Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Devlin's in the detail

Kate Devlin of The Herald is the guest on the latest edition of the Polling Matters podcast.  It's a very enjoyable listen, but I'm more than a tad dubious about some of the specific points that Kate makes about Scottish politics...

1) She starts a sentence with the words "the Scottish Parliament was set up with a slightly strange and unusual PR system, in part to try and prevent..."  I assumed that was heading towards the traditional assertion that the intention was to prevent the SNP ever winning a majority, but in fact she claims that it was to prevent a "one-party state" of any sort, which in the early days would most likely have been a Labour one-party state.

First of all, is our electoral system really all that "strange" or "unusual"?  It's the Additional Member System, otherwise known as Mixed Member Proportional, which is used in a fair few other countries.  Most famously, it's been used in Germany for decades.  If there is something slightly odd about the Scottish (and indeed Welsh) variant, it's the fact that list seats account for less than 50% of the total number.  But that makes the system less proportional, not more so, and therefore increases the chances of one party winning a majority.

The process that led to an agreement on the peculiar ratio between constituency and list seats ought to remove any doubt that the intention was to bolster the prospects of Labour dominance, not reduce them.  Labour publicly argued for a parliament of 113 members, which would have been comprised of 73 constituency seats and just 40 list seats.  Their Constitutional Convention partners in the Liberal Democrats wanted a parliament of 145 members, which would have had the roughly 50/50 split between constituency and list seats that is much more typical of the Additional Member System. In the end, there was a straightforward compromise on a figure exactly halfway between the two.

That dispute may well have been slightly choreographed for public consumption, but I don't think there can be any real doubt that Labour ideally wanted a somewhat less proportional system than they ended up with, and were relieved to prevent it being quite as proportional as the Lib Dems would have preferred.  That calls into question the conventional wisdom that Labour embraced AMS as a means of permanently blocking an SNP majority - it seems more likely that they discounted the possibility of being overtaken by any other party, and wanted a Welsh-style PR-lite system because they reckoned it would allow them to stay firmly in control.  With a parliament of 113 members, it's quite possible that there would have been a single-party Labour government for the first eight years of devolution, rather than a Lib/Lab coalition.  It's also certain that Labour would have remained the largest single party in the 2007 election, in spite of being beaten on the popular vote.

2) Kate says that the dramatic turnaround in the SNP's fortunes prior to the May 2011 election occurred around Christmas, or between November 2010 and March 2011.  In fact, it happened much later than that.  The SNP didn't even begin to make serious inroads until March 2011, and still seemed to be slightly behind by the end of that month.  They probably took the lead in April, and then of course continued powering forward into landslide territory.  The lateness of that surge is a cautionary tale for us now - it means we shouldn't be too complacent about the SNP's current enormous lead with six long months still to go.

3) Kate says that prior to 2010, nobody thought that an independence referendum would take place within their lifetimes.  That's obviously wrong, not least because there was a period of a few weeks in mid-2008 when an independence referendum looked inevitable by 2010.  Wendy Alexander had committed Labour to backing it (until her leadership was brought to an abrupt end).  And even after Iain "the Snarl" Gray took over, there were plausible scenarios that still left us with genuine hope of a referendum - we thought that the Liberal Democrats might eventually tire of being in opposition and do a deal, or that the SNP, Greens and Margo MacDonald might just about cobble together a pro-independence majority between them.

4) Kate points to the fate of the PQ in post-1995 Quebec as proof that "you only get two shots" at an independence referendum (a familiar refrain that we've also heard from one or two commenters on this blog).  In fact, the PQ have won two elections since the "Oui" campaign narrowly lost the 1995 referendum, and the first of those - in 1998 - was an outright majority win.  In retrospect, that was the golden opportunity to hold a third referendum, and many in the sovereigntist movement now bitterly regret allowing the momentum that had been built up to dissipate.  So the lessons from Quebec are far more ambiguous than some people would care to admit.

5) Kate also argues that the PQ's shock defeat in last year's provincial election came about because the very mention of the word "independence" now turns off voters.  Well, that's the mythology that has sprung up about that election, but it's wrong.  The real undoing of the PQ was lack of clarity - their leader Pauline Marois wanted to shut down talk of a referendum, but a leading maverick within the party decided to hype the prospect up for all it was worth, allowing the opposition to make hay about the uncertainty.  Nobody can say for sure that the PQ would have won if they had got their story straight about a referendum, but it's certainly possible that they would have done.  And the very fact that they went into the election as the incumbent government ought to tell you that it's not beyond the wit of man to find the right form of words.

6) Kate's third Quebec example is supposed to give heart to Scottish Labour.  She claims that the PQ enjoyed an SNP-style surge in the immediate aftermath of their first referendum defeat in 1980, but that it later fizzled out.  In fact, there wasn't really any surge of that type.  The PQ did hold onto power in the 1981 election, which was a solid achievement in very difficult circumstances, but they won the popular vote by just 3%, and there was a net swing in favour of their main anti-independence opponents (the Liberals).  So there's no meaningful comparison at all with the SNP's astonishing breakthrough in the UK general election this year.

7) Kate claims that public opinion in Scotland on EU membership "isn't really all that different" from English public opinion, and that there's only "a couple of points in it".  With all due respect, that's complete and utter rubbish.  The gulf is very substantial, as umpteen polls have confirmed.

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  1. I still think the Quebec comparison is nonsensical, because Scotland and Quebec are far from like-for-like: Canada is a federation, so its constituent states have far more autonomy over things like broadcasting, labour legislation, property & civil rights, social security, direct taxation, and the like, than Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland) in the UK.

    1. Agreed. Canada has a very different political system. It has a federal system where the provinces have considerable power and influence. I haven't seen anyone drawing lessons for Scotland from the Quebec experience that has a clue about Canadian politics. Devlin isn't an exception.

  2. Quebec is not an ancient nation. It is a region of a new world nation. Scotland once was a great European nation. Quebec has never been a truly independent nation.

    Scots and Scotland are recognised as distinct. Being Scottish is still a nationality independent or not. We kept our legal system,Church and education.

    We compete as Scotland in several sports and Andy Murray describes himself as a Scot. Quebec is a region asking to be a nation. Scotland is a nation seeking for independence. That's the difference.

    Kate Devlin hasn't spent too much time in Scotland so doesn't really get it. I have the same surname as Kate but we are spectrums apart.

  3. Point #5 is interesting. The Holyrood voting system is only likely to return an overall majority for a party with a clear selling point.
    Maintaining ACTIVE promotion of independence may be important in a divided political landscape.
    With income tax devolution, fighting an election on a traditional left/right basis means constituencies are more likely to divide on a rich/poor/urban/rural basis.

    The Tories will have a very clear 'no higher taxes' campaign, and Labour intends to outflank on the left. Independence attracts support from all over the political spectrum.
    There is a danger in kicking it into the long grass. Keeping up the fight for more powers and full self-government distinguishes the SNP as the party with the pro-Scotland agenda.

  4. There we see again the 'one-party state' nonsense in MSM. Scotland is not, and will never be, a one-party state. There's a massive difference between a one-party state and one in which there are many parties but one just happens to be overwhelmingly more popular than the rest.

    If I were being cynical, I'd wonder if the use of such language (and its casual acceptance by the MSM) is a subtle way of trying to entrench in people's mind an association between SNP hegemony and fascism/totalitarianism.

    1. Yeah something like that....though I think it's more of an unsubtle way of entrenching in people's mind SNP BAD! :)

    2. It is not too far fetched to consider what the establishments agenda is in trying to plant the one party state idea in peoples minds. Maybe it is not too relevant, but when in NE England a few weeks ago, and on seeing some family and friends I hadn't seen for a while, they clearly hold the SNP in contempt and even two of them mentioned fascism, and the Syria situation with reference to the Independence support within Scotland. It might seem not that important but it worries me that our next door neighbours are so brain washed that they might even justify some sort of attack on Scotland to beat down another referendum should it be called. I think we are living in dangerous times, and that some would welcome resistance, to their own ends and agenda, to an ever more fascist state residing in westmonster.

  5. In point number three you talk of the possibility that a referendum might have come about by the cobbling together of a pro independence majority.Would that be better rephrased as "a pro referendum majority" given that there was a majority among the public for a referendum at the time and pressure was being applied to unionist parties to support a referendum on that basis?

  6. Ever since I became aware of her, it has been clear to me that Kate Devlin is a pro-union Labour supporter.

    Virtually everything she says or writes is spun in that way. Little point in expecting valid and insightful political analysis from her, I fear.

    1. Disagree completely. Just because a political commentator has a side or view doesn't make these "casual mistakes" OK. A few hyper partisan journalists or whatever is annoying but the system can deal with it. The current and growing trend among supposedly highly intelligent media people with degrees from supposedly top notch schools who are chosen amount millions of people to get a regular slot to analyze a situation and comment on it to get really slipshod on facts and slipshod on phrasing things correctly not only contributes to the splintering electorate but creates a situation where even terms like " majority government" lack definition among the small percentage of people actually engaged in running campaigns and governing.

  7. Excellent stuff. I do like to see journalists being challenged on the kind of fallacies and falsehoods the peddle in the British media.

    Just as an aside on the subject of the referendum that might have been in 2010. As you say, there were "plausible scenarios" in which a referendum Bill may have been brought to the Scottish Parliament. The problem was not so much getting the necessary majority to bring the Bill forward, but what would have happened to that Bill in committees completely controlled by unionists.

    It is all but certain that the British parties would have sought to rig the referendum in ways reminiscent of the "40% rule"that fatally skewed the 1979 devolution referendum.

    And it is not difficult to imagine that the Bill might have been amended in such a way as to effectively prohibit any further referendums. Or, at least, defer another vote for 20 years or more.

    The potential for "wrecking" amendments was doubtless behind British Labour's enthusiasm for having a Bill introduced. Fortunately, Alex Salmond and his team had the wits to avoid the trap.

  8. Just to confirm your analysis of the 'PR lite' Welsh devolution system, designed by Labour to help them keep power (40 first past the post seats, 20 regional lists). What has somewhat spoilt their plans is the long-term decline of the Labour vote (painfully slow it must be admitted).

  9. Congratulations James. 3 Days to reach your target. Well done.

    And relative silence from the troll fol de rolls too.

  10. She is clearly a Brit Nat with absolutely no knowledge of political history in either Scotland or Quebec. I wonder if she is one of those Labour hacks that would vote UKIP just to spite the SNP?

    I don't know where to start with trashing the utter pish she vomited from her mouth.

    It also confirmed that my decision to cease purchasing the Herald was a sound one.

  11. She seems to have got very little right. Excellent article. Thanks.

    Congratulations on overtaking your target for fund raising.

  12. She is another unionist journalist with the usual agenda. A Wolve in sheeps clothing. Beware woman who speaketh with forked tongue.

  13. As far as I know, the German electoral system differs from the Scottish one in one very important respect: The number of list seats is fluid and will grow as far as necessary to ensure the composition of the parliament corresponds to the the list result. In other words, under the German system, if the SNP won all the constituency seats but only got 1/4 of the list votes, the number of list seats would be set to appr. 4 times the number of constituency seats.

  14. Wow a member of the Anglo/US owned "scottish media" talks keech and tells lies and invents a narrative to disparage Scottish Independence ,now here's a huge shockerooney moment.
    Next week BBC Scotland does not like SNP revelation.