Thursday, February 25, 2010

I've never voted Conservative before, but I'm a progressive, liberal unionist

A few months ago, the self-styled 'liberal unionist' Northern Ireland blogger Chekov went off on one about the DUP, on an issue that any liberal ought to be proud to do so, namely the elements within that party still supportive of the death penalty. However, I think I mentioned at the time my bemusement at Chekov's apparent incredulity over the issue, as if he was revealing the reason why the DUP could be regarded as the most neanderthal party in the western world. Sadly, support for capital punishment remains considerably more mainstream than we might wish on the right of politics in the United Kingdom - if not, ironically, in the Republic of Ireland!

But there's another irony - or to be more blunt, a gaping hole of illogicality - in Chekov's position. For the other thing that regularly gets his goat up is even the slightest suggestion that the new link-up between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Conservatives may not be the most exciting development in politics since the advent of universal suffrage. Whenever it's pointed out that the UUP is an ideologically-mixed party, and that there are many left-of-centre party members who can only feel naturally at home in a moderate unionist rather than conservative party, Chekov simply repeats the rather jaw-dropping mantra that everyone knows the Conservatives are now the most 'progressive' party in UK politics, and any argument to the contrary is simply not 'sustainable'. Really? Even when you consider the new survey findings that twenty per cent of Conservative prospective parliamentary candidates favour the restoration of the death penalty? Given Chekov's claimed astonishment that anyone at all could hold such views in the modern world, I'd suggest a true progressive could only really feel comfortable in a party that doesn't put up candidates who do. But if Chekov really does have his heart set on a British mainland party, there are thankfully many that fit the bill for him to choose from - Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens...but not the Tories. Categorically not the Tories.

And a small postscript. After the industrial quantities of bile he's heaped on Sylvia Hermon for daring to disrupt - by perfectly democratic means - the carefully laid plans to install a Tory/UUP MP for North Down, it's also rather startling to see Chekov suddenly do a complete about-turn now that there's a vague (and not very plausible) suggestion that she could stand as a Labour candidate, rather than as an independent. It would be the 'honourable' thing for Hermon to do, he tells us.

Words fail me. You can have any colour you like, as long as it's black. In Chekov-world, any political stand is a principled stand - just so long as it's a UK integrationist political stand.

How can the SNP capitalise on a hung parliament?

It's extraordinary when you consider where we were just three or four months ago, but as of this moment we really do appear to be heading towards a hung parliament. I emphasise 'as of this moment', because with the bizarre series of twists and turns we've seen over the course of this five-year parliament, it could all look very different in a few weeks' time! But there's no question about where we stand right now - with four successive YouGov polls showing a six-point Tory lead, and the latest ICM poll showing a seven-point lead, the tightening of the position can't be put down to rogue polls or sampling issues.

So where does this leave the SNP? A great deal has been made of the possibility that the party may now fall way short of the twenty seat target set several years ago by Alex Salmond. The Liberal Democrats will be the real power brokers even if there is a hung parliament, we are told, with the SNP and their handful of MPs remaining firmly on the periphery. But the chance to look back at the 1974 election last week reminded me that it all turned out rather differently last time round. The Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe imagined they had been landed with the golden opportunity they'd been waiting decades for - but got precisely nothing out of it. They didn't get electoral reform, or the chance to serve in a coalition government. A few years later, in the period of the Lib-Lab pact, they were banking a great deal on at least securing the very minor consolation prize of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament, but failed even on that count.

By contrast, the SNP - who won just seven seats in February 1974, exactly the same number as they hold now - exploited the hung parliament situation to achieve something quite extraordinary. They turned Labour's whole policy on Scottish devolution on its head, and ensured that much of the following five years was taken up with the attempts to get a Scottish Assembly onto the statute book. Ultimately, thanks to the cynical machinations of George Cunningham and co., it wasn't to be, but nevertheless 1974 marked a truly historic shift in Labour's thinking on the issue that undoubtedly paved the way for the Scottish Parliament we now have. So who said small parliamentary groups are in no position to win significant concessions?

The question really is, if the SNP find themselves in such an influential position once again following this general election, what their shopping list should be. We've heard quite a bit of speculation that support for any minority government might be conditional on extra economic assistance for Scotland. The logic for this is obvious, and might well appear to be the only responsible priority in the current circumstances. But I think the party would do well to remember just how long the Liberals (and indeed the rest of us) have had occasion to regret their failure to secure a fair voting system when they had the chance in 1974. Golden opportunities don't come along very often, and need to be seized with both hands when they do. I'd suggest therefore that, from a strategic point of view, progress towards the prize of a more powerful Scottish Parliament should be a very high priority for the SNP as well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The golden path by which the Great Britain women's curling team won't qualify for the Olympic semi-finals

Quite possibly the greatest tragedy of Scotland not having qualified for a major football tournament since France '98 is that it's deprived us of our biennial, highly cerebral national pastime of poring over fixture sheets, calculators in hand, trying to fathom out the various improbable permutations by which "Scotland can still mathematically reach the second round". Perhaps the all-time classic was the World Cup in 1990, when even after the unlucky defeat to Brazil in the final group match, all we needed was for South Korea to sneak a draw against Uruguay. The Koreans duly held out until injury time at the end of the match - at which point Uruguay scored. But, still, all was not lost - just so long as neither Holland v Ireland or England v Egypt ended in a draw. Not too much to ask surely? Well, let's not dwell too much on that question.

But at least the British (ahem) women's curling team have given us an opportunity to relive those halcyon days, because despite their Olympic campaign completely falling apart with a succession of defeats-from-the-jaws-of-victory, it is still technically, arithmetically, perfectly possible for them to qualify for the semi-finals. So, as a free public service, here's your handy cut-out-and-keep guide for how it probably isn't going to happen over the next 24 hours. All we need to happen is this -

Great Britain to beat Canada
AND Germany to beat Switzerland
AND Japan to lose to either Denmark or Sweden
AND United States to beat Switzerland
AND Sweden to beat Germany

Easy as that. If all that comes to pass we'll qualify for a series of tie-breaks to decide the fourth berth in the semi-finals. Sadly, the chances of even getting past the "Great Britain to beat Canada" bit of the equation don't look particularly healthy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gordo - where's the lava?

Something struck me earlier when pondering the issue of Gordon Brown's alleged bullying of junior staff - especially the part of the story that is relatively undisputed, namely that he has a 'volcanic temper'. We take that fact as a given, because we've heard it from so many different sources over the years, but when I thought about it I realised that, oddly, I couldn't actually picture what Gordon Brown "erupting" might look like in reality. Over the years on television I've seen him glower, sulk, pout, and generally drone on relentlessly in speeches, but never actually explode. I suppose the lesson is that, perhaps surprisingly, it is actually possible for a person in the public eye to keep one of their key personality traits strategically hidden from view, even over a period of decades.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

ComRes subsample : SNP storm into lead

I haven't been covering subsamples so much of late, but given the unanticipated new passion for them that the press and our friends in the Tory blogosphere have been exhibiting over the last few days, this one really can't pass without comment. For the first time since late November, a ComRes poll is showing the SNP back in an outright lead over Labour. Here are the full figures -

SNP 34% (+9)
Labour 27% (-7)
Conservatives 22% (+5)
Liberal Democrats 11% (-5)
Others 6% (-1)

These numbers are even more startling given that, in the same poll, Labour have cut the Conservatives' GB-wide lead to just eight points. Labour are down twelve points in Scotland on their 2005 general election share, compared to just a six point drop across Britain as a whole.