Saturday, June 2, 2012

Is Tom Farmer the independence referendum's 'Alec Douglas-Home in reverse'?

To return briefly to the subject I discussed the other day, it's gloriously ironic that Mike Smithson suggested that Tom Farmer's intervention this week was somehow a 'blow for the SNP', because in truth it's an early illustration of the massive dilemma that the No side will face as the campaign progresses. In a small way, Farmer can be seen as this referendum's "Alec Douglas-Home in reverse". Douglas-Home was someone with impeccable credentials as a devolutionist who voted No to devolution because it was "the wrong sort of devolution". By the same token, Farmer has impeccable credentials as someone who has always supported the union, but he is nevertheless minded to vote Yes to independence because the wrong type of union will be on offer (ie. the status quo). Now, he might not be enough on his own to make the kind of impact that Douglas-Home did in 1979, but if he and Jim McColl are joined by other well-known public figures over the next two years, and if the polls begin to show that a significant number of people who are essentially anti-independence are minded to vote Yes to independence as the only alternative to the status quo, then London's insistence on a single question is going to start looking like a monumental tactical blunder. So can the No side (to coin a phrase) get themselves off the hook? Other than backing down and accepting a second question on Devo Max, which would be both the most sensible and the most democratic option, the only other alternative would be for Cameron to put some flesh on the bones of this Top Secret Devo Plus Plan of his that supposedly has a chance of being implemented if there is a No vote (but only if we're very nice to him and if he's in a good mood, of course).

A list of specific powers to be transferred and a proposed date of implementation would probably do to be getting on with.

* * *

As I mentioned at the time, by completely freakish chance I managed to miss the whole of the Royal Wedding last year because I was stranded on Arran. No such luck for the Jubilee Weekend, though. I have a couple of royalists in the family, and when I walked past the TV set last night, I kept hearing snatches of Prince Charles saying things like "what the Queen means to us as a nation, or even as one of her children", and Alan Titchmarsh (!) saying things like "the Queen was determined that ceremony should not detract from Kate and William's special day", and I just thought, for the love of God, this is supposed to be a modern 21st Century democracy, not North Korea or Iran. Shouldn't it be possible to make a clear-sighted documentary about our Head of State? It doesn't even have to be particularly critical - just anything shy of hagiography would be great.

When I was at university, I winced when an American politics tutor informed us that the UK media's reporting of the Royal Family is "deferential". All I could think at the time was "what about the American media's fawning deference towards politicians?" But in retrospect I realise that it's utterly impossible to dispute her point.

Friday, June 1, 2012

No, a sham consultation is not 'proof' of anything

Rather like Arnold Schwarzenegger refusing to die in the Terminator films, the one slice of Marxist-inspired thinking that Scottish Labour remains quaintly wedded to has just reared its ugly head again. The Highlands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has picked up where Trish Godman left off, and embarked on yet another attempt to impose on society the dogmatic and faintly ludicrous notion that the buying and selling of sex, no matter how consensual, always constitutes "violence against women", and that it is somehow possible by legal means to "end demand" for prostitution, thus eradicating the "violence". Her bill would introduce the discriminatory Swedish model, which criminalises the clients of prostitutes, but regards sex workers themselves (even those acting entirely independently and earning a decent living from their chosen form of work) as "victims" who don't know their own minds.

I develop a bit of a headache every time I try to work out how on earth infantilising women in this way, and telling them that they alone are incapable of taking rational decisions for themselves, is supposed to assist the cause of gender equality. The explanation from radical feminist groups would doubtless include the all-purpose get-out clause of 'patriarchy' rather a lot. But are we really expected to believe that a patriarchal system, in Scotland in the year 2012, makes it so impossible for women (but not men) to have access to money that they literally have no choice but to become prostitutes? That is the only way that sex workers acting independently could even conceivably be regarded as "victims of male violence against women", but it just doesn't describe a world I recognise. Many people of both genders have money problems, and I'm quite sure that many sex workers would in an ideal world rather be doing another job or no job at all - but then so would many cleaners and factory workers. Are those people all victims of violence? In many cases, sex workers have simply looked at the range of options open to them and chosen the one they most prefer, or least dislike. That is indistinguishable from the choice made by the vast majority of people in the working world - the only gender difference being, frankly, that some women may feel that an extra (and potentially lucrative) option is open to them that is not open to men. But even the latter point is far from an absolute - men pay men for sex, women pay men for sex, and women pay women for sex. All of those facts make the claim that paid sex is always a form of male violence against women, somewhat problematical to say the least.

Indeed, if Rhoda Grant's proposal became law, one of two things would be bound to happen -

1) Women who paid men or other women for sex, or men who paid other men for sex, would be convicted of a criminal offence on the implicit grounds that they had committed "male violence against women".

2) The law would be implemented selectively, in order to maintain the ideologically-driven fiction that the only form of prostitution that exists is women being "forced" to have sex with men in exchange for money (often rather a lot of money).

Call me cynical, but scenario 2 seems far more probable.

The greatest absurdity of all is that Ms Grant is seeking a waiver that would allow her bill to proceed without a consultation process - on the grounds that the outcome of the consultation on Trish Godman's doomed bill in the last parliamentary session has already "proved" the need for a change in the law. For the uninitiated, that consultation would have been a strong contender in any 'Sham Consultation of the Year Awards'. It made the UK government's recent consultation on the independence referendum look like a model of neutrality and open-mindedness. The first question enquired whether respondents wanted to criminalise both the sex worker and the client, or just the client, and simply took it as read that no-one in their right mind would want to maintain the status quo of criminalising neither. That wording was presumably intended to 'lead' anyone opposed to the criminalisation of sex workers, and nudge them towards the Swedish model as the 'only' option available. Many of the other questions related to 'barriers to enforcement' of the proposed law, which again was intended to communicate the message that the only objections any reasonable person could possibly raise would be technical and practical ones, rather than objections to the whole principle of a discriminatory law.

A tiny number of responses was received, mostly from groups and individuals with a fierce ideological commitment to the Swedish model. When news leaked out that two-thirds of respondents had answered 'yes' to a question which essentially made 'no' impossible, one of the respondents tweeted "Yay!". Which is as much as to say "Yippee, we all agree with ourselves!".

Of course a consultation is needed if this bill is going to see the light of day, and a genuine one this time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Or alternatively, Mr Smithson, you could have just put the "Scotland - where's that?" sticker on your forehead

"Gawd." Can he "be arsed"?

Yup, you've guessed it, it's our old friend Mike 'Varied Vocabulary' Smithson, editor of the right-wing discussion forum Political Betting. Back in March and April, Mike raised a few eyebrows among the small Nat contingent over at PB by directly asking us a number of questions about the SNP's prospects in the local elections. For a moment, I almost wondered if he was showing some uncharacteristic humility by being open to hearing more information about a subject he realised he wasn't an expert on - but I should have known better. His phraseology (ie. "has Salmond's popularity now passed its peak?") ought to have given the game away - he was in fact busy crafting a new PB gospel of 'the SNP are in crisis', and was only interested in hearing confirmation of his own predetermined narrative.

Now, while it's easy enough for Mike to filter out views from SNP posters that departed from this new PB orthodoxy, you might think it would have been a tad harder for him to ignore the elephant that noisily arrived on his doorstep on May 4th, when the SNP's historic victory in the local elections comprehensively disproved his theory. If so, you severely underestimate the man. No, within hours, he had posted an article declaring that Salmond was one of the day's "losers". This, let's recall, was an election in which the SNP had won more votes than any other party, more seats than any other party, had seen a bigger increase in votes than any other party, and had seen a bigger increase in seats than any other party. It was the first time in history that the SNP had won the popular vote in local elections, and only the second time in history that they had come out on top in terms of councillors. They had also achieved this feat while in mid-term, after five years in government - a point in the electoral cycle when an incumbent government can normally expect to be hammered in local elections. And yet all of this, according to Smithson, constituted a "defeat". Righty-ho.

The only possible explanation I could think of is that he'd mixed up his Collins Pocket Map of Scotland with his street-map of Glasgow. Easily done.

But just when I thought his journey into the fantastical had gone as far as it could possibly go, he took time out from his holiday in Spain yesterday to inform us that "the SNP leader is now in a mess". Yes, folks, the leader of a party that has just won an historic victory in the local elections, that achieved a miracle last year by winning a parliamentary majority under an electoral system that was supposed to make majorities impossible, and which last week helped to line up a galaxy of stars to back a Yes vote in the independence referendum, is "in a mess". And what are the factors that have led Smithson to this extraordinary conclusion? If I was being uncharitable, I might say that they're about as substantial as Yousuf Hamid's reasons for deducing that "something must be going on". But I'm not feeling uncharitable, so let's take them in turn -

"One electoral fact that hasn’t been given much attention is that the SNP’S vote share in the Scottish council elections on May 3rd was 13% down on what Salmond’s party secured a year earlier in the Holyrood elections."

It is nothing short of astonishing that a man who regularly savages politicians and fellow political pundits for their misuse and abuse of statistics would be brazen enough to try this wheeze. If anyone had tried to claim that the SNP's vote share had risen by 26% between the Westminster election of 2010 and the 2011 Holyrood election, Smithson would have laughed in their face. And rightly so, because different types of elections are not directly comparable - people have different voting habits in Westminster elections than they do in Holyrood elections, and they have different voting habits in Holyrood elections than they do in local elections. A meaningful comparison can only be made with the previous election of the same type.

Nor is this some kind of hair-splitting point that only makes a 0.1% difference. In 2007, when the Holyrood and local elections were held on the same day, the SNP's vote share was a full five per cent lower in the local elections than it was in the Holyrood constituency vote. The effect also extended to the SNP's performance relative to Labour's - the SNP were actually 0.2% behind Labour in the local elections, but 1.8% ahead on the Holyrood list vote. So the SNP's margin of victory this month has to be seen in that context. It's not at all hard to see why the party's vote share would be lower in local elections - in parliamentary terms, the SNP are strong in rural areas where people tend to vote for independent councillors.

And that's before we even factor in that this year's election was a mid-term contest in which you'd expect an incumbent government to lose votes and seats, not gain them as the SNP in fact did.

"Not only did the SNP fail to take its much hyped key target of Glasgow it saw the city’s council move back to Labour overall control."

Has Mike actually noticed that a) Labour only ever 'lost' overall control of Glasgow because of mass defections, and b) Labour suffered a net loss of seats in Glasgow and the SNP had a significant net gain?

Well, he's a busy man.

"Now comes news that one of the party’s leading donors, Sir Tom Farmer doesn’t want independence. What a gift to the unionist campaign on two levels."

Funnily enough, I always thought the word 'news' meant something we were previously unaware of. Tom Farmer made clear that he was a supporter of enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament, as opposed to outright independence or the status quo, when he first donated to the SNP in 2007. Not only has he not changed his view, he has today gone further by revealing that he would on balance prefer independence to the status quo, and is likely to vote Yes to independence if London succeed in denying the people of Scotland a vote on enhanced powers for Holyrood within the UK.

Now, that really does qualify as 'news'. Crikey, what a devastating blow for the SNP, eh, Mike?

"This development comes in the wake of a YouGov Scotland poll which found that just 58% of those who voted SNP in 2011 want an independent Scotland and that 28% are against."

'Just' 58%? When someone says something like that, they might as well be openly admitting that they haven't been paying attention to Scottish polling data for the last four minutes, let alone for the last forty years. There has always been 'cross-voting' by people on the constitutional issue - a significant minority of SNP voters don't back independence, and a significant minority of Labour voters do back independence. That has been the case for as long as the constitution has been a live issue. There was a time in the 1990s when the SNP were polling at 20-25%, and yet only half their voters wanted independence. The fact that 58% of the near half of the entire electorate who voted SNP last year now back independence is a formidable figure - and let's not forget that these numbers are being drawn from a poll commissioned by the No campaign, and which posed a loaded question that departed significantly from the proposed referendum question.

"All this points to a massive mis-reading of the SNP’s success at the Holyrood elections last year."

What in the name of John Pienaar is "massive misreading" supposed to mean? Is the implication that the SNP looked at their vote share last year, and said to themselves : "Hey guys, this must mean that all these people support independence. What say we hold an independence referendum? We're bound to win." Er, no, Mike. The SNP have always been well aware that not all of the people attracted to voting for them are supporters of independence - that was the whole point of separating the issue out by making clear that a vote for the SNP was a vote for a referendum (among many, many other things), not a vote for independence. That was also why Nicola Sturgeon replied with a flat 'No' when David Dimbleby asked her on the 2011 election results programme if the SNP's win was a vote for independence.

The true reason that the SNP are holding a referendum on independence is remarkably simple, Mr Smithson - it's because they're a pro-independence party, and that's what pro-independence parties tend to do when given a mandate. But if you'd rather believe that it was instead a half-cocked, Laurel and Hardy type plan dreamt up on the spur of the moment, and that Salmond now "has to find a way of getting himself off the hook" (yes, really!), then you just carry on talking to yourself, old chap. The rest of us have got a referendum to win.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Unionism is right. Not left.

I've read a couple of unionist-flavoured articles over the last few hours that have posed similar questions in my mind, so I thought I'd take a look at them together. Firstly, Stewart Whyte in a post at Tory Hoose entitled 'Do The SNP Care Enough About Scotland To Lose With Dignity?' (a 'when did you stop beating your wife' query if ever there was one) -

"The big question is what will the Referendum do to Scotland. Will it be the cathartic settlement of the constitutional issue that will give the Scots peace for a generation? Will it allow the SNP to continue on their current path to becoming a proper political party where governing is more important than a single issue? Or will their frustration and anger at the failure of their raison d’etre tear them apart in bitterness and recrimination.

And will they take Scotland down with them? For be in no doubt the eyes of the world are watching."

Now, what does 'taking Scotland down with them' actually mean in concrete terms? What would it look like? What reason is there to suspect that such a non-specific yet catastrophic event would actually happen? We don't know.

In particular, I'm struggling to see why a party that is 'tearing itself apart in bitterness and recrimination' would actually remain in power and thus be capable of taking anyone else down with them, but perhaps Mr Whyte has more faith in the SNP's unshakeable popularity than I do. This is an uncomfortable truth for the unionist parties, but the example of Quebec suggests that the SNP would have an excellent chance of a) remaining united following a referendum defeat, and b) winning the subsequent election. The Parti Québécois retained power in the election following each of the two referendum defeats in 1980 and 1995. To be fair, there's a much more plausible case for thinking the SNP might fracture following a referendum victory, but I'm not sure that's any greater a comfort for Mr Whyte.

Turning now to Jim Gallagher in the Guardian -

"...what it means to have a political union, a deeply integrated economic union and – hardest of all to pin down – a social union: not just the personal and family connections that separation might disrupt..."

Again, how in specific, practical terms would independence "disrupt" personal and family connections? What would that disruption look like? Has Mr Gallagher never heard of email, mobile phones and EasyJet, or does he think most communication between family members takes place by means of carrier pigeons that are in future liable to be shot down by the Salmond Border Militia?

Now back to Mr Whyte -

"For lose the Referendum they surely will. Last week’s opinion poll had the Yes on 33%, No on 57% and Don’t Knows on 10%. The killer for the Nationalists is the last number – there are just not enough people who have not made up their minds for them to win."

It's difficult to know where to start with nonsense like this. Clearly Stewart isn't a regular reader of Anthony Wells' strictures at UK Polling Report. First of all, there's the obvious point that the figures Stewart quotes aren't especially meaningful, because the poll in question was commissioned by the No campaign, who quite understandably went to the pollster with a track record of producing the most favourable results for No, and then got them to ask a loaded question. But even if the figures were meaningful, they still wouldn't have the significance Stewart seems to think they do. The 'don't know' figures are actually very similar to what is always seen in general election polls - so if that means the opinion of everyone who doesn't declare themselves a 'don't know' can be assumed to be absolutely set in stone, then clearly we can spare ourselves the trouble and expense of going through a UK general election in 2015, because we already 'know' the Tories will lose. In truth, polls aren't (and don't claim to be) predictions. They are snapshots of how people would vote if the election or referendum was held NOW. But the referendum isn't being held now, any more than the 2015 general election is being held now. That means there are far, far, far more votes up for grabs than the self-defined 'don't knows'. Many of the people who answered 'Yes' or 'No' will have barely even considered the issue yet, and there is a long campaign period ahead of us.

Back again to Mr Gallagher -

"Scots don't actually want to leave the UK: only a quarter want independence."

Wait a minute - hasn't Stewart just told us the figure is 33%? Crikey, at this rate it'll be zero before the day is out.

"Salmond's success has been to take control of it [Holyrood] – but at the same time failing at Westminster. In the 2010 general election, Labour polled more than twice as many votes as the SNP, and gained 41 MPs to their six. The voters knew exactly what they were doing. Fifty SNP MPs could have pushed for secession. Holyrood cannot."

Er, no, Jim, it's the other way round. Fifty SNP MPs couldn't have done a huge amount about holding a referendum, because they could have been easily outvoted by the other 600 (almost entirely non-Scottish) MPs. That's kind of the case for independence in a nutshell, isn't it? By contrast, 69 SNP members of the Scottish Parliament do seem to be in a rather strong position to "push for secession". Or is the fact that we're going to have an independence referendum a figment of my imagination?

Oh, and the reason Scots didn't vote SNP at the Westminster election is not the one Jim suggests, but instead that a) there were three rigged TV leaders' debates that totally excluded one (just one) of Scotland's four main parties, and b) people believed Jim Murphy's claim that voting Labour in Scotland would stop the Tories taking power in London. Well, that worked a treat, didn't it?

"Unionism may be right, but it needs to craft a story that speaks to the heart as well as the head."

One thing we can probably all agree on is that unionism is very much "right". It's been a long, long time since a unionist government at Westminster was in any meaningful sense "left" - hence the reason the anti-independence side will have a problem once people start contemplating the consequences of a No vote, and the decades of unbroken right-wing rule from London that would lie ahead.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

You have never been to my show, you haven't seen before how looks the trumpet

Well, I think that may have been one of the best ever Eurovisions. The average standard of the entries was higher than usual, the staging couldn't be faulted, and the presenters were only very mildly irritating, so it doesn't get a lot better than that. The only ingredient that was missing was tension in the voting, but that can't really be legislated for.

Although I wasn't a believer in what seemed to be blindingly obvious to 70% of people, ie. that Sweden would win, I do think it's a great result for the contest. The dance track hoodoo has been lifted at last, and in some style. And it hardly bears thinking about what the consequences would have been had the top two been reversed - with a Russian win, half the entrants next year might well have been novelty acts of some description.

Sweden now join France, the UK and Luxembourg as the joint second most successful country in the contest's history, with five wins. In fact, it could be argued that Sweden now have a slightly better record than the UK, because one of the UK's five wins was the four-way tie in 1969, at a time when it hadn't occurred to anyone to dream up a tie-break rule!

I don't know if we've learned to accept it as a fact of life, or if it just seems less noticeable when there is a western European winner, but there doesn't seem to have been as many complaints about political voting this year. The problem was still very much present, though, and once again has only been slightly diluted by the presence of the juries. There were a few occasions when a country that I assumed was destined for a neighbourly twelve points only received eight or ten, which was presumably the jury influence. But more often than not the expected twelve arrived on cue. It's probably more of an issue at the bottom end of the leaderboard, where some countries have a natural 'buffer' of guaranteed points that leave them more or less immune from finishing bottom, whereas countries like the UK clearly don't.

It'll be fascinating to see the split between the juries and the public vote. It always seemed inevitable that Russia would do much, much worse with the juries, which leaves open the possibility that the public vote may actually have been quite tight, in spite of Sweden's landslide. I'll also be intrigued to see how the UK did with the juries, because it's become known that Engelbert Humperdinck had a shocker during Friday night's dress rehearsal, which is what the juries based their votes on. I've never liked that system - it means that the result is to a significant extent decided by something the viewing public never actually get to see. "The Hump" was in much finer voice tonight, so it's possible that if that had been his definitive performance, he might have had a better result (although probably not much better).

Either way, it's back to the drawing board for the United Kingdom, for approximately the 794th time. Luckily, if all goes according to plan in 2014, this won't be Scotland's problem for very much longer!

As always seems to happen on Eurovision weekend, Scot Goes Pop received its highest number of visitors of the year so far on Saturday. Thanks to everyone who dropped by from all over Europe and beyond, and apologies that my prediction was so rubbish for the second year in a row! My only crumb of comfort is that at least I noticed that Serbia was an excellent song and was likely to have a good result, something that seemed to be a source of utter bafflement for Graham Norton throughout the voting...