Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Alex Massie unwittingly pinpoints yet another excellent reason to vote for independence

From Alex Massie in his Spectator blog today -

"Nor is nationalist talk of a renewed democratic deficit all that persuasive. Sure, the Tories only have one MP in Scotland and between them the coalition parties can only count on a dozen Scottish votes. But a majority of English voters did not vote Conservative either. There is a distinction to be drawn between legitimacy conferred by a parliamentary majority and that earned by a majority of votes cast. In the latter instance, Scotland is different only by degree not kind.

The fact of the matter is that almost all British governments are delivered on a minority of the vote. Neither Tony Blair nor Margaret Thatcher ever won a majority of votes cast."

Which entirely misunderstands the nature of the democratic deficit. If our betters in the London establishment are to sustain the notion (and they certainly do their level best to) that the first-past-the-post electoral system used for Westminster is both fair and democratic, then the only meaningful tests of a democratic deficit are a) whether any given British government would have been elected in Scotland under the same system, and b) whether that government would even have come remotely close to being elected in Scotland under the same system. The Conservative government of 1959-64 failed test a) but not test b). The Tory governments of 1970-74, 1979-83 and 1983-87 failed both tests, but could at least claim to have put up a respectable fight on test b). But the three subsequent Tory governments, including the present one, failed test b) by absolute bloody light-years. It seems reasonable to suppose that the same will be true of any other Tory government that may come along in the foreseeable future.

"Even after independence most of us are likely to be ruled by a party for which we did not vote. Scotland, in this respect, will just be a smaller Britain. That’s fine but I think it reduces the impact of the democratic deficit argument which is, in any case, in part the consequence of our electoral system not the cumulative total of votes cast."

But that's not quite right, is it? An independent Scotland will be more democratic in two ways, not just the one that Alex is hinting at there. The built-in and supposedly unavoidable "British" democratic deficit that Alex refers to can be more succinctly described thus -

The UK uses an antiquated voting system for its national parliament that delivers a result that bears little resemblance to how the electorate actually votes. As a result of the Liberal Democrats' tactical bungling, there is now almost no prospect of that system being replaced for several decades, if ever.

And the solution to the problem can be described thus -

An independent Scotland will replace first-past-the-post with proportional representation for the national parliament, ensuring that election results closely mirror how the electorate actually votes, and that a much lower proportion of votes will be wasted.

Hardly a position consistent with "voting Yes won't make much difference". And funnily enough, what I've just done is a good example of the Yes campaign narrative that Alex spends most of his piece moaning about (while confusingly conceding that it is totally necessary). It goes like this - you identify something that is profoundly wrong with the United Kingdom, you explain why that problem cannot possibly be fixed from within the United Kingdom, and then you set out in very simple terms how an independent Scotland would fix it. I'm not remotely squeamish about any of this - if the Yes campaign have been using that narrative to a sufficient extent that Alex now feels able to accuse them of 'victimhood', then it shows that it's hitting home. What Alex sees as 'scaremongering', I see as facing facts - the fundamental difference with the No campaign's negativity is that they are dreaming up wildly implausible speculative claims of how an independent Scotland might flounder, while Yes are talking about what is verifiably wrong with the UK right now. There is no dispute over the factual reality of unwanted nuclear missiles being present on Glasgow's doorstep, for example.

An authentic Yes equivalent to Project Fear (or to the No2AV campaign) would instead be one that comes up with hypothetical examples of what Westminster might do to Scotland over the coming decades, and presents them to the electorate as cold hard fact. Frankly, I think there might be a place for that tactic as well, at least to a modest degree. The No campaign have got to learn that they're not the only ones allowed to play hardball. And although I don't agree with Iain Macwhirter's assessment of the White Paper's impact, one thing he is certainly right about is that another vital aspect of a successful Yes campaign will be a vastly enhanced rebuttal operation, with a team of experts constantly on hand to rapidly and authoritatively rebut any or all of the silly scare stories that crop up on a daily basis. There's a strong case for having separate rebuttal units based in both Scotland and London, to finally get to grips with the utter drivel that is routinely bounced back to voters via the London media.

Alex concludes his piece by suggesting that the Yes campaign's attempts to identify what is wrong with the UK will come up against voters' own perceptions that life isn't really so bad at the moment. I must say that it seems quite odd for a blogger who prays in aid shades of grey and matters of degree in respect of the democratic deficit to see no relevance at all for those same concepts when it comes to people's level of contentment with the way in which they are governed. I don't think life for Scots within the UK is intolerable by any means (although it may well be for a substantial minority) - but there's an awful lot wrong with it just the same, and there's plenty we can do to put it right in an independent Scotland. Conversely, there's precious little we can do about it for as long as we contract out our choice of government to a country that - perfectly legitimately - keeps voting for right-wing administrations.


  1. That piece is so far below Massie's usual intellectual standards I can only conclude he had a heavily liquid lunch.

    It ignores the fact that nobody voted for a coalition government. It ignores the fact that the electoral system distorts voting in FPTP elections. It ignores the fact that it's stupendously unusual for a single party to get a majority in Scotland, whereas you can get a HUGE majority in England on a third of the vote.

    And plenty more besides, much of which you've already expertly skewered.

  2. The banner for Bettertogether is UK-OK

    I am pretty sure that a lot of people, a majority who are not Scots, are far from feeling ok.

    For me then the argument runs thus: Why vote yes?
    Answer: Is there anything at all, on balance that makes what is happening right now acceptable? What is it, that you are asking me to vote no for?

  3. the fundamental difference with the No campaign's negativity is that they are dreaming up wildly implausible speculative claims of how an independent Scotland might flounder, while Yes are talking about what is verifiably wrong with the UK right now.

    Exactly. "1 in 5 Scottish children in poverty" is NOT the same as "England might bomb Scottish airports" because the first is ACTUALLY HAPPENING RIGHT NOW, the other just "might" happen (with a given value of "might.") It is NOT scaremongering to highlight issues which are happening as we speak and policies which are being implemented as we speak, and the No campaign refuse to see this.

  4. every now and then, Mr Massie, can't stop one squeezing out.