Friday, August 16, 2013

The return of the Daily Duncan : the nuclear question that Hothersall couldn't answer

After controversial Labour activist Duncan Hothersall blocked me on Twitter a few weeks ago, I thought the days of being able to repost my exchanges with him were well and truly over. But I'm delighted to say that your deadbeat dooraway Daily Duncan is making an unexpected comeback - albeit possibly for one day only. Enjoy it while it lasts.

For what seemed like the seventeen billionth time, Duncan was trying to explain to a sceptical audience why he, as an avowed opponent of nuclear weapons, is voting against independence and thus passing up a golden chance to actually achieve nuclear disarmament. His excuse was that the moving of weapons is not disarmament. The following exchange starts with me pointing out to him that in practice, independence could bring about disarmament throughout the whole UK, and indeed might well be the only realistic method by which that goal can be achieved.

See if you can spot the bit where he gets so tied up in knots with his knee-jerk attack lines that he comes very close to implying that a Labour government in London might yet annex Faslane, and that this makes them superior to the Tories who have set their face against the idea.

Duncan Hothersall ‏: Only on Twitter could the expression of my vocal opposition to my party's policy be criticised as me protecting a "gravy train". :-(

Me : But what are you actually going to do about that opposition, Duncan? Sit on a prayer-mat for the rest of your natural life?

Duncan Hothersall : No. I'll be arguing for my convictions. What else would you suggest?

Me : Well, for starters taking the one step that might actually result in British nuclear disarmament - independence.

Duncan Hothersall ‏: I don't believe it would. As I have set out at some length.

(At this point he directs me to a blogpost claiming that independence would not mean the end of Trident, and that the most likely outcome would be the lease of Faslane to the UK "for as long as it was required".)

Me : What does "lease" mean? I presume you're not suggesting UK sovereign control, as that's already been rejected by Cameron?

Duncan Hothersall : Oddly, I meant "lease" as in the traditional meaning of the word "lease". Let me know if any of the other words confuse you.

Me : Duncan, this is a very simple question. Does "lease" in the context you used it mean UK sovereign control? Yes or no?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: Lease means a contracted arrangement for use of a site for a period of time under an agreed set of conditions. You know, lease.

Me : Like the 99-year British lease of the Hong Kong New Territories? You know, UK sovereign control? Is that what you mean?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: The terms of the lease would be a matter for the lessee and the lessor. I'm not an expert on leases.

Me : But surely you have an opinion? Should that lease give rUK sovereign control over Faslane, or not?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: My opinion? In my opinion Faslane should be shut down! I'm talking there about what is most likely to happen, not what I want!

Me : Yes, so tell us what you think is most likely to happen in the event of independence - UK sovereign control of Faslane, or not?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: I don't know, James. I think a lease is the most likely outcome, I have no view on its likely terms.

Me : But this is the hypothetical you're basing your whole argument on. Could a lease without sovereign control be credible?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: No, it isn't, and the terms aren't critical.

Me : They are. Cameron has ruled out sovereign control. Harvey says lease without sovereign control couldn't work. Other options?

Duncan Hothersall : So one ex minister is enough to rule something out for you? Honestly.

Me ‏: In your view, is it credible for the UK to base its entire nuclear weapons system on the sovereign territory of another state?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: In my view it's not credible for the UK to have a nuclear weapons system.

Me : Your entire argument rests on you thinking it is credible for UK to base its nukes on Scottish-controlled territory. Do you?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: No, my entire argument does not rest on that. Perhaps you should re-read.

Me : You're unwilling to defend the "lease" argument, then. So if Trident leaves Scotland, where would/could it go?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: I'm not unwilling to defend it. I'm unable to agree with your attempt to undermine it.

Duncan Hothersall ‏: Feel free to comment on the blog if you want to ask a series of questions.

Me ‏: Duncan, this is very simple. Your campaign has put sovereign control off the table. A lease must mean Scottish control - yes?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: Lazy attempt to equate Cameron with No campaign. Check.

Me : No, not just Cameron! Darling as well. You agree with Alistair Darling, surely?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: When did Darling rule out a lease under specific terms?

Me : Darling ruled out UK sovereign control of Faslane. Correct?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: Did he rule out a lease? How long do you want to do this? I'm getting pretty tired of it.

Me : About as long as it takes you to answer a simple question, Duncan. He ruled out UK sovereign control. Do you agree?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: I've been entirely clear. No-one's ruled out a lease. The terms of a lease are undefined. Nothing's off the table.

Me : That is simply not true. Darling, just like Cameron, has taken rUK sovereign control of Faslane off the table. Correct?

Duncan Hothersall ‏: The table hasn't even been built. Nobody is making commitments as to what might happen if there's a Yes vote.

Me : That is a straightforward denial of reality. The leaders of your campaign have excluded the possibility of UK sovereign control.

What I found difficult to understand was why Duncan even bothered trying to dodge the key question in such excruciatingly obvious fashion. There's no doubt - no doubt whatever - that every part of the No campaign has categorically ruled out the possibility of UK sovereign control of Faslane after independence. Duncan therefore has nowhere else to go with his "lease" wheeze other than an arrangement that respects Scottish sovereignty - so why on earth didn't he just say "yes, of course Scotland would retain sovereignty over Faslane, and here are the reasons why such an agreement would work"? Could it be that he just can't conceive of any plausible way of making that case, and thus has to fudge the issue by implying there is some kind of unspecified middle way available that transcends the issue of sovereignty - you know, in much the same way that women can be half-pregnant?

The reality is that UK sovereign control of Faslane isn't a runner because Cameron and Darling have ruled it out, and a lease that falls short of sovereign control isn't a runner because it isn't credible for a nuclear weapons system to be based on the sovereign territory of an anti-nuclear weapons state (which is what Scotland would be, unless of course pro-nuclear Labour were in power at Holyrood - Duncan must be so proud). In other words, Trident would have to leave Scotland after independence, and as there's no alternative base for it south of the border, that could very well lead to the UK relinquishing its nuclear capability altogether - precisely the outcome Duncan is supposed to want. He wills the end, but he also wills the means never to come about.

It's very, very hard to escape the conclusion that Duncan's starting-point is that independence is a Bad Thing, and he then works out how all of his other political beliefs can be reconciled with that starting-point, no matter what contortions of logic (or even of the laws of physics) are required to do so.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

McDougall veracity-watch

Has someone had a quiet word in the ear of Blair McDougall, and suggested to him that even the Campaign Director of an outfit as cynical as 'Better Together' needs occasionally to look like an actual, grown-up Campaign Director rather than an internet troll? Whatever the reason, Blair was behaving in a suspiciously un-McDougall-like fashion last night on Scotland Tonight, appearing to be the voice of sweetness and reason. You won't be surprised to hear there were still a few points he needs to be picked up on, though -

1) After Blair Jenkins pointed out that the voters who consider themselves to be well-informed are split 50/50 on independence (thus giving hope for what will happen once the rest of the electorate become better-informed, as will inevitably happen as the campaign progresses), McDougall jumped in and said something like "we have to be very careful about blaming voters for being ignorant, if they don't have enough information it's the fault of the campaigns". This was clearly (albeit deniably) intended to imply that Jenkins was saying to voters "you're ignorant and it's all your own fault" - which bears about as much resemblance to what Jenkins was actually saying as a giraffe does to a game of Stratego.

2) After being challenged about the potential adverse effect on his campaign of an impending Tory general election victory, McDougall claimed that public opinion on independence had been "remarkably stable" over the years, irrespective of the party in power at Westminster. The truth of course could hardly be more different - there was a sustained spell a few years back when established pollsters such as YouGov and ICM were showing pro-independence pluralities. Counter-intuitively, that spell coincided with a Labour rather than Tory government at Westminster, although my guess is that it probably had more to do with the public's despair at the feebleness of the Lib/Lab government at Holyrood.

3) McDougall tried to have his cake and eat it by claiming that the referendum isn't about political parties and politicians, but is nevertheless somehow all about Alex Salmond and his nefarious deeds anyway. Small hint, Blair - if a Yes vote is about Alex Salmond, then a No vote is about David Cameron, and keeping him and his ilk in 10 Downing Street. The referendum is about both leaders, or it's about neither. It can't be about one of them and not the other.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why Nate Silver is wrong

It's a brave man who uses a headline like that given the accuracy of Silver's predictions in last year's US presidential contest, but nevertheless I am going to confidently take issue with his claims reported in the Scotsman that the Yes side have "almost no chance" in the independence referendum. The main reason is that there are ample signs that his opinion is based on a fairly cursory look at the polling data - by contrast he would never put his neck on the line with a US political prediction without being totally immersed in every available statistic and variable.

1) He claims that the polling evidence is "pretty definitive" in putting the Yes side at 40% (give him his due here, he's at least not making the all-too-common schoolboy error of assuming that Don't Knows can be lumped in with Nos). But this ignores the Panelbase polls, which inconveniently and consistently diverge from the "definitive" pattern. Is Silver even aware of those polls? We don't know, but we do know that Panelbase is a credible polling company that adheres to British Polling Council rules, and we also know that no less a figure than Professor John Curtice has cautioned that for as long as one polling company is diverging from the others, it would be wrong not to at least consider the possibility that they are getting it right and that the others are getting it wrong.

2) He claims that the "No side is even more dominant with younger voters, so there's not going to be any generational thing going on". That's an utterly extraordinary claim given the number of polls - and not just Panelbase polls this time - that have suggested the complete opposite is true. For example, an Ipsos-Mori poll earlier this year showed that no fewer than 58% of 18-24 year olds were planning to vote Yes. Is Silver even aware of polls like that? Or did he just look at the MRUK youth poll that was so widely reported by our impeccably neutral media, and assume that must represent the "definitive" picture?

As Marcia has pointed out in the comments section at Wings, a further problem with Silver's remarks is one that is not specific to Scotland - namely the idea that No campaigns usually gain ground rather than lose it in referendums. (Again, to be fair, he at least doesn't make a prize idiot of himself in the way that Peter Kellner did by pretending that this represents some kind of unbreakable "iron law".) Matt Qvortrup made a similar grandiose claim recently, before backtracking somewhat on Twitter and conceding that the Yes campaign in the Montenegrin independence referendum did indeed gain ground as the campaign progressed - which they needed to do, because they looked likely to fall short of the artificial 55% threshold. But as Marcia has noted, a much better example is the monumental gains that the Yes campaign made over the course of the 1995 Quebec independence referendum campaign. Qvortrup apparently thinks that he can completely dismiss that example because Yes ultimately still lost by a whisker, but that's incredibly woolly thinking from an academic. The salient point is that huge numbers of Quebec voters who initially told pollsters they were planning to vote against independence ultimately walked into a polling station and voted in favour of it - and moreover they did so knowing that there was a severe "risk" that their votes could swing the balance. It was no protest vote.

That was something that simply shouldn't have happened if you believe Silver, Qvortrup and Kellner - so why did it? My guess is that, paradoxically, the more important a referendum is, the less likely voters are to swing to No by default. The supposed tendency that Silver talks about is largely a side-effect of electorates so often being faced with relatively trivial matters in plebiscites. Take the AV referendum, for example - the prevailing attitude among the public seemed to be "I don't give a monkey's about this, it's irritating to even have to think about it, so unless someone can give me a very good reason I'll just vote to keep what we already have". That kind of lazy thinking clearly went out of the window for Quebec voters when they were faced with the most important choice of their lives, and I'm confident it will go out of the window for Scottish voters next year. We will be dealing with an electorate that is engaged like never before - and as recent research has shown, the better informed that voters consider themselves to be, the more likely they are to vote Yes.

Monday, August 12, 2013

David McLetchie

I'm absolutely stunned to discover that David McLetchie has died at such a tragically young age. I think the greatest compliment I can pay him is that he was just about the only senior Scottish Tory you could listen to in the 1990s without knowing instantly which party he belonged to - he came across as remarkably normal, and you could easily have imagined him in any of the main parties.

From memory, he also championed a number of surprisingly progressive causes during his tenure as leader, such as the abolition of tuition fees and free personal care for the elderly.