Sunday, January 20, 2019

On the subject of blogging etiquette...

Disappointingly, Mhairi Hunter reacted to the polite criticism in the previous post by blocking me on Twitter.  It's never pleasant being blocked by someone 'on your own side', especially an elected councillor.  But I have to say in this particular case it's almost a relief, because she does seem to have a major problem with dissenting views, no matter how courteously expressed.  (She once tried to shut down a point I was making by telling me to go on diversity training.)  I think it's worth just making a general comment about "blogging etiquette" here, because Mhairi is not the first person to react to having her name mentioned in a blogpost as if that is in itself a form of abuse. You might remember I was once accused of persecuting a pro-independence columnist because I mentioned her name in two different blogposts (!).  Perhaps some people just object to the whole concept of political blogging, but if it's going to continue to exist, it will unavoidably involve commentary about named individuals.  That's a feature, not a bug. We've all heard of the snowflake generation, but we're getting into the realms of the ridiculous if we now have a generation of journalists and elected politicians who have thrust themselves into the public sphere but don't want their names to actually be mentioned in public.

In her parting shot about me after the blocking, Mhairi made two complaints - firstly that it was a "poor show" for me to mention her without advance warning, and secondly that the namecheck had led to her being harassed by others, including by one who called her a "Britnat plant".  Call me cynical, but I have to say I am extremely doubtful as to whether Mhairi would have been any happier if I had sent her an email in advance - I think she just doesn't want to be mentioned without permission, knows that there's no particular reason why she shouldn't be, and is therefore scrabbling around for some plausible-sounding technical objection to the way it was done.  I haven't asked other bloggers whether they usually give advance warning to elected politicians about forthcoming criticisms, but I will openly admit that it isn't my own personal practice to send a telegram to Downing Street or the White House every time I make a comment about Theresa May or Donald Trump.  I'll keep that policy under review, but I do think it would get a bit tedious for all concerned.

If for the sake of argument there is a valid point of etiquette here, by definition that would mean personal criticisms in a blogpost must somehow be qualitatively different from personal criticisms on social media, because Mhairi and others who have objected to being named on this blog have no qualms whatsoever about criticising others on Twitter without prior notification.  (And I can say that with confidence, because over the years I've been on the receiving end of occasional snide comments from Mhairi on Twitter that I only found out about by chance later on - indeed that happened most recently just a few hours ago.)  So is the implication that a blogpost is "properly published" in a way that a tweet isn't?  I have to say I can't see it.  Twitter now provides viewing stats, and I've learned that my most popular tweets regularly generate more impressions than my blogposts.  Tweets may feel casual and disposable, but a personal criticism in a tweet is just as likely to be read by a large number of people, and just as likely to remain visible indefinitely, as a personal criticism in a blogpost.

As for me supposedly being indirectly responsible for a Twitter pile-on, for that to be a credible point you'd have to believe that it was somehow disproportionate for me to draw attention to Mhairi's approving words about Joyce McMillan's article.  But I'm afraid that it's impossible to sustain the idea that it wasn't newsworthy or noteworthy that an elected SNP politician endorsed an article that suggested an independence referendum should be put on the backburner for up to two decades, thus ripping up a flagship manifesto pledge.  I could have mentioned Mhairi, I could have mentioned Andrew Wilson, I could have mentioned one or two other politicians who endorsed the article.  But it self-evidently wouldn't have been disproportionate whichever name I had cited.  As a blogger I don't see why I have some sort of duty to hush up 'sensitive' tweets posted by elected representatives.  And yes, if those tweets reach a wider audience, people will react to them, and some people will react in a highly inappropriate way - but ultimately other individuals are responsible for their own words and actions.  I have no intention of tying myself up in knots trying to predict what the knock-on effect might be every time I make a perfectly reasonable point in a blogpost.

To return to the substance of the dispute, I saw Mhairi being challenged yesterday about the dubious claim that a consultative referendum would be "illegal".  Oddly, her reply was that it didn't really matter whether it would be technically legal or not.  She said that what people were really getting at was that any referendum that the UK government didn't agree to would be functionally illegal, because Scotland can only become independent if London recognises a referendum result as valid.  I can't make head nor tail of that point.  The whole purpose of a consultative referendum would be to pressurise London into coming to the negotiating table by demonstrating that there is a mandate for independence.  If it's possible to apply that pressure legally rather than illegally, of course that's not a technical or meaningless distinction.

And I've been thinking some more about Joyce McMillan's claim that independence has to wait until "consensus" and "harmony" have been established, in much the same way that devolution had to wait two decades after 1979.  It's worth remembering that SNP, Labour and Liberal/SDP politicians of the 1980s did not recognise any need to wait - they were all trying to establish a Scottish Parliament as soon as possible.  It would be interesting to know whether Joyce McMillan and Mhairi Hunter, if they could time-travel and go back to the 1983 or 1987 election campaigns, would advise opposition politicians to "cool your jets, let Thatcher do her worst, don't try to take any action for another 15 years".

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Joyce McMillan's article calls for the SNP to become a unionist-for-now party and to betray its promise to give the Scottish people a choice on their own future in the event of Brexit. We should have no truck with any of that.

I know I'm not the only person who was disappointed and deeply concerned to see the Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter, and one or two others close to the party leadership, give the seal of approval to an absolutely extraordinary article by Joyce McMillan that amounts to a counsel of despair for the independence movement, and a call for an indefinite delay for any meaningful push towards independence.  The main points of the article were as follows -

* Nicola Sturgeon should not even request a Section 30 order (because the request would be rejected) and SNP supporters shouldn't be pushing her to do it.  This point is implied by the article rather than explicitly stated, but I defy anyone to dispute that the implication is readily apparent.  It effectively paints as a form of extremism any suggestion that Ms Sturgeon should do what she's already done once in 2017, and what we've been strongly led to believe she's about to do again.  It would also mean that it's somehow outrageously militant to merely ask that the SNP stick to their own manifesto commitment - and remember that the manifesto arguably went further than simply pledging a Section 30 request.  It certainly didn't acknowledge any Westminster veto on the holding of an independence referendum in the event of Brexit.

* The example of Catalonia demonstrates that the holding of a referendum without the agreement of Westminster would set the cause of independence back 10 years.  This is a really appalling piece of victim-blaming on McMillan's part.  The Spanish authorities trampled all over the Catalan people's democratic rights, meted out arbitrary violence against citizens casting a peaceful vote, and took political prisoners.  But apparently this is all the Catalans' fault for failing to meekly take "no" for an answer.  In actual fact, hardly anyone is seriously talking about following Catalonia's example by holding an illegal referendum - what is being suggested is instead that the current powers of the Scottish Parliament should be tested by passing a Referendum Bill and then seeing if the Supreme Court upholds it.  If they don't, no harm done, and alternative methods for seeking an independence mandate would then have to be considered.  But if they do, the referendum would become the law of the land, so what exactly would be the problem?  Why are some senior SNP people in such a hurry to brand something as "illegal" when a) we don't know whether it is yet, and b) there'd definitely be no illegality in simply putting the matter to the test?

In any case, the United Kingdom is not Spain.  Disappointingly, it probably is the case that there's a natural majority within the UK population for denying Scotland's right to democratic self-determination for the time being, but what there most certainly isn't a majority for is the deploying of Spanish-style tactics in pursuit of that policy.  There would be an outcry if any such thing happened.  The UK government are in practice much more restricted in their options than the Spanish government were, and they know that full well.

Not that any of this has got anything to do with politely requesting a Section 30 order, an act that would be fully in line with the UK's constitutional arrangements, but which for some bizarre reason McMillan also regards as unconscionable.

* There can be no move towards independence until "consensus" and "harmony" are achieved, and this may well take 20 years, as was the case with devolution.  Blimey.  Where do you start?  First of all, it implies that the UK government were entirely right to ignore the narrow 52-48 vote in favour of devolution in 1979 (an outrage that McMillan herself has spoken out against plenty enough times).  It drives a coach and horses through the SNP's long-standing position on a referendum, which has always been that a simple majority of 50% + 1 is sufficient.  In the 2014 referendum, the SNP were certainly seeking consensus between Yes and No voters, but the form of that proposed consensus in the event of a narrow Yes vote would have been a compromise involving a "soft" form of independence - ie. a currency union, a monarchical union, a social union and so on.  (Much of that remains on the table - the only exception is the currency union, and the blame for the failure of that idea can be placed squarely at the London Treasury's door.)  Now it seems that the only appropriate form of "consensus" if there's a narrow majority for independence is no independence at all.  A suitably Orwellian proposition.

Isn't it also a bit odd that someone who cautions against hasty action that could put the cause of independence back 10 years would then advocate doing nothing for 20 years anyway?  I mean, doesn't the latter put the cause back by 20 years rather than 10?  What am I missing here?

And last but not least, putting a referendum on the backburner for 20 years until this utopian state of "harmony" is achieved would also mean that the SNP's current stated position, and the position stated in their manifesto, ie. that the Scottish people should have the right to another say on their own constitutional future in the event of Brexit, is a sham.  The idea that anyone would have taken that promise to mean "but only once you've had a chance to mull it over for a couple of decades" is risible.

McMillan's stance is not technically anti-independence, but it can be summed up as "unionism for the foreseeable future, and then we'll see".  It reminds me very much of the original constitutional policy of the current governing party of Quebec (the Coalition Avenir Qu├ębec) which was a ten-year moratorium on any talk of an independence referendum.  That then gradually mutated into "we will never hold a referendum, but we might seek more powers for Quebec within the Canadian federation".  Why any elected SNP representative would be flirting with this stuff is beyond me.  I would suggest our response to this disturbing development should be the opposite of what McMillan wants - we should redouble our urgent calls for Nicola Sturgeon, in the first instance, to renew her request for a Section 30 order within the next few weeks.  That, frankly, is a position of moderation not extremism, and we should have no patience for any attempts to gaslight us into believing the contrary.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

Bewildered Farquharson wonders "do these stupid voters actually LIKE civil wars?" as bombshell YouGov subsample puts the SNP close to 50% of the vote

So the usual health warnings at this point - what you're about to see is not a "poll", it should not be referred to as "the latest Scottish poll", and it's not in any way equivalent to recent full-scale Scottish polls with less favourable results.  Nevertheless, YouGov's Scottish subsamples do appear (unlike those from other firms) to be correctly structured and weighted, which means the only real problem with them is a large margin of error caused by the small sample size.  That being the case, this rather extreme result is an interesting straw in the wind...

SNP 47%, Conservatives 24%, Labour 14%, Liberal Democrats 8%, Greens 5%, UKIP 2%

That's obviously not the true position, but nevertheless I think we can safely assume that Labour are not going to be taking the lead in Scotland any time soon.  At 47%, the SNP have equalled their best recent showing in a YouGov subsample, which makes it appear somewhat unlikely that the fallout from Alex Salmond's legal victory has had the effect that the unionist media clearly expected.  It looks like voters actually care more about resolving the chaos of Brexit than about minor tensions between people in the SNP - who'd have thunk it? 

This is also a rare example (rare by the standards of the last two years, I mean) of the pro-independence parties in combination having an outright majority of the vote in a YouGov subsample.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

No, Lady Hermon's support does not give the government a DUP-proof majority

There's a rather odd little article on the New Statesman website by Patrick Maguire, claiming that Lady Hermon's announcement that she will never back any motion of no confidence means that Labour will have to find a vote on the Tory side if they are ever to have any chance of bringing down the government, even if the DUP change sides.  (The implication being they've got very little chance.)  But in fact there's nothing remotely new about what Lady Hermon said, and as things stand it makes no difference to the parliamentary arithmetic anyway.  As expected she voted against the no confidence motion last night, but the government still won by fewer than 20 votes - meaning that if the DUP had backed the motion, the government would have lost.  No need for any Tory defections at all - the DUP could have swung the balance on their own.

That said, it was initially rather alarming to realise that the margin of defeat for the government in those circumstances would have been just one vote.  On the face of it, that raises the possibility that the DUP might eventually decide to bring about a general election, but fail to do so.  Remember that on a tied vote, the Speaker is supposed to exercise his casting vote in line with the status quo, which in the case of a no confidence motion means voting to save the government.  So the arithmetic with the DUP opposing the government looks very close to being a coin toss.

Thankfully, it turns out that three ex-Labour MPs who now sit as independents abstained last night - Fiona Onasanya, the odious John Woodcock, and Ivan Lewis.  Mr Woodcock is clearly a lost cause, and I don't know what the situation with Mr Lewis is, but I would guess Ms Onasanya probably just couldn't be bothered to turn up, because she's no longer subject to Labour discipline and she knew the motion was going to fail anyway.  So it's likely that the combined opposition forces can count on an extra vote or two in any truly competitive no confidence vote, which should ensure that only the DUP are required - assuming, that is, Ms Onasanya remains out of jail.  She obviously wouldn't be able to vote from prison, and if any jail sentence is of a duration of one year or longer, she would automatically forfeit her seat in the Commons, triggering a by-election in a marginal constituency that the Tories could conceivably win (if the current opinion polls are to be believed).  In that scenario, the parliamentary arithmetic would become that bit more daunting.  But it hasn't happened yet, and it may not happen at all.

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There was an even more peculiar article on the Corbynite alternative media website Evolve Politics last night, with a ludicrous headline claiming that the SNP were plotting with the Lib Dems to prop up the Tories in future no confidence votes.  The mind boggles as to how clueless any reporter would have to be about the realities of Scottish politics to give even the remotest credence to that story.  Sure enough, Kirsty Blackman immediately informed them in no uncertain terms on Twitter that they were wrong.  They hilariously reacted as if they had just succeeded in extracting some sort of 'concession' from her under pressure, but of course she was merely stating the blindingly obvious.  The SNP are in fact considerably more determined and more united in their attempts to bring down the government than the Labour party are, as evidenced by their tabling of a no confidence motion in December when Labour were holding back.

And if you think about it, the SNP's stance effectively kills the story as far as the Lib Dems are concerned as well.  Although it's not hard to see why the Lib Dems might want to threaten to abstain on a no confidence vote in an attempt to pressure Labour into backing a second referendum, there's no way they'd be able to see that threat through unless they had the safety-blanket of another party doing the same thing.  Single-handedly propping the Tories up at this stage would be electoral suicide for Cable's mob.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Last night increased the chances of a People's Vote - but it probably increased the chances of No Deal even more

"If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?"

I'm sure Donald Tusk is a very nice man and kind to animals, but the now-notorious tweet above just looks idiotic to me - unless of course he actually wants a no deal Brexit for some reason, and is trying out a touch of reverse psychology.  All he's succeeded in doing is vastly increasing the paranoia among Brexit supporters about a dastardly Brussels plot to overturn the 2016 referendum, which will pile the pressure on Tory MPs to take a hard line over the coming weeks, and to ensure that Britain leaves the EU on 29th March at all costs, etc, etc.

I've found over recent weeks that when I'm trying to work out what will happen next with Brexit, a useful starting point is to look at whatever Mike "impartial Lib Dem election expert" Smithson is predicting, because it can usually be pretty safely ruled out as a possibility.  Before Christmas, he famously gave us the all-time classic of: "The DUP will vote for Theresa May's deal because they're scared of a united Ireland.  Don't worry, I've thought about this for three seconds so you don't have to."  Undeterred by being proved catastrophically wrong on that one (who would ever have guessed?) he's now claiming that Theresa May is about to back a People's Vote, and will use the drive for cross-party consensus as her excuse for the U-turn.  For good measure, he adds that this means the ERG's strategy was "not very smart" - which presumably implies that a better "strategy" for them would have been the same highly sophisticated one he expected from the DUP if they wanted to avoid a united Ireland, ie. to pack up, go home, and stop making such a damn fuss.

Hmmm.  I suspect the ERG will want to wait to see if Smithson's prediction is actually correct before giving up on life completely.  The reality is that last night's vote did increase the chances of a People's Vote, but it also increased the chances of no deal.  This is a high stakes game, and anyone who claims to know for sure which side is going to win it is deluding themselves.  One thing I am confident about, though, is that if a People's Vote does happen, Theresa May will not be responsible for helping to bring it about (or not intentionally, anyway).  OK, we know she lies every day of her life, so her repeated insistence that she won't back a referendum can't be taken at face value.  But we can rely on what we've learned about how she will measure success or failure in her tenure as Prime Minister.  She wants her place in history to be the delivery of an orderly Brexit, and if that really isn't possible she would settle for just delivering Brexit.  A People's Vote would put Brexit at severe risk, so if forced to choose between a referendum and pretty much any alternative, she would always choose the alternative.

If you're trying to work out what the "May lie" was last night, I think the most promising candidate was her assurance that she is not trying to run down the clock.  I would not be at all surprised if running down the clock is the exact purpose of the forthcoming cross-party talks.  It's very hard to believe that she has any intention of reaching an understanding with Labour - yes, there might be a natural parliamentary majority for a much softer Brexit, but if she went down that road she would leave the most hard-line Brexiteers feeling they have nothing left to lose by breaking away from the Conservative party, which in turn could bring down the government.  I suspect she'll be happy enough to look like she's doing something urgently, but to no great effect - with the intended outcome being a miracle last-minute parliamentary approval for something approximating to the current deal, or a "nothing to do with me guv" no deal by default.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Is it "inconceivable" for Sarah Smith to report Scottish politics objectively?

I stumbled across this tweet overnight -

Although I didn't hear the report in question, I have little difficulty imagining that Sarah Smith said exactly that, because she's been playing this little game ever since the election of June 2017.  She's been repeatedly informing viewers and listeners as a statement of fact that Nicola Sturgeon has a private position on indyref timing that bears no resemblance to her public position, and that the only question in any real contention is which tactic will be used to let the SNP rank-and-file down gently.  At no stage has Smith issued a disclaimer that this is pure speculation on her part and that alternative interpretations are available.  If her speculation is rooted in private gossip from SNP sources, at no stage has she made that clear or given the slightest information about the quality or the breadth of those sources.

I'd suggest it's fair comment to say that if the BBC are ever going to recover some of the trust they undoubtedly lost in Scotland in 2014, this kind of nonsense is going to have to stop.  The BBC's job is to report reality, not to attempt to shape reality in line with a worldview that places a premium on the unity of the British state, and thus wishes confusion upon the enemies of British unity.

Let's look at this in a way that Sarah Smith won't much appreciate.  It's only a week or so since Nicola Sturgeon started dropping heavy hints (indeed more than hints) that an indyref timetable would be set out very soon.  Given the expectations that have been generated on an already impatient Yes side, some would argue that it's "inconceivable" that there will be any further substantial delay.  If Smith thinks that logic is incorrect, it's incumbent upon her as the face of a public service broadcaster to explain why and to support her argument with hard facts.  Punditry masquerading as news just isn't good enough - not when the future of our country is at stake.

As far as the Alex Salmond controversy is concerned, my own view is that Nicola Sturgeon has got the emphasis slightly wrong throughout this process.  She rightly stated at the outset that the allegations against Mr Salmond could not be swept under the carpet and must be thoroughly investigated, but what was missing was a reminder that Mr Salmond was entitled to due process and a presumption of innocence while the investigation was underway.  By the same token, when Mr Salmond won his legal challenge against the Scottish Government, Ms Sturgeon rightly went out of her way to express regret for the negative impact on the two complainants, but failed to make what would have been an equally appropriate apology for the injustice done to Mr Salmond.  Essentially the impression that's been given is that the need for the allegations to be actually proved is just a formality.  For all the sanctimonious commentary a few months ago about how Mr Salmond's legal challenge and his crowdfunder had something to do with "toxic masculinity", the value of what he's done is to make it less likely in future that someone's career can be ended simply by an untested allegation -  which should never be the case for a person of any gender or at any pay grade.

So, yes, there are differences of opinion within the SNP on this topic, but the characterisation of those differences as a "civil war" is extremely silly, and the idea put about in one or two newspapers that Ms Sturgeon's leadership is seriously under threat is in the realms of fantasy.  I would also note that the one thing guaranteed to heal any slight rift and to bring the SNP together with a unity of purpose would be the swift timetabling of an independence referendum.  I very much doubt if I'm the only person that point has occurred to, even if it's yet to occur to Sarah Smith.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Having just destroyed the devolution settlement, Nebulous Theresa makes bizarre claim that it would be unthinkable for Westminster to destroy the devolution settlement

Theresa May has got some nerve.  I know that as statements of the obvious go, that's right up there with "the Pope is a Catholic" and "Rory Stewart is from The Middleland", but sometimes it just needs to be said all the same.  Her latest wheeze, intended to shame her own MPs into backing her God-awful Brexit deal, must rank as some kind of new high watermark in her relentless attempts to perfect the art of hypocrisy -

"Imagine if an anti-devolution House of Commons had said to the people of Scotland or Wales that despite voting in favour of a devolved legislature, Parliament knew better and would overrule them. Or else force them to vote again."

Luckily we don't have to imagine such an extraordinary state of affairs. In a referendum held in March 1979, the people of Scotland voted in favour of a devolved legislature by 52% to 48% - EXACTLY the same margin by which the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016.  A Conservative-dominated, anti-devolution parliament under Margaret Thatcher decided it knew better than the people of Scotland, and overruled them.  No devolved legislature was set up - an act of utter, contemptuous defiance of a democratic referendum result.

Even the Labour party under Tony Blair insisted that Scotland couldn't have the legislature it had already voted for without being forced to vote on the subject again.  And that opportunity wasn't provided until some eighteen-and-a-half years after the first referendum result had been ignored. This time, Scotland voted by an overwhelming margin of 74% to 26% in favour of a devolved legislature that would have exclusive control over a range of policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries.

But two decades later, a Conservative-dominated, anti-devolution parliament under Theresa May decided it knew better than the people of Scotland, and overruled them.  Powers that the people had voted to give to the Scottish Parliament were taken back to Westminster without consent, driving a coach and horses through the democratic referendum result of 1997.  The Tories' cynicism was so overwhelming that they even legislated to retrospectively remove the Scottish Parliament's power to pass a bill it had only just passed.

In a nutshell, there have been two referendums in Scotland on devolution, and the results of both have been overturned either in whole or in part by the Westminster parliament.  What exactly is your point here, Theresa?

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I'm coming round to the idea that yesterday's story about a possible parliamentary "coup" may have just been misinformation emanating from the Downing Street camp, intended to spook Brexiteers into backing the May deal.  That theory is certainly consistent with the current spin about "no Brexit being more likely than No Deal" - the calculation seems to be that if anyone saves May's bacon, it'll be Brexiteers rather than Remainers.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Have the chances of a very early general election just increased?

By now you may have seen the front page story in the Sunday Times, claiming that anti-Brexit Tory MPs are plotting a "coup" in collusion with John Bercow to wrest control of parliamentary business away from the government, thus making it much easier to swiftly pass legislation to reverse or soften Brexit.  Now, a lot of the time newspaper stories of this sort turn out to be wildly exaggerated or over-dramatised, but let's say for the sake of argument that there's a 25% chance there's something in it.  If so, Theresa May would not be entirely powerless to resist the plot, but the only effective card she might have left to play would be the calling of an immediate general election, which the Tories would fight on a "last chance to save Brexit" platform.  Presumably if the Tories won a clear majority in such an election, the first thing they'd do afterwards is install a more Brexit-friendly Speaker who would help to restore the status quo ante in terms of government control over Commons business.

We're forever being told by one or two commentators (chiefly Mike "impartial Lib Dem election expert" Smithson) that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes an early election next-to-impossible, almost as if the 2017 election was a collective hallucination.  But the reality is that if May decides she wants an election, there'll be one.  She'd only need a two-thirds majority in the Commons, and with the support of Labour and the bulk of her own troops, that would be virtually assured.  Even if for some reason she fell short, there would be other ways of achieving the same effect - she could instruct Tory MPs to vote against her own government on a motion of no confidence, which would only require a simple majority to succeed, or she could even legislate to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act itself.

Surely, you might think, May would never take the risk of an early election after what happened to her two years ago?  If the Sunday Times story is correct (and admittedly that's an extremely big 'if'), I'm not sure there'd be much risk left.  If May becomes the first Prime Minister to lose control of parliamentary business, her premiership would be effectively over bar the shouting, and the legacy she expected as the leader who delivered Brexit would be snatched away.  A 40% chance of success if she calls a general election would start to look like a better bet than a 100% chance of failure if she doesn't.

What would be the SNP's prospects in a very early, pre-Brexit election?  I'd imagine that would depend to a large extent on Labour's manifesto.  If, as Corbyn currently insists, Labour fight the election pledging to implement Brexit on the basis of a new fantasy deal with Brussels, I suspect the Scottish Labour vote would collapse and the SNP would be the most likely beneficiaries.  But there must be some kind of chance that Corbyn would give in to last-minute pressure to promise a "People's Vote".  A lifelong Eurosceptic he may be, but there have already been a number of occasions when he's set that to one side in pursuit of power.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Is the end NIGH for Ruth? SHOCK YouGov poll sets SNP on course for LANDSLIDE victory

The mystery I mentioned in the previous post has been solved much quicker than expected - and to be fair, it appears (just this once) that nothing sinister was going on.  The reason why the Scottish subsample was missing from the datasets of the YouGov mega-poll commissioned by the People's Vote campaign was, it seems, that it was being withheld for publication later on as a full-scale poll in its own right, which has now happened.  The results are devastating for Labour, and they're not much better for the Tories either.

Scottish voting intentions for the next Westminster election:

SNP 40% (n/c)
Conservatives 25% (-2)
Labour 21% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)
Greens 3% (+1)
UKIP 2% (+1)

The percentage changes listed above are from the last published full-scale Scottish poll from YouGov, which was conducted many months ago.  If anything, the SNP's 40% share might be seen as being on the lower end of expectations, given how well they've been doing in recent YouGov subsamples (never lower than 40% and reaching as high as 46%).  But of course what really matters in a first-past-the-post election is the gap between a party and its competitors - and the SNP's lead over both the Tories and Labour has essentially doubled since the June 2017 election.  On a uniform swing, the SNP would make a big jump from 35 seats at the moment to around 45 - and the big difference from some recent polls is that they'd be making significant seat gains from the Tories and not just Labour.  One of the constituencies they'd recover from the Tories would be Gordon - which might be of some interest to a certain Mr Salmond if he fancies taking his old Westminster seat back once he rejoins the SNP!

The main propaganda purpose of the Britain-wide poll from the point of view of the People's Vote campaign seemed to be to put pressure on the Labour leadership by demonstrating that they will lose massive support to the Liberal Democrats if they are seen to facilitate Brexit.  I wondered in the previous post whether the missing Scottish figures would show that Labour votes in Scotland would drift to the SNP rather than the Lib Dems, and that's broadly proved to be the case.

Hypothetical Scottish voting intentions for Westminster if a Brexit deal is passed by Conservative and Labour MPs, but opposed by SNP and Liberal Democrat MPs:

SNP 43%
Conservatives 27%
Labour 15%
Liberal Democrats 9%

People are generally bad at answering hypothetical questions, so those figures should be taken with a huge dose of salt.  It might well not be anything like that bad for Labour once the page is actually turned - although I also wouldn't rule out the slight possibility that it could be even worse for them if a legend really takes root that they were responsible for dragging Scotland into a hard Brexit.  Either way, it's heartening that voters in Scotland seem to instinctively see the SNP rather than the Lib Dems as the most natural repository for anti-Brexit votes.  That could be a sign that Nicola Sturgeon's post-2017 strategy is paying dividends.

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YouGov and the mystery of the missing Scottish subsample

The remarkably well-resourced "People's Vote" campaign decided, for some reason, to commission a ridiculously enormous GB-wide YouGov poll of 25,537 respondents over the course of Christmas and New Year.  One possibility is that it was really a sequence of daily polls for private consumption, which were later aggregated for publication.  It shows Labour dropping to an unusually low 34%, six points behind the Tories.  In normal circumstances you'd say "it's just one poll, we have to wait for more information", but the reality is that this is the equivalent of an average of more than ten polls conducted over a span of two weeks, so it has to be taken very seriously.  The only saving grace for Labour is that polls taken over Christmas sometimes produce weird results which are later reversed, but there's certainly no guarantee that will prove to be the case on this occasion.

Oddly, and in a complete departure from normal YouGov practice, figures from the Scottish subsample are not provided in the datasets.  Even more oddly, the figures from the London subsample are there, which simply serves to make the omission even more blatant.  At first glance it almost looks like an accidental error, with the non-London subsamples being chopped off from the edge of the page.  But if it was an honest mistake, it's one that YouGov have now had plenty of opportunity to rectify.  So it seems more likely that the People's Vote campaign requested that the Scottish numbers should be withheld.

Although the SNP have pledged their support for a People's Vote, the campaign is presumably still very much under the control of "centrists" and "moderates" in the three main London-based parties.  You can certainly see why it might not be in the interests of such people to publish a Scottish subsample of a size equivalent to a full-scale poll, if by any chance it shows a handsome SNP lead.  And one of the obvious purposes of the poll is to put pressure on the Corbyn leadership by demonstrating that in the hypothetical scenario of a Brexit deal going through with Tory and Labour support, Labour would then lose a huge chunk of its voters to the Liberal Democrats.  If it shows those Labour votes would in Scotland actually be lost to the SNP rather than to the Lib Dems, that may be an inconvenient detail that the People's Vote campaign would rather we didn't hear about.  It's perfectly possible that's the case, because the SNP and Plaid Cymru have a combined GB-wide vote of 5% on the hypothetical question about a Brexit deal passing with Labour support, compared to 4% on the standard voting intention question.

This is all supposition, but what we do know for sure is that the SNP have been doing startlingly well in YouGov subsamples over the last few weeks.  The sequence of SNP results since mid-November has been 40 - 46 - 44 - 41 - 43 - 45.  That's the longest sustained run of 40+ results for a very long time.  There's only been one full-scale Scottish poll during that period (a Panelbase poll showing no change in SNP support at Westminster level), so it's difficult to be sure that the SNP have genuinely been performing better of late.  But if they have, what impact will the resolution of the Alex Salmond case have?  In the very short term, it might be a mildly negative impact, because anything that gives the impression of internal disunity is generally frowned upon by voters.  In the longer-term, though, I suspect the effect will be the complete opposite.  We still need to wait for the outcome of the police investigation, but if this proves to be the start of Alex Salmond's reintegration into the SNP, possibly with a view to him standing as an MP or MSP once again, that can only be a good thing from an electoral point of view.  The SNP is unlikely to be truly at ease with itself until the man who led it for almost one-quarter of its entire existence to date is back in the fold.  And that would certainly put a definitive end to controversial journalist David Leask's bizarre attempts to open up a rift between what he calls "the real SNP" and "alt-Nats" (the latter, incredibly, referring in part to the former First Minister and those most supportive of him).

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I was interviewed on Radio Sputnik yesterday about the increasing likelihood of Nicola Sturgeon setting out a prospective timetable for a second independence referendum quite soon.  You can listen to the interview HERE.

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Would a snap Holyrood election in 2019 really be such a risk?

I'm beginning to realise what it must have felt like to be a social democrat in about 1980, finding yourself by default in a shrinking middle ground as political debate becomes ever more polarised around you.  It seems to me that the two extremes of the debate on how to achieve independence are just as hopeless as each other at the moment.  On the one hand, I had people responding to my post on New Year's Day by saying that Nicola Sturgeon shouldn't even be asking for a Section 30 order, but should instead simply be "repealing the Act of Union".  I asked how that would even be possible, given that the constitution is explicitly reserved to Westminster.  The response was either pseudo-legal gibberish about how the Act of Union supposedly gives the Scottish Parliament a unilateral right to withdraw from the UK (hint: it really doesn't) or a link to Craig Murray's piece explaining that it is normal for countries to become independent without a referendum, and that it is usually done simply by securing recognition from other states.

In principle, I actually agree with Craig that independence is ultimately a matter for international law rather than UK domestic law.  But the snag is that none of the countries that bypassed the hurdle of domestic law in the manner that Craig suggests (for example Slovenia or Croatia) did so just four or five years after their own citizens rejected independence in a free referendum.  Few states, if any, are going to recognise an independent Scotland until it has been demonstrated that the No vote of 2014 has been unambiguously overturned by a fresh vote, which ideally would mean another referendum, or less ideally an election.  So even if you go down the road Craig wants, it just takes you straight back to the original problem of needing a clear mandate for independence.  There isn't any shortcut.

But equally unpromising is the position that some people are attributing to the SNP leadership, which implicitly recognises an absolute Westminster veto by accepting that a) independence cannot happen without a referendum, and b) a referendum cannot happen without a Section 30 order.  The only plan for getting around a veto would appear to be to shame London into backing down by securing mandate after mandate for a referendum, no matter how many years or decades that takes.  So if London says "now is not the time", we campaign some more for an independence referendum, and "take it to the people" in the 2021 Holyrood election.  And if we get another mandate but the reply is "now is still not the time", we campaign even harder and "take it to the people" in the 2026 Holyrood election.  And on and on into infinity: in other words a recipe for Scotland never becoming independent.  The example of Catalonia gives the lie to the notion that no central government would have the nerve to keep saying no indefinitely.

Is there a compromise position between these two extremes that might actually be more effective anyway?  I would guess that the "dissolve the union" camp would be less hostile to the notion of securing another seemingly needless mandate for an indyref if there were two assurances: firstly, that only one more mandate will be sought, meaning that if London are still intransigent after that an alternative course of action will be followed, and b) the new mandate will be sought very quickly.  If, for example, a snap Westminster general election was held this year, and the SNP decided to use that to have one last go at securing a mandate that London might actually respect, that wouldn't slow things down much at all.  The snag, of course, is that the timing of the next Westminster election is not in the SNP's control.

What is effectively in their control, though, is the timing of the next Holyrood election, because there is provision for an early election in certain circumstances.  Nicola Sturgeon can't literally "call" a snap election, but it would be relatively easy for her to engineer one for the purposes of securing another indyref mandate.  It's widely assumed she would never do that because of her instinctive caution, but I'm not actually sure the risks of an early Holyrood election would be as great as they appear.  Yes, elections can throw up surprise results, but that generally only happens when the underdog party has an inspiring leader capable of turning things around on the campaign trail.  Scottish Labour have...Richard Leonard.  OK, Ruth Davidson is a different proposition, but there appears to still be a natural ceiling of around 30% on Scottish Tory support, so any real danger would have to come from Labour, and at the moment I just can't see that happening.  Barring a very weird chain of events, I would suggest the worst-case scenario in an early Holyrood election would be the SNP returning to power once again as a minority government, but without a pro-independence majority.  That would clearly be a sub-optimal outcome, but I'm not sure it should be considered awful enough to deter us from chasing a potentially huge reward if the election went well.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Welcome to the year in which Nicola Sturgeon will *probably* renew her demand for a Section 30 order

As I've said a number of times, political prediction is usually a mug's game, and that could hardly be more true than at this exact moment.  Britain might be about to leave the European Union, or to remain in the European Union for good, or various options in between.  Anybody who says they know for sure what the first three months of this year will bring is deluding themselves.

If most of us had the chance to know just one thing, it would be whether 2019 will be the year in which an independence referendum is called.  But that's the wrong question as far as any hope of making a meaningful prediction is concerned.  There are too many imponderables once the indyref ball is set rolling.  Will London's "now is not the time" line hold?  If it does hold, will the SNP leadership take decisive action to break the logjam, or will we go round in perpetual circles for years to come as we repeatedly secure new mandates for a referendum which are repeatedly ignored?

None of us can know exactly how it will play out, but we'll never get a chance to find out unless Nicola Sturgeon first of all renews her demand for a Section 30 order.  So for now, the most interesting and straightforward question is whether that will happen at some point in 2019.  And it seems to me that, on the balance of probabilities, it will.  There are a few things that could prevent it happening, though -

* A soft Brexit is negotiated which keeps Britain in the single market and customs union indefinitely.  As this has been the SNP's main stated objective throughout most of the last two years, it would be very difficult to press ahead with an indyref if it happened.  But it's highly unlikely - there's no sign of a parliamentary majority for it, and there's a question mark over whether our European partners would faciliate it anyway.

* A "People's Vote" is called.  The odds are still against this, but it's a possibility.  Remember, though, that a Remain vote is by no means a foregone conclusion even if a People's Vote does happen.  A second Leave vote would leave the casus belli for an indyref intact.

* A snap election is called.  If the SNP were to be defeated in a general election - and I mean a genuine defeat rather than the phony unionist triumphalism over the SNP "only" winning 60% of the seats in 2017 - that would obviously make it psychologically much harder to push for a Section 30 order.  But, just like a People's Vote, a general election could go either way - if, as opinion polls currently suggest, the SNP gain seats rather than lose them, the drive for an indyref would have renewed momentum behind it.  It's also possible that a Section 30 request could be made before any snap election anyway.

* Article 50 is extended beyond the end of this year.  That's unlikely - all the mood music suggests that EU countries would only agree to a limited extension for a specific reason (to facilitate a referendum, for example).

* Theresa May's deal is somehow approved, and the SNP leadership then decide to kick the can down the road for another couple of years until Britain's long-term relationship with the EU is decided.  There might be a temptation to do this, but I don't think the rank-and-file SNP membership would stand for it.  They've been patient thus far, but they're not going to accept a "tomorrow never comes" approach.

Taking all of the above into account, I'd suggest there is around a 70% chance that the Section 30 request will be renewed at some point before 31st December of this year, thus returning us to the status quo ante of spring 2017.  And then we'll see.