Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sturgeon marches on: new Panelbase poll confirms SNP are on course for gains in any early general election

Today brings word of a new full-scale Scottish poll from Panelbase.  In one sense it repeats the recent findings of YouGov (albeit in less dramatic fashion) because it shows the SNP on the up, and on course for gains from both the Conservatives and Labour in any early general election.

Scottish voting intentions for the next UK general election (Panelbase, 8th-13th June 2018):

SNP 38% (+2)  
Conservatives 27% (-1)
Labour 27% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

The SNP's lead over the Tories has increased from 8 points to 11 since last year's general election, and their lead over Labour has increased from 10 to 11.  This is obviously a relatively modest change (and less than suggested by YouGov), but given the number of ultra-marginal seats out there, it's enough to potentially make a very significant difference.

The meaningful dissimilarity with the YouGov poll (and this can't easily be explained by margin of error) is that Labour's share of the vote has not dropped back at all, and the Tories haven't made any advance.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  YouGov had Labour slumping from second to third, but Panelbase have Labour moving from third into joint second, courtesy of a slight fall in Tory support.  We'll just have to wait for more information to see which firm is closer to being right - although admittedly that moment may never arrive, because both the Panelbase and YouGov polls were (more or less) conducted prior to the SNP walkout from the House of Commons on Wednesday.  Assuming that was the watershed moment in Scottish politics a lot of people think it might have been, future polls may pick up more recent changes in public opinion that will disguise anything that might have been going on prior to the last few days.

The same problem makes it hard to draw many conclusions from Panelbase's finding on support for independence.  It shows no change at all - but of course any surge in Yes support would have been much more likely to occur after fieldwork concluded in the middle of the week, not before.  (Remember that most respondents to online polls tend to give their answers early in the fieldwork period, so for the most part this poll was probably conducted several days before the SNP walkout.)  The jury is still out, then - we'll have to wait for more up-to-date polls to find out just how big an impact the events of Wednesday had.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 44% (n/c)
No 56% (n/c)

Incidentally, don't be too alarmed to see Yes on a smidgeon below 45%.  Panelbase have of late slotted in at the No-friendly end of the polling spectrum - somewhat ironic, given that for such a long period prior to the first indyref, it was only Panelbase that gave Yes any reason for optimism.

Ever eager to find the most negative possible spin for the SNP, the Sunday Times have placed most emphasis on the Holyrood findings, which are bound to look less encouraging than the Westminster numbers because the SNP are starting from the much higher baseline of 2016.  Curiously, the headline reads "SNP set to miss 2021 seats target for new independence referendum", which ignores the rather obvious point that the SNP have not set any seats target for an independence referendum in 2021, because they've already successfully won a mandate at the election in 2016 for a pre-2021 independence referendum.  Indeed, any suggestion that the pro-independence majority may be lost in 2021 will simply strengthen the already overwhelming argument that the existing mandate for a referendum must be used.

As it happens, though, the poll actually suggests that the pro-independence parties would only very narrowly fall short of the 65 seats required for an absolute majority.  The Sunday Times' projection has the SNP on 56 and the Greens on 7.  So only a couple more seats would be needed, and a small increase in SNP or Green support would do the trick - with the election still three long years away in any case.

Voting intentions for Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 40% (n/c)
Conservatives 28% (n/c)
Labour 24% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Voting intentions for Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 36% 
Conservatives 26% 
Labour 23%
Greens 7%
Liberal Democrats 6%

Strangely, this is the first time since the 2016 election that Panelbase have asked for regional list voting intentions, so it's not possible to give percentage changes on the list ballot.  However, the list results are fairly encouraging for the SNP - other polling firms have suggested their list vote has slipped rather lower than 36%.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

This may seem impossible, but the UK government is even less committed to the Sewel Convention today than it was yesterday

David Mundell's statement to the House of Commons today was extraordinary.  It wasn't simply that he failed to strike a conciliatory tone or offer any path towards compromise.  It wasn't simply that he repeated his unconvincing justifications for the UK government's unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention.  He actually went a step further than any UK minister had ever gone before by unilaterally changing the terms of the Sewel Convention, thus leaving the Scottish Parliament utterly defenceless against any future attempt by the UK government to further reduce its powers or abolish it altogether.

As I understand it, until today the UK government at least accepted that the Sewel Convention precluded it, in "normal" circumstances, from legislating on devolved matters without consent.  Its excuse for breaching the convention on this occasion was that this is a one-off exception in circumstances that are not "normal".  But today Mundell insisted that the convention allows (indeed "requires"!) the UK government to legislate without consent whenever the Scottish Parliament has been asked to consent but no agreement is reached.  Essentially Sewel Mark II as set out today is a rapist's charter: consent need not be obtained but merely sought.  "My client took every reasonable step to obtain the woman's consent, your honour, but regrettably she was being stubborn."  There is no longer any requirement for circumstances to be "abnormal" for a refusal of consent to be ignored - future breaches could in fact become fairly routine.  (The way Mundell would frame it is that circumstances are automatically deemed to be "abnormal" whenever the Scottish Parliament withholds consent, thus setting up an almost comical circular argument that deprives the words "normal" and "consent" of any meaning.)

I would suggest this has enormous implications for the next independence referendum.  Personally, I've never believed it's likely that any UK government in anything like the foreseeable future would seek to abolish the Scottish Parliament outright.  But it doesn't matter what I think is likely, it only matters what the public think is plausible, and after the events of the last 72 hours, a lot of soft No voters will now have entirely rational doubts about just how secure Holyrood's foundations really are.  If the next Yes campaign presents the choice as being between independence and no Scottish Parliament at all, that may resonate in a way that would have been unthinkable in 2014.

With almost every move they make, the Tories are idiotically weakening their own hand in any referendum campaign.  They're putting all their eggs in the basket of preventing that referendum taking place before the current mandate expires in 2021.  That's one game we mustn't help them with.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

12.06.18: The day the calling of a pre-2021 independence referendum became inevitable

Huge respect to Ian Blackford for taking a stand at Prime Minister's Questions and sending the message that the unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention that occurred yesterday, with the mass-scale stripping of existing powers from the Scottish Parliament, was a sufficiently serious matter to warrant the disruption of the flagship occasion in the House of Commons.  It was blindingly obvious that John Bercow was advised by his clerks that Mr Blackford had the right to immediately move a technical vote on the House sitting privately, which would have interrupted PMQs by around fifteen minutes.  Indeed, Bercow initially seemed to concede that point by appealing to Mr Blackford to wait until PMQs were over, but then, as he so often does, he made the rules up as he went on to save face and decreed that the vote would have to wait even if Mr Blackford didn't back down.  He then ended up expelling Mr Blackford from the chamber, prompting the entire SNP parliamentary party to walk out in solidarity - leaving a huge gap in the benches that would have brought home to viewers just how many seats the SNP actually won last year.  Shamefully, Bercow then let his anger (and his true colours) show by making a number of fatuous British nationalist propaganda points, such as that it was a great shame that SNP MPs who had questions down on the order paper would not now be able to ask them - as if a couple of twenty-second questions followed by the usual sneering replies from Theresa May would have somehow made up for the disgraceful scenes of yesterday, when powers were removed from the Scottish Parliament without a single Scottish MP being allowed to speak.  (No bending of the rules from Bercow to stop the disgraceful fillibustering yesterday, you might note.)

The reason why it was necessary for Mr Blackford and the SNP parliamentary party to send this symbolic message is that the London establishment and media just don't seem to have received the memo yet.  We hear a lot about the get-out clause in the Sewel Convention that the consent of the Scottish Parliament will only "normally" be required.  That implies, of course, that to act without consent is an extraordinary constitutional exception on a par with the impeachment of an American President or something of that sort.  Do you get any sense at all that the London establishment and media have acknowledged the gravity of what is happening?  Has Huw Edwards been presenting the Ten O'Clock News from Edinburgh for the last week as the crisis deepens?  Has the sainted Sarah Smith been fronting Panorama specials?  Was it a figment of our imagination that only a token 15 minutes was devoted to the power grab in the House of Commons yesterday, rather than ten hours?  It has become abundantly clear that the Sewel Convention - supposedly put on a statutory basis after 2014 in line with The Vow - is a presentational con-trick.  The pretence of treating it with reverence was only going to be maintained for as long as there was no cost to Westminster - but as soon as that was no longer the case, it was always going to be contemptuously ignored as if everyone knew it was a bit of a joke.  Not one person in the London media seems to think this turn of events is remotely strange or surprising.  Indeed, they seem more surprised today that Ian Blackford was actually taking the Sewel Convention and The Vow seriously.

There is, of course, no going back from the walk-out today.  The SNP membership would not accept that a matter that was serious enough to prompt a walk-out from the Commons is not serious enough to also necessitate a pre-2021 referendum on independence, in line with the mandate secured two years ago by the Scottish Government.  What's more, I simply don't believe - regardless of Sarah Smith's relentless propagandising to the contrary - that the SNP leadership will ask the membership to accept that.  It is inevitable that a pre-2021 referendum will now be called.

Events since the first indyref - betrayal of The Vow, followed by the Brexit vote, followed by Brexit mutating into a Hard Brexit, followed by the destruction of the devolution settlement - have occurred at a gradual enough pace that it's sometimes possible not to see the wood for the trees.  Let's take a step back.  The people of Scotland narrowly voted against independence in September 2014 on the basis of specific promises that Scotland would remain in the EU, and that the Scottish Parliament would become more powerful.  Instead, Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will, and powers that the Scottish Parliament has held since its inauguration in 1999 are being taken away.  Either one of those two material changes in circumstances would make the case for a second referendum unanswerable.  The two in combination make it a slam-dunk. 

This isn't a strategic calculation about whether we dare risk asking the question again in case the answer is No.  It's about giving a betrayed public the right that they deserve to revisit a decision they took on the basis of a false prospectus.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Sensational YouGov poll suggests SNP would make sweeping gains in a snap general election, with support for an independence referendum also increasing

For the first time in months we have a full-scale Scottish poll.  This one has certainly proved worth the wait, because on Westminster voting intentions it shows the SNP opening up an enormous seventeen point lead over Labour, who have firmly moved back down into third place. 

Scottish voting intentions for the next UK general election (YouGov):

SNP 40% (+4)
Conservatives 27% (+4)
Labour 23% (-5)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Greens 2% (-1)
UKIP 1% (-2)

If those figures were replicated in any early general election, Labour would be likely to face a 2015-style wipeout, with the modest gains they made from the SNP last year being reversed.  And although the Tories have picked up support since the last YouGov poll, that has been entirely offset by a substantial increase in the SNP's own support, meaning that the SNP remain on course for seat gains from the Tories as well.  In short, it's a poll of unalloyed wonderfulness for the SNP, and The Times (who commissioned it) deserve some kind of medal for being brazen enough to put the words "Poll Blow for Sturgeon" in their headline!  (I'm not even joking - they've actually done that.)

In fairness, there may be an element of a 'reversion to the mean' about the SNP's four-point boost, because the last poll from YouGov saw the party on an unusually low 36%.  Nevertheless, of the five full-scale Scottish polls published by all firms this year, this is the first to show the SNP hitting the 40% mark.  Labour's dismal third place showing looks particularly significant, because there had been a run of polls from last autumn through to early spring putting Labour in second place.  In recent months, there has been a marked swing from Labour to Tory in Britain-wide polls, and it looks like that is being replicated in Scotland.

Intriguingly, though, the swing doesn't look quite as pronounced in Holyrood voting intentions.

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (constituency ballot):

SNP 41% (+3)
Conservatives 27% (+1)
Labour 22% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)
Greens 2% (-1)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (regional list ballot):

SNP 32% (n/c)
Conservatives 26% (+1)
Labour 21% (-1)
Greens 9% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (n/c)
SSP 3% (+1)
UKIP 1% (-2)

So why are Labour taking a bigger hit at Westminster than at Holyrood?  The clue may lie in the fact that they had remained in third place in Holyrood voting intentions even while they were in second place at Westminster.  It could be that some people had toyed with cross-voting (Labour for Westminster, SNP or Tory for Holyrood) because of the appeal of Corbynism, but are now bringing their Westminster vote back into line with their Holyrood constituency vote.

For reasons that are not at all clear, YouGov consistently show lower support for an early independence referendum than other polling firms.  Panelbase, for example, often find the public split right down the middle on whether there should be an independence referendum in as little as two years.  The new YouGov poll still doesn't show a position quite as favourable as that, but there has been a sharp move in the right direction.

In principle, do you think there should or should not be a referendum on Scottish independence at some point in the next five years?

Should be a referendum: 40% (+4)
Should not be a referendum: 52% (-2)

Supplementary questions also show an increase in support for a referendum being held just before Brexit, or after Brexit.

The standard independence question was also asked, finding an increase in support for Yes.  However, the figures are within YouGov's normal range, so the change may just be margin of error 'noise'.  As Calum notes in the comment section below, the fact that YouGov now appear to be including 16 and 17 year olds in their sample may have played a part, although that's unlikely to have made more than a 1% difference after rounding.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 45% (+2)
No 55% (-2)

In case you're wondering, the thin justification for the ludicrous headline in The Times is a trivial two-point drop in Nicola Sturgeon's net satisfaction rating.  Ruth Davidson has suffered a slightly bigger drop of four points, but what makes the reporting really silly is that there is another leader who has suffered a catastrophic reversal in fortunes.  Jeremy Corbyn's net rating has plummeted from -3 to -30.  But for whatever reason, The Times thought that the steady-as-she-goes result for Ms Sturgeon was more worthy of a hysterical headline.

Oh, and Richard Leonard's net rating has slipped from -15 to -20.  But a majority of respondents still don't have any view on him (ie. they don't know who he is).

Thursday, May 31, 2018

This barefaced hypocrisy from Ruth Davidson cannot be allowed to stand. Not this time.

I've always thought that equal marriage and abortion law in Northern Ireland are the ultimate tests of how committed you really are to devolution.  You may think you believe that any Westminster interference in devolved matters is abhorrent, but if you find yourself saying "well, obviously abortion in Northern Ireland is different", then no, actually, you don't.  In Northern Ireland, abortion law and the ban on same-sex marriage are devolved matters, just like any other devolved matter.  That doesn't mean you can't have a view on whether there should be a change in the law, but it does mean that the focus for any agitation should be the Northern Ireland Assembly, not Westminster.  Changing the minds of the DUP may seem a hopeless task, but they have a mandate just as the SNP do in Scotland, and the Tories do in England.  If you believe in devolution, winning the argument in the Assembly is the only game in town, and appealing to Westminster for an overrule isn't an option.

(The current suspension of the Assembly doesn't change that calculation for the time being, because as of yet direct rule hasn't been reimposed and Northern Ireland is being run by its own civil service in the theoretical expectation that the Assembly will soon be sitting again.)

That being the case, it would - in normal circumstances - be impossible to fault Ruth Davidson's logic in these comments to the FT...

"If I was a politician in NI I would absolutely 100 % vote to change the law. But as someone who operates in a devolved administration I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood"

The snag, of course, is that Westminster is currently in the process, for the first time in the nineteen-year history of devolution, of legislating on multiple devolved Scottish issues in defiance of a specific decision by the Scottish Parliament to withhold consent (or "going over the head of Holyrood" to put it more snappily).  It is doing so with Ruth Davidson's full-blooded support.  I can only say it is staggering that the FT didn't instantly notice this barefaced hypocrisy and challenge her on it.  The fact that they didn't betrays the mindset of the entire London establishment.  It's somehow instinctively understood that the constitutional conventions that make devolution work are optional (and really rather tiresome) when the SNP insist they must be upheld, but magically become set in stone if the subject in dispute is important to the DUP.

Ruth Davidson can't be forced to abandon her opposition to the current devolution settlement and to the Sewel Convention.  But what she can and must be forced to do is choose.  If she believes that Westminster has the right to disregard the Sewel Convention and overrule the Scottish Parliament on the huge range of devolved matters affected by the EU Withdrawal Bill, she must by definition also believe it has the right to overrule the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly on abortion law and marriage equality.  So which is it to be, Ruth?  And is there any chance of our hopeless media getting its act together and actually asking her that question?

*  *  *

You won't be surprised to hear that I agree with Paul Kavanagh's verdict in The National that Nicola Sturgeon should make clear that "now is not the time" is simply not an acceptable answer, and that the Scottish Government will proceed with seeking a mandate for independence even if a Section 30 order is refused.  However, I do take issue with him on a couple of things.  Firstly, the point of seeking a Section 30 order is not to make a referendum "legally binding".  The 2014 referendum was actually not legally binding - a Yes vote would not have automatically triggered independence.  A better way of putting it is that the Section 30 order made the 2014 vote "politically binding" - it would have been unthinkable for Westminster not to legislate for independence in the event of a Yes vote.

Because of that, Paul believes the likely absence of a Section 30 order means an outright mandate for independence should be sought at the next Holyrood election, and not by means of a consultative referendum.  He thinks that any referendum held without a Section 30 order will be boycotted by the unionist side and would therefore be pointless, because it would be impossible to achieve a high enough turnout to make any Yes victory credible.  I'm not so sure about that.  If, for example, any Referendum Bill survives a legal challenge in the Supreme Court, it will very publicly become recognised as the law of the land, making a boycott that bit harder to justify.  I also feel that a Yes victory in a boycotted vote would be a lot more use to us than is widely understood at the moment.  It would mean that the anti-independence mandate of September 2014 is no longer definitive or unchallenged.  By all means, if the Supreme Court strikes down a Referendum Bill we should then use the next Holyrood election to seek an outright independence mandate, but I struggle to see the harm in pursuing a consultative referendum first.

Apart from anything else, it would give the UK government the dilemma of whether to mount a legal challenge.  It wouldn't have dared to do that in 2012 or 2013.  But it may well do in 2019, because it has come to believe there is never a price to be paid for playing to the British nationalist gallery and trampling on Scotland's democratic rights.  There's going to come a point where there will be a heavy price, and this could well be that moment.

*  *  *

A pub quiz question for you - which part of Denmark is geographically much closer to Scotland than it is to any other part of Denmark?  Here's a video from the brilliant Phantom Power while you're thinking about that one...

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.