Friday, November 29, 2013

A visit to the Scottish Parliament

I know many readers of this blog will have visited the Scottish Parliament on countless occasions, but today was actually the first time I had ever ventured inside. A friend from Spain had been saying since June that she'd quite like to go and see a parliamentary debate, and we finally got round to it. When Michael Matheson rose to wind up the afternoon session, she whispered in my ear "Is that the First Minister of Scotland?", and I replied "no, no, he's just A minister, he's not the First Minister". Mishearing what I said, she concluded that Michael Matheson is the Eighth Minister of Scotland! Which of course is perfectly logical - way back when it all started in 1999, I wondered why on Earth we had a 'Deputy First Minister' rather than a 'Second Minister'.

The main downside of getting an eyeful of all (or nearly all) of Holyrood's finest in one go is that it kind of eclipsed the snail-paced pleasure of my ongoing "how many past and present party leaders can I spot on trains?" game. My tally had stood at two - Annabel Goldie and Wendy Alexander (as long-term readers know, I will forever associate the sight of Ms Alexander with excruciating pain on the Glasgow subway). Alas, I didn't spot Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott today, but I did see Iain "the Snarl" Gray, Alex Salmond, Patrick Harvie, Willie Rennie and, most thrillingly, Johann Lamont, who managed to delight almost no-one with a rambling bogus point of order that had something vaguely to do with the EU and Google (I think).

I was quite impressed with the general 'unfussiness' of the experience of visiting the public gallery. Of course that may have been because it was a quiet day - it had the distinct feel of an "after the Lord Mayor's show" occasion. But the security check at the entrance was friendly and efficient, and there was no other hassle anywhere else. It's refreshing to find that you can just wander in off the street in a relatively nonchalant manner and see the nation's democratic process in action.

Oh, and this may just be a cruel coincidence, but I can honestly say that my Spanish friend complimented the SNP and Tory members on their diction, but couldn't understand a word the Labour MSPs were saying (and that was without even hearing from my increasingly legendary namesake). Having said that, being able to understand the Tories may have been something of a mixed blessing, given that Jackson Carlaw seemed to be shamelessly indulging in a foreigner-bashing 'joke'.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sturgeon v the Lib Dems' third choice

I wonder just how much of a realist Alistair Carmichael is. It won't have been a surprise to any of the viewers of tonight's referendum debate that the closing verdict of the STV pundits was that Nicola Sturgeon had won by a country mile, but the oddly satisfied expression on Carmichael's face a few minutes earlier gave me the distinct impression that he was genuinely oblivious to how badly he was faring. Maybe he's just good at bluffing - in which case he should probably be in the poker game rather than the politics game.

In a way Carmichael's meltdown was a touch unexpected, because it's generally assumed that one major reason that he is now in harness as Scottish Secretary is the poor showing of his predecessor in a debate with Sturgeon on the same programme a few months back. (Although as we all know, John Rentoul's assessment of Scottish matters is infallible, and it's therefore highly likely that Michael "007" Moore is merely pretending to be politically dead, à la Skyfall, and will terrifyingly re-emerge to annihilate the Yes campaign at some unspecified date before the referendum.) Carmichael performed creditably in the 2010 Scottish "leaders' debates", when Nick Clegg perpetrated one of his many con-tricks on the electorate by putting forward someone who we now know was only his third choice as Scottish Secretary to represent the Lib Dems. So if nothing else, replacing Moore with Carmichael ought to have shored things up for the No campaign on the TV debating front. Why, then, did Carmichael under-perform so poorly tonight in comparison with his efforts in 2010? I think perhaps the four-way format flattered him in the general election debates, and in an intense one-on-one duel his weaknesses as a debater were more cruelly exposed. But more fundamentally, I also think he was able to debate with more passion in 2010 because he was actually (at least to some extent) arguing for policies he believed in. I'm not suggesting that he's a closet supporter of independence, but so many of the arguments he put forward against independence tonight were obviously contrived and synthetic, and his heart just didn't seem to be in them. By contrast, there can't have been a doubt in anyone's mind that Nicola Sturgeon was speaking from true conviction.

As ever on these occasions, there were one or two jaw-dropping moments from the No campaign's champion. From memory, he said something along the lines of "I can tell you with absolute certainty that what Scotland wants, Scotland will get". Wow. I Judging from his response to Nicola Sturgeon's follow-up questions it seems clear enough that he wasn't suggesting that Scotland will get the government it actually votes for in future (how ridiculous would that be!), which only leaves the possibility that he was 'guaranteeing' that Scotland will get precisely the devolved powers it wants - which we know from polling evidence means that pretty much every governmental power would be transferred from London to Edinburgh, with the possible exceptions of foreign affairs and defence. How on Earth can he square that 'certainty' with repeated statements from the UK government and other parts of the No campaign that, while independence may be a matter for the Scottish electorate alone to decide, Devo Max is subject to an absolute veto from the rest of the UK, not just in terms of the details but in terms of the whole principle?

Oh yes, and let's backtrack for a moment to when Sturgeon challenged him to say that Scotland would never again end up with a Tory government it hadn't voted for. His risible retort was : "What's your problem with democracy?" Well, leaving aside the whole question of the democratic deficit caused by unwanted Tory rule, let's just take a look at the two campaigns' respective positions on democracy, shall we?

Pro-independence campaign:
Written constitution limiting the powers of the executive.
Proportional representation for national elections.
A fully elected national parliament.

Anti-independence campaign:
Unwritten constitution allowing for sweeping 'elective dictatorship' powers for the executive in the guise of the royal prerogative.
First-past-the-post for national elections.
A national parliament comprised of one elected chamber, and one wholly unelected chamber (including guaranteed seats for clerics of just one religious denomination).

I know which side of this debate looks liberal and democratic to me. For reasons only known to himself, the so-called 'Liberal Democrat' is on the other side.

Anyway, here's how I scored the debate -

Nicola Sturgeon (pro-independence campaign) 9/10
Alistair Carmichael (anti-independence campaign) 5/10

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Listen, Darling. No, this time, actually LISTEN.

What in general has been a very uplifting day was only very marginally blighted by the unavoidable delight of listening to Alistair "Dr Death" Darling (or should that be Alistair "Dr Darling" Death?) drone on, and on, and on, and on, and on for what seemed like hours on end in roughly the following fashion...

"Time is running out for them. There isn't as much time for them as there used to be. They had time, but they've got less of it now. Unanswered questions. Questions that are unanswered. Questions that we have asked and need an answer to. Questions people are asking that haven't been answered. We need the facts. We haven't got the facts. We're still waiting for the facts. Facts are needed. We expect facts. Where are the facts? It's just more of the same. See this? It's the same. And we've just had more of it. It's a greater quantity of the same thing. I'm bitterly disappointed in them. I expected so little, and got even less. People will be thinking to themselves - is this it? Really? No more? Nothing over and above this? After all this time? Just this? This is the best they can do? Truly? Well look. Look here. Now just look. Now just look here. What I'm saying to you is, look here. Yes I heard your question, but what I'm saying to you is, well look. Look here. Now look. Now just look here. You see? If I utter enough variants on 'look' you always forget that you asked me a question. Vote No or the floppy-eared rabbit gets it. By the way, I've just thought of another unanswerable question that hasn't been answered. We need an answer, the people of Scotland demand an answer, and time is running out."

Leaving aside all the standard content-free Project Fear noise, there was one specific point that Darling kept banging on about in every single interview that quite simply didn't make any logical sense. He claimed that the SNP's explanation for why their transformational childcare plans couldn't be delivered right now under devolution was that if women enter the workforce in much greater numbers, they will "pax tax and those taxes will go to the Treasury". He then added that the Treasury passes that money back to Scotland, and asked "how is that a bad thing?". Well, perhaps it wouldn't be if it actually worked like that (although such a pointlessly circular system ought to outrage the "too much government" brigade on the right-wing of the No campaign**), but it doesn't, does it? The Treasury would pass SOME of that money back to Scotland, but it would only be a tiny percentage - indeed that percentage would be less than proportionate to our share of the UK population (because a large portion of government spending is 'non-identifiable', and therefore Scotland does not receive a population-based chunk of it). In other words, we would cover ALL of the costs of the new system from the existing Scottish block grant (potentially diverting funds from health and education), but only receive a tiny fraction of the benefits, thus making it impossible to attain the 'virtuous circle' threshold where the system becomes financially self-supporting.

There are intelligent budgies in Lochmaddy who can understand that very simple logic, but apparently it's all too much for the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ah well, he'll be back in the Project Fear crypt for a well-earned night's rest by now, so hopefully the penny will have dropped by the morning.

**The right-wing of the No campaign is of course better-known as "the No campaign".

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Peter Kellner - an 'impartial polling expert'?

I just despair (again). Earlier this afternoon, Peter Kellner of YouGov was trotted out by the BBC News channel to offer his "impartial insight" into referendum polling. Yup, that'll be the same Peter Kellner who until September was cynically distorting the results of his own company's polls by insisting on using a ludicrously biased preamble before posing the referendum question to his respondents. It's also the same Peter Kellner who, after the SNP's victory in 2011, made the now provably nonsensical claim that Alex Salmond wasn't really aiming for independence at all, and was just using the referendum as a wheeze to get a Devo Max question put to the electorate. This is what passes for expertise and impartiality these days, is it? I appreciate that variety is the spice of life and that we all need a break from John Curtice now and again, but why in heaven's name can't the broadcasters use Professor James Mitchell occasionally? He's infinitely more knowledgeable about Scotland than Kellner is.

However, I did my level best to give Kellner the benefit of the doubt this afternoon. That effort lasted until he had uttered about nine words, at which point I burst into hysterical laughter. The presenter Jane Hill had just asked him to give a summary of what the polls were showing at the moment, and his response was "if you look at what the four established pollsters have been saying...". I knew straight away that he was about to claim that these four supposedly "established" pollsters were YouGov, Ipsos-Mori, ICM and TNS-BMRB, and sure enough I was right. Well, blow me down with a feather, Peter, if you haven't just conveniently excluded the two pollsters that are most favourable for Yes at the moment, thus allowing you to hoodwink the viewers into thinking those polls either don't exist or don't matter. Extraordinary.

Tell me, Peter, what possible justification is there for claiming that Angus Reid, of all companies, is not "established"? They're one of the world's leading polling organisations, for pity's sake, and have been around for much longer than YouGov. They're scarcely new kids on the block in UK terms, either, having started up operations here well before the last general election. And as for Panelbase, they may not be as old as YouGov, but it has to be said they were considerably more accurate than YouGov at the last Scottish Parliament election. I don't want to be unkind here, but the numbers speak for themselves.

And TNS-BMRB? Until two years ago they were the most favourable pollster for Yes (sometimes showing outright Yes leads), but now that mantle has shifted to Panelbase. I guarantee you that if that hadn't happened, Kellner would not be listing TNS-BMRB as one of his "established" pollsters. They were, after all, routinely ignored by the London media until they started showing bigger No leads, at which point, hey presto, they were suddenly the "gold standard".

Nope. Not good enough, Peter. You can't cherry-pick like that - Angus Reid and Panelbase are credible pollsters who adhere to British Polling Council rules, just like you and all your "established" chums. If you pretend otherwise, you lose all credibility as an "impartial expert", and your words can be safely ignored. Perhaps in future interviews you should be introduced as a "unionist psephologist", because the only conceivable interest you provide is in hearing what the latest No campaign spin on the polls is.

* * *

While Nicola Sturgeon was making her statement in parliament today, I was amused to see a caption running at the bottom of the screen saying "UK government sources : We're not bluffing on sterling". Isn't it amazing how we're all supposed to drop dead in fright at the pronouncement of shadowy sources (as the press dutifully did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq), whereas it's just taken as read that UK government ministers speaking on the record will be lying? Well, frankly, I'm equally unimpressed by the anonymous briefers. Perhaps they can explain what their on-the-record counterparts have signally failed to thus far - if you're not bluffing, why don't you just rule out a sterling zone? Hint - the Alistair Carmichael explanation that "we don't want to make the SNP cry" will probably not be sufficiently convincing. Until we do get an answer, it's very hard not to conclude that the reason they've failed to rule it out is because they don't want to make prize idiots of themselves when they inevitably agree to a sterling zone after independence having pretended they wouldn't.

#Indyplan Eve Poetry (aka Burns Will Be Turning In His Grave, Part 2)

A little-known fact about myself (ie. no-one actually gives a monkey's) is that in 2008 I was one of the runners-up in Fish Publishing's now-defunct micro-fiction competition. I only offer that in mitigation, because as you're about to discover I am, always have been, and always will be indescribably rubbish at poetry. Bizarrely, I once contrived to get a "poem" I had "written" read out on TV by a curling commentator, and the rather humiliating assessment of Scotland's former world champion skip David Smith was "Burns will be turning in his grave". But it's not my bloody fault, is it? How are you supposed to say anything interesting and non-childish when you have to stop every five seconds to find a word that rhymes? And as for getting everything to fit into trochaic tetrameter or me a favour.

But in the true spirit of Anas Sarwar, I have absolutely no intention of quitting while I'm behind. What you're about to read was inspired by Kate Higgins' suggestion that tonight feels a bit like the night before Christmas. (Having an American mum, we really do have the annual tradition of reading out The Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve.)

'Twas the night before #indyplan
And all through Middle Eng-land
No-one in Labour was electable
And certainly not Miliband.

Yes, that's why we Scots
Must move forward in hope
For no-one else can save us
Not even the Pope.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Support for independence increases in latest Panelbase poll

Broadly speaking, it's 'steady as she goes' in the latest Panelbase poll on independence referendum voting intentions, with the pro-independence campaign remaining firmly within striking distance, and the anti-independence campaign retaining their vulnerable single-digit lead. However, in complete contrast to the trend shown in recent polls by TNS-BMRB, there has been a drop in the number of undecided voters, with support for both Yes and No rising slightly as a result. Here are the full figures -

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 38% (+1)
No 47% (+2)

The percentage change figures given above are from the most recent Panelbase poll conducted for Wings over Scotland. However, today's poll is for the Sunday Times series, which is why most media outlets are reporting percentage changes from the last poll in the same series. By that measure, No are static, Yes are up one point, and the overall No lead has dropped from ten points to nine.

As ever, John Curtice has been quick off the mark in offering a detailed analysis of the poll. His most encouraging point is that the gap between the two sides has remained as narrow as before, in spite of the fact that Panelbase have just corrected a glitch in their methodology (an under-representation of older respondents) that could conceivably have led to a slight understatement of support for No in their previous polls.

Reading between the lines of something else Curtice said, I presume there are also Holyrood voting intention figures in this poll, but so far I haven't tracked them down. I don't pay the Murdoch levy, which always makes things slightly trickier!

Last but not least, I thought you might be amused to know that in a frantic attempt to find a positive spin to put on this poll, anti-independence campaign supremo Blair McDougall is busily comparing it on Twitter not to the last Panelbase poll, nor even to the second-last, but to the THIRD-last one that was conducted way back in August! He really does seem to take a perverse pride in not only being a troll, but in being seen to be a troll.

Has Peter Capaldi 'gone English' for Doctor Who?

I said back in August that if Peter Capaldi followed David Tennant's example, and spoke his first words as Doctor Who in an English accent, I might just have to give up on the series. Is that exactly what happened tonight? The new Doctor's unexpected cameo in the 50th anniversary special was heralded with the words "No sir, all thirteen!", and there wasn't a trace of Scottishness to be heard. I wasn't entirely clear, though, whether Capaldi actually spoke those words or if they were supposed to be coming from one of the other characters, and having watched that bit back again on the iplayer a couple of times I still can't work it out. The Metro review seems convinced that it was indeed Capaldi's voice and that he has therefore ditched his native accent for the role, in which case I just despair. It would mean that two out of the three Scottish actors to play the Doctor have had to 'Anglify' their voices (Sylvester McCoy being the only exception), whereas all of the nine English Doctors were able to keep their own accents. So much for Scotland's much-vaunted "valued place as a partner in the United Kingdom". After Capaldi's casting was announced, anti-independence campaign supremo Blair McDougall tweeted a risible graphic comparing Scotland's 9% share of the UK population to our 25% share of Doctors. Well, Blair, if Capaldi has indeed 'gone English', an equivalent graphic showing the percentage of Doctors who actually spoke in a Scottish accent will look considerably less healthy, won't it? Or are Scottish actors speaking to the UK in a nice, 'normal' southern accent your idea of "better together" and "the best of both worlds"?!

I'd been intending to watch the anniversary special at home, but at the last minute a friend suggested that we snap up a couple of the remaining tickets for one of the cinema showings in Edinburgh. I'm so glad I went, partly because it was on the big screen, partly because it was in 3D, but mainly because of the shared experience of watching it in a room full of passionate Doctor Who fans. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up a fair few times. Here were the bits that earned spontaneous cheers or rounds of applause -

1) The original title sequence and theme music from 1963.

2) David Tennant's name appearing in the opening credits.

3) Billie Piper's name appearing in the opening credits.

4) The appearance of Tom Baker's scarf around the neck of the boffin-girl.

5) The painting with David Tennant's face on it.

6) The picture of the Doctor's granddaughter Susan on the wall (someone actually shouted out "Susan!", as if they'd just seen an old friend).

7) The short clip of Christopher Eccleston.

8) Capaldi's cameo appearance.

9) The unmistakeable sound of Tom Baker's voice at the very end (this time someone positively screamed "TOM BAKER!!!!").

10) The end credits.

The only downside to seeing it in Edinburgh was that I had to make a nightmare journey home with barely any room to breathe on a train full of insufferably smug Aussie rugby supporters. One of them took a shine to a chap with an impressive moustache. "Hey, Tom Selleck, did you use that moustache to sleep with women in the 80s?" he asked about seventeen billion times. "Selleck, you're going to get LAID tonight." Oooh, how I laughed.

A Scottish woman who seemed to be channelling the "everything good came from India" man from Goodness Gracious Me said : "Isn't Scotland amazing? You just wouldn't get banter like this on the London Underground. We'd all be sitting in silence, ignoring each other". For the first time in...well, possibly ever, I found myself contemplating London's superior virtues.

Don't worry. I'm still a Nat!