happen frequently during the official campaign stage of referendums around the world, so even if Yes started out with 65% support, there would be no guarantees of victory at all.

He also says: "I want [the referendum] held at the time of our choosing when the optimum conditions are in place for success."  Again, the certainty of being able to hold the vote at the time of our own choosing is a beautiful thought, but is completely impracticable unless he's planning to abolish parliamentary elections.  The main barrier to being able to hold a referendum at the best possible moment is the possibility that there will be no pro-independence majority at Holyrood after 2021.  It's Pete who is arguing we should just recklessly take our chances with that, and his only justification is the absurd claim that if we can't win a pro-indy majority at Holyrood, we wouldn't have been able to win a referendum anyway.  Really?  If we win 48% of the seats in the 2021 election, it would be completely impossible to win 51% of the vote at any time between then and 2026?  A seven-year-old child would be able to spot the flaw in that argument.

The truly 'pragmatic' thing to do is recognise that we have a mandate, that it's a precious thing that may not come our way again for a very long time, and that it therefore shouldn't be lightly squandered.  That doesn't mean holding a referendum next week - it means choosing the best available moment between now and May 2021, when the mandate expires.  That's where the centre of gravity for pragmatism lies - and not in the pie-in-the-sky notion that there will be some ideal moment in the distant future where the stars will align perfectly for a nailed-on victory, and that all we have to do is wait long enough for this magical process to occur.

Pete claims: "[Optimal conditions] are not when we are less than one year away from having lost over one third of our independence supporting MPs to candidates who had as their main campaigning message ‘No to a second referendum’". The problem with this theory is that we don't know what would have happened if the SNP had stood up to the uncompromising nature of the Tory message with an equally uncompromising "Say Yes to an Indyref" message of their own. It's possible that a third of the MPs wouldn't have lost if that had been done. Pete has previously claimed he has canvassing evidence that there was no appetite for a stronger pro-indy message from the SNP, but you'll have to forgive me if I'm a tad sceptical about anecdotal claims from a less-than-objective source. What we do know from polling evidence is that large numbers of people who voted SNP in 2015 went on to abstain in 2017. That suggests to me that there were a lot of people out there who wanted to be inspired, but didn't hear what they were looking for.

Pete says: "Optimal conditions are also not when a majority of our fellow Scots continue to tell us they still oppose independence by a significant margin when public opinion is tested." Sorry, but what is a "significant margin"? It's only a few weeks since an Ipsos-Mori telephone poll produced figures of Yes 48%, No 52%. Is Pete seriously arguing that four percentage points - a lead that is within the standard margin of error - is a "significant margin"? (It's true that Panelbase have shown a bigger gap since then, but that's simply a 'house effect' of a different firm's methodology. Nobody knows the true state of play in exact detail, and it's perfectly conceivable that Ipsos-Mori is right and that public opinion is split roughly 50/50.)

Pete claims: "That last five percent we need to win over in a renewed referendum will be the hardest five percent we have ever had to convert. It is a five percent that is deeply dug in with over five years of intense debate about our countries constitutional future." Hang on, hang on. If these No voters are as hopelessly entrenched as Pete claims, why have there have been several polls since 2014 (including one as recently as last year) showing Yes with more than 50% of the vote? It doesn't make sense, does it? In reality, polling trends since the last referendum clearly show that there is sufficient fluidity and volatility among the electorate for either side to have a realistic chance of winning. It just depends on who fights the most effective campaign.

Unfortunately, if Pete gets his way, we'll run away from the battle and we'll never find out what would have happened. But when another twenty years have passed and no referendum has been held and independence is further away than ever, at least we'll be able to console ourselves by saying "we didn't lose a second time". (So what?)

Friday, April 20, 2018

SNP vote remains rock-solid in Highland Perthshire by-election

Just for once we have a by-election outcome where the terminology of 'hold' or 'gain' isn't misleading due to the quirks of the voting system.  The Highland ward in Perth & Kinross was firmly Tory territory in the council elections last May, and the vacant seat was successfully retained by the Tories in the by-election yesterday.

Highland ward (Perth & Kinross) by-election result:

Conservatives 46.7% (+1.2)
SNP 35.9% (-0.6)
Independent - Taylor 6.9% (n/a)
Labour 5.8% (n/a)
Greens 2.5% (-1.4)
Liberal Democrats 1.9% (-1.6)
Independent - Baykal 0.3% (n/a)

For my money that's a very solid result for the SNP. Of course they were talking up their chances of winning outright, which any party with even an outside chance always has to do, but the reality is that they would have needed a hefty 4.5% swing from the Tories, which was always improbable given the greater tendency of Tory voters to turn out in lower profile contests. Essentially what we have is a no change outcome - there's been a tiny swing to the Tories, but nothing of any real consequence. That's consistent with the message of the national opinion polls, which suggests that despite all the media hoo-ha over the general election result, the SNP vote has actually held up admirably since June.

* * *

I think someone at Time magazine has a sense of humour - either that, or (and this is more probable) they're just completely clueless. The publication has named Ruth Davidson - I'm not making this up, Ruth Davidson - as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Well, let's put that seemingly improbable claim to the test, shall we? She's an MSP, so the main arena for her influence really ought to be the Scottish Parliament - but she doesn't have much there, even as the leader of the second-largest party. Yes, the SNP government is just short of an outright majority and is sometimes forced to seek arrangements with other parties to get legislation through, but for obvious reasons parties other than the Tories are the usual port of call for any deal-making. So if Davidson is frozen out of power in Scotland, the only conceivable influence she could possibly have would be indirect influence on her fellow Tories in government at Westminster. But what evidence is there that she even has that? She's made two main boasts about what 'her' bloc of MPs at Westminster would achieve over the last year - 1) that the devolution settlement would be protected with amendments made to the EU Withdrawal Bill at the Commons stage, and 2) that powers over fisheries would be repatriated to the UK immediately after Brexit. Both of those claims came to absolutely nothing, and all we've heard from Davidson is how "frustrated" she is that she can't do anything about it. As a general rule, the most influential people in the world get what they want, rather than whinge about being "frustrated" that the opposite of what they want is happening because other people are calling the shots.

I think GA Ponsonby has it nailed - the bogus narrative of 'Ruth the Powerful' is a fairy-tale dreamt up from scratch by the media, and has somehow gained so much traction that even a few people in other countries have started to believe it. This accolade for Davidson will in a few short years look as mind-bogglingly silly as Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why the Tories want the SNP to let their mandate for a referendum expire

Not for the first time, David Halliday has hit the nail on the head with this tweet -

"If not having an independence referendum before 2021 is sensible then why has Ruth Davidson been fighting so hard to make sure that that's what happens?"

If you find yourself doing (or considering doing) exactly what your opponents want you to do, it's always worth stepping into their shoes and considering why they want you to do it so badly.  From a Tory perspective, there are a number of very good reasons why an early independence referendum is something to dread -

1) The imminence of Brexit means that Project Fear would work in both directions this time.  It will be easy enough for the Yes campaign to produce a steady stream of "There were warnings tonight about the impact of Brexit on..." stories.  (How easy it will be to get the broadcasters to give those stories equal prominence is another matter, but an official campaign can help set the news agenda to some extent.)  If voters are convinced that there are credible reasons to fear the uncertainty of Brexit, the effect of fear in the campaign may be neutralised in a way that was never possible in 2014.

2) Theresa May is absolutely the worst person to be a figurehead for the No campaign.  She is tone-deaf in respect of Scotland.  She could single-handedly lose the referendum for No.

3) Jeremy Corbyn clearly has some appeal in Scotland, but an independence referendum would not be his natural terrain.  As was the case during the EU referendum, he probably wouldn't look terribly interested.  He would also say random things about "SNP austerity" that just wouldn't have much resonance for people in that particular context.

4) Given that the Tories are now Scotland's second party at almost every level of representation, it would be hard to justify sitting back and allowing Labour to be the cuddly public face of the No campaign once again.  And yet the alternative - an identifiably Tory-led No campaign - carries enormous risks.  Notwithstanding Ruth Davidson's much-vaunted "popularity", the Tories remain the most disliked of the major political parties in Scotland.  In a binary-choice referendum, there's not much use having 25% of the population solidly behind you if another 65% hate your guts.

5) The Vow may be a trick that was only ever going to work once.  On the pro-independence side, we tend to think of what could go right or wrong in a referendum purely in terms of victory or defeat, but for the Tories, giving too much ground on devolution is a fate almost as bad as defeat.  If a Yes vote looked like a realistic possibility with a few days to go, they would have to decide whether to make very painful concessions of new powers, or whether (and this is more probable) to offer absolutely nothing and just hope for the best.  Neither option looks too appetising for them in advance.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Why I'm backing Chris McEleny for SNP depute leader

Because the candidates are perhaps a little less well-known than would usually be the case, I had planned to take my time before making a final decision about who to vote for in the SNP depute leadership race.  However, the three remaining candidates have now all expressed clear views on the timing of a second independence referendum.  Unless those views change, I think the decision to vote for Chris McEleny has effectively been taken for me. 

These are the positions of the candidates as I understand them -

Chris McEleny: There should be an independence referendum within the next eighteen months.

Julie Hepburn: We have a mandate for a referendum.  But the timing of the referendum is not what members should be thinking about right now.  We should trust Nicola Sturgeon to make the right decision.

Keith Brown: The SNP is not yet ready to fight an independence referendum, and we need to get ready before a referendum can be called.

Now, I know some people will argue that this contest should not even be about the timing of a referendum.  Julie Hepburn's exhortation to "just trust Nicola" is superficially seductive.  But here's the thing: although Nicola Sturgeon will ultimately be the person who makes the decision, she will do it after factoring in the views of other key players within the SNP.  It would be perverse if the voice of the membership is the only voice that is not heard in that decision-making process.  What "trust Nicola" really amounts to is saying that you'll be equally happy regardless of what is decided, and there can't be many of us who truly feel that way.  Even if a decision goes against you, it's a lot easier to accept the outcome if you've had a chance to express your view and to be heard.  This election is taking place at a time when the SNP is facing one of the biggest forks in the road in its history, and the idea that we should all just be ignoring that and choosing who to vote for based solely on other factors seems to me naive and unrealistic.

Some people will argue that Chris McEleny does not have a high enough profile to be depute leader.  The reality is, though, that because the SNP's big beasts are all sitting this contest out, the role of depute is going to be very different from before, regardless of who wins.  Keith Brown is the only parliamentarian standing, but even if he wins, he's plainly not going to suddenly become the second most important person within the SNP, and probably not the third or fourth most important either.  The new role of the depute could be as a bridge between the leadership and the grass-roots, and Chris McEleny is arguably best-placed to fill that role.

"Preparation and persuasion, not obsessing over timing" is another seductive argument, but my huge concern is that all the best preparation and persuasion in the world will count for absolutely nothing if the referendum never actually takes place.  That would be the risk we'd take if we flirt with allowing the mandate for a pre-2021 referendum to expire.  In fairness, Keith Brown isn't adopting the Pete Wishart/Jim Sillars stance - nothing he has said would specifically preclude a pre-2021 referendum.  However, it does seem to me that he is effectively ruling out a referendum in the spring of next year - if he's saying that the SNP is not ready now, it's hard to see how he'd be able to argue that everything had been turned around by the autumn, when the starting-gun for a vote in early 2019 would have to be fired.  I don't think that taking any option off the table is helpful at this stage.  At least Julie Hepburn appears to be genuinely neutral on timing (and her emphasis that "we have the mandate" perhaps points to the likelihood of a pre-2021 vote), so on that basis I'm currently minded to give her my second preference vote, behind Chris McEleny.  I'll continue to keep an eye on what is said, though.

Remember that even if Keith Brown wins due to name-recognition, a strong showing for Chris McEleny would still send a powerful message to the leadership about members' views on the urgency of a referendum.  So from that point of view I feel that a vote for McEleny is an each-way bet that is well worth taking.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Renew the Section 30 request, put a deadline on it - and then if needs be go ahead and legislate for a referendum anyway

Stuart Campbell of Wings Over Scotland has helpfully moved forward the debate over indyref timing by arguing that the Scottish Government should go ahead and legislate for a second referendum without specifying a date.  I would maybe quibble over whether this proposal stands outside the dispute over timing in quite the way that Stuart thinks, because what many of the people arguing for a long delay really want is for the whole issue of a referendum to fade from public debate, whereas legislating and perhaps triggering a challenge in the Supreme Court would have the opposite effect.  Nevertheless, on paper at least, preparing the ground for a referendum without naming the day ought to be able to unite all shades of opinion on timing.

Two key points need to be added to the proposal in my view.  Firstly, the Scottish Parliament should only go ahead and pass a Referendum Bill after the request for a Section 30 order has been revived and clearly rejected.  To avoid further "now is not the time" delaying tactics, the UK government should be given a specific deadline for a definitive response to the Section 30 request, with a failure to give a clear "yes" or "no" by that date being interpreted as rejection.  It must be plainly seen by the public that the Scottish government wanted an agreed process, and only legislated unilaterally after their overtures were spurned.

Secondly, it's important to get the message across that any hypothetical rejection of a Referendum Bill by the Supreme Court will not lead to us all packing up and going home.  Of course we would obey the law, and of course we would not hold a "wildcat referendum".  Instead, we should make clear that if all other options are exhausted, the next Holyrood election will be used to seek an outright mandate for independence.  A negative outcome in the Supreme Court would actually be helpful in the pursuit of that mandate, because it would provide clarity - Yes supporters would be under no doubt that the only way to achieve independence will be by turning out in huge numbers in a Holyrood vote.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Twitter poll confirms overwhelming demand within the Yes movement for a pre-2021 referendum

The Western Isles MP Angus Brendan MacNeil has been holding a Twitter poll over the last 24 hours on the timing of an independence referendum.  The results are dramatic, with a combined total of 88% of the thousands of people who took part saying that the current mandate for a pre-2021 referendum should be used.  Just 12% think the mandate should be allowed to expire.

Now of course I'm not going to pretend that a self-selecting Twitter poll is a scientifically rigorous exercise.  Nevertheless I do think it's of some interest.  Public opinion polls tell us about the views of the public, whereas a poll like this captures the views of the demographic that follows SNP parliamentarians on social media - ie. people who are the foot-soldiers of both the Yes movement and of the SNP.  Their opinions do count for something.  And at just over 5000, the sample size is impressive.  Remember that Twitter only allows one vote per account, so it's unlikely that the result was distorted by widespread multiple voting.  People's votes are also anonymous, so if they had wanted to quietly express a preference for letting the mandate expire, they could have done so without any fears.  There just doesn't seem to be much appetite for that option within the movement.