Saturday, February 14, 2009

Iain Gray Veracity-watch part 2

Iain Gray said something at First Minister's Questions on Thursday that was factually inaccurate. You might think that a) it's a bit late in the day to be mentioning this and that b) it's nothing out of the ordinary anyway, but what prompts me to point it out is that, in his own take on FMQs, AM2 seems to have unaccountably missed this glaringly obvious untruth (which I'll come to in a minute) and is instead far more exercised by Alex Salmond's statement that his government has already fulfilled 46 of its 94 headline manifesto pledges. That would be fine if AM2 had any solid grounds for believing this statement to be untrue - but he doesn't. It's rather like his attitude to opinion polls - if the numbers don't conform to his intuition, they must be wrong. Hilariously, he even appeals to his readers to send him information on the 46 pledges in question. What's the betting he'll claim in a day or two that because no-one has done so, that constitutes 'proof' Alex Salmond was lying? I'm glad AM2 isn't in charge of our justice system - 'guilty until proven innocent' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Whereas there's no question at all that Iain Gray was telling porkies, and the evidence is there in black and white for all to see. He claimed that not a single poll in history - "not a single one" he repeated for effect in his peculiar 'snarl' voice - had ever shown the people of Scotland wanted independence. Well, what about all the polls that have shown exactly that, Iain? Of course, if someone pointed that out to him his get-out card would be that in polls where the 'Yes' side had a lead, the raw percentage in favour of independence had never reached 51%. (Although there was a poll in 1992 that showed exactly 50% in favour - and that was a multi-option poll!) The point unionists are going to have to wake up to sooner or later is that in a referendum there will be no 'don't know' option on the ballot paper. The people who are currently undecided in the opinion polls would either break one way or the other, or they would abstain. The rules of the game will be exactly the same for the 'yes' and 'no' side - so if the unionists can look at a poll showing a 40-38% lead for the 'no' side as showing a "majority against independence", then it's utterly absurd for them to claim that all the previous polls that showed a similar lead for the 'yes' side constituted anything but a majority in favour of independence.

Weasel words from Murphy

The Scotsman is reporting that Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy will continue Labour's propaganda war against the SNP's non-nuclear policy in a speech on Monday. He will apparently draw attention to what he describes as an "increasing consensus" in Europe that nuclear power must form part of any serious climate change strategy. Now, if ever you wanted to see a textbook example of weasel words, there it is! "Increasing consensus" is code for "actually there isn't a consensus at the moment - but Finland have changed their mind, so that's a start".

Friday, February 13, 2009

Independence is winner of 'Which?' Magazine's coveted Flush of the Year Award

I take it all back. AM2's sophistry used to be entertainingly inventive, but it's clear now his heart's gone out of it and he just goes through the motions. He responded on his blog tonight after I challenged him on how he could possibly characterise the SNP's support for local income tax as "anti-British". First of all, he directs me to a typically ill-conceived article by Angus MacLeod of the Times, as if that explained everything. (What's next - Alan Cochrane?) Then, perhaps sensing this wasn't quite good enough even by his own recent standards, he hastily adds that the whole purpose of the SNP's existence is to "break up Britain" (it's known as "Scottish independence" round our way) and they must therefore be anti-British. Is that really the best you can do, AM2? The SNP are against the continued existence of the British state, therefore every single thing they do is anti-British? Is the abolition of bridge tolls 'anti-British'? Is the saving of accident and emergency departments 'anti-British'? Are Kenny MacAskill's efforts to tackle binge drinking 'anti-British'? AM2's response to me was so absolutist that, incredible though it may seem, I can only conclude his answer to those questions would have to be 'yes'.

I then on a separate thread put to him Mike Smithson's second golden rule - ie. that he can't simply dismiss the latest poll on independence as a rogue just because he doesn't agree with the numbers or finds them hard to accept. He responded with a brief set of cryptic observations. I presume the reason he did this is that he knew what he was saying made zero sense, but he wanted to be able to pretend to his readers - as is his way - that the only reason it all seemed like meaningless nonsense is because they simply weren't trying hard enough to understand. Sophistry, but of the more lazy, tedious variety. Firstly he pointed out that in November 2007, System Three had a poll showing 40% support for independence. Then he pointed out that YouGov showed just 27% support two months later. Okay, AM2, this is the bit where you reluctantly accept that System Three has now shown support back up to 38%. But, no, he instead reaches into the faithful AM2 doomsday database and conjures up an out-of-context March 2008 quote from Alex Salmond, in which the First Minister supposedly conceded only a quarter supported independence. Why would he say that, asks AM2 knowingly, before abruptly disappearing into the night. Well, just off the top of my head - maybe, just maybe, it's because that's what the most recent poll happened to show at the time?

Now here's your own starter for ten - what does the most recent poll show now?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

At last - a TV channel worse than Dave!

And on the other end of the spectrum from Kezia, we have Liberal Democrat Caron lambasting the SNP for not banging their heads against a brick wall by bringing forward legislation that was certain to be defeated. I share Caron's frustration for 'Scotland's poorest' who will continue to lose out under the council tax, but the only thing that could actually help such people would be local income tax on the statute book, not a glorious failure at the expense of dozens of hours of wasted parliamentary time.

At the end of her post is a frankly disturbing link to an appearance by Jeremy Purvis on something called 'Tavish TV'. I must admit I'd never previously heard of 'Tavish TV', but then these hip and trendy 'yoof' channels have never really been my thing.

The Labour 'we'

I've just had a look at Kezia Dugdale's take on the deferral of the local income tax legislation. My first observation is that it always makes me wince slightly to see someone like Kezia use a title such as 'how stupid do they think we are?'. The implication here being that 'they' are the establishment and 'we' are the general public. But Kezia, as I understand it, is a Labour activist. I think most of 'us' - if I can put it that way - can see there's a slight distinction between the general public on the one hand and Labour activists on the other, and indeed for all 'we' know the SNP might well regard one of these groups as being rather more stupid or intelligent than the other (in broad terms).

But as for the specifics of Kezia's complaint, she feels that the SNP's argument that there is no point in introducing legislation for which there is no 'stable majority' doesn't hold water, because they still plan to introduce the independence referendum bill, about which the same could be said. But that's not quite an accurate comparison, is it? Because in the case of the local income tax there has in fact been a stable majority against all along. Whereas in the case of the independence referendum, the state of play seems to change every five minutes - and Kezia needs look no further than the utterly chaotic internal politics of her own party to find the explanation for that. Until there's some sign of 'stability' in the opposition parties on this issue (and I mean for longer than a few months), the SNP have every reason to be optimistic that their powers of persuasion can triumph. After all, if a woman as intelligent as Wendy Alexander could suddenly and unexpectedly be persuaded of the merits of a referendum, why shouldn't we imagine such a thing could happen again?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Independence is a fully-operational flush

As a follow-on from my last post, I see AM2's latest offering is to mock Alex Salmond's claim that independence is now within "touching distance". Is that not actually quite an apt choice of words, given that the latest poll (which is naturally a blip, a rogue, or quite possibly rigged if all else fails) shows just a two-point deficit for the 'yes' side? "Touching distance" would seem to sum up the current position quite nicely.

AM2 - inconvenient poll is 'a blip'

And I was so relishing the prospect of some entertainingly inventive sophistry in response to my challenge to AM2/Scottish Unionist - he's delivered so reliably on other occasions, but perhaps the poor chap is tired. (Understandable, he doesn't half get around.) Having finally let my comment through moderation, his response was indeed to update his table, but with the figures miraculously rearranged in a completely different order so that the most recent poll features in the middle rather than at the end! His justification? The latest poll looks like a 'blip' to him. Fair enough, let's dispense with all the hard statistical analysis, AM2's intuition is far more reliable.

I think AM2/Scottish Unionist urgently needs to acquaint himself with Mike Smithson's 'second golden rule' - "a rogue poll is one where you don't agree with the numbers".

To illustrate this point, let me ask another question of AM2 - do you think you would you have written a post full of shameless innuendo attempting to smear TNS System 3 and undermine its credibility if by any chance the latest poll had shown 20% in favour of independence and 60% against? Do you not think in those circumstances your post would have been rather more to do with the contents of what you'd have taken as read as being a rigorous, scientifically-conducted survey? A simple yes or no will suffice.

Getting the numbers straight

Within minutes of John Swinney announcing that he had been compelled by the stance of others to defer legislation for local income tax until after the 2011 election, Professor Richard Kerley suggested on television that the problem had been the failure of the SNP and Liberal Democrats to come to an agreement over the issue of the local variability of the tax rate - if that agreement had been there, a parliamentary majority would have been there, Kerley stated as if it were simple fact. Admittedly, Kerley is the leading expert on local government finance and not on parliamentary arithmetic, but you'd think someone so engaged with this issue would have explored it from all the angles. Either way, he's simply wrong. The SNP and Liberal Democrats between them have 63 seats, while the other parties in combination have 65. As John Swinney pointed out in his speech, without the Greens altering their position radically there was never the slightest prospect of getting the legislation through this side of an election. And, as we've recently learned, those who think that the Greens will back down easily are usually guilty of wishful thinking.

This is not a mere technicality - we saw from Andy Kerr's response that Labour are determined to propagate the fiction that the SNP have backed off the policy because they knew it was wrong, and that they have betrayed the electorate by not fulfilling their manifesto pledge. (Usual muddled message - if in Kerr's fantasy world the fabled "hard-working families" were to be hit by a tax bombshell, are they really meant to feel "betrayed" now that they've been spared such a calamity?) It's vital that this fiction is not allowed to take root, and that the electorate fully understands that not only was the majority in Holyrood not there, but that the Westminster government had used an array of outrageous tactics to make it logistically impossible for a local income tax to go forward even if a majority had been there. The real 'false prospectus' was not the SNP's manifesto pledge, it was the UK government's claim of respect for the devolution settlement.

A government of all the talents

When you're running a minority government that holds just a one seat advantage over the principal opposition party the first priority is to keep your parliamentary group happy and united - or failing that, just disciplined will do. For it only takes one disgruntled backbencher to wreak havoc - and possibly bring the government down. And bearing that in mind I had a degree of foreboding in May 2007 when the newly elected First Minister Alex Salmond pointedly omitted the big-hitters Alex Neil and Roseanna Cunningham from his ministerial line-up, and gave another significant figure Mike Russell a notably more junior role than might have been anticipated. For Cunningham in particular this represented a dizzying reversal of fortune - until the summer of 2004 she had been SNP deputy leader and, until the dramatic turn of events just hours before nominations closed, had been well on course to be elected John Swinney's successor as party leader. Now she was a mere backbencher, perhaps punished for not being a signed-up member of 'team Salmond'. Out of such situations do poisonous grievances and factionalism take root.

Or so you'd think. For what has in fact happened over the last two years is that both Neil and Cunningham have proved extraordinarily useful to Alex Salmond, deploying their communication skills to take the Scottish government's case forcefully to the airwaves, and in a way that the extra freedom of the backbenches allowed. Today they receive their reward for having done so, and the Scottish government line-up suddenly has a strengthened, more balanced look about it. One slight tinge of regret, however - it's hard not to feel sorry for Linda Fabiani, who whatever her failings had a passion for her job at culture that was unmistakable and infectious.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

SNP up 2% in ICM 'northern region' sub-sample

The detailed figures from the weekend Sunday Telegraph poll have finally been released on the ICM website, and the breakdown for the 'northern' region (covering the whole of Scotland and an unspecified chunk of England) show the SNP have gained two points and now stand at 9%. The most startling finding is a ten-point drop in Labour support - and yet the Tories are unchanged, so presumably these voters are primarily moving to the SNP in Scotland, and to the Liberal Democrats in northern England. Here are the full figures, with the numbers in brackets representing the change since the last ICM poll for the Guardian in January.

Conservatives 30% (-)
Labour 30% (-10)
Liberal Democrats 26% (+7)
SNP 9% (+2)
Others 6% (+2)

As always with sub-samples, bear in mind that the margin of error is by definition considerably greater than for full-scale polls, and that the figures may not have been properly weighted (indeed ICM specifically state this is the case).

Inadequacy of funding led to inadequacy of logic

In a letter published in the Scotsman yesterday, Patrick Harvie set out his definitive explanation of the approach he and Robin Harper took to the budget process. As I stated in an earlier post, I have no problem with the Greens' 'no' vote at the second time of asking, and indeed feel that for them to have voted any other way at that stage would have been illogical. But the letter is primarily concerned with the crucial first vote (or the vote that seemed crucial at the time) when the Greens held the balance. Harvie offers a biting analysis of why he felt the package he was offered was inadequate - but in a sense that's an answer to the wrong question. What he has failed to convincingly explain is how his original 'no' vote has left the Greens in any better position now than they would have been with a 'yes' vote or an abstention.

For we all know that the opposite is in fact the case - the £22 million insulation package originally offered by John Swinney has now been watered down to £15 million. Whatever his understandable frustrations with the negotiations process, Harvie will surely eventually come to reflect that letting his irritation get the better of him at a pivotal moment was not smart politics.

Monday, February 9, 2009

'Others' up 3% in Populus poll

More potentially good news for the SNP in the latest UK-wide Populus survey - the combined figure for parties other than Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (which is all we have to go on for the moment) now stands at 12%, a three-point increase from the last survey. There is of course no way of telling yet whether this is due to increasing support for the SNP and Plaid Cymru or for UK-wide minor parties like UKIP, the Greens and the BNP, but at the very least it is in line with Saturday's ICM poll in suggesting that the squeeze on the non-Labour/Tory parties we saw in the autumn is now well and truly over. As in ICM, the Liberal Democrats see an increase in their share of the vote, while Labour is down a full five points to 28%.

Full figures -

Conservatives 42% (-1)
Labour 28% (-5)
Liberal Democrats 18% (+3)
Others 12% (+3)

So now begins the interminable wait to see what the Scottish breakdown is - but at least we know there'll be one eventually, which is not the case with ICM. I did have a quick peek at the Populus website on the off chance, but their 'latest poll' link directed me to a 'Fabulous Sex' survey for the News of the World, the fieldwork for which was supposedly carried out between the 23rd and 26th of February 2009. I know that polling is getting quicker, but that's impressive by any standards. Has someone at Populus invented a TARDIS?

My question has been answered

I wondered aloud in an earlier post how AM2/Scottish Unionist would deal with the unacceptable reality of increasing support for independence in the latest TNS System Three poll, and now I have my answer. He hasn't ignored it, he simply doesn't feel the mere results of the poll are terribly important or worthy of comment - apparently it's the SNP's reaction to the poll that is far more newsworthy! He's got a versatile range of moves, I'll give him that.

Anyway I've now gone straight to the horse's mouth with my challenge to him to simply update his earlier table of poll results, so if he lets my comment past moderation we'll see how he talks his way out of this one. I suspect it might involve some entertainingly inventive sophistry.

UPDATE : I actually completely misread AM2's post. Incredibly, he's not complaining about the SNP's own reaction to the poll, but rather that of TNS System Three's managing director Chris Eynon. Apparently by pointing out the blindingly obvious fact that his company's polls are somewhat positive for independence, this means that he's somehow outed himself as a Nationalist. Therefore his company's polls have no credibility whatsoever and the rather inconvenient figures they contain can be safely discounted. So in that case why did you include the earlier TNS System Three polls in your 'busted flush' table, AM2?

Is nuclear power an issue of 'national security'?

For most people, the Calman process is all about exploring the ways in which Scottish autonomy might be enhanced - while the greatest fear for many is that it might turn out to be damp squib and that little will change. But for one small, narrow interest group - namely Westminster Labour MPs - this is in fact a process about stripping the Scottish parliament of powers it currently holds. Oh sorry, I appear to have gone slightly off-message there. What I meant to say is that they see it as an important 'opportunity' to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the devolution settlement and to see in what ways it can be 'strengthened', specifically by examining in a 'mature' way whether there is now a case that certain powers could be exercised more 'effectively' by a different layer of government than they are at present. It's just an extraordinary coincidence that the most appropriate layer of government for all the important powers always turns out to be Westminster.

Yesterday, Scotland on Sunday reported that Labour MPs - but intriguingly not their Holyrood cousins - want to return the crucial planning powers over new nuclear power stations to Westminster. They claim to be motivated by a desire to prevent UK government energy policy being 'frustrated' by the Scottish government's planning powers. Or to put it another way, they don't much care for the fact that the Scottish government is daring to suggest it might actually use its legal powers to legitimately block something in line with the express wishes of the Scottish electorate at the ballot box. That would never do, would it?

Perhaps sensing the weakness of this line of attack, the MPs have a back-up argument - that nuclear energy policy is a matter of national security. In a sense I can see their point - a terrorist attack on a nuclear power station would have devastating consequences, as would the theft of nuclear material. But the irony is that all of this only applies for as long as there actually are nuclear power stations. Labour MPs can rest assured that the SNP's policy is very kindly eliminating that national security worry for them, and they can now sleep easy in their beds. Problem solved.

Thumbs down to a less-than-Royal Mail

So the polling evidence is that three-quarters of the British public oppose privatisation of the Royal Mail, and that a full nine-tenths would oppose it if it involved some form of foreign ownership (and for legal reasons there could be no guarantee it wouldn't). You can't really quibble about figures as overwhelming as those, which leaves only one remaining question - do we or do we not have a "listening government"? Answers on a postcard...

If you thought the 'four candles' sketch was funny, wait till you hear the hysterical Obama 'ice cream' gag!

If you believed the events of recent months might have significantly healed the racial and cultural divide in the US, take a look at this viral e-mail my mother received earlier today from an American pal of hers who appears to be just slightly right-wing -

"Ben and Jerry's is coming out with an unbelievable new ice cream in honor of the messiah who was just sworn in as our 44th President. It is being churned in Washington DC and appropriately being named:
'Baracky Road'
half chocolate and half vanilla surrounded by fruits and nuts"

To quote Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder II, if I appear not to be laughing it's only because I fear my sides would split. There have of course been a lot of e-mails over the last couple of years claiming to prove that Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist or not a natural-born citizen or whatever, but this is the first openly racist one I've come across and I was genuinely quite shocked (as was my mother).

For a (marginally) more harmless laugh on the same topic, you could try this old favourite, the Conservapedia entry for Barack Obama. You might think it's a deliberate self-parody, but it's not!

The wrong name is written on the body

If there was any respite to be had from the all-pervasive culture of Jock-bashing, you'd think you might find it in the pages of a Jeanette Winterson novel. Alas, not a bit of it. I reach a mere page 19 and find the following line -

"I took to carrying a tartan rug wherever I went, like a far-out member of the Scottish Nationalist Party"

You'd think if she felt the need to chuck in a gratuitous insult about us she might have started by ensuring she at least got the name of the party right. Perhaps we should be grateful, though - the phrase "far-out member" at least seems to admit to the possibility there are some sane members as well!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Support for independence up 3%

A new TNS/System Three poll for the Sunday Herald has shown that support for independence has risen to 38%, up from 35% in October, while there has been a concurrent fall of 3% in support for the status quo, which now stands at 40%.

First thought that entered my head - how on earth will AM2/Scottish Unionist cope with the reality of this poll? After all, it's only a matter of days since he ran the hysterical headline "Independence is a busted flush". I fear he may ignore it, but perhaps I'm being too cynical. I'll set him a challenge - why doesn't he simply update this table he used in his post to illustrate the 'collapse' in support for independence :

10 Apr 2008: Progressive Scottish Opinion/Daily Mail – 41%
13 Apr 2008: TNS System Three/Herald – 41%
07 July 2008: TNS System Three/Herald – 39%
11 July 2008: YouGov/Telegraph – 36%
08 Sep 2008: YouGov/Sunday Times – 34%
26 Oct 2008: YouGov/Sunday Times – 31%
30 Jan 2009: YouGov/Sunday Times – 29%

Of course, anyone who has closely followed the polling on independence will know that this table was always grossly misleading, because Progressive Scottish Opinion and TNS System Three have typically - for whatever reason - shown a much higher level of support for independence than YouGov. But fair's fair - if that's the method of comparison he likes, support for independence has just rocketed by an astonishing 9% since the last YouGov poll.

New Labour buries more bad news - in the snow

It was of course utterly predictable that James Purnell's plan to find jobs for millions of people on benefit would be somewhat compromised (that's the kindest way I can think of putting it) by the small matter of what might just prove to be the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Sunday Times is reporting that Purnell has had to postpone the announcement of preferred private sector bidders for the job-finding contracts this week, because the firms involved were demanding too much government cash. But fortunately, providence has provided Purnell with a convenient and devilishly plausible cover-story - the announcement had to be indefinitely deferred after a preparatory meeting last week was cancelled "because of the snow".

Am I being too cynical here? Probably Alastair Campbell would say that my problem is that I see everything through "a prism" of some sort or another. Not quite sure what the "prism" would be in this case, but whenever anyone points out a clear-cut instance of New Labour spin it usually turns out there's a "prism" involved somewhere.

The other 'respect agenda'

Scotland on Sunday is reporting that David Cameron will ensure any administration he leads establishes a far better relationship with the SNP government in Edinburgh than Gordon Brown has chosen to thus far. Mischievously, the article even invokes the phrase 'the respect agenda', hitherto associated with the government's never-ending drive to ensure that no child is left behind - all must have ASBOs.

The hint seems to be that Cameron envisages the Scots in his Shadow Cabinet - Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Lord Strathclyde - playing a key role in all this. Frankly, I'm struggling to imagine the insufferable Dr Fox in the role of cross-party bridge-builder. However, for all his reputation as an idealogue (a neocon, some would say), Gove did manage to strike a refreshing tone of humility when discussing the success of devolution (and specifically the Tories' previous block-headed determination to prevent it happening) when he appeared on Question Time the week before last. But it's the age-old question - Gove and others may be able to talk the talk, but will they walk the walk once in power? After all, the Tories went into the 1979 election nominally still open to the possibility of devolution, with the pro-assembly former PM Sir Alec Douglas-Home famously promising that a Thatcher government would introduce a 'better' form of devolution than the one Labour proposed. Perhaps a warning from history that it's best not to take vague pledges from a Tory opposition on the Scottish constitutional question at face value.

After all, a Tory government is highly likely to be elected with only a handful of Scottish seats, so in spite of Cameron's protestations that he wants to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and not England, we all know it won't be the Scottish electorate he'll be primarily pandering to.

Chiara's hat-trick

Exciting news that the brilliant Chiara will sing for Malta for a third time at the Eurovision Song Contest in May - not even Johnny Logan and Cliff Richard managed the hat-trick! In Birmingham in 1998 she finished third, in Kyiv in 2005 she was second - will she complete the logical sequence and win this time round? Probably not given that her song What If We isn't quite strong enough, but as ever her vocal performance will get the maximum value out of it, and I certainly expect her to coast through to the final.