Saturday, November 14, 2015

Yes draws level for the first time ever in independence Poll of Polls

As you may already have seen, the first detail from the new Panelbase poll for Wings Over Scotland has been released - and it's the headline numbers on independence.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 49% (+2)
No 51% (-2)

Over the seven independence polls that Panelbase have conducted since the referendum, the Yes vote has ranged from 45% to 51%.  However, the 51% result was not directly comparable to the others, because the question asked was : "Knowing what you know now, if the independence referendum was tomorrow how would you vote?" Arguably, the "knowing what you know now" bit might have nudged some people towards thinking that their vote 'ought' to have changed. In the other six polls, Panelbase seem to have stuck rigidly with : "If the referendum was held again tomorrow, how would you vote in response to the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?" Until today, that question had produced a Yes range of between 45% and 48%, meaning that the 49% in the new poll is a record-breaking high. It's not quite a record high for a Panelbase poll using the referendum question in some form, though, because there was one conducted in August 2013 that put Yes on 51%. (That was the famous poll that John Curtice could never refer to without using the words "apart from one much-criticised Panelbase poll", which basically meant that he had criticised it quite a lot!) But post-referendum polls are not comparable to pre-referendum polls anyway, because Panelbase now use weighting by recalled referendum vote, which tends to lower the reported Yes share.

So is the increase for Yes in today's poll statistically significant? Not necessarily - if the true position (or "true" according to the Panelbase methodology) has remained unchanged at around 47% since the referendum, the standard 3% margin of error could easily produce results of 45% or 49% now and again. But, as I always say, if a poll result falls outside the previous normal range, it generally tells you something of interest. Either it means that the state of play has changed, or it changes our understanding of what "unchanged" means. In this case, if we were to assume that public opinion has remained steady, it would still be good news for Yes, because plainly a normal range of 45% to 49% is marginally healthier than a normal range of 45% to 48%.

Across the various post-referendum polls from the four firms that have used weighting by recalled referendum vote, 49% isn't actually unusually high, although it's above average. The best Yes showing in a poll of that sort (excluding the Panelbase poll with an unusual question) was 51% with Survation in March.

There's not much more to be said until the datasets are released, but what I can do is update the Poll of Polls. I think you might enjoy this...


MEAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 50.0% (+0.4)
No 50.0% (-0.4)

MEAN AVERAGE (not excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 46.3% (+0.3)
No 46.3% (-0.4)

MEDIAN AVERAGE (excluding Don't Knows) :

Yes 49.2% (+0.5)
No 50.8% (-0.5)

(The Poll of Polls is based on a rolling average of the most recent poll from each of the firms that have polled on independence since the referendum, and that adhere to British Polling Council rules. At present, there are six - YouGov, TNS, Survation, Panelbase, Ipsos-Mori and ICM. Whenever a new poll is published, it replaces the last poll from the same company in the sample.)

It goes without saying that this is the best result for Yes since the Poll of Polls started two years ago. The really telling stride forward came with the sensational Ipsos-Mori and TNS polls in September, but the changes shown by Panelbase have been just enough for Yes to draw level for the first time.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Extensive New Powers

A guest post by Mike McCreadie

The Scottish Parliament will have extensive new powers. Fact. Extensive new powers. EXTENSIVE NEW POWERS. There, that's that then, I can get back to Downton.

It's an interesting coin of phrase, extensive new powers. It keeps being dangled around in front of us from all angles. The press love it, the parties love it, and Fluffy totally bums off it. It sounds great - it has the word “extensive” in it. And it also sounds great because it has the word “new” in it. Even better than that, though, it sounds great because it has the word “powers” in it, like Superman. It is thrice great, and can probably see through ladies' undergarments. No wonder they keep saying it. It's just that, well, it’s not something the Scotland Bill can be measured against.

"Extensive new powers", catchy though it is, is open to interpretation. For example, my wife feels that I was given "extensive new powers" when we got a telly in the bedroom. I, on the other hand, was dismayed to find that she had retained a power of veto over the plunger, especially when she wants to catch up with EastEnders at bedtime (just to be clear - that's a veto in the channel-changing sense, not the biblical sense, although there's one of them'n'all which I won't go into here). I can’t complain, though - I love EastEnders - I love it almost as much as I love running my nipples through a mangle. Which brings me neatly back to the Scotland Bill.

Objectively, the Scotland Bill will be measured against two things. Firstly, politically, it'll be measured against the Smith Commission proposals. It’ll be held up to Smith like tracing paper, and depending on which side of the fence you sit, the traced likeness will be either heralded or derided, but mostly derided, because it'll be like tracing over a picture of David Cameron's face and coming away with a caricature of Ming T Merciless, although I imagine he'd be quite happy with such a likeness, proud even. DC, I mean, not Ming - Ming would be ****ing furious, I should imagine. Like, zappy-furious.

Secondly, and way more importantly, the Scotland Bill will be measured by the people of Scotland - the ordinary man in the street, so to speak - against “The Vow”. The Vow was nice and simple - Devo Max - devolution of everything bar defence and foreign policy. Or if you believe George Galloway, even more than that, DevoMaximusDecimusMeridious, if you will, Husband to a murdered Vow, Father to a butchered Bill, and I will have my vengeance. I wouldn’t hold my breath for George to speak up about it, though. He’ll be busy spooning Putin now that Saddam’s gone cold.

But of course, we know that Devo Max has not and will never be delivered. William Hill won't even give odds on it, for a start, and in fact will eventually have you escorted from the premises, and barred, should you insist on being offered even the most outside of odds on the subject. Believe me, it's a dead duck. I probably shouldn’t have gone in swinging my claymore to be honest, though. Have you ever been tasered? Hindsight.

So why then do certain interested parties insist on insulting our intelligence and continue to proclaim that The Vow is being delivered, has been delivered already, and will be delivered later, in a bit? Well, it beats the **** outta me. Maybe it was left at the neighbours and they just haven’t let on. It seems stupid. When less than 10% of Scotland believes it, I just can't see a rationale for even pretending anymore.

The Scotland Bill, no more than a bill-of-attrition, as it is, is a bit like getting into the driving seat of a car blindfolded, and then being told, nay, goaded, into driving off, only to find that the steering wheel only turns left and the throttle has an unpredictable tendency to stick to the carpets. And then they blame you when you crash. It is the most cynical and destructive type of politics. Apart from a nuclear strike, of course. That can be pretty destructive, if I’m being honest. Look it up on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

The only possible explanation is that Labour and the Conservatives both want the SNP to fail (no surprise there, I hear you say). They want a party - a party that’s in government - to fail, and they want it so badly that they’ll happily cripple a whole country to achieve it, and they’ll laugh and sneer while it happens. And then, while those who are left tend the wounded, and make do and mend to get by, they’ll sneer again and say: we told you so.

And they’ll be right, partly. They did tell us so. They were unequivocal about it. To be fair to them, I do the same thing myself - when I’m bored of an evening I’ll often head down to the lower estates where I can look down upon the little people and say “You’ll never make it out of here, sonny!”, and do you know what, after I’ve driven over a few of ‘em, they won’t! It makes me feel all...Tory inside. And then I can go back home and snuggle up to the wife and EastEnders, happy that I’ve just identified a future workforce, all hopeless and broken and ready to comply because what other option do they have?

The real questions now do not centre around how the Scottish government can use these “extensive new powers” to benefit Scotland. That would be a stupid ****ing question, and one that won’t get any cleverererer the more times it’s asked. The real questions now gravitate towards the next referendum and when it will be. It’s inevitable. For one thing, we now know that Scotland’s last hope for fairness within the union - Labour - can’t be trusted. When a progressive like Jeremy Corbyn shoots his bolt as soon as the starter pistol goes off, and you just know that there’s no one else waiting to pick up the baton for the next leg, well, that’s it. Kiss the opposition goodbye. Noble though the efforts of the SNP 55/56 may be on the opposition benches, they just don’t have the numbers to make a difference. Factor in the pervasively obstinate and abstinate intransigence of Labour to anything even remotely SNP, and you can rest easy, safe in the knowledge that nursing the massive chip on their shoulder is way more important than doing right by the people. As a side note, I think that the SNP 55/56 should buy Labour chips every Friday lunchtime, until they get the message. No fish, no smoked sausage, no DFMB (let’s not be silly), just chips. Lots and lots of chips. I wouldn’t even bother with salt and sauce/vinegar, because they don’t deserve it. Just chips. Spit in them first, obviously, but you get my point.

The Scotland Bill/Vow, call it what you will, is the end. I went from being a bit disinterested in the Indyref at the beginning to becoming a fairly strong supporter of independence at the end, but I’ve always held out hope that *something* might happen within the Union to bring about the balance and the fairness that would make it work for all of the nations within it, and thus negate the need to separate. Let’s be honest about this, a Union of nations should be stronger than the sum of its parts. It should be. It bloody should be. It just should. I’m afraid that, for me at least, hope of that is gone.

PS. Don’t spit in their chips. I was only joking about that.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Maintaining a pro-independence majority at Holyrood must be the overwhelming priority for Yes supporters

In the wake of today's press release from RISE, which optimistically seeks to persuade us that SNP votes on the list will be wasted but that votes for a party that is currently on 0% of the list vote will not be, the Twitter user 'B!G R4Y' said this -

"Yep. Read a number of different opinions. Obs want pro YES 2 get as many seats as poss. How 2 do that."

Is the desire for pro-Yes to get as many seats as possible as "obvious" as it seems? Supposing the effect of some SNP supporters "tactically" switching to the Greens or RISE on the list is as follows -

The probability of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament is reduced from 80% to 75%

The probability of pro-independence parties taking at least 85 out of 129 seats is increased from 5% to 10%

The percentage probabilities are illustrative only, but there are very sound reasons for thinking that "tactical voting" by Yes supporters will somewhat reduce the chances of a pro-Yes majority. The whole strategy takes a punt on the smaller parties doing well enough to take multiple seats in each region (which is actually very unlikely), and simultaneously bets the house on the idea that the SNP won't need any list seats at all to maintain their majority (which they may well do - they needed at least twelve list seats to make up the constituency shortfall in the 2011 landslide).

So what is the logical thing to do? People who are fixated on the Mission Impossible of completely eradicating unionism in Scotland over the next six months would probably say that only the top-end figure matters, and that if "tactical voting" increases the chances of there being 85 or more pro-independence MSPs, we have to go for it. In reality, of course, what really matters is maintaining a pro-independence majority, and there's no rational reason at all to put that at risk in pursuit of an improbable dream. There is nothing we could do with 85 pro-independence MSPs that we couldn't do with 68. But there's a hell of a lot that we wouldn't be able to do if we slip to just 63, and lose our majority. We're in danger of becoming infatuated with something that would simply be a lovely bonus, and losing sight of the real prize.

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Tremendously tasty TNS poll gives SNP 34% lead on constituency ballot

A couple of months ago, we were wondering if the polls would show any kind of Corbyn effect in Scotland.  (They didn't.)  One month ago, we were wondering if the impact of the Michelle Thomson stories in the press would change the state of play.  (It didn't.)  Now we're mostly wondering if the great tax credits con from Labour and a sympathetic media will have finally made a dent in the SNP's lead.  As always seems to be the case when the burning question of the day is asked, the release of the monthly TNS poll isn't of much use, because the fieldwork is so far out of date - it started almost a month ago on 16th October, and ended over a week ago on 4th November.

Constituency ballot :

SNP 58% (+2)
Labour 24% (+3)
Conservatives 12% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 4% (-2)

Regional list ballot :

SNP 52% (n/c)
Labour 25% (+2)
Conservatives 11% (n/c)
Greens 5% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-1)
UKIP 2% (-1)

Probably the best way of looking at the findings is as even more emphatic confirmation that neither Corbyn nor Thomson changed the game in any meaningful way.  The jury is still out as far as more recent events are concerned, although on past form Labour would probably be wise not to allow themselves to become too optimistic.

Since the general election, the SNP's share of the constituency vote in TNS polls has ranged from 56% to 62%.  With a standard 3% margin of error, that just about leaves open the possibility that the true position (or "true" if the TNS methodology is sound) has remained completely unchanged over the last six months at around 59%.  However, the first three polls all had Nicola Sturgeon's party on 60% or above, and the three more recent ones have all put the figure somewhere between 56% and 58%, so it seems much more likely that modest slippage took place at some point, probably a few months ago.  The apparent 2% bounceback since the last poll is probably just an illusion caused by sampling variation.

Labour also seem to have made a slight recovery from their catastrophic position in the spring, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly when that happened.  They were on a fairly steady 19-20% of the constituency vote in the first three post-election TNS polls, before jumping to 23% two months ago.  They slipped straight back to 21% in the last poll, which made us wonder if the increase was just a freakish result, but today's post-election high of 24% would suggest otherwise.  Needless to say, though, the pace of any recovery will have to speed up dramatically if the SNP are to be denied a second overall majority next year.  It also remains to be seen whether Labour are going to be able to do anything more than recover support they mostly lost after the general election, or whether ex-Labour voters who actually put their cross next to the SNP in May have made a more fundamental psychological break and are now largely gone for good.  To put it in perspective, just 4% of SNP general election voters are now in the Labour column.  Admittedly Labour are the only major party that the SNP have lost any support to at all, but the flipside is that 11% of Labour voters from May are planning to vote for another party next year.

Perhaps a very slight danger-sign for the SNP is that the support they have gained over and above their 50% general election result has come disproportionately from people who didn't vote in May or can't remember how they voted.  It's reasonable to assume that people who didn't vote before are less likely to do so again.  Sure enough, when TNS apply a filter to include only "certain" voters, the SNP's vote slips slightly to 56%, and the lead over Labour is cut to "just" 31%.

This is yet another devastating TNS poll for Ruth Davidson and the Tories.  It remains possible that they've lost even more support since the spring, because the first two post-election polls had them at 15% and 14% respectively.  Since then they've been at a steady 12%.  It's true that YouGov have been more favourable for them, and its also true that TNS/System 3 have a track record over several decades of underestimating them by a few points, perhaps because of a Shy Tory Factor when people are interviewed face to face.  But even allowing for that, the excited chatter in the right-wing media about Davidson replacing Kezia Dugdale as Leader of the Opposition looks fanciful in the extreme based on these figures.

Not quite as fanciful as the talk of Patrick Harvie becoming Leader of the Opposition, though.  The Greens were on 10% of the list vote in the first post-election TNS poll, but have been languishing on 5% in the last two polls.  On that level of support, they might add one seat to their current tally of two, but they might not even do that.  Unless something dramatic happens soon, even those who have (wrongly) convinced themselves that "tactical voting on the list" is a viable strategy may start to have a rethink.  I've just received an email from RISE entitled "TNS poll shows SNP 2nd votes wasted", but frankly that refrain has never sounded more laughable.  If the figures in this poll are replicated in May, RISE votes on the list will be totally wasted (the SSP have a rounded list vote of 0%), and even Green votes will be wasted in the majority of the eight electoral regions.

I must say I'm slightly bemused by the priorities TNS have for their supplementary questions.  It took until two months ago for them to ask the independence question for the first time since the referendum.  That produced a clear Yes lead, which was such a startling finding that you'd think they might have repeated the exercise at least once during the last two polls, but not a bit of it.  We do have personal ratings for the party leaders in today's poll, though.  As you'd expect, Nicola Sturgeon is by some distance the most popular of the crop, and Ruth Davidson's numbers are absolutely dreadful (just 11% of respondents give her a rating of 7 or higher out of 10).  Taken in combination with the Conservatives' lowly share of the vote, and the fact that they hit a historic low of just 14.9% under Davidson's leadership at the general election, it's phenomenally hard to understand where the media mythology of a Scottish Tory renaissance has sprung from.

The SNP will draw considerable comfort from Jeremy Corbyn's rating, which is almost as bad as Ruth Davidson's (but admittedly nowhere near as bad as David Cameron's).  15% of respondents give the new UK Labour leader a rating of 7 or higher, while 36% give him a 4 or lower. That suggests the majority of people have already made up their minds about Corbyn, thus reducing the likelihood of a delayed "true socialist" bounce for Labour in the months to come.

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"Shredded" by a dead sheep

A guest post by Andrew Morrison

Kevin Hague’s sidekick Neil Lovatt has tried to dissect my previous posting on Scot Goes Pop. He claims to have ‘shredded’ it and some of their less intelligent followers appear to believe this. Let’s see. (Any quotations shown are from Mr Lovatt’s ‘Shredded’ document.)

“That outcome was to present copy which will read to those who do not understand the numbers as a challenge to Kevin's analysis of GERS and help James Kelly's fundraiser.”

There have been a lot of claims that this was a fundraising gimmick and that a blogger raising funds is somehow wrong. The Scot Goes Pop fundraiser met its target within a couple of days and deservedly so. It didn’t need any gimmicks. If someone writes something intelligent in a newspaper I’m happy to pay money for it, likewise if a blogger gives consistently intelligent content it is worth paying for.

“Would be very interested what that Economics training was as this would flop out of any Introductory Economics class.”

If we have not as yet compared credentials, it is a kindness on my part to spare his alma mater from embarrassment.

He then attempts to show that my example of the United States and Mexico is not an accurate reproduction of Kevin Hague’s work. After working through some calculations he arrives at a conclusion different to my $365 billion Hague-style ‘deficit gap’.

This though is only because he has used a different example with different figures. He looks at the problem as though the US and Mexico were already in union (fair enough) but changes the pattern of expenditure so that spending per capita is the same in both countries. This is now an entirely different example – it is using different numbers so of course it is going to show different deficit figures. Amusingly, he changes the example by assuming that both parts of a union will have the same level of spending, yet their whole argument centres on the fact that this does not happen.

The calculations are basically sound other than some confusion of Income and Spending figures. To his credit, the analysis is based on comparing each individual country with the figures for the union as a whole. His spiritual leader does not do this. That was my point. See for example footnotes 3 and 4 of ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy for Dummies’.

Next he reproduces my Snow White example and seems to get it right. He says just exactly what I did. Then comes my very favourite bit. He ‘shreds’ Kevin Hague.

“The GERS analogy would be comparing an indy Scotland with the position of rUK but that would be ridiculous as you can only compare Scotland to its current position within the UK or its position outwith the UK.”

It would indeed be ridiculous – now consider Footnote 3 in Mr Hague’s ‘FFA for Dummies’.

‘3. I compare Scotland to "rest of UK" (rUK) because otherwise we are comparing to a UK figure which includes us. I don't understand why so few others do this - maybe because it's a little more analytical work.’

Has he even read the stuff he is defending? Kevin Hague’s method is ‘ridiculous’ but you don’t have to take my word for it. That is Neil Lovatt’s description.

He moves on to my zombie analogy, spots the Snow White error (which his mentor would not) and claims that this is an error on my part. I had specifically noted that I had intentionally left in the error. Mr Lovatt has not only not read his guru’s work, but he has also not properly read the piece he aims to critique.

I used zombies to simplify and exaggerate the point I was trying to make. This was that you should not compare deficits in ‘per capita’ terms because varying proportions of the population in different countries will be unproductive. You must compare the deficit with what income the population can generate. It was not supposed to interpreted literally. If necessary, I could formally model a more realistic example where the unproductive people also require additional government spending. This would help the more literal reader but would less clearly isolate the central point. Just say the word and I’ll do it but it will show up the same flaws in the per capita measure.

Some of Mr Hague’s brighter supporters have conceded this point and indeed defended him by showing examples where he has used the ‘deficit as percentage of GDP’. A broken clock gets it right twice a day. ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy for Dummies’ does not use this approach, nor did its little brother in the Daily Record. Only sometimes using the correct approach is not enough if you are churning out articles titled ‘The Power of Being Persistently Right’.

Neil Lovatt is not among the group who have conceded the point although he is starting to accept that measuring as percentage of GDP has some merit:

“No a per capita basis is far more valid as its the individual taxpayers who generate the required income and debt is allocated per head not per GDP. A GDP basis will however give you some idea of your room for manoeuvre, i.e if you need to find more money to tax is there any there?”

Compare a young single lawyer and a working couple on minimum wage with 4 kids. Who do you think can afford a loan for a new BMW? The ‘per capita’ argument is that the minimum wage couple can better afford this borrowing because it is shared across more people. The ‘percentage of GDP’ line is that we should instead look at what income they are able to generate to service the loan. The reader can decide for themselves but I see more lawyers in BMWs than minimum wage couples.

The final defence is that the manipulation of the figures ‘hardly made any difference’. Why then would Kevin Hague go to the trouble of adjusting the figures? He could just have copied and pasted the graph from the GERS report. Why take the trouble of changing the basis of comparison and converting into per capita terms if it hardly makes any difference?

The truth is that these bogus adjustments add up to many billions of pounds over the period covered. Consider just 2010-11, the manipulated figures show a relative deficit of around £150 per capita so around £800 million overall. The GERS figures for that year actually show Scotland having a small surplus relative to the UK position. That’s almost a one billion pound difference right there alone.

He concludes with evasion on my proposed wager:

“AM's argument has been shredded with a tiny bit of math and logic, Furthermore I’m not having my name going to a university with such an obviously flawed document any expert would simply look at me and ask why I ever wasted their time.

If I were you, AM, I would reflect on your understanding of the numbers and try again then get someone who actually understands the numbers to go through them with you. Clearly I wouldn't suggest James as he either doesn't understand himself or perhaps he just set you up for humiliation, in which case choose your friends more wisely.”

His concern is misplaced. I have in the past submitted work of a similar standard to four of Scotland’s universities. They didn’t ask why I was wasting their time. Indeed they quite liked it and gave me scrolls of paper as a reward.

Discussing economic methodology is central to what economists do in universities. I think they’ll be OK with it, with or without the name of Neil Lovatt.

This is not going to go away. I was ready with rebuttals for much stronger arguments so I’m not about to be intimidated by a ‘shredding’ that is as confused as it is condescending.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How the Scottish general election result was once again overturned by English MPs

I'm not sure whether anyone has done this yet, so I thought I'd put together a breakdown of how Scottish and non-Scottish MPs voted on some of the crucial amendments to the Scotland Bill on Monday.

Vote on whether the power to call an independence referendum should be unambiguously transferred to the Scottish Parliament -

Scottish MPs :

Yes 53
No 1

English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs :

Yes 3
No 288

Scottish result overturned, with an overall result of Yes 56, No 289.  The only non-Scottish MPs to vote in favour were the Greens' Caroline Lucas, and the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan.  Plaid Cymru's Hywel Williams and Jonathan Edwards acted as the two non-voting tellers for the 'Aye' side to allow all SNP members present to vote.

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Vote on whether to devolve working tax credits and child tax credits to the Scottish Parliament -

Scottish MPs :

Yes 53
No 2

English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs :

Yes 3
No 475

Scottish result overturned, with an overall result of Yes 56, No 477.  The only non-Scottish MPs to vote in favour were the Greens' Caroline Lucas, and the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan.  Plaid Cymru's Hywel Williams and Jonathan Edwards acted as the two non-voting tellers for the 'Aye' side to allow all SNP members present to vote.

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Vote on whether equal opportunities should be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament -

Scottish MPs :

Yes 53
No 1

English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs :

Yes 8
No 287

Scottish result overturned, with an overall result of Yes 61, No 288.  The only non-Scottish MPs to vote in favour were the Greens' Caroline Lucas, the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan, the DUP's Gregory Campbell, Gavin Robinson and Jim Shannon, the independent Northern Ireland unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, and the Liberal Democrats' Greg Mulholland.  Plaid Cymru's Hywel Williams and Jonathan Edwards acted as the two non-voting tellers for the 'Aye' side to allow all SNP members present to vote.

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The Scottish result was also overturned on the vote to decide whether the Sewel Convention, which prevents the Westminster parliament legislating on devolved matters without the express permission of the Scottish Parliament, should be made legally binding.  (That was an integral part of the Smith recommendations, incidentally, so by voting it down the Tory government have demonstrably failed to deliver the Smith package in full.)  Because Labour voted with the SNP, it was a more complicated result than some of the others, and it would take much longer to work out the breakdown for sure.  But as the SNP's turnout (including Michelle Thomson) seemed fairly steady throughout the day at 53, I'm fairly confident in saying that Scottish MPs voted Yes 54, No 1, and non-Scottish MPs voted Yes 191, No 286, with an overall result of Yes 245, No 287.

Labour also went into the "Aye" lobby with the SNP on a vote to partially devolve equal opportunities to the Scottish Parliament.  On that division, Scottish MPs seem to have voted Yes 54, No 1, and non-Scottish MPs seem to have voted Yes 188, No 286.  The Scottish result was overturned with an overall outcome of Yes 242, No 287.

As a result of the very justifiable outrage over these events, there have been some wild calls on social media for the Scottish Parliament to use its (unofficial) Sewel Convention powers to block the Scotland Bill altogether.  Although I think the SNP are entirely right to play hardball over this in the hope of improving the Bill, I hope they would only actually use the nuclear option as a genuine last resort, ie. if the alternative would be catastrophic for Scotland.  As pathetic as this transfer of powers is, it's basically what we've got to show for the success of the Yes campaign, and I wouldn't want to see it thrown away lightly.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Full Fiscal Autonomy for Smarties

A guest post by Andrew Morrison

Anybody who follows the online continuation of the Scottish referendum debate could not help but notice the ever greater prominence of Mr Kevin Hague. He is becoming the poster boy of the unionist Twitterati who appear dazzled by his relentless pursuit of truth through rigorous economic analysis. Celebrity and media endorsements have come his way, prominent but shy economists back his work, and there has even been praise from someone who actually did Economics at Cambridge.

So, as a Yes-minded follower of the debate, I decided to bite the bullet and have a look over his work. Given the triumphalist fan club and his own assertive confidence, I didn’t expect to enjoy the read. There will undoubtedly be errors and approximations in the GERS figures, they do estimate only the economic situation whilst under UK management, and by focusing solely on government flows they are an incomplete analysis of the Scottish economy. However, I wasn’t going to learn anything about that from reading Mr Hague’s work – I just wanted to see what he had done with the numbers GERS gave him.

I was stunned. They say that evidence given under duress is usually unreliable and these poor numbers have been tortured to death. I can’t fully understand why he felt the need since the figures for the last couple of years will readily confess that this is not the brightest ever period for Scotland’s public finances. Perhaps he needed to show that this was a longer term pattern. Whatever the motive, the analysis appears that of an enthusiast who started with a preferred outcome in mind.

Now, I have some training in Economics but I would hesitate to present myself as some unimpeachable source of wisdom. I believe that what I am about to present is correct but I am happy to engage with anyone who can persuade me otherwise.

Can the United States afford fiscal autonomy?

This is an exact reproduction of Kevin Hague’s analysis of Scotland’s finances. The United States has government expenditure of $10953 per capita and Mexico just $2862 per capita. The US must fund this gap through raising higher revenue per capita. And indeed they do – US government revenue is $9425 per capita and Mexico just $2471 – an extra $6954 per capita.

That though is not enough to cover the extra spending of $8091 per capita. There is a shortfall of 8091 – 6954 = $1137 per person.

Multiply this figure by the US population of 321.4 million and you get a shortfall of around $365 billion. This is Mr Hague’s ‘deficit gap’ although the term, as he defines it, seems to lack any coherent meaning. He does at times describe it as how much ‘worse off’ a country would be, but I think deep down he knows that it is not. The headline message would certainly be that the US would have a $365 billion dollar ‘black hole’ if they don’t ‘pool and share’ their resources with Mexico.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? Yet, if our hero were to apply his GERS methodology that is exactly the conclusion he would reach. Something must be wrong and I see at least 2 important flaws. The innocent reader might be surprised to hear that both impact negatively on Scotland’s apparent position.

Error 1: Snow White’s ‘black hole’

Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs each pay £20 tax = £160

Snow White gets £27 of expenditure and the Dwarfs £19 each = £160

Income and expenditure are equal so there is neither surplus nor deficit. How much worse off would Snow White be if she left the family?

Surely she is £7 worse off. To maintain her current expenditure she must run a £7 deficit – she pays £20 into the pot but takes £27 out.

Kevin Hague thinks she is £8 worse off. To get this figure he compares her spending of £27 with the average for the rest of the family only (just the dwarfs) which is £19. This is a fundamental mis-understanding of the decision facing the young lady.

She is not choosing between being Snow White or being a Dwarf (in which case the £8 difference between the 2 options would be relevant). Instead her options are to be Snow White alone or part of ‘Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs’ – she can have a £7 deficit or no deficit at all.

Likewise, the US would be deciding between being an independent state or becoming part of the Amexican Union. The comparison should be between the US figures and the combined figures for both countries as that reflects the economic situation for the 2 possible outcomes. They are not deciding whether to be America or Mexico.

Mr Hague always manipulates Scotland’s additional public spending upwards by changing the comparison to one with the rest of the UK only (rather than compare with the UK with Scotland still in it). At times he openly ponders why others such as the IFS don’t make this adjustment. I have yet to see him question whether perhaps they are right and he is wrong.

Error 2: The 3 million zombies solution

We are challenged to explain how a fiscally autonomous Scotland could meet this artificially inflated ‘deficit gap’. Well how about we get invaded by 3 million benign zombies?

Now, generally speaking, your methodology is less than robust if it shows economic problems being solved by zombie invasions. The much-admired Mr Hague fails this test.

Consider Country X with a deficit of £1200 per capita and in a union with Country Y which has a deficit of £1600 per capita and a population of 7 million. Some people in Country Y would like greater control of their own finances but are told that they would have to overcome this ‘deficit gap’ of £2800 million (£400 per head times the 7 million people – I have left in the ‘Snow White error’).

Then the zombies arrive. They amble around quite harmlessly and life otherwise continues as normal – they don’t do any work but nor do they place any demand on state services. Country Y’s total deficit is 11,200 million (1600 per head x 7 million people). This has remained the same but the population has now grown to 10 million so the deficit per capita is now just £1120. This is a lower deficit than Country X so the problem appears to be solved – certainly Kevin Hague would no longer identify his ‘deficit gap’. (Indeed, if we now looked from the Country X point of view they have a ‘black hole’ in their finances.) But nothing of any economic substance has changed. There must be a methodological error.

The flaw is that we should not compare deficits in terms of ‘deficit per capita’ since this tells us nothing about the ability of that population to generate sufficient wealth to cope with the deficit. It matters who the 10 million people are and what they do. Some will be children, some retirees, others might be unemployed, perhaps the majority are low-skilled and earn low wages, and occasionally some are zombies. The number of people is no measure of how manageable a deficit is – it’s about how much income they generate. A £1000 per head deficit might be no real problem to a wealthy nation but catastrophic to a poorer one.

For this reason, no reputable comparison of national deficits will use ‘deficit per capita’. Instead the deficit will be compared to the annual value of economic output i.e deficit as a percentage of GDP.

This measure passes the zombie absurdity test. The total deficit didn’t change and the value of economic output (GDP) didn’t change. The arrival of the zombies didn’t change the economy and the ‘deficit as percentage of GDP’ metric confirms this.

This also now explains another huge chunk of the $365 billion that the US appeared, albeit implausibly, to be losing by not uniting with Mexico.

From the earlier figures, the US had a deficit of $1528 per capita and Mexico $391 per capita. This gave a ‘deficit gap’ of $1137 per person for the Americans to overcome in a Hague-style analysis (endorsed by the economics editor of the Sunday Times and the editor in chief of Moneyweek). It feels rash to dispute such authority but surely some recognition is needed of Mexico’s much smaller GDP per head of $10539 as compared to US GDP per head of $54206.

This would give us Mexico’s deficit as a percentage of GDP as 3.7% ($391/$10539) while the equivalent figure for the US is just 2.8% of GDP. All other things being equal, the US deficit is more affordable than that of Mexico. The Amexican Union would actually result in a slightly higher deficit, in this much more meaningful sense, for the combined state than the United States currently experiences. That might not be the case in every time period, but we can say with certainty that they would not be dodging some fantastical $365 billion ‘black hole’ by pooling and sharing with Mexico.

Scotland’s GDP per capita is higher than that of the UK as a whole and so, other things being equal, a slightly higher per capita deficit should be sustainable. The difference is not of United States/Mexico proportions but it is persistent and significant. By conducting his analysis in terms of ‘deficit per capita’, Kevin Hague removes that advantage. He treats a £200 per capita deficit as equally significant for both parts of the UK. This ignores that the meaningful measure (% of GDP) would show this as a lower deficit for Scotland than for the UK as a whole.

Taking a look at GERS

By this stage I had resolved to recreate Mr Hague’s favourite graph with the 2 corrections that I felt necessary. I would compare Scotland with the UK as a whole and analyse in terms of deficits as percentages of GDP rather than on a per capita basis.

So I opened up the GERS report 2013-14 fully expecting that I’d have to search around for the relevant figures and then perform whatever calculations would be needed to apply my improvements. There were no calculations needed. Absolutely none. The graph that Kevin Hague should have drawn is the very first thing in Chapter 1 of the GERS report. It compares Scotland with the UK as a whole, and it measures deficits as percentages of GDP. It is shown both in terms of current spending only and in terms of total spending. The GERS people knew what was needed for a relevant analysis.

He must have seen this – as I say it is the absolute first thing in the very first chapter of the report . Perhaps he didn’t like the news. It is certainly less conclusive than what he produced by taking the data from that perfectly good graph and distorting it with poorly justified ‘improvements’.

As I’ve said, I could be wrong and it certainly gives pause for thought that the other side of the debate don’t seem troubled by any such self-doubt. However, I am confident enough to propose a wager. My proposal is that we submit both this piece and Mr Hague’s ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy for Dummies’ to the economics department of every university in Scotland and invite comment. If there is a decisive outcome (say 2 to 1 or more) the loser would pay £50 to a political organisation of the winner’s choice.

In the event that I lose, I’ll still console myself with the knowledge that it’s a £50 loss as opposed to the £100 ‘deficit gap’ that Kevin Hague thinks he would be risking.

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Hasn't it occurred to Cathy Newman that devolving abortion law could help PREVENT the Abortion Act 1967 from being repealed in Scotland?

If you're in any doubt that Scotland currently has a second-class parliament, take a look at the very helpful list at the bottom of this document.  It sets out the powers that Westminster plans to hold back from the Welsh Assembly after a 'reserved powers' model is introduced, and explains in each case whether the same power is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  As you can see, there are several examples of important powers that are devolved in Northern Ireland but not in Scotland, including abortion, film classification, consumer protection, electricity, coal, "time", energy conservation, child support, regulation of the professions, industrial relations, and medicines.  You'll be hard-pressed to find reverse examples of powers that are devolved in Scotland but not in Northern Ireland.  I can only spot two - public order, and referendums on devolved subject matters.  The new Scotland Bill will of course give Scotland powers over income tax that Northern Ireland won't have for the time being, but that just makes it even more anomalous that the Scottish Parliament should be weaker than the Northern Ireland Assembly in so many key respects.

The Tory government has made a modest gesture on that front by agreeing at the last minute to devolve abortion law to Scotland, which went through the House of Commons a few hours ago with a comfortable majority.  As long as the Lib Dems don't withdraw their support, there should be no problem getting it through the Lords, in spite of Labour's boneheaded intransigence on the topic.  But unfortunately the boneheadedness seems to be rapidly spreading from the red benches to the media.  Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, who of course already has SNP-bashing form after her bizarre and entirely false allegations about the Scottish Government "cutting its contribution to the monarchy", has now waded in on the abortion issue.  She claims that "reopening an issue that has been settled since 1967" will erode women's hard-won reproductive rights.

There's just one little flaw in that line of reasoning, Cathy : devolving abortion law DOES NOT RE-OPEN THE ISSUE.

It really is that simple.  You'd think from Newman's article that removing abortion from the list of reserved powers will somehow compel the Scottish Parliament to hold a vote on abortion law, but it won't.  The GB-wide Abortion Act 1967, as amended by subsequent legislation, will remain fully in force in Scotland until and unless MSPs decide to repeal or change it.  They are under no obligation to take any action at all, and the likelihood is that they won't for the foreseeable future.  By the same token, refusing to devolve abortion would not have prevented Westminster MPs from reopening the issue and changing the law, and they would at the very least have been no less likely to do so than their Scottish counterparts.  Indeed, they'll still be able to do so - but in England and Wales only.

There are plenty of people on both sides of the debate who don't regard the current legislation as some kind of world-leading gold standard.  But for those who do take that view, it should be noted that Scotland will now be able to prevent social conservatives at Westminster (and I don't see how it can be denied that there are far more social conservatives at Westminster than at Holyrood) from repealing or diluting the Abortion Act 1967.  It may not have occurred to the likes of Cathy Newman that a liberalising Westminster law from the 60s could eventually be scrapped in England while remaining in force in devolved Scotland, but that is precisely the position.

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UPDATE : I've just caught up with the Yvette Cooper article in the Guardian which seems to have triggered the outbreak of illogicality elsewhere.  In contrast to Cathy Newman, who truly doesn't seem to understand how devolution works, it's pretty clear that Cooper is being downright disingenuous.

"The SNP government says women shouldn’t worry, because they have no plans to change the abortion law. I’m sure they don’t. But that’s not how it works. This amendment to devolve abortion to Scotland wasn’t put forward initially by the SNP or Conservative government – it was proposed by a small group of backbench MPs who publicly oppose abortion."

Rubbish.  Absolute rubbish.  Any amendment to the Scotland Bill tabled by backbench MPs was preceded by broad agreement between the SNP, the Conservatives, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats that the devolution of abortion law should form part of the Smith recommendations.  That plan was vetoed by Labour, and by Labour alone, at a very late stage in proceedings.

And the idea that the SNP were never interested in having powers over abortion law transferred until pro-lifers started whispering in their ears is self-evidently risible.  The SNP have always wanted ALL powers transferred from Westminster to Holyrood.  By definition that includes abortion.

"If abortion law is devolved to most, it will mean a new bout of lobbying that makes women feel uncomfortable about their choices and puts medical professionals under pressure. At the very least, it means different laws north and south of the border."

No it doesn't. As I pointed out earlier, after the power is devolved there will still be a GB-wide law on abortion. That will not change until either the Scottish Parliament, or the UK Parliament acting on behalf of England and Wales only, decides to alter the law. Neither is under any obligation to do so. In principle, there's no reason why the current law shouldn't remain in place on both sides of the border indefinitely. Yvette Cooper is too experienced a parliamentarian not to realise that's the case, so it's hard to avoid the conclusion that she's intentionally misleading people.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Labour : you confuse me

Now, I do fully appreciate that Labour hate the idea of devolving anything meaningful to the Scottish Parliament.  That's fine, that's their prerogative.  It's a big part of why they keep losing elections, so to some extent it should even be encouraged.  But if their whole strategy for next May is going to be based on the claim that the beastly SNP could reverse the Tory tax credits cuts in full but are refusing to do so, isn't it rather obviously a stupid idea to vote against an SNP amendment to the Scotland Bill that actually would have devolved power over tax credits to the Scottish Parliament?  Apart from anything else, the amendment would have been defeated anyway, so it seems a bit pointless that they've sabotaged their own strategy just to make the Tory majority much bigger than it otherwise would have been.  Now the SNP will simply be able to say : "So you want us to use a power that we don't have, and that you voted against us having on the 9th of November?"

At the very least, couldn't Labour have abstained or something?  They're usually really good at that.

The Vow : An Honest Translation

Daily Record, 16th September 2014


Westminster's three party leaders - one of whom (apart from Nick Clegg) will be the next prime minister - sign a historic joint bluff which, in their own words, "might just save our bacon here".


The people of Scotland want to know that all three main parties (and the Lib Dems) will deliver change for Scotland.


The Scottish Parliament is permanent, although please note that it can be abolished at any time by simple majority vote at Westminster, and we're not planning to do anything to prevent that.  We are, however, going to say the word "permanent" quite a lot, so that'll probably do.  We're also going to give the parliament extensive new powers over road signs, on the timetable agreed and announced by our three parties, starting on 19th September.  (Although, actually, that timetable may slip slightly - you know how these things are.  Also, please note that promises made by Gordon Brown on our behalf about new powers do not form part of this Vow, and we have no intention of sticking to those.  Didn't you know he's just some random backbencher guy?)

And it is our hope that the people of Scotland will go back to sleep as one of our three parties (it won't be the Lib Dems) gets on with deciding what is good for Scotland.

We agree that the UK exists to ensure that English MPs can decide on Scottish public spending without any Scottish democratic input.  We will introduce so-called "EVEL" to formalise this long-standing tradition.

And because of the introducion of EVEL, tied with the partial retention of the Barnett Formula, we can state categorically that the amount of money available to be spent on the Scottish NHS will be a matter for English MPs.

We believe that the scare stories that so powerfully make the case for staying under the thumb of our three parties (not the Lib Dems) should underpin the future of our power over you chaps.  We will honour all of our promises not only before the referendum but also...actually, we'll only honour them before the referendum.

People want to see change.  A No vote will deliver slower, riskier and worse change than separation.

It's a No vote.  What did you expect?

Signed : David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Horsin' around

A week or so after the independence referendum last year, I was whisked off by helicopter to a top-secret location near Falkirk (and luckily I don't think the two small sculptures in the background give the game away at all) to be interviewed by Phantom Power about my thoughts on what had just happened.  That interview is included in the newly-released Part 2 of  'Altered State : Reflections on Scotland's First Independence Referendum'.  Other contributors are Janice Galloway, Paul Kavanagh, Derek Bateman and Christopher Silver.

If the embedded video doesn't work, the direct link is HERE.

The Devlin's in the detail

Kate Devlin of The Herald is the guest on the latest edition of the Polling Matters podcast.  It's a very enjoyable listen, but I'm more than a tad dubious about some of the specific points that Kate makes about Scottish politics...

1) She starts a sentence with the words "the Scottish Parliament was set up with a slightly strange and unusual PR system, in part to try and prevent..."  I assumed that was heading towards the traditional assertion that the intention was to prevent the SNP ever winning a majority, but in fact she claims that it was to prevent a "one-party state" of any sort, which in the early days would most likely have been a Labour one-party state.

First of all, is our electoral system really all that "strange" or "unusual"?  It's the Additional Member System, otherwise known as Mixed Member Proportional, which is used in a fair few other countries.  Most famously, it's been used in Germany for decades.  If there is something slightly odd about the Scottish (and indeed Welsh) variant, it's the fact that list seats account for less than 50% of the total number.  But that makes the system less proportional, not more so, and therefore increases the chances of one party winning a majority.

The process that led to an agreement on the peculiar ratio between constituency and list seats ought to remove any doubt that the intention was to bolster the prospects of Labour dominance, not reduce them.  Labour publicly argued for a parliament of 113 members, which would have been comprised of 73 constituency seats and just 40 list seats.  Their Constitutional Convention partners in the Liberal Democrats wanted a parliament of 145 members, which would have had the roughly 50/50 split between constituency and list seats that is much more typical of the Additional Member System. In the end, there was a straightforward compromise on a figure exactly halfway between the two.

That dispute may well have been slightly choreographed for public consumption, but I don't think there can be any real doubt that Labour ideally wanted a somewhat less proportional system than they ended up with, and were relieved to prevent it being quite as proportional as the Lib Dems would have preferred.  That calls into question the conventional wisdom that Labour embraced AMS as a means of permanently blocking an SNP majority - it seems more likely that they discounted the possibility of being overtaken by any other party, and wanted a Welsh-style PR-lite system because they reckoned it would allow them to stay firmly in control.  With a parliament of 113 members, it's quite possible that there would have been a single-party Labour government for the first eight years of devolution, rather than a Lib/Lab coalition.  It's also certain that Labour would have remained the largest single party in the 2007 election, in spite of being beaten on the popular vote.

2) Kate says that the dramatic turnaround in the SNP's fortunes prior to the May 2011 election occurred around Christmas, or between November 2010 and March 2011.  In fact, it happened much later than that.  The SNP didn't even begin to make serious inroads until March 2011, and still seemed to be slightly behind by the end of that month.  They probably took the lead in April, and then of course continued powering forward into landslide territory.  The lateness of that surge is a cautionary tale for us now - it means we shouldn't be too complacent about the SNP's current enormous lead with six long months still to go.

3) Kate says that prior to 2010, nobody thought that an independence referendum would take place within their lifetimes.  That's obviously wrong, not least because there was a period of a few weeks in mid-2008 when an independence referendum looked inevitable by 2010.  Wendy Alexander had committed Labour to backing it (until her leadership was brought to an abrupt end).  And even after Iain "the Snarl" Gray took over, there were plausible scenarios that still left us with genuine hope of a referendum - we thought that the Liberal Democrats might eventually tire of being in opposition and do a deal, or that the SNP, Greens and Margo MacDonald might just about cobble together a pro-independence majority between them.

4) Kate points to the fate of the PQ in post-1995 Quebec as proof that "you only get two shots" at an independence referendum (a familiar refrain that we've also heard from one or two commenters on this blog).  In fact, the PQ have won two elections since the "Oui" campaign narrowly lost the 1995 referendum, and the first of those - in 1998 - was an outright majority win.  In retrospect, that was the golden opportunity to hold a third referendum, and many in the sovereigntist movement now bitterly regret allowing the momentum that had been built up to dissipate.  So the lessons from Quebec are far more ambiguous than some people would care to admit.

5) Kate also argues that the PQ's shock defeat in last year's provincial election came about because the very mention of the word "independence" now turns off voters.  Well, that's the mythology that has sprung up about that election, but it's wrong.  The real undoing of the PQ was lack of clarity - their leader Pauline Marois wanted to shut down talk of a referendum, but a leading maverick within the party decided to hype the prospect up for all it was worth, allowing the opposition to make hay about the uncertainty.  Nobody can say for sure that the PQ would have won if they had got their story straight about a referendum, but it's certainly possible that they would have done.  And the very fact that they went into the election as the incumbent government ought to tell you that it's not beyond the wit of man to find the right form of words.

6) Kate's third Quebec example is supposed to give heart to Scottish Labour.  She claims that the PQ enjoyed an SNP-style surge in the immediate aftermath of their first referendum defeat in 1980, but that it later fizzled out.  In fact, there wasn't really any surge of that type.  The PQ did hold onto power in the 1981 election, which was a solid achievement in very difficult circumstances, but they won the popular vote by just 3%, and there was a net swing in favour of their main anti-independence opponents (the Liberals).  So there's no meaningful comparison at all with the SNP's astonishing breakthrough in the UK general election this year.

7) Kate claims that public opinion in Scotland on EU membership "isn't really all that different" from English public opinion, and that there's only "a couple of points in it".  With all due respect, that's complete and utter rubbish.  The gulf is very substantial, as umpteen polls have confirmed.

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