Wednesday, February 26, 2020

It's "journalism", Jim, but not as we know it : comically amateurish Scotsman article contains multiple wild inaccuracies about the YouGov independence poll

There's still no clarity on whether yesterday's YouGov poll showed a 50/50 split on independence after Don't Knows are excluded, or whether (as some newspapers claim) it was Yes 49%, No 51%.  Neither do we yet know whether 16 and 17 year olds were interviewed for the poll.  I checked the What Scotland Thinks website, which often has access to information that isn't otherwise in the public domain, and it states that only over-18s were polled - which, if true, would cast doubt on the headline numbers and might suggest that Yes have been slightly underestimated.  But a commenter on this blog's previous thread pointed out that there is a discrepancy in the datasets between the total number of respondents and the combined total of respondents from all of the listed age groups.  The most logical explanation is that there are also respondents from an additional age group, which would obviously have to be 16 and 17 year olds.

What I can say for certain, though, is that a Scotsman article about the poll (which has been online for five days because the results on some of the supplementary questions were released early) contains a series of extraordinarily wild inaccuracies.  It's tempting to call them lies, although I suspect they're probably inadvertent blunders caused by either sloppiness or wishful thinking, or possibly by a blend of both.  The writer seems to have allowed himself to be duped by a propaganda press release, or perhaps he just didn't bother to read it carefully enough.  This is one of the offending segments -

"Half of Scots (50 per cent) blame the SNP for the divisions, according to the findings. The prospect of a second referendum is blamed by 41 per cent of respondents, while 26 per cent say everyone bears some responsibility."

Not only is that untrue, it's not even within light-years of the truth.  The YouGov datasets make abundantly clear that only respondents who said that Scotland is divided (57% of the sample) were asked the follow-up question about "blame".  That means only around 28% or 29% of Scots "blame the SNP for divisions" - not 50% as the Scotsman claim.  The prospect of a second independence referendum is actually "blamed" by around 23% of the sample - not 41% as the Scotsman claim.  And only around 15% say everyone is "responsible" - not 26% as the Scotsman claim.

Even the headline of the piece is misleading, to put it charitably.  It states: "Half of Scots believe independence and Brexit division will last generation, finds poll".  Er, nope.  It's not half of Scots, but just under half of the portion of the sample who think the country is divided.  The correct figure for the whole sample is therefore around 26%.

That's misreporting on a truly colossal scale, and there's absolutely no excuse for it.  But on past form, a correction and apology is probably extremely unlikely.

In case you're wondering about the story behind this poll, the datasets imply it was commissioned by Hanbury Strategy, which is described on Powerbase as "a Conservative-led lobbying firm set up by ex-David Cameron adviser Ameet Gill and Brexit campaigner and former British Bankers' Association director, Paul Stephenson in September 2016.  In June 2017, it hired Lizzie Loudon, former press secretary to the Prime Minister, Theresa May".  Strangely, though, when Gordon Brown fronted the release of some of the results a few days ago, it was reported as being a poll for the think-tank Our Scottish Future.  It's pretty clear that it was intended to be an anti-independence propaganda poll of some description, which might explain some of the oddities about it - the non-standard question wording, the highly unorthodox question sequence, and perhaps also the ambiguity over the headline results with Don't Knows excluded.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Misery for Boris as another YouGov poll finds a clear majority of the Scottish public demand an independence referendum within five years

I was oblivious to this for most of the day, but the fourth independence poll of the year has been published - and perhaps of most significance is that it's the first post-Brexit poll.  However, it should be stressed that, strictly speaking, it's not directly comparable to the three polls conducted in January.  There are a couple of reasons for that - a) the question asked was non-standard, and b) it appears from the datasets that a supplementary question about whether Scotland is "heading in the right or wrong direction" was asked before the main independence question, which is highly irregular and might conceivably have affected the result by putting respondents into a certain mindset.  For my money, the second problem is far more important than the first, because although the wording of the main question is non-standard, it's not leading in any obvious way.  (That said, it's perfectly reasonable for us to wonder why the client seems to have insisted upon unusual wording.)

YouGov/Hanbury poll:

If another Scottish independence referendum were held today, how would you vote?

Yes to an independent Scotland: 45%
No to an independent Scotland: 46%

Some of the insanely biased newspaper reports of this poll (which are probably lightly rewritten versions of a press release) suggest that with Don't Knows excluded, the figures are Yes 49%, No 51% - but there are no such numbers in the datasets.  If this is simply based on a crude recalculation of the 45 and 46 figures, it may well be inaccurate due to rounding issues, because it comes out very close to Yes 49.5%, No 50.5%.  In other words, until and unless we hear definitively from YouGov, it shouldn't be assumed that No are actually in the lead in this poll on the rounded figures excluding Don't Knows.  It might be a 49/51 split, but it could just as easily be 50/50.

The drop in support for Yes since the last YouGov poll is therefore either one percentage point or two percentage points.  It's not statistically significant either way.  There are three possible explanations for the slight drop.  It could just be random sampling variation (if Yes are on around 51%, you'd expect some polls to put them on 49% or 50% due to the margin of error). The unorthodox question sequence might have distorted the result.  Or there could have been a real but modest slip in support for independence due to the 'Brexit lull' - ie. in some voters' minds, Brexit is 'done' and nothing disastrous seems to have happened, but in reality the cliff-edge is looming at the end of this year when the transitional period finishes.

As things stand, though, an average of all four polls this year continues to show a slight pro-independence majority.

Contrary to the impression you might have got from the press relea....sorry, original newspaper reporting, the poll actually detected considerable enthusiasm for a second independence referendum.  55% of respondents want it to take place within the next five years, and 40% want it by 2022.

UPDATE: It's far from clear whether 16 and 17 year olds were interviewed for this poll.  The datasets for the last YouGov poll specified that over-16s were the base, but this time it just says "2587 Scottish adults".  If by any chance 16 and 17 year olds were excluded, the media narrative about this poll would be completely bogus, because the Yes vote may well be underestimated by 1%.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The flexible laws of unionist mathematics

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm quoted in a new article by Alasdair Soussi on the Al Jazeera website about whether there should be an artificial threshold for a Yes victory in the next independence referendum.  You can read it HERE.

I must say that the views from Kenny Farquharson quoted at the end of the piece are truly extraordinary.  As far as I can gather, this is how he thinks the rules should handle various close results -


Hmmm. Round our way, we call that cheating.  And this is supposed to be the antidote to division and grievance?  Good luck with that, Kenny.  If Scotland votes for independence and is then told that it's remaining in the UK because 47 is a bigger number than 53, you'd soon have civil disobedience on a scale that wasn't even seen during the poll tax era.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A consultative referendum is an opportunity to be grasped, not a bogeyman to cower away from

Pete Wishart is one of the de facto leaders of the 'indefinite delay' faction within the SNP, and judging from his latest blogpost he seems to have been put on the defensive by the results of this blog's Panelbase poll from about ten days ago that showed, by a clear majority of 56% to 44%, that the Scottish people think Holyrood should go ahead and legislate for a consultative referendum if the UK government continue to refuse to grant a Section 30 order.  Pete rehearses a number of objections that we've heard many times before, but let's go through a few of them anyway.  (For clarity, I'n paraphrasing him below, rather than quoting directly.)

'The new support for Yes is incredibly fragile, and we will lose all of those converts with talk of UDI, dissolved unions and wildcat referendums.'  

First of all, it goes without saying that "UDI" and "dissolved unions" have nothing - absolutely nothing whatever - to do with a consultative referendum, and so those are pretty blatant straw men on Pete's behalf and should be totally disregarded.  The use of the word "wildcat" is also absurdly inappropriate for a referendum that is legitimately legislated for by the Scottish Parliament, and that is either upheld by the courts or isn't subject to a legal challenge in the first place.  But to turn to the substance of the point, Pete has made unsubstantiated claims in the past (usually based on vague doorstep anecdotes) about the impact that certain supposedly 'hasty' actions would have on support for independence.  We're fortunate in that we now have polling evidence with which to test those claims, and frankly that evidence very strongly indicates that Pete has got it wrong.  A mere 4% of the people who are currently minded to vote Yes (and who are now, don't forget, a majority of the electorate) told Panelbase that they are opposed to legislating for a consultative referendum without a Section 30.  By contrast, 10% of current No voters support the idea, so if anything we might actually gain more support by being bold!

'If we legislate for a consultative referendum, the UK government won't challenge it in the courts, but will allow it to take place and then boycott it.'

Apparently we're now expected to believe that a good reason for not legislating for a referendum is that the UK will allow it to take place on a legal basis.  On the logic put forward in Nicola Sturgeon's Brexit Day speech, that would actually be an argument for proceeding without delay, because the main objection she raised was that the courts might rule against her.

However, back in the real world, Pete is almost certainly wrong.  There would be a legal challenge.  Everything about the UK government's recent militant behaviour points overwhelmingly to that conclusion.  That means we'd get clarity on the legal position, and the referendum would only take place if the Supreme Court upholds it as the law of the land.  In those circumstances it would be considerably more difficult for the unionist side to boycott it, and even if they did, there would be major doubts over whether a boycott would actually detract from the legitimacy of a scrupulously legal vote.  The onus would be on us to maximise legitimacy by delivering a high Yes turnout - if we have more than 1.8 million Yes votes, we'd be able to point out that we almost certainly would have won even without a boycott.

Incidentally, I am not remotely convinced that No voters would dutifully boycott as a bloc.  I think a decent percentage of them would turn out and vote, particularly if the perception is that the boycott is a Tory project.

'We'd need more than 50% of the total electorate voting Yes to claim victory.'

No we wouldn't.  See above.  Nobody is going to assume there would have been a 100% turnout if the boycott hadn't taken place.

'After a Yes victory, the UK government would legislate to retrospectively make it illegal.'

So let me get this straight.  The UK government wouldn't challenge a referendum in court.  They wouldn't legislate to prevent it happening.   They would let it take place, and allow Yes to win, and only then make the whole process illegal.

Come off it, Pete.  This is just silly.

'People say that victory in a consultative referendum would make the UK government engage, but they haven't explained why this would happen.'

I really, truly don't know whether to laugh or cry at this juncture.  Pete is a leading member of a faction who would have us believe that if we just do absolutely nothing for a few more years, if we just twiddle our thumbs and take no steps to obtain an independence mandate, then all the obstacles will vanish and independence will fall into our laps at some unspecified but long-distant point.  He has never explained (indeed he has never even come within light-years of explaining) how and why the sheer passage of time will lead to the UK government conveniently surrendering, and yet he's now criticising others for not explaining why the UK government will change its attitude?  It's brazen, I'll give him that.  Nobody can know with certainty what will happen, but I do believe that a Yes vote in a consultative referendum (on a sufficient turnout, that is) would be a massive shock to the London establishment and that it would be difficult for them to simply ignore it.  I might be wrong about that, but I'd respectfully suggest that my own belief is somewhat more plausible than Pete's strategy of "let's take no action and then Boris will cave in for no apparent reason in a few years' time".

'There would be pressure to declare UDI after a consultative referendum, and if we did that it would weaken our international standing.'

So what if there's pressure?  Just resist the pressure.  Does anyone seriously believe that any SNP leader would declare UDI in the foreseeable future?  Does anyone believe that even Alex Salmond would have done it?  I don't.  It's a complete red herring.

A solution in search of a problem

The "People's Alliance" plan for a new pro-independence party is yet more People's Front of Judea stuff, and the notion that it's going to ensure we have pro-indy parties as both the government and opposition in Holyrood is absolute pie in the sky.  However, I'm much less concerned about it than I was about the proposed "Wings party".  My fear about what Stuart Campbell was doing was that it might end up falling between two stools - I was almost certain that he wouldn't attract enough votes to win any seats, but I did think it was possible that he might take just enough votes away from the SNP and the Greens (perhaps 0.5% or 1%) to reduce the overall number of pro-indy MSPs.  I don't believe there's much prospect of the People's Alliance causing that sort of damage - it has no big names behind it, it has no ready-made support base, and if it does put up candidates its vote is likely to be negligible.

All the same, I'm puzzled by the timing of this latest development.  I said six months ago that the Wings party was "a solution in search of a problem", ie. Stuart Campbell was saying we'd lose the pro-indy majority unless we gamed the voting system, and yet opinion polls at the time were suggesting that we were on course to retain the pro-indy majority without gaming the system.  That's even more true now - the recent Survation and Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase polls both showed that the SNP and Greens are heading for a thumping majority of Holyrood seats between them.  So why would we want to reinvent the wheel?

The only real answer I ever get to that question is a dark whisper about the potential impact of the forthcoming Alex Salmond trial on public opinion.  I must say I'm not totally convinced - within relatively recent history both the Tories and Liberal Democrats have had ex-Cabinet ministers who served jail sentences, and there's no real evidence that either of those cases had a major effect on voting patterns.  The trial of Jeremy Thorpe (who was ultimately acquitted) probably did hamper the Liberals' performance in the 1979 election, but not by anything like as much as expected - they only suffered a net loss of a couple of seats.  And within two years, the Liberal/SDP Alliance were riding high in the polls, and the Thorpe episode had been virtually forgotten.

However, we'll soon find out.

Monday, February 17, 2020


On the day that Kate Forbes delivered the Scottish Budget, the controversial anti-independence journalist Kevin Schofield made a trademark straw man reply to one of my own tweets.  He said he couldn't think of a bigger story that day than the SNP Finance Secretary being forced to resign just hours before he was due to give his Budget address.  It was an incredulous-sounding defence of the extreme prominence being given to the story across the media, ie. "how could anyone seriously doubt that it's justified?".  Now, it's quite true that Derek Mackay was the author of his own downfall and that his resignation was a significant embarrassment for the Scottish government, but there are reasonable suspicions that the timing of the Sun's exposé was just a bit too convenient from a journalistic point of view. Had they been sitting on the story for some time with the irresponsible intention of sabotaging the Budget process?  If so, was it tantamount to a declaration of war against a government that they urged their own readers to vote for?  And is the new hostile posture as a result of orders from the rabidly pro-Brexit Rupert Murdoch, who will presumably want the SNP to cease being such a thorn in the side of Boris Johnson?

We'll have to wait for more full-scale Scottish polls to find out whether Murdoch's tactics are succeeding in chipping away at public support for the SNP, and possibly for independence itself.  But there's a reassuring straw in the wind from the new GB-wide Opinium poll, which shows the SNP on an unusually high 6% of the vote.  (4% or 5% of the vote is more typical, although a post-election revision of the weighting scheme may be having an impact.)

Actually there are a number of supplementary questions about Scotland in the poll as well, but unfortunately one of them starts with a blatant factual inaccuracy, which misinforms respondents and thus effectively invalidates the results.  Here is the full wording -

An independence referendum in Scotland can only legally be held if the UK government agrees to it.  The UK government agreed to the 2014 referendum after the SNP won a landslide in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.  Supporters of another referendum argue that:
*Circumstances have fundamentally changed since 2014 where one of the main arguments was that Scotland would have been forced to leave the European Union if it became independent.  
*Scotland has now been "dragged out of the EU against its will" given that 62% of voters in Scotland voted Remain.
Opponents argue that:
*The 2014 vote was "once in a generation" and settled the issue.
*Holding another one opens the door to a "neverendum" where the question gets repeated until Scots eventually vote for independence.
Which comes closest to your view?

You probably won't need me to point out the inaccuracy, but I'll do it anyway.  It is flatly untrue to claim that an independence referendum "can only legally be held if the UK government agrees to it".  The UK is not Spain, and even private citizens in this country can legally organise consultative referendums, as Brian Souter proved two decades ago.  It may even be legally possible for the Scottish Parliament to specifically legislate for a consultative referendum without Westminster's consent - legal opinions differ on that point, and it has never been tested in court.  Essentially Opinium's question presents the UK government's untested opinion as indisputable fact.  That's an outrageous thing to do, although arguably the Scottish Government have to accept a small share of the blame, because they've been far too hesitant and apologetic in challenging the London narrative of "illegality".  Hopefully this sort of incident will be a wake-up call.

For what little it's worth, the result of the inaccurate question was that 43% of respondents across Britain think there should be another indyref, and 57% don't.  That's a bit closer than I would have expected.

Another question finds that 44% of respondents think that majority support for Yes in the opinion polls should be the determining factor in whether a referendum takes place, and only 23% say election results are more important.  In a way that suits us well enough, because Yes are in the lead in the most recent polls.  But as I've said many times, giving opinion polls a de facto status in the British constitution is utterly ludicrous.  There are never any guarantees that pollsters are getting it right.

35% of respondents expect Scotland to leave the UK within the next decade.  That's not a bad figure, but we could do with working on it a bit, because a greater sense of inevitability would undoubtedly work in our favour.

Friday, February 14, 2020

"It's within the margin of error, Joanna, let's be clear about that"

Just a quick post about last night's Question Time from Dundee (a pro-independence city that mysteriously always seems to do an impersonation of Buckinghamshire whenever the BBC pay a visit).  When Joanna Cherry pointed out that the last three opinion polls had shown a majority for independence, the host Fiona Bruce made two forceful interruptions -

"It's within - it's within the margin of error, Joanna, let's be clear about that."

"They're within the margin of error, so they can't - they're not as strong as you'd like them to be, I'm sure."

You'd think Ms Bruce might be a bit wary about making interventions on the subject of opinion polls, given that she had to issue a humiliating apology a year ago after she "corrected" (in rather mocking fashion) a comment Diane Abbott made about the polls, only for it to turn out that the "correction" was inaccurate and that Ms Abbott's original claim had been entirely right all along.  But was Ms Bruce on stronger ground last night?

Well...up to a point, Lord Copper.  It's true that, on an individual basis, all three of the recent polls show a Yes lead that is within the margin of error.  But when several polls all show the same thing, the equation changes somewhat.  If, for example, there were eight or ten polls that all showed Yes in the low 50s, the margin of error would no longer be an alibi, because that wouldn't be happening by chance.  (It would still be possible that there was a systemic methodological error across the polling industry causing Yes to be overestimated, but the point is that it wouldn't be happening due to random sampling variation.)  With only three polls, it's a bit less clear-cut - it's less likely that the margin of error is causing an illusory Yes lead than would be the case if there was only one poll, but it's still possible.  So, yes, Ms Bruce technically had a valid point, albeit a weaker one than she probably thought.

But the wider issue here is the double-standard.  There have been long spells over the last few years when the No vote in the polls was averaging out at around 53%, or 52%, or 51%.  And it's scarcely been unusual for unionist politicians on Question Time and other programmes to make the point that "polls show the people of Scotland are still opposed to independence".  Can you ever remember, even once, a host or interviewer jumping in to say "but it's within the margin of error"?  Nope, me neither.

I gather Jackson Carlaw has been all over the airwaves today falsely claiming that the overwhelming majority of Scots don't want a second independence referendum.  Did any interviewer correct him by pointing out that the YouGov poll shows that most Scots in fact want a referendum within five years, and that the Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll shows that most Scots think Brexit is a big enough change of circumstances to justify a referendum, and that Holyrood should legislate for one even without a Section 30 order?  Probably not.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

IndyLive Radio interview

Just a quick note to let you know that I was on IndyLive Radio yesterday for quite a lengthy interview about last week's Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, and also about polling more generally.  I don't think there's any catch-up option, but I gather the interview will be streamed again at around 8pm tonight.  So if you happen to be around, the link to the website is HERE.

Monday, February 10, 2020

No, "consultative referendum" is not a euphemism for "UDI"

I'm rather touched that Peter A Bell keeps posting such flattering photos of me on his blog, but just on a point of clarification, he's wholly wrong to suggest that I've "changed my tune" on Scotland declaring UDI - something which I basically think is a bad idea, although I've always stressed I wouldn't totally rule it out in extreme circumstances where absolutely every other possible remedy has been completely and genuinely exhausted.  Peter is implying that my support for the principle of a consultative referendum is tantamount to support for UDI, but of course it isn't - the point of a consultative referendum would be to reverse the 2014 result, establish a mandate for independence, and use that as leverage to bring the UK government to the negotiating table.  Ideally, the negotiation would be over an independence settlement, but less ideally it could result in a further agreed referendum to put the mandate beyond dispute.

As I understand it, Peter's own position is to passionately advocate for UDI while pretending to oppose it vociferously.  The wheeze is to rebrand UDI as "dissolving the union", and to make out that if you call it that, it somehow becomes an entirely different concept.  But of course any attempt to dissolve the union without Westminster's agreement is by definition a unilateral declaration of independence.  I remain baffled as to what the point of all the semantic game-playing is.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll: By wide margin, Scottish voters say Holyrood should legislate for a consultative independence referendum WITHOUT a Section 30 order if London remains intransigent

We’re coming to the end of the results of this blog’s crowdfunded Panelbase poll, but in my opinion we’ve saved the most significant result for last. It won’t attract the headlines in the London media that the main independence numbers did on Tuesday, but it’s the one that gets to the heart of the SNP’s internal debate over strategy, and the method by which we’re actually going to make independence happen in the real world. The most obvious way of breaking through the current wall of Westminster intransigence is to legislate for an independence referendum without a Section 30 order, and then wait to see if the UK government challenge the law in court. Nicola Sturgeon very carefully didn’t rule that option out in her Brexit Day speech, but she expressed misgivings about it. Her public doubts related to the possibility that the courts might rule against the Scottish Government, but I strongly suspect that she’s also concerned about scaring the horses and driving away soft Yes and soft No voters by acting in a way that might be perceived as too rash or confrontational. If that is her worry, this poll result should provide a massive dose of reassurance.

There are differing legal opinions on whether the Scottish Parliament currently has the power to hold a consultative referendum on independence without Westminster’s permission. If the UK government continues to refuse to give permission, do you think the Scottish Parliament should legislate to hold a referendum and then allow the courts to decide whether it can take place?

Yes 50%
No 39%

With Don’t Knows excluded, approximately 56% of respondents think a referendum should be called without a Section 30 order, and only 44% disagree. If those numbers sound familiar, it’s because a couple of the other favourable results in this poll have had exactly the same margin. Of course it won’t be precisely the same respondents giving positive and negative replies in each case, but there’s bound to be a considerable amount of overlap, which suggests to me that the vast bulk of those who are resistant to ‘go-it-alone’ legislation are the people who are irreconcilable to independence or to a referendum anyway. There’s practically no evidence in the poll that the current pro-Yes majority would be threatened by bold action – a mere 4% of people who would currently vote Yes, and 9% of people who voted SNP in December, don’t think the Scottish Parliament should act without a Section 30. Once again, the rump Labour vote is the most fascinating part of the sample – a healthy 44% of respondents who voted Labour in the general election think Holyrood should go ahead and legislate, and 47% do not.

When I first saw the headline numbers, it did occur to me that the majority may have come about due to a sizeable number of anti-independence Tory voters saying to themselves “go to court, then, and let’s get it settled”. But that’s not the case at all – only 5% of Tory voters answered Yes to this question. The majority very much seems to be based on people who are sympathetic to either independence, or a referendum, or both.

I also asked one other question in the poll. I was curious to discover whether people thought at the time of the 2014 independence referendum that they’d be able to vote on the subject again in future, and it turns out a significant minority thought they would.

Casting your mind back to the day of the 2014 independence referendum, what was your impression at the time of whether Scotland would be able to hold another independence referendum in the future?

I was under the impression that it would be possible to hold another independence referendum if the Scottish people voted for a party with a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum: 39%

I was under the impression that Scotland wouldn’t be allowed to hold another referendum, regardless of how the Scottish people voted in future elections: 47%

It’s important to stress that the question didn’t ask whether Alex Salmond or anyone else had “promised” there wouldn’t be another referendum – merely whether another referendum had seemed possible. Around 17% of respondents who actually voted Yes in 2014, and 19% of respondents who voted SNP in December, thought that another indyref wouldn’t be “allowed” irrespective of election results, which suggests to me that some of these are people who simply had a realistic (and appropriately cynical) assessment of the UK’s government’s regard for democratic principles.

*  *  *

You can read articles I've written for The National and the Sunday National about this poll HEREHERE, HERE and HERE.