Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When is a compromise not a compromise?

I've already commented at length in previous months about the cynical attempts to stitch up the televised leaders' debates, the dispute over which now appears to be inexorably moving towards legal action, largely it seems due to the broadcasters' unwillingness to contemplate even the slightest compromise or negotiation over the issue. So I won't go round the houses again, but I can only shake my head in disbelief at the way this Scotsman article falls hook, line and sinker for the convenient spin from the other parties that the SNP are trying to 'censor' the debate in some way. If Nick Clegg was being denied fair access to the debate, and the Liberal Democrats sought to remedy that through the courts, would they be seeking to 'censor' the debate? No, they'd be seeking fair access. Same for the SNP. If the London-based parties lack the imaginative capacity to even conceive of a fair four-cornered debate, that's their own deficiency, and shouldn't lead to silly jibes about censorship. "A debate of four? What's "four"? Our counting system only goes up to three - anything else must mean the same as zero."

But, says Tavish, there is a sort of reason for shamelessly discriminating against one - just one - of Scotland's four main parties. The other three party leaders are all "candidates for Prime Minister". And, pray tell Tavish, what precisely is a candidate for Prime Minister in a parliamentary system? When does the ballot for electing the Prime Minister take place? I had naively thought that we elected members of Parliament and then the Queen appointed the parliamentarian best able to command a majority in the House. That parliamentarian could be the leader of a majority party, or of a minority party. He or she could be the leader of a party that stood in a majority of seats, or a minority. He or she could theoretically be the leader of a very small party at the head of a complex coalition, as happens in many other countries. Indeed, he or she need not even be the leader of a party at all (the most recent example being Winston Churchill when he was first appointed). That's the constitutional position. So on that basis Nick Clegg is no more or less a "candidate for Prime Minister" than, say, Angus Robertson.

But perhaps Tavish is not relying on constitutional theory (for his sake, let's hope not) and instead is more interested in a debate between the individuals who have a "realistic chance" of becoming PM. Just one rather large snag, though - that would also rule out Nick Clegg. Some might say it would rule out Gordon Brown as well.

At the end of the Scotsman article are a couple of peculiar observations from politics academic Thomas Lundberg. He suggests that the threat of legal action is a "bit silly" because there is a "reasonable compromise" already on offer - by which he means the additional debates for the Scottish leaders. Perhaps he is unaware that those debates have been taking place (from memory) at every election since at least 1992, and would undoubtedly have taken place again this time anyway? Offering that up as some kind of "compromise" is rather akin to offering someone a compensation payment - but then deducting it from his own wages. The only genuine compromise it seems to me is to allow the SNP and Plaid Cymru a right to reply to the main debates they've been excluded from in a special programme to which the other Scottish and Welsh leaders are not invited. The only credible way to correct the outrageous imbalance of one programme is with another programme that is unbalanced in the other direction.

Additionally, Thomas Lundberg suggests that the proposal for additional Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates is fully in line with what happens in Canada. I'd be very intrigued to know if that's actually true, because I can certainly recall hearing about nationwide leaders' debates in Canada in which Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois participated on an absolutely equal basis with all the other national political leaders (Conservative, Liberal, NDP). Simple question - if Gilles Duceppe is a national party leader in Canada, in precisely what sense is Alex Salmond (or Angus Robertson) not in the UK?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

ComRes subsample : SNP narrow gap to just two points

The latest UK-wide ComRes poll shows Labour eating into the Tories' lead, but in the Scottish subsample the party has suffered a four-point drop, leaving them with just a two-point advantage over the SNP, and indeed only a four-point advantage over the Scottish Tories, who find themselves soaring to the giddily unfamiliar heights of 24%. Here are the full figures -

Labour 28% (-4)
SNP 26% (-)
Conservatives 24% (+7)
Liberal Democrats 19% (-3)
Others 3% (-)

As ever, it's worth bearing in mind that ComRes tend to have much smaller sample sizes than YouGov - the unweighted Scottish sample in this case was just 79.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Angus Reid subsample : support for both main parties drops

The latest in the new series of Angus Reid Strategies polls for has a Scottish subsample that could best be described as the 'resumption of normal service', after the previous one had shown implausibly dramatic gains for both Labour and the SNP. Here are the full figures -

Labour 37% (-5)
SNP 25% (-8)
Conservatives 18% (+4)
Liberal Democrats 15% (+8)
Others 6% (+2)

In spite of their four-point recovery since the last Angus Reid subsample, the Scottish Tories nevertheless remain on a dismal sub-20 figure, with little over four months to go until the likely date of polling day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

YouGov subsample : Tories in rare second place

In an abrupt break with the seemingly endless sequence of dismal poll findings for the Scottish Tories, the latest YouGov subsample places them at the giddy heights of 26%, marginally edging the SNP out for second place. Given the consistency of the recent low figures for the party, this looks very much like a statistical quirk thrown up by the inherently huge margin of error in subsamples (although of course you never know). There was a similar quirk earlier in the year, when a YouGov subsample had the Tories holding the joint lead in Scotland. Here are the full figures -

Labour 37% (+3)
Conservatives 26% (+7)
SNP 24% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-11)
Others 5% (-)

It's worth noting that, in spite of the SNP slipping into third place, the gap between themselves and Labour is - once again - lower than that shown by the last full-scale Scottish YouGov poll.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

ComRes subsample : Labour edge back into lead

After the contrasting Labour leads in the recent Angus Reid and Populus subsamples, tonight's ComRes figures come in somewhere between the two. A Labour lead of six is also in the midway range between the two recent completely contradictory full-scale Scottish polls from YouGov (15-point Labour lead for Westminster) and Ipsos-Mori (2-point SNP lead for Westminster). Here are the full figures from ComRes -

Labour 32% (+4)
SNP 26% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 22% (+5)
Conservatives 17% (-)
Others 3% (-3)

Also of note is the unusually high showing for the Liberal Democrats, and - at the risk of sounding like a broken record - yet another dismal showing for the Scottish Tories.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Populus subsample : SNP close gap to just three points

A second Scottish subsample in the space of two days has put the SNP well into the thirties - but unlike Angus Reid yesterday, Populus suggests that the party has practically wiped out Labour's big lead from last month. Here are the full figures -

Labour 37% (-7)
SNP 34% (+8)
Conservatives 13% (-5)
Liberal Democrats 12% (+5)
Others 4% (-2)

The SNP's showing is even more encouraging when you bear in mind that it takes place in the context of the best UK-wide poll for Labour in some twelve months. And - it almost goes without saying - this is another terrible subsample for the Scottish Conservatives.

Calling all believers in rational climate science...

Since the blogger 'Plato Says' (now a favourite at the court of James, the Great Pretender - Delingpole, that is) is urging her readers to email their 'spontaneous' thoughts on "climategate" (yawn) to the Met Office's Chief Scientist, I thought I might try to balance things up slightly by also providing Julia Slingo's email address here.

I'm guessing the readers of a left-of-centre, pro-SNP blog might be slightly more persuaded by rational climate science than Plato's audience, so feel free to take her advice and tell Ms Sligo exactly what you think. Perhaps something along the lines of Michael Mates' legendary parting words to Asil Nadir might be in order - "don't let the b*****s get you down..."

And yes, this is, as you may have deduced, a shameless (if nominal) act of retribution on my part against the said Ms Plato, who launched into a bizarre unprovoked personal attack on me yesterday afternoon at, before in her trademark fashion reverting instantly to passive-aggressive mode. Perhaps being accused of lacking a sense of humour ought to be water off a duck's back, but in this case it's a touch galling a) because it comes from someone who evidently thinks of herself as a great wit on the basis of no discernible evidence whatsoever (yes, the similarities to Mr. James 'How to Be Right' Delingpole himself are indeed striking), and b) because as any long-term readers of this blog will know, while I admittedly lack the capacity for brilliant one-liners, I do regularly indulge myself in the whimsical and the ridiculous. (And if AM2 feels his ears burning, it's just a coincidence.) Indeed, if anything, I've probably indulged that habit much more often over on the pages of than I have here. Having thought about it yesterday, I think the example I'm most proud of is this one from just over a year ago, in response to an exhaustive list of occasionally mis-spelt Labour "achievements in office" -

"'Develotion' - that sounds like what Peter Andre would come up with if he put the words ‘devolution’ and ‘devotion’ together for a song title.
'Scraping hereditary peers in the House of Lords' - Sounds painful but it's all they deserved. I imagine William Hague had a ringside seat when it was Lord Cranborne's turn to be scraped."

So why have my best efforts apparently gone so shamefully unnoticed all this time? My guess is that posters on the now rabidly Tory-dominated (it wasn't always thus) have truly come to believe that the term 'sense of humour' is indistinguishable in meaning from the finding of ever-more-inventive ways of pointing out that Gordon Brown 'is a retard' and only has sight in one eye. We've heard a lot about the 'Cybernat' problem recently - but if we were to put together a "Comedy of - Classic Jokes from the CyberTories" compilation...well, what can I say. In the immortal words of Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, "if I appear not to be laughing, it's only because I fear my sides would split".

The most generous thing I can say is that it might turn out to be rather reminiscent of Peter Serafinowicz's 'James Bond - Licence to Tell Jokes' DVD.

Angus Reid : SNP soar to 33%

After three successive Scottish subsamples from the new series of UK-wide Angus Reid polls that showed remarkable consistency, the fourth has produced completely different - and in some respects frankly implausible - figures. The Liberal Democrats have slumped nine points to a totally unrealistic 7%. An additional significant fall for the Tories opens the way for a dramatic increase in support for both Labour and the SNP, although with the gap between the two parties staying virtually unchanged from last time. Here are the full figures -

Labour 42% (+9)
SNP 33% (+8)
Conservatives 14% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-9)
Others 4% (-4)

Although the figures have to be taken with a huge dose of salt, the fact that this fits into a pattern of recent dismal showings for the Scottish Tories cannot be ignored. At this stage, it really does look like the next party of government could have a sub-20% mandate from Scots.

Monday, December 7, 2009

SNP up with ICM, but down with YouGov

The detailed figures from Saturday evening's two UK-wide polls have been released, and once again there are mixed fortunes for the SNP. The YouGov Scottish subsample curiously shows a decline of support for Labour, the SNP and the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats enjoying a six-point jump. Here are the full figures -

Labour 34% (-2)
SNP 22% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 19% (+6)
Conservatives 19% (-3)
Others 5% (+1)

The raw 22% share is clearly disappointing for the SNP, although the overall Labour lead is once again notably more modest than the most recent full-scale YouGov poll indicated. After the previous YouGov subsample had offered a rare glimmer of hope to the Scottish Tories, they once again return to a more familiar sub-20 rating.

ICM do not provide a specific Scottish breakdown, instead lumping the country together with northern England. Here are the latest subsample figures for that highly artificial 'region' -

Labour 38% (-1)
Conservatives 27% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 16% (-2)
SNP 10% (+1)
Others 10% (+4)

This is much better news for the SNP, with 10% being at the upper end of their normal range of support in the ICM 'northern region'.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The remaining question

Well, perhaps I'll indulge in one more brief return to Chekov-watch, since the 'Three Thousand Versts' blogger has returned to the issue of Scottish nationalism. He, refreshingly, does not dismiss the idea of letting the Scottish people decide their own future out of hand, but rehearses the usual spurious objections about timing, 'rigged questions', etc. Once again, is it too much to point out that complaining about the principle of a multi-option referendum is a touch peculiar given that a single-option referendum is the SNP's clearly stated preference, and the multi-option vote is merely a proposed compromise?

Chekov's own suggestion for a 'clear, unambiguous, definitive' question is "Do you wish Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom?". This is at least an improvement on the standard proposal for a 'neutral' question from the likes of Alan Cochrane, ie. "Do you think Scotland should become completely separate from the rest of the United Kingdom?". But I think Chekov really needs to explain why the simple question "do you think Scotland should become an independent country?" is any less 'clear, unambiguous or definitive' than his own suggestion. The idea that anyone does not realise that independence would entail leaving the UK is risible - and if anyone is going to argue that case, I could just as easily make the point that Chekov's question is absolutely not unambiguous, because 'leaving the UK' could in the literal sense imply joining another country (Norway for instance?) every bit as much as it could imply becoming an independent state.

Final thought - what does it say about a self-styled 'liberal unionist' when he finds himself in so much agreement with Alan Cochrane? Cochrane is a unionist, certainly...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ipsos-Mori sensation : SNP lead Labour in Westminster voting intentions

On this blog I normally focus only on the Scottish subsamples of UK-wide polls, because the relatively rare full-scale Scottish polls are widely covered elsewhere. But the results of this particular full poll from Ipsos-Mori deserve to be shouted from the rooftops by everyone sympathetic to the SNP, because it blows the prevailing media narrative of recent days and weeks utterly out of the water. The SNP's hopes of even modest gains at the general election were, we were told, fading fast. But here we have a poll that not only shows a decent SNP lead in Holyrood voting intention (which will ease the jitters caused by the two recent YouGov polls), but also - remarkably - shows the party retaining a slender lead over Labour for Westminster. Here are the full figures -


SNP 34% (+1)
Labour 32% (+5)
Conservatives 15% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 12% (-2)
Others 6% (-2)

Holyrood (constituency ballot)

SNP 36% (-2)
Labour 32% (+7)
Liberal Democrats 12% (-3)
Conservatives 12% (-3)
Others 8% (+1)

There do not appear to be any voting intention figures for the Holyrood list vote. The fieldwork concluded just over a week ago, which crucially places it well after Glasgow NE.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mixed fortunes for SNP in new polling subsamples

Two new Scottish subsamples of UK-wide opinion polls were revealed yesterday. The detailed figures from the YouGov poll published on Friday night indicate that Labour have reopened a decent gap on the SNP, having previously seen their lead shrink to just one point. (However, the Labour lead is still a little smaller than that implied by the recent full-scale Scottish poll conducted by YouGov.) But, by contrast, in the new ComRes subsample, the SNP have actually retaken the lead. Here are the full figures from both polls -


Labour 36% (+6)
SNP 25% (-4)
Conservatives 22% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 13% (-4)
Others 4% (-)


SNP 30% (+5)
Labour 28% (-12)
Liberal Democrats 17% (+8)
Conservatives 17% (-4)
Others 6% (+2)

The YouGov figures are notable for being the first subsample in several weeks to record a decent showing for the Scottish Tories - but in ComRes the party continues to flatline.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Massive evidence of weapons of mass destruction related programme activities

A rare treat to see Melanie "Wrong But With Conviction" Phillips give this old classic a spin on Question Time last night. It received its first outing way back in President Bush's first State of the Union address to Congress after the Iraq invasion. Just for a few seconds he appeared to have a huge revelation up his sleeve that was about to turn the media narrative completely on its head - "already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction..." Really? No, not really. Sadly for Bush, he hadn't finished his sentence, with the remaining words being "related programme activities". Which begged the obvious question - what exactly is a weapon of mass destruction related programme activity, and how precisely does it differ from an actual weapon?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Angus Reid points to eight-point Labour lead over SNP

The third in the new series of UK-wide polls conducted by the Canadian firm Angus Reid Strategies for continues to show remarkable stability in its Scottish subsample. Labour has extended its lead over the SNP from five to eight points, although that still falls well short of the fifteen-point Labour lead for Westminster seen in yesterday's full-scale Scottish poll for the Telegraph. Here are the full figures -

Labour 33% (+1)
SNP 25% (-2)
Conservatives 18% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 16% (+5)
Others 8% (-)

On one point these figures are in absolute agreement with the Telegraph poll - in placing the Conservatives on a dismal 18%. The spectre of a majority Conservative government taking power with perhaps as few as one or two seats in Scotland - which many people in their heart of hearts thought was impossible - appears to be moving a little closer with every passing week.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Memo to Lib Dems - don't be the change, make the change

Mike Smithson of is a Liberal Democrat, albeit one who's never been (to put it mildly) slavishly loyal to the leadership, so his views on developments within his own party are always particularly interesting to read. One point that he's made repeatedly over recent months, and returned to in his latest post, is that it would be logically inconsistent for a party that believes in proportional representation to consider doing a deal with a party that has won the most seats in an election, despite having been defeated in the popular vote. (The speculation is that Labour could conceivably find itself in such a situation shortly, if the latest Ipsos-Mori poll is not a blip.)

I have to say that strikes me as an astonishingly misguided interpretation on more than one count. Firstly, I'm wondering if Mike has fully taken on board what PR actually means in practice. As a Lib Dem it would seem odd if he hasn't, but my vague impression is that his own allegiance to the party has little to do with any great interest in electoral reform. Internationally, PR systems quite routinely result in coalitions that exclude the party that has won the most seats, let alone the most votes. So, even if they wanted to be seen to be adhering to "best PR practice", there would be nothing hypocritical about the Liberal Democrats keeping all options open.

But the more salient point surely is that the job of a party that believes in PR is not to eccentrically go around acting as if PR is already in operation when it isn't (is Mike saying to the Lib Dems in Ghandian terms "you must be the change you want to see"?), but instead to take every opportunity to actually bring PR about. That might well involve a deal with a Labour party that had lost the popular vote, because the chances of the Tories making the slightest concession on electoral reform in the next parliament are literally nil. If the current generation of Lib Dems turn down a golden opportunity to finally bring about a fair voting system, and indeed to hold a share of power on a regular basis from that point on, how on earth will they justify it to their successors twenty years from now? "We had to turn down proportional representation, because it was far more important for us to act proportionately". Yes, that'll sound good. It's the philosophy of a pious, self-denying, proportionality-worshipping monk, not of a serious political party.

In truth, if Labour are the largest single party in the next parliament without the mandate of the popular vote, that situation will have been directly brought about by politicians - to a large extent Tory politicians - who have stubbornly insisted on maintaining the rotten first-past-the-post electoral system all of these last few decades. It's not the responsibility of the Liberal Democrats (or of the SNP and Plaid Cymru for that matter) to artificially create a lead in seats for the Tories, when the very electoral system the Tories are determined to uphold has failed to deliver that lead for them. Mike Smithson is putting the onus on the wrong players - if the Conservatives think the electoral system has thrown up a result that does not accurately reflect the popular will, it's up to them to accept changes to that system. Otherwise, they ought in conscience to be prepared to just lump it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Back to the future (or forward to the past)

Quite amusing to see a Scottish Labour spokesman (don't worry, it's not Baron George, he's always "a senior Labour MSP" - the only one in existence apparently) leap on Jim Sillars' suggestions for changes in the SNP's stance on defence and foreign affairs as representing "a split in the separatist movement". That's analogous to saying the fact that David Cameron and Gordon Brown can't bury their differences is tantamount to a split in the "unionist movement".

Sillars' prescription is a baffling mixture of some proposals that would arguably bring the SNP more into the 'mainstream' (in the sense that it would bring them into line with the grey uniformity of the three unionist parties on issues such as Trident and NATO), and others that would take the party straight to the lunatic fringe without passing Go. Why start talking up the possibility of a "Scottish pound linked to sterling" when the SNP has already accepted that sterling itself could be retained until euro membership is possible? I can only assume that Sillars hasn't even noticed that. And the notion that switching from the long-held "independence in Europe" pitch to a proposal to join EFTA would somehow represent a 'modernised' stance is, to put it kindly, a touch eccentric. It's EFTA that's an institution of the past, not the EU. Its membership presently stands at an almost embarrassing four - one of which is Liechtenstein. And if, as seems fairly likely, Iceland shortly jumps ship to join the EU (as so many other countries have done before it), people will surely start to ponder whether the organisation is even sustainable at all.

But then Mr Sillars is an 'out of the box' thinker who sees things that few of us do - generally because they aren't there. After all, this is the man who in 1996 confidently prophesied a Tory victory in the 1997 election.

Monday, November 16, 2009

YouGov : SNP close gap to just one point

After a few days of relative gloom, a small piece of good news for the SNP. The Scottish subsample from the latest UK-wide YouGov poll for the Sunday Times shows the party in a virtual dead heat with Labour, with the Conservatives yet again flatlining at roughly the 20% mark. Here are the full figures -

Labour 30% (-2)
SNP 29% (?)
Conservatives 20% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 17% (-)
Others 4% (?)

The reason the percentage change figures are incomplete is that YouGov lumped the SNP in with the 'others' in their last poll. Unlike the ComRes subsample, the fieldwork for this poll partly took place after the result of the Glasgow North-east by-election was known. However, by all accounts most people respond to YouGov polls within a few hours of receiving the invitation, so the chances are that these figures are relatively unaffected by any knock-on effect from Labour's victory.

Incidentally, this subsample is one of the many that flatly contradicts Mike Smithson's repeated assertions that Labour are faring better in Scotland than in the rest of the UK - the party is down nine points in Scotland from its 2005 level, exactly the same drop as in Great Britain as a whole.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

ComRes subsample : Labour retake lead

After last month's unusual ComRes subsample that had Labour languishing in third place, tonight's poll has the party back in a substantial lead over the SNP. The Conservatives slip to third place, with a vote share that, like almost all recent subsamples, gives very little cause for optimism that David Cameron's party will achieve the 24-26% share at the general election that might be seen as vaguely respectable for an incoming party of government. Here are the full figures -

Labour 40% (+18)
SNP 25% (-7)
Conservatives 21% (-3)
Liberal Democrats 9% (-1)
Others 4% (-8)

The fieldwork was carried out on Wednesday and Thursday, so these figures can in no way be seen as a post-Glasgow NE bounce for Labour. In any case, it's always worth remembering that ComRes generally have much smaller Scottish subsamples than YouGov, and the figures are accordingly far less meaningful.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A suitably depressing conclusion to the longest by-election

"The voters are never wrong," mused BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor last night, referring to the near-breakthrough by the BNP in Glasgow North-east. Perhaps it would have been closer to the mark to say "the will of the voters must always be respected". After all, if the electorate is literally never wrong, it's a touch hard to rationalise away Adolf Hitler's elevation to the office of German Chancellor in 1933 on the back of a legitimate democratic victory. Setting off a chain of events that led directly to the most catastrophic war in human history, 60 million deaths and a genocide would appear to be something of a blunder by most standards.

Opinion seemed to be evenly split last night on whether Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance had played a pivotal role in very nearly taking the BNP to third place in the by-election. My strong feeling is that it must have done, but it does not follow from there that Griffin should not have been invited onto the programme. The issue at the time had been incorrectly framed - everyone seemed to be asking "how can the broadcasters help to defeat the BNP?". Some felt that the answer was to deny the party the oxygen of publicity, others suggested that the objective could best be achieved by subjecting Griffin's policies and fairytale assertions to open and intense scrutiny. But in truth it isn't a public service broadcaster's job to fathom a way of extinguishing the threat from a perfectly legal - if odious - political party. All that should have mattered was that the party in question had demonstrated sufficient electoral strength to justify an invitation, and therefore that invitation should have been forthcoming without any consideration of the consequences. Irresponsible? No, it's the very essence of democracy. At first glance Griffin's invitation appeared to suggest the BBC agreed with that interpretation of their role - but clearly they didn't. If they had, Griffin would simply have been asked to comment on the fairly dull issues of the day like any other panellist would have been on any other Question Time edition. Probably he would have given some fairly dull answers, while being suitably frustrated that he wasn't being given a platform to talk about race. Instead, the BBC appeared to take the schizophrenic view that Griffin's democratic mandate was legitimate enough to demand that he be included on the show, but not legitimate enough to demand that he be treated on the same basis as everyone else once he was there. Paradoxically, it was this approach that gave Griffin a platform he could scarcely have dreamed of, bestowing upon him a status that was effectively greater than his fellow panellists. It was, as others have noted, "An Audience with Nick Griffin". The complacent view of many afterwards was that the strategy had paid off handsomely with Griffin making an utter fool of himself - but the electoral evidence of Glasgow NE would appear to paint a somewhat different picture. For extremist fringe parties starting from a very low base of support, there's not really such a thing as bad publicity.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Glasgow NE : Running to stand still

There's not a lot of point in further comment on the Glasgow NE campaign while the votes are being cast (although perhaps not that many votes if the weather is proving significant) so instead I thought I'd raise a side-issue related to the by-election that hasn't attracted much attention. In a nutshell, it's this - if Labour win tonight, their majority in the House of Commons will increase, in spite of the fact that they would merely have successfully defended one of their safest seats in the whole United Kingdom. I don't simply mean that when Michael Martin resigned, the Labour majority dropped by one, and now there is a chance that parity will be restored. That, you would have assumed, would be the case, because the convention is that when the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers are elected/selected, two are drawn from each of the two largest parties. So in theory replacing a Labour Speaker with a Conservative, as happened in June of this year, should make no difference at all to the parliamentary arithmetic. But that wasn't how it turned out - the three sitting Deputy Speakers remained in place, meaning that three MPs elected as opposition members in 2005 are now barred from voting in divisions, but only one MP elected as a Labour member (Sylvia Heal). So a Labour win tonight would mean that, grotesquely, the net effect of Michael Martin's ignominious departure from office has been an increase of two seats in the overall Labour majority at Westmister - the opposition parties would tonight have to 'run just to stand still'.

And, extraordinarily, this is the second time in this parliament that Labour have had an opportunity to improve their majority simply by winning a heartland seat - although they well and truly fluffed their earlier chance in Blaenau Gwent.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Populus subsample : Labour move clear

In the Scottish subsample for the latest UK-wide Populus poll, Labour's support has increased significantly, while the SNP have slipped slightly. The only constant with all recent subsamples from the various polling organisations is that the Scottish Conservatives are performing remarkably poorly for a party that is supposedly on the brink of power at UK level. Here are the full figures -

Labour 44% (+13)
SNP 26% (-3)
Conservatives 18% (-4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-8)
Others 6% (+2)

In other news, Iain Dale seems to earnestly believe he's got a positive story to tell for the Tories by pointing out that 'only' 5.5% of Conservative MPs attended Eton, compared to 18.75% of political editors of newspapers. That's a bit like saying New Labour can't be an authoritarian regime because it contains proportionately fewer adherents of 'Juche' than the North Korean Workers' Party. I'd be rather more impressed if Dale could also honestly tell us that the bulk of those Old Etonian political hacks will not be attempting to steer their readers towards a vote for the Tories next spring. Now that really would make for a "you couldn't make it up fact of the day", but then so would mauve badgers being discovered on Saturn.

The unmentionable downsides

Sticking with the Berlin Wall theme, I've just noticed an article published on the Guardian website a couple of days ago lamenting the collapse of communist East Germany. The author takes a predictable roasting for her efforts in the comments section, which I'm not entirely comfortable about. Of course her conclusion is wrong - the upsides of German reunification far outweighed the downsides. And more pertinently, it was the East German electorate themselves who freely chose that path - right or wrong - in the election of 1990, the first time they had been given the chance to choose their own destiny in decades. But it nevertheless shouldn't become unsayable to point out that the downsides existed. Indeed, there were horrors right across the former eastern bloc countries as a result of the end of communism - economic collapse, the abrupt withdrawal of familiar social safety-nets, a nosedive in Russian male life expectancy, and perhaps worst of all, the unimaginably brutal Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The film Goodbye Lenin concludes by offering a fairytale reconciliation between the west and east - an alternative reality in which the Berlin Wall is opened to allow refugees from the west to escape the capitalist rat-race. The point being that the reality of the oppressive socialist state was a grotesque parody of the ideals it had supposedly been founded on - but that those ideals on their own merits nevertheless remained inspiring. The trouble with the 'post-ideological world' that the aftermath of 1989 has bequeathed us (in truth that simply means a world in which most politicians are camped in the same narrow ideological space) is that there appears to be no ideals left at all - our leaders believe in nothing other than competitive managerialism. It was deliciously encapsulated in that moment when Tony Blair (as recently as 1994 an avowed socialist himself) was asked by one of his own backbenchers to provide a brief summary of his political philosophy. Blair responded by wittering on about investing in new equipment for the health service.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mr Barroso, tear down this wall

Twenty years and one day after the Berlin Wall was breached, it's sobering to read this assessment from April by Belarussian journalist Maryna Rakhlei that the wall never fell, it just moved a little to the east. The paradox is that the restrictions of movement for people on the eastern side of the divide are now primarily imposed by the authorities in the west, ie. the Schengen zone. Rakhlei cites statistics showing that visits by Belarussians to neighbouring Poland are down by 90% since that country joined the EU, and visits to the Baltic states are down by nearly as much. Twenty years ago, of course, Belarussians could travel fairly freely to the Baltic states as they were part of the same country, the Soviet Union. It seems extraordinary that, in some places, the collapse in communism has actually led to a greater physical confinement.

Belarus itself is the closest we have in Europe to a continuation of the old eastern bloc ideology. It does not style itself a communist state, but it arguably more closely resembles one (in the pre-1989 understanding of the term) than, say, the People's Republic of China. It even maintains Soviet relics such as the KGB.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Angus Reid : Labour and SNP both up

The second in the new series of Angus Reid polls for shows very little change in its Scottish subsample, with Labour slightly extending its lead over the SNP from three to five points. Here are the full figures -

Labour 32% (+3)
SNP 27% (+1)
Conservatives 20% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 11% (-5)
Others 8% (-1)

These figures emerge at the same time as a TNS-BMRB poll showing commanding leads for the SNP of eight points on both the constituency and list votes for Holyrood - a story that the Herald surreally (not to say brazenly) manages to report as "Salmond blow as voters shun SNP"!

Your country needs...who?

Interesting to read on that the BBC appear to be sticking to precisely the same formula they used last year to come up with a Eurovision entry, ie. internally commission a songwriter to produce a song, and have a casting show to choose the singer by public vote. I had assumed that last year would be a one-off, as it was almost impossible to imagine which songwriter could possibly have the same international recognition factor as Andrew Lloyd-Webber. But according to the quote in Esctoday, fans can expect to be "excited" by the choice. Probably just hype, although of course Morrissey did briefly enter into negotiations a couple of years ago. It fell through at the time because the BBC couldn't agree to the artistic freedom he wanted, but with the new format, who knows? An intriguing thought, but I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

If you can't understand why healthcare reform is evil, you really need to listen to this historical figure I've been putting words into the mouth of

After President Obama's health care bill narrowly squeaked through the House of Representatives yesterday, I thought today would be a suitably entertaining day to venture back into the right-wing American blogosphere, and I wasn't disappointed. William Teach of Right Wing News concedes that a Democratic congressman's assertion that the bill will revolutionise health care is right, but "would sound a whole lot better if you could hear it in a 1930's Russian or German accent". (I'm guessing Mr Teach might just be one of the 70% of Americans who don't own a passport.)

He also rather archly wonders what "the Founders, who shed blood to create a new country" would be thinking today. But why stop there? I bet the Three Wise Men would have been thoroughly appalled as well (after all, if the Baby Jesus had been covered by health insurance they'd never have found him in a stable). And there's little doubt Moses would have had some pretty trenchant things to say on the subject.

Is this a 'free hit' by-election for the SNP?

On the day back in May that it became clear the Glasgow North-east by-election was actually going to take place (yes, 'supremely confident' Labour have now been running from the constituency's voters for the same length of time there's left to go before the general election), I posted here to express my jitters. I was concerned at the past history of by-elections that had proved to be pivotal moments, and had changed the political weather. I was more than a touch uneasy that the SNP's fate at the next election might rest, as I put it, on a 'typical mad as a bucket of frogs by-election campaign'. But here we sit four days out from the Glasgow NE vote, and I can already say with confidence that is not the case. Why? Paradoxically, it's because of the prevailing narrative that this is going to be a routine Labour hold. I've no inside knowledge from the ground, so I don't know whether that's true or not, but the perception that it is true has one key effect - it's killed all interest in the contest, and there will therefore be very little interest in the result, unless there is a major surprise. Glasgow NE simply can't produce a momentum shift in public opinion without...well, a bit of publicity. This is not going to be another Glenrothes, with SNP activists having kittens on Thursday night pondering the consequences if they don't win. It's beginning to have the feel more of a Hamilton South-type contest, where a narrow defeat on a huge swing could potentially even produce a little momentum for the SNP. All thanks to the expectations game - one of the curious features of by-election campaigns. In the immortal words of Abba, you can feel like you win when you lose.

I saw a little of BBC2's 90-minute programme this evening to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which reminded us of how the crucial factor was weekly Monday demonstrations in Leipzig that grew bigger and bigger until eventually the authorities could not cope with them. I started wondering how Tom Harris reacted as he watched those demonstrators on TV twenty years ago. Doubtless he would have been busily making snide comments about how all those "students" needed to "grow up" and embrace "mature" politics. After all, nobody ever changed the world by taking to the streets, holding placards and chanting slogans - eh, Tom?

And one other thought, Tom - doesn't an irrational hatred of inconvenient political demonstrations constitute an "emotion"?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Back to the conceited Thatcherite fantasy

Chekov of the blog Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness recently appeared on Northern Visions' Blogtalk show, and came across as a highly articulate and thoughtful man. But in his blog he seems to put that thoughtfulness to use primarily to churn out shameless partisan propaganda like the best of us. His latest post on the Glasgow NE by-election reads almost like a parody. The candidates are all a "rum lot", apart from...who's that? Wouldn't be the candidate of the party you're a supporter of, would she? But, hang on, what have you got there? Wouldn't be a ready-made excuse for why her vote is still going to drop in spite of her being the best candidate, would it? Course it would. Glasgow NE is just far too "grim" a place apparently.

So if the Tory vote goes down, it doesn't tell us anything at all about the party or the candidate, but it does mean there's something terribly wrong with the constituency. Hmmm. That strikes me as being uncannily similar to the conceited Thatcherite fantasy about Scotland as a whole, circa 1987.

Friday, November 6, 2009

And-on. And-on. And-on. And-Brown-goes-on.

I was interested to read Mike Smithson's suggestion that Gordon Brown may have made a tactical blunder in the Record today by promising to serve a full term in office if Labour is re-elected. Mike makes the comparison with Margaret Thatcher in the late 80s saying she would, in the words of the Ariston commercial, "go on and on", and also with Tony Blair's insistence that he would serve a full third term. Both of those strategies ended in tears (although, intriguingly, in neither case was this directly at the hands of the electorate). However, far be it from me to defend Brown, but there's one obvious difference in his case - he's been Prime Minister for less than two-and-a-half years. If he lets the impression get about that he's resigned to serving less than seven years in office regardless of the election outcome, it would send out a terrible message about his confidence in his own ability.

Mike suggests that "five more years of Brown" is not a winning pitch for Labour at the general election. If that's the case, though (and it may well be), there's only one conceivable remedy - ditch Brown now. A vague hint that it might be possible to 'buy one Prime Minister, get one free' isn't going to be much use to Labour at this stage.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

YouGov subsample : Labour slip to 32%

Hot on the heels of the YouGov poll I mentioned in my last post is another one this evening for Channel 4. There is, rather annoyingly, no breakdown of the figures for the 'others', so given the typically wild fluctuations in the total support for the minor parties in Scotland, there's little point speculating on how big a chunk of the 32% 'others' figure in the Scottish subsample is held by the SNP. Here are the full figures -

Others 32% (-5)
Labour 32% (-1)
Conservatives 19% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 17% (+8)

Clearly the big winners are the Liberal Democrats, while the Tories continue to poll extraordinarily badly for a party that is supposedly just a few months away from returning to power at Westminster. It's worth remembering that no winning party in a Westminster general election has ever polled worse than 24% in Scotland.

The main purpose of the poll was to canvass opinion on the Afghanistan war, and on that issue Scotland appears to be slightly more sceptical than the rest of the UK - by a margin of 39% to 32% Scottish respondents favoured an immediate withdrawal of British forces.

YouGov subsample : Labour lead trimmed to just four points

The detailed figures from the latest UK-wide YouGov poll have been available on the company's website for a while now, but for some reason I've only just been able to access them. The Scottish breakdown shows a relatively stable picture, but will nevertheless provide some encouragement for the SNP after the mild disappointment of the recent full-scale YouGov poll covering Holyrood voting intentions.

Labour 33% (-1)
SNP 29% (-)
Conservatives 20% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 9% (-4)
Others 8% (+3)

Scotland continues to be the only part of the UK that doesn't rate David Cameron as the best potential Prime Minister - and given that Gordon Brown has a net satisfaction rating north of the border of minus 24, it really isn't looking too promising for the Tory leader in these parts!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Who's out of touch?

I can only say "hear, hear" to Cardiff Blogger's post "Find Jokes Offensive? Turn Off Your TV". The Caledonian Comment blog recently picked up on Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington's complaint over a joke made about her by Frankie Boyle on Mock the Week, and concluded that Boyle should be taken off the air immediately, not so much for hurting Ms Adlington's feelings, but because the "juvenile" nature of the joke proved him to be such a poor comedian. And if the "BBC luvvies" couldn't see that, it just goes to show how "arrogant" and "out of touch" they are. Ahem...

It is difficult of course, because a lot of the funniest jokes do have a target. Even if a comedian makes a joke about a freak tea cosy accident, there'll be a grieving widow out there somewhere to whom it will cause very real pain. That's in no way desirable, but neither is the other alternative, which is essentially to ban comedy.

New Glasgow NE sensation - could David Kerr have been conceived outside the constituency?

I scarcely know whether to laugh or cry. Kezia Dugdale has devoted a blog post to triumphantly pointing out that Alex Salmond was technically wrong in his assertion that there are no maternity hospitals in Glasgow North-east, on the grounds that while there may be none today, there were two when David Kerr was born in 1973. "Arrogant bluster" from Salmond, Kezia calls it. Hmmm. To me, the First Minister's comment sounded more like an appropriately bemused response to one of the most desperate (not to mention barking mad) smear attempts in recent by-election history.

What on earth is Labour's point here? It's beyond dispute that David Kerr's family home at the time of his birth was in the constituency. Are people really supposed to take into account the exact grid location of a candidate's birth when determining his or her suitability to be the local MP? Kezia (astonishingly) seems to think so - it's hard to see what other interpretation you can place on her approving mention of the fact that the Labour candidate was born in Stobhill. David Kerr's mother must indeed be tormented with guilt that her perfidious show of disloyalty to the community by giving birth in Govan (gasp) has so blighted her son's career prospects thirty-six years later - unless of course David was personally directing the decision-making process from the womb, which is always a distinct possibility. But why stop at the birth? Have Labour not thought of setting their crack team of historical investigators on to the possibility that Kerr may also have been conceived outside the constituency, on a long weekend in Blackpool perhaps?

Back in the real world, I sometimes wonder if Labour activists ever stop and reflect for a moment on how all this petty, pedantic, sixth-form society point-scoring comes across to real people. I'll give them a hint - the main message it sends out is "we have an irrational, personal dislike of our opponents". Never a good image to project of yourself. And it was precisely by providing a positive, uplifting contrast to the relentless Labour "snarl" that the SNP were able to sneak victory at the last Scottish parliament election.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The cult of the 24-year-old female ballot paper

Jeff has a post expressing his surprise at the breakdowns from the latest YouGov Scottish survey, which show that the older you are, the more likely it is that you vote SNP. In fact, although this is a reversal of the historical position, it's a pattern that has been consistently picked up by YouGov for several years now. My guess is that it can be largely explained by former traditional Labour voters realising that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, their party has simply "left them". The trend led Nicol Stephen to observe in one of the 2007 televised leaders' debates "all the polling evidence is that the SNP's voters are mainly men, mainly older people", to which Alex Salmond retorted as quick as a flash "so you don't want those votes, then?". Well, quite. There may be an irrational perception that some votes are sexier than others, but when they come to be counted, everybody's equal. There's no such thing as a middle-income, 24-year old female graduate ballot paper. In truth, the only sense in which some voters are 'more equal than others' is that polls also consistently show that older people are much more likely to turn out to vote - a potential advantage for the SNP.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Democracy from a distance, and decolonisation

Iain Dale has picked up on Giles Tremlett's article in the Guardian, in which he argues that British citizens overseas should be given dedicated MPs to represent them in parliament, in line with the system now in place for French ex-pats. Tremlett notes - "we have happily created a Europe without borders, encouraging people to travel, live and work in other countries, but we have not changed our electoral system to reflect that". It seems to me, though, that the logic points in a slightly different direction, although it's just as well Tremlett didn't suggest it otherwise it really would have brought Iain Dale out in a rash. EU citizens can already vote in municipal and European parliament elections in their country of residence rather than origin. Surely the obvious next step is to allow, say, the large number of French citizens in London to vote for their local Westminster MP, and British ex-pats in France to vote in elections for the French presidency and National Assembly? I can hear the indignant splutters of "sovereignty!" as I write, but there would be nothing unprecedented about any of this. The UK has long permitted Commonwealth and Irish citizens to vote in general elections - that's a full third of the world's population who are potentially eligible if they become resident here. The only difference under a new European system is that any rights granted would have to be reciprocal.

This wouldn't address the related issue, identified by Iain Dale, of the peoples of the remaining British Overseas Territories (ie. colonies) who are now full British citizens. But if those areas are given their own Westminster MPs, surely logic dictates that they become de facto integral parts of the UK, just as French Guiana is (incredibly) part of France. It might not be as bad a thing as it sounds, though. As I understand it, the UN defines "decolonisation" in one of a number of ways - independence for the territory concerned, a free association agreement between the territory and the former colonial power (as between the Cook Islands and New Zealand) or full integration. In 2009 it really is long past time for Britain to move on from its imperial past, and perhaps the Overseas Territories should be consulted about which of the decolonisation options they'd prefer.

One Ken Clarke is one too many

Startling to see at the Spectator's Coffee House that the right-wing of the Conservative party apparently feel that the left is over-represented in the shadow cabinet - because "Ken Clarke, Andrew Lansley and Sir George Young [are] all in it". Well, yes, that's a staggering three...out of thirty-four. Narrow it down to the vocally Europhile left (although 'left' is clearly a highly relative term here) and you end up with just the one - Ken Clarke.

But fair's fair - in the literal sense that probably does amount to gross over-representation.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

'Game over', take 43?

My old sparring partner from, the Aberdeenshire Conservative activist ChristinaD (aka Fitalass) has been busy over at SNP Tactical Voting in response to the YouGov poll for the Greens which, in utterly devastating news for the SNP puts, three points ahead of Labour on the constituency vote. The poll does however show a tie between the two parties on the list vote, and because that ballot is more important to the SNP than to Labour the projections are that it would lead to a narrow Labour win in terms of seats. Christina has for weeks been flogging the line that the SNP's 'lurch to the left' and 'obsession with independence' would cost them votes, and is now triumphantly saying "I told you so". (All we need now is for SU to briefly come out of retirement and run a 'game over' headline and the entertainment for the day would be complete.) I'm slightly confused by Jeff's own stance on this, though - in his main post he takes issue with the Herald's reporting of the poll as good for Labour, but as soon as Christina pops up, he agrees with almost everything she says and reverts to the worry that we've seen from him before that the SNP have suffered a "spectacular fall" from the giddy heights of previous polls. Jeff of course laudably takes great pains to "give credit where it is due" to political opponents, but I think in his eagerness to do so this time he may have fallen headlong into a trap laid by someone who for a while now has been relentlessly disseminating anti-SNP propaganda on an industrial scale to anyone who will listen (and quite a few who won't). Christina will now undoubtedly add this poll to the list of 'predictions she has got right' that she routinely trots out when anyone dares to question her absolute infallibility on all matters Scottish political. In reality of course, she only gets away with this because nobody bothers to keep track of all the predictions she gets wrong - so perhaps now is the time to start. She has, for instance, repeatedly said she is 'more sure than ever' that Gordon Brown will go before the general election - hmmm, let's see.

In truth this is a decent enough (if unspectacular) poll for the SNP, and is strikingly similar to some of the lower-end results they were getting in the run-up to the 2007 election. What the seat projections do bring home is the huge element of luck that is involved in the outcome of very close elections - if, for instance, the Greens and far-left parties had performed more strongly in 2007, the SNP's narrow lead over Labour would not have been sufficient for victory.

As for Christina professing herself "genuinely surprised" (ahem - see previous post) at the supposed recent ideological repositioning of the SNP...well, it's hardly a shock that a Conservative activist would be instinctively dismayed at a party asserting its centre-left identity, even if she "removes her Tory bonnet" for the occasion. Her final point is - "I know that the independence issue is first and foremost in the minds of SNP activists, but it isn't for the majority." This is true. Neither are the majority particularly exercised about the "integrity and unity of our United Kingdom, the most successful political union this planet has ever seen", which is all the Tories seem to bang on about half the time. But the SNP are a nationalist party, and the Tories are an ultra-Unionist party, and for better or worse both parties must be true to their natures otherwise the voters will see through them in a trice. The important thing is, in addition to the constitutional issue, to address the everyday concerns of the majority - which in Scotland means a party positioning itself firmly in the centre-left. Nobody ever won an election here on a Thatcherite prospectus.

Liberal Democrats vote to thwart their own favoured constitutional option

The Liberal Democrats, as I understand it, take considerable pride in their long history (including predecessor parties) of consistent support for meaningful Scottish Home Rule. In the 1950s and early 60s when the SNP were still a fringe party, the Scottish Liberal Party was the leading voice in favour of constitutional change. So strong was that apparent commitment that I believe there was even once serious talk of an electoral pact with the Nationalists. And yet when the moment of truth came in 1977, the Liberals voted down the minority Labour government's guillotine motion on the Scotland and Wales Bill, thereby (as it turned out) effectively delaying devolution for a full two decades. It wasn't that they had turned against Home Rule as such - it was simply that their unionist instincts had kicked in, and 'wider political concerns' seemed more important at that moment.

A similar paradox is at play now. Nobody doubts that the Lib Dems genuinely support considerably stronger and deeper devolution. The question is just how strong and deep is that support? Enough for them to will the means as well as the end? Just a few hours ago, they had a golden opportunity to take matters into their own hands and make their own vision for Scotland's future a reality. But just like in the 1970s, wider concerns - ie. short-term politicking - proved more important to them than taking concrete steps towards achieving their stated goal. By backing a referendum on independence on the condition that a third option ('devolution plus') be added, they would have been guaranteed to get their wish - Alex Salmond has all but conceded that point. When the referendum took place, the chances are the Lib Dems' favoured option would have won the day. Although that vote would not have been binding on the UK government, it's almost inconceivable that a clear-cut result (as opposed, say, to the razor-thin 1979 margin) would not have been acted upon. But presented with a chance to empower both themselves and the Scottish people on this issue, the Liberal Democrats instead voted to empower...the UK government. And whether that's a Labour or a Tory government, it means that absolutely nothing will happen. And, as always, nothing will happen very slowly.

Also slightly baffling to see the suggestion that there had been "genuine anger" among delegates about Alex Salmond's proposed referendum question. That's the kind of response that might have been appropriate had the First Minister said "it's this or nothing". Instead, he's fallen over himself to be accommodating on the format of the referendum (other than insisting that independence must be on the ballot paper, which perhaps gives a clue as to the Lib Dems' true anti-democratic objection to the whole idea). But, as a general rule of thumb, when members of one party talk about feeling 'genuine' anger towards the policies of another party, it's probably best to be sceptical . Members of the public are certainly entitled to talk about 'genuine anger'. With party activists you can usually safely assume it's political somewhere down the line.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cynical discrediting of David Nutt

Further to my last post, it's now suddenly clear why Jacqui Smith felt quite so free to make some rather caustic remarks about the UK government's chief drugs adviser on Thursday night - he was about to be sacked by Alan Johnson. Smith's main complaint about David Nutt appeared to be that he had once said ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding. But the first thought that occurred to me was that if he did say that, wasn't it probably because there is hard statistical evidence to prove it?

Smith's insinuation was plain enough - that Nutt is a man who trivialises and belittles the pain and anguish of those who have lost a loved one to ecstasy. But surely it was precisely because he didn't mean that at all that he so readily apologised for his comment. It had simply been a clumsy way of illustrating the point that the perceptions of comparative risks and the reality are often some distance apart. I suspect Smith understood that perfectly well, and it was therefore more than a little cynical of her to pretend otherwise as a convenient way of discrediting a dangerously authoritative critic of her conduct as a minister.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Jacqui Smith dissembles, but only to an extent

It was hard not to feel a touch sorry for Jacqui Smith on Question Time last night as she saw her safety-net of a potential seat in the House of Lords flash before her eyes. She couldn't afford to put a single word out of place as David Dimbleby pursued the inexorable logic.

"Do you think MPs disgraced by the expenses scandal should be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords?"

"No, I don't."

"Do you think you have been disgraced by the expenses scandal?"

"Yes, I think to some extent I have been."

"So you think you shouldn't be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords?"

"David, this isn't about individuals..."

Yes, I think we can safely assume that in six months' time, having been sent packing by the voters of Redditch, Baroness Smith will be reminding us - "well, I did only say 'to an extent'".

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The worst President we'll never have (hopefully)

Encouraging to read the news at Slugger O'Toole that Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen has withdrawn his support for Tony Blair as the first fixed president of the European Council. Earlier I read with interest (and more than a little surprise) Jeff's invoking of the spirit of Tony the Tiger from the Frosties ads in explaining his support for the Blair bid, but I'm afraid I can't - to put it mildly - muster the same enthusiasm. When some of us say that Blair is simply unfit for high office as a result of the web of deception that paved the way for the illegal invasion of Iraq, it's actually not just empty rhetoric. The fact that the man was able to remain Prime Minister for four more years and receive a standing ovation in the Commons on his final day in office was distasteful enough to be getting on with.

Dannii Bare explained

Dannii Minogue will reportedly reveal on Saturday night that the reason she posed nude for a photo-shoot more than a decade ago was that she needed the fee to pay off her £150,000 debts. Her father apparently begged her not to go through with it, saying "doing this is forever - you can never, ever change it". But as it turned out, it's difficult to see that she suffered any long-term cost at all - if I recall correctly, she was even allowed to continue presenting children's programmes afterwards (Janet Ellis must have been...well, bemused). In fact, I think many people would be quite envious that someone had even a theoretical option (however uncomfortable) to get a quick, clean break from such an unimaginable mountain of debt. The only time I've ever been offered anything to take my clothes off was a couple of months ago by this part-time novelist, part-time total nutter. Unfortunately the reward on offer was merely the chance to win back 'five English pounds' from a (in retrospect slightly tasteless) bet that he and others had browbeaten me into accepting. So I wasn't exactly tempted.

It wasn't all bad news, though. You'll probably have noticed the slightly disturbing pose of the aforementioned novelist/nutter in the photo linked to above. Before accepting his original bet, I had challenged him to provide photographic evidence that he was actually good for this 'five English pounds' he claimed to be in possession of. But as you can see, he appears to see no distinction whatsoever between Thai and English currency. So I realised he wouldn't have the slightest objection if I chose to settle the bet by, say, stuffing a load of Croatian kunas into an envelope and sending it off to him. Oh, and a single US dollar bill that I'd had pointlessly lying around the house for years and years and years. Yes, all in all losing that bet was a small but very real blow against the scourge of clutter.

Liberal conservatism was last year

I hope I'm not in danger of turning this blog into Chekov-watch (perhaps I'm still suffering withdrawal symptoms due to the abrupt departure from the scene of Scottish Unionist), but once again I can't help noticing a bit of a problem with his post today. In it, he draws some damning conclusions on the nature of the DUP - namely that they are divorced from the 'mainstream' of British politics - based on the fact that only their representative Gregory Campbell spoke in favour of the death penalty in a debate in Westminster Hall. The snag for Chekov is that Campbell's views are in fact shared by a significant minority of parliamentarians at Westminster - and most of them are to be found on the Conservative benches. Which poses the question of why on earth a self-described 'liberal Unionist' would be quite so keen on his party's return lock, stock, and barrel to the Tory fold, when the other two GB-wide parties have a centre of gravity on this issue much closer to his own views? There may well be a case for fathoming a credible way to allow voters in Northern Ireland to vote on ideological rather than sectarian grounds if they so wish, but if and when that happens, my guess is that a 'liberal unionist' could only ever ultimately feel comfortable in a liberal unionist party. Such a beast exists - but it's not called the Conservative party. There's a reason for that.

It's lonely at the apex

I've been having a look once again at the pro-Ulster Unionist (and therefore now by automatic extension, pro-Conservative) blog Three Thousands Versts of Loneliness. I was planning to say something about the new Tory-UUP alliance, but first of all I can't resist responding to Chekov's second most recent post, as it contains a series of digs at the SNP and Alex Salmond. Apparently, the First Minister's "smug countenance" will have been replaced by a look of "indignation" upon encountering the "news" that David Cameron regards the SNP as irrelevant at the next election. Now I don't follow his blog closely, but my guess is that Chekov must have an awfully earnest, almost 1950s view of politics and the Conservative party in particular. In his mind, there's David Cameron, a sage-like figure at the apex of British politics, imparting pearls of wisdom, while lesser mortals such as Salmond can only hang on to every word, desperately longing for any small sign of recognition or respect. In truth, I'd imagine Salmond and his advisers wouldn't have been so much crestfallen at Cameron's snub as rather gratified to note that a political rival who feels the need to 'talk up your irrelevance' is obviously a tad worried that many people don't see it that way.

Cameron knows perfectly well that he doesn't get to choose how 'relevant' the SNP will be at the next election, and words won't make that reality go away. If the SNP stay with only the seven seats they currently hold, they're unlikely to hold much clout even in a hung parliament. On the other hand, if the UK-wide race tightens, and if the SNP end up with 15-20 seats, it's a different ballgame. But even if we assume that Chekov is taking it as read that the former will happen and not the latter, what does the irrelevance of a party with seven seats say about the influence that a party that currently holds just one seat - the Ulster Unionist Party - can credibly hope to ever exercise in their hopelessly unequal new alliance with the Tories?

Chekov goes on to note that Cameron is "right to point out" that Salmond will not be a candidate at the general election. Memo to Chekov - Alex Salmond has made no secret of that, and it's hardly a point of shame for anyone in the SNP. Indeed, I seem to recall the criticism up to now from Unionist politicians has been that Salmond was - as a nationalist - rather too keen to hold on to his Westminster seat. Which raises a simple question - would Alex Salmond be justified in a) staying at Westminster and leaving Holyrood, b) holding on to his seats at both Westminster and Holyrood, or c) leaving Westminster and staying at Holyrood? If the answer is, incredibly, none of the above (and it may well be given that he's been criticised for all three at various points in the last eight years), it's little wonder Unionists find the First Minister so objectionable almost regardless of what he says or does.

Finally, perhaps in an effort to convince himself that everything's going to work out just fine, Chekov asserts that "in previous general elections, Scots have always rejected the SNP in favour of participating in a national contest". Well...up to a point, Lord Copper. I take it he means that the SNP have never won the popular vote in a general election, which is quite true, but they have finished in second place on three occasions, and beaten the Conservatives no fewer than four times (including all of the last three elections). Hardly suggests that Scots have been fully buying into this "only two parties are relevant in Westminster elections" line that both Chekov and Cameron so dearly wish they would. It's also worth noting that until eighteen months ago the SNP had never won the popular vote at any election, Westminster or otherwise - they've now done so twice. Records are only ever there to be broken.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Britain is still Great. We invented Oxfam! Lord Stern of Brentford is one of ours!

Slightly ironic that I posed the rhetorical question the other day of how opponents of independence were going to eulogise the 'greatness of Britain' now that they'd well and truly been stripped of their 'fourth-largest economy in the world' fail-safe line. David Miliband's article in the Times on Monday almost seems to be an attempt to answer that very question, albeit without having Scotland specifically in mind. It makes for unintentionally hilarious reading. You must know you're struggling in an article like that when by just the fourth paragraph you're already falling back on the British origins of Oxfam and Save the Children, and when by the fifth paragraph you're enthusing about "Lord Stern of Brentford’s study on the economics of climate change", the importance of which is apparently "impossible to overstate".

Absolutely, David, let's all stop worrying about the dangers of overstating the importance of the Stern report. I must say the people I know all (with a quintessentially British misplaced modesty) worry about little else. It's silly and it's got to stop.

Rather more troubling than amusing is Miliband's suggestion that we should also take pride in that lest vestige of Britain's colonial privileges - our permanent, veto-wielding status at the UN Security Council, which he claims to defend "out of pride in what we do today, not our role of yesteryear". Isn't that the condescending line of the self-styled 'benevolent imperialist' down the ages - "we exercise power over lesser peoples, but only for their own good?" In reality, Britain is far from being the most pernicious voice on the UN Security Council, but the real damage of the UK and France's apparent determination to defend the current veto system to the last breath (albeit in modified form) is that it provides useful cover for the real Neanderthals of the 'international community'. Naming no names.

I might actually be able to take a little more pride in being British if our government had the imagination to stop clinging to a vestigial power and influence at the UN that has not been earned, and in so doing help to bring about something that would be far more valuable to people in both Britain and beyond - a democratised international system in which all nations are equal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A fascism of statistics

Last night, in a lengthy programme on Channel 4, Rageh Omaar explored the highly controversial issue of whether there are innate differences between the levels of intelligence of different races. In each thread of his investigation, Omaar allowed the proponents of the most provocative theories to set out their case, before seeking to demolish their arguments. From my own perspective, he did so extremely convincingly, by showing that the genetic differences between races are too minimal to produce the dramatic differentials in intelligence that have been suggested, and by pointing to the 'Flynn Effect', which could imply that IQ tests are less of a direct measure of intelligence, and more a measure of an individual or group's "adaptation to modernity". However, as the programme progressed, I could just imagine the self-anointed experts on the field of IQ (many of them statisticians) saying "this is proving nothing, he's missed the point entirely, anyone who thinks that IQ tests do not directly and accurately measure intelligence simply does not understand statistics".

And that, I think, is the essence of the whole problem with the debate over the validity of IQ tests, regardless of whether it relates to race, or merely the 'classification' of individuals by intelligence. There's a kind of 'statistical fascism' at play, whereby the statisticians refuse to seriously engage with any of the powerful counter-arguments to the prevailing wisdom that IQ tests are meaningful measures of intelligence - unless it is done on their own terms, with detailed reference to 'meta-analyses' and 'regressions' and all sorts of other incomprehensible language. Given the huge importance of this subject to everyone, it simply can't be right that authoritative discussion of it is restricted to such a narrow area. For one thing, anyone who has ever taken an IQ test (I've taken the American SAT, which in its old form closely resembled an IQ test) won't need a grounding in statistical theory to intuitively understand that it simply can't be a pure measure of intelligence - your score will also be significantly affected by your level of motivation to do well, your composure under severe pressure of time, etc, etc. The statisticians would respond by pointing out that, if an individual takes several different IQ tests, the outcome will typically be remarkably close every time. But this doesn't really address the point - if someone's composure and motivation levels remain fairly constant every time they take the test, it follows that the scores would remain constant as well. This constancy does not constitute proof that IQ tests accurately measure intelligence.

Ah, the statisticians might respond, you're overlooking the high level of correlation between IQ scores and success in life, as measured by educational attainment and income levels. But doesn't an individual's composure under pressure and motivation to succeed also play a significant role in determining their life chances? If an IQ test is partly measuring those things, it's hardly surprising there would be such a correlation.

In fact the buzz phrase of statisticians in this field appears to be "intelligence tests are the most accurate of all psychological tests". Just goes to show how ropey all the others must be.

More of a black hole than a window

I for one - and I don't seem to be the only one - hope that the EBU reconsider their decision to extend the televoting window at the next Eurovision Song Contest from the current ten or fifteen minutes to...well, the full two hours the songs are being performed. Perhaps it's true that there is evidence from the trial run of the new system in Junior Eurovision that songs performed late in the running-order will not be unfairly disadvantaged (however counter-intuitive it seems), but even if that is the case, there remains the question of perception and credibility. It hardly helps to counter the popular notion that people are voting mainly for countries rather than songs if, for instance, it's perfectly possible for them to cast a vote for a song that hasn't been performed yet.

My guess is that this has far more to do with maximising revenues than it has with the stated reason of preventing the telephone lines from becoming overloaded. You normally don't have to look much further than the revenues whenever the issue of telephone voting on TV shows comes up. (Although of course Ant and Dec knew nothing about any of that.)

A name can tell a thousand lies

Interesting (not to mention dismaying) that Jeff has anecdotal evidence that the recent surge of publicity for the BNP could lead recent arrivals to these shores to wrongly conclude that the politics of the similarly-named SNP are similar. I used to know a Chilean man who had been frightened by a documentary on the BNP, and was completely convinced that not only was the SNP a similar sort of party, but was in actual fact the Scottish branch of the BNP! I was particularly surprised by this given that he had lived in Scotland ever since fleeing from the Pincohet regime in the mid-1970s, and therefore must have been here during at least part of the SNP's 70s heyday. But perhaps the language barrier had at that stage prevented him from following local political developments.

Unfortunately it's difficult to see in practical terms what the SNP can do about such confusion, although it does give all of us sympathetic to the party another reason (not that we need one) to hope that the BNP publicity circus dies away very soon. I do seem to recall a few years ago that Alex Salmond remarked in an interview that if he'd been starting from scratch, he'd have preferred to christen his party the 'Scottish Independence Party'. However, it is of course a complete non-starter for a large, mainstream party that's been around for seventy-five years to consider changing its name just because the Brit Fascists in the latest of their many guises have decided to part-copy it.

ComRes : Labour slump to third place in Scotland

The new ComRes poll for the Independent paints a completely upside-down picture of Scottish public opinion compared to the poll just a few days ago for the Independent on Sunday. Here are the full figures from the Scottish subsample -

SNP 32% (+20)
Conservatives 24% (+3)
Labour 22% (-7)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-19)
Others 12% (+2)

I had an exchange a few weeks ago with people who felt that it was absurd to take subsamples of such a small size even vaguely seriously. This is one instance that would appear to bear out that argument, because clearly the changes of support for the SNP and Liberal Democrats in particular are thoroughly implausible. It's also incredibly unlikely that the Labour party are really in third place at the moment (although second place would not be entirely surprising). However, when you look at these subsamples over a period of months it's actually striking how rare such freakish findings are - the SNP and Labour nearly always occupy the top two places, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are nearly always in third and fourth. So while subsample figures need to be treated with extreme caution - due not only to small sample sizes but also to the fact that the figures may not be properly weighted - it's clear they're not completely meaningless, or 'just a bit of fun' as some people put it in Snow-esque fashion.

Almost nothing can be learned from looking at one subsample in isolation, given the mammoth margin of error, but it seems to me that if you look at a pattern of several of them it's possible to get a feel for what is going on in public opinion. However, others take a different view, and from the SNP's perspective it may be just as well they do - since by definition Scottish subsamples of UK-wide polls relate only to Westminster voting intention, and understate the party's likely performance at Holyrood elections.

It might also be worth mentioning why I first started looking closely at subsamples in the first place. Just under a year ago, Mike Smithson rather astonishingly devoted an entire thread at his excellent site to a single Scottish subsample of fewer than 100 people, which he used as supporting evidence for his theory that the Labour vote in Scotland was holding up dramatically better than elsewhere in the UK, meaning that it could be reasonably inferred that the potential swing to the Tories in English marginal seats was being significantly underestimated by UK-wide polls. Given that the posters on are overwhelmingly Tory-supporting, this theory has unsurprisingly entered the site's mythology, and it is periodically referred back to without much reference to hard figures. And, as the insufferable Dennis MacShane demonstrated on Newsnight last week, it's amazing how long a mythology based on one set of dubious figures can go completely unchallenged, if it never occurs to anyone to check up on it.

In this particular poll, we certainly see no evidence of the Labour vote holding up better in Scotland - they are seventeen points down on their 2005 performance in Scotland, but only nine points down across Great Britain as a whole.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some facts are not allowed

The news that the Lockerbie investigation is to be reopened is clearly worthy of a guarded welcome, but I'm sure one key question will be forming in the minds of many people today. Given that the new investigation will concern itself solely with the search for "Megrahi's accomplices", and given that the forensic evidence will be re-examined with the aid of recent technological advances in a search for new leads, what happens if (as seems rather likely) the forensic evidence now points decisively towards a culprit other than the Libyan state, and demonstrates that Megrahi could not have been guilty in the first place? Do the police simply say to themselves - in Orwellian fashion - "these facts are not permissible"?

Also more than a touch cynical of David Miliband to switch his line on a public inquiry from "there is no need for one" to "this is a matter for the Scottish authorities". If I was the Scottish government, I'd be sorely tempted to call his bluff, and just seek some clarification from him as to whether all relevant British officials would be made available to give evidence to a Scottish-sponsored public inquiry under oath. If the answer to that question happened to be no, it would become abundantly clear to everyone why an inquiry cannot primarily be a matter for the Scottish authorities.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The UK in seventh - not heaven

It used to be one of the most ubiquitous anti-independence arguments - that we'd be turning our backs on being part of the world's fourth-largest economy. (Although as slogans go, anything that relies on being the fourth-biggest anything is surely a touch uninspiring.) Amusingly, the argument continued to be deployed long after the UK had in fact slipped to sixth place in the rankings. I recall pointing this out to someone a year or two back, who eventually conceded that I was "technically" right but noted that France had only overtaken the UK on "exchange rate fluctuations" - neatly missing the point that exchange rates are absolutely fundamental to how the rankings are calculated.

So now that the UK has slipped again to seventh place behind Italy, what remnants of British Greatness will the opponents of independence fall back on instead? I do hope for their own sake they can come up with something better than Two World Wars and One World Cup.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Authenticity of the 'bogus' sentiment?

Melanie Phillips (a journalist who I suspect would be capable at causing offence at a meeting of the Jan Moir Appreciation Society) suggested a few days ago that the Conservatives were guilty of 'tokenism' for fielding Sayeeda Warsi against Nick Griffin on last night's Question Time. The Tory assault on BNP ideology would, she argued, have resonated far more if it had been delivered by a white, right-wing, middle-aged, establishment - but most definitely white - spokesman. In reality, of course, the Tory selection wasn't made with pious considerations of how best to 'combat the BNP menace' in mind, but can instead be seen in the context of the wider political game. It was all about bolstering the narrative of a party that has transformed itself, and what better way to do that than through the powerful symbolism of an articulate young Muslim woman from a working-class, north of England background being entrusted to speak for the entire party against fascism? In particular, the spectacle of a Tory politician spontaneously reacting against the mention of the phrase "bogus asylum seekers" by saying - with apparent conviction - "there is no such thing as a bogus asylum seeker" will have left an impression on many. It certainly left an impression on me, although in my case that impression was "this woman is not the authentic face of the modern Conservative party". Perhaps others will take a more generous view.

Vocal minority - you've got new mail

I can't pretend to have fully grasped the underlying issues in the postal dispute, but it was certainly startling to see the results of the ComRes opinion poll tonight showing 50% of the public sympathised more with the CWU and the workers, and only 25% with Royal Mail management. The commentariat/blogosphere consensus that the public always have zero sympathy for a striking workforce regardless of circumstance was so overwhelming that I as much as anyone fell into the trap of taking it as read that it was true.

I'm not naive enough to think that the public's patience won't start to wear thin if the strike is protracted, but this is still a valuable object lesson in how the 'silent majority' can sometimes surprise the very people who claim to speak for them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

So you'd like me to raise fuel poverty at Westminster? Well, of course I'd be delighted to, but...I did mention I was retiring, didn't I?

I've just received a 'questionnaire' from my local Labour MP, seeking to ascertain the political priorities of local residents. All very laudable I'm sure, but there are just two slight snags - a) the general election is only six months away and a large chunk of that time will be eaten up by the Christmas and Easter recesses and the pre-Queen Speech prorogation, and b) the said local Labour MP will not actually be a candidate at that election. Given that, wouldn't it have been slightly more productive to pose questions like "what issues would you like me to raise at Westminster?" and "how satisfied are you with my work as local MP?" two or three years ago, rather than now? The cynical side of me thinks this might just have more to do with the election chances of her successor as Labour parliamentary candidate.

Although it would probably be far too cynical of me to suggest that the whole exercise was deliberately timed to precede a national postal strike. I'd really better get my skates on if I want her to sneak in a parliamentary question for me on foreign affairs before she retires!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Politics is driven either by emotion or a thirst for power – which do you prefer?

A few days ago I started to write a blog post in response to Tom Harris' "nationalism is an emotion" piece, but I gave up after twenty minutes, realising that there was just so much I could say on the matter that I could be sitting there for hours. So instead I restricted myself to a (relatively) pithy tweet. But the gist of what I was going to say is that all 'good' politics is driven by an emotion of some sort or another, usually one that is just as basic, primal, childish as the one Harris imagines to be the essence of nationalism. It can be summed up in three short words - 'it's not fair'. Idealistic young recruits to the Labour party through the decades (perhaps not so much recently, but let's not quibble) have been motivated by their indignation over poverty and social injustice - the unfairness that some people have so little while others have so much. The equivalent young idealists joining the Tories will often have been motivated by the perceived unfairness of the state deciding how to 'spend people's money for them'. These are visceral emotions, powerful enough to trigger a lifetime political vocation because they engender a burning desire to put these injustices right for people. It's precisely the same for Scottish Nationalists - a whim to redraw a line on the map, or occasional irritation at being called "English" while on holiday in Malaga, is not enough to hook someone into a lifetime of political drudgery. Rather, the unfairness which political nationalism might be seen as an emotional reflex to is our untapped potential as a nation, that holds people back and suppresses general quality of life. What does the emotion of nationalism look like stripped of that vital quality? Look no further than Jim Sillars' "ninety-minute nationalist" phenomenon. After all, polls show that the vast majority of Scots regard themselves as Scottish more than British. So it seems that most of us are 'afflicted' by the emotion that Harris identifies, but only a minority channel it into constructive political action. Surely the latter group ought to be lauded, not denounced?

Perhaps the reason that Harris cannot see it that way is that he has long since moved on from the time when idealism was ever the driving force of his own politics. Try to convince Harris that something is simply the right thing to do, and more often than not he won't tell you why you're wrong on the merits of the argument - he'll simply say "we tried that in the 1980s, middle England rejected it, some of us have grown up and moved on". In other words, the 'mature' politics Harris believes in is triangulation, policy determined by calculation not principle, power at all costs the sole objective.

But, you might object, don't all politicians have to get real sometimes, make messy compromises that they wish they didn't have to make? Of course. But the ones who remain in touch with their ideals - or 'emotions' as Harris would have it - never lose sight of the bottom line, the longer-term goal that all the pragmatic compromises will ultimately be a means to realising. I believe that the SNP, for all their imperfections, still fit into that category - New Labour most certainly do not. Perhaps the most telling moment came when the Labour manifesto made the astonishing claim that "New Labour is the political wing of the British people". Strip that down and what does it actually mean? Whatever you want, we'll give it to you. That is the philosophy of a business trying to attain profit and prestige, not of a political movement with roots, principles and a purpose.

So what led me to write a post on this topic when I'd abandoned the idea a few days ago? Ah yes, it was Jeff's post, taking exception to Harris' characterisation of the SNP conference as a "hate-fest". Actually Harris had at the same time also suggested that one of the favourite pastimes of Nationalists is "alphabeticisng their grievances". What on earth is this guy's problem? It would be one thing if his jibes were actually likely to resonate with the public, but for there be the remotest chance of that his own party's public face would have to be a model of positivity and constructiveness. Instead, they're led by Iain "the Snarl" Gray. No, I can only think of one credible explanation for Harris' bitterness, it's an outlandish one but it's the only thing that fits - he must have been bullied at school by a Nat. If I'm right, perhaps I can suggest a remedy in language he ought to recognise and appreciate - "grow up, Tom, it's time to move on from the grievance".

Monday, October 12, 2009

Which council?

An intriguingly-titled opinion piece by Lesley Riddoch in today's Scotsman - "Nordic Council membership offers us a real alternative". Unfortunately it's a premium article so I haven't a clue what argument Ms Riddoch is putting forward, but presumably it involves the suggestion that an independent (or perhaps even devolved) Scotland could apply for Nordic Council membership. An idea that seems absurd at first glance, but I do recall that some years ago both the Orkney and Shetland Islands Councils were courted by the Nordic Council. Presumably if those two island groups were thought to qualify on linguistic, cultural and historical grounds, a case could be made that the country they are a part of ought to automatically qualify as well. Shetland, indeed, has a particularly strong additional case on the grounds of geography - it's directly between mainland Denmark and the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. And other parts of Scotland have strong historical Nordic connections as well - most notably the Western Isles, where Norse place-names abound, and in part of which it's sometimes said that people "speak Gaelic with a Norwegian accent".

It's perhaps more realistic, though, to instead look on the British-Irish Council - for now a talking shop with photo-calls - as being the embryonic form of what could one day blossom into our very own Nordic Council.

Landlords, don't be a stranger

It's of course not surprising that a website such as ConservativeHome (at one time affectionately known as 'Continuity IDS') should occasionally seek to mischievously distort the policy positions of political opponents. What is rather comical, however, is that one of its headlines - "Scottish Tories attack the protectionist SNP over plan to ban foreigners from buying Scottish land" - should then immediately be directly contradicted by the content of the post that follows! The quote from the Sunday Times contains no hint of banning anyone on the basis of nationality, merely a suggestion that there could be a residency requirement.

What was even more startling, though, is that having followed the link to the Sunday Times, I realised ConHome had merely been following the lead of the headline there - "SNP to ban foreigners from buying land". That summary of the story is problematical on a couple of counts only - a) it's merely a proposal for discussion at the moment, so it's premature to say the SNP are going "to do" anything, and b) the proposal in question doesn't actually say anything about banning foreigners from buying land. But apart from that, it's an accurate headline.

A brief exchange I had on earlier confirmed that ConHome and the Sunday Times are by no means alone in this curious belief that there is no difference 'in essentials' between two wholly different things - an insistence on the one hand that anyone (including a Scot) who owns land here must also live here for a certain percentage of the year, and a "ban on foreigners" on the other. I did kind of assume (and I'm not being entirely sarcastic) that the "new, modern, compassionate Conservative party" might want to be seen as being at least partly on the side of those who suffer from the very real downsides of absentee landlordism. It's particularly telling that their reaction to suggestions that foreign land-owners might actually want to live on their Scottish estates is not criticism, or even mockery - it's simply "does-not-compute".