Thursday, December 29, 2016

The joys of Twitter

Words fail me.  My light-hearted 'poem' poking fun at the lack of self-awareness among a few people (most of whom have long since broken off contact after making some sort of abusive comment towards me - "arse", "idiot", "zoomer", "Cybernat tube", etc, etc) provoked a torrent of rather baffling fury in certain quarters this afternoon.  Christopher Silver accused me of being unable to take a bit of gentle mockery...which seems a distinctly odd way of saying that a blogpost that has the sole purpose of gently mocking people is by definition bad.  Laura Waddell complained that my "frankly creepy" poem was misrepresenting people, and that I was failing to accurately capture the nuance of their own positions.  When I offered to take her through examples of all of the things in the poem having been actually said by specific individuals, she told me not to bother (effectively that means she didn't even want to hear the answer to a string of angry questions she had only just asked me).

It seems a rum sort of day when I have to put explanatory footnotes on jokes, but here goes anyway -

* Most of the poem was derived from a tweet posted a couple of months ago by David Officer, who expressly told people never to use the word "Yoon", not to complain about BBC bias, not to even mention JK Rowling's name (!), not to link to any blogposts by Stuart Campbell...and in true kitchen sink mode, he declared that the front pages of The National were part of the problem as well.  When I took issue with him, he then launched into a bitter complaint about the fact that I had put a full stop at the start of my tweet (ie. making my reply publicly visible).

* Gerry Braiden said that I was an "idiot" for writing blogposts about Brian Spanner, and clearly felt that it was unspeakably ridiculous that anyone at all should be devoting even a single micro-second to the task of uncovering Spanner's true identity - in spite of the strong evidence that he is not just some random bloke.  In fairness, Scott Reid and Professor James Chalmers were less abusive, but expressed much the same sentiment.  There was widespread condemnation of the anonymous guest poster on this blog who employed some initiative to track Spanner down to Ardrossan.

* James Mackenzie does not regard it as sufficient to merely block Stuart Campbell.  He has an explicit policy of breaking off all contact with anyone he sees interacting with Campbell, in even the most trivial of ways.  He has made abundantly clear on numerous occasions that he believes Yes people must literally pretend that Wings Over Scotland - by far the most popular pro-independence blog - does not even exist.

* Leo Mikłasz told an MP yesterday that a tweet saying that the BBC should not have "campaigned against people" was unacceptable and should never have been posted. Bizarrely, he also suggested that the sentiment expressed in the tweet was somehow equivalent to support for Donald Trump (although unsurprisingly he never explained why).

I'm sure we've all encountered Mike Small and James McEnaney, so I don't really need to fill in the blanks there.

* * *

Note on the Wings block list : Stuart Campbell is once again inviting people to block everyone on Twitter that he currently blocks, and is offering an automated way to do that.  Please note that if you take up his offer, you will automatically be blocking me.  After my dispute with Stuart over US election polling, a number of you said that you would be continuing to read both blogs, so it's probably fair to warn you of the consequences of what might superficially appear to be an innocent enough idea.  I strongly suspect I might not be the only surprising name on that list.

For full disclosure : I was still on good terms with Stuart when he first came up with the plan of exporting his block list, and I didn't go down that road even then.

UPDATE : Having had a proper look, it turns out that I'm far from being the only surprising name on the block list.  Also there are Maurice Smith, Angela Haggerty, Jenny Lindsay, Allan Grogan, Kirstin Innes, Sarah Beattie-Smith, and many, many others.  It seems to me pretty tough to defend the idea that these are individuals who thousands of people should be blindly blocking without having the slightest clue as to the reason why.  Stuart claims that he only ever blocks people for being a "troll" or an "idiot".  That self-evidently is not true.  Whatever you may think of someone like Angela Haggerty, she is plainly neither a troll nor an idiot.  To a large extent, this is simply a list of people that Stuart has had particularly heated arguments with.  That's fine - it's a perfectly valid reason for blocking someone on Twitter.  But it's not a valid reason for encouraging thousands of other people to block them.

If you want independence, you must be more like me

If you really want indy
You must be more like me
You must stop mentioning JK Rowling
And quit protesting outside the BBC
Stop claiming abuse from unionists is a thing
But repent always for Cybernattery
Stay well away from Ardrossan
And throw that homing device into the sea
In fact just forget all about Brian Spanner
And invite Adam Tomkins to tea
Never utter the word "Yoon"
It renders you a zoomer, you see
You must ignore the existence of Stuart Campbell
(He hurt the feelings of my fave minoritee)
Don't put a full stop in front of a tweet
Instead give pounds to a billionaire's charidee
Look away from the front page of The National
Or normal people will say you need psychiatry
For the love of God vote Green or RISE on the list
Now naturally I don't expect you to actually do any of these things
My realism is a sign of my immense maturity
But just you remember, when we don't get indy
It'll be because you weren't enough like me!

(With many thanks to David Officer, James Mackenzie, Scott Reid, Gerry Braiden, Professor James Chalmers, Leo Mikłasz, Mike Small and James McEnaney for inspiring this, er...poem.)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The unionist media are in denial about it, but a second independence referendum moved even closer this week

As far as I can remember this has never happened before (which tells its own story), but it turns out that I owe a mainstream media journalist a comprehensive apology for taking him to task on Twitter a few months ago for what I took to be spin on behalf of the unionist establishment.  Not long after the EU referendum, Mark Mardell of the BBC claimed that the SNP were set to join the "forces of soft Brexit".  I retorted that this was a plainly ridiculous notion, because the SNP's stated aim was to keep Scotland within the European Union in line with how the country had just overwhelmingly voted.  But Mardell was completely right and I was completely wrong.  There's no two ways about it - Nicola Sturgeon has clearly modified her position somewhat, and the detailed plan she put forward the other day indicates a willingness to accept our enforced departure from the EU, albeit only if a great many extremely stringent conditions are met.

However, in spite of misjudging the trajectory a few months ago, I still feel extremely confident in saying this : the likes of Kenny "Devo or Death / Brexit or Bust" Farquharson and whoever it is that writes the Guardian editorials are deluding themselves when they imagine that there is a realistic chance we are heading for a compromise that will head off a second independence referendum.  Theresa May took only a few hours to reject Sturgeon's proposals out of hand, so to believe in the chance of a deal you must also believe that what we saw this week was merely some kind of way-station on the Scottish Government's journey towards accepting a semi-hard Brexit and departure from the single market, rather than a statement of Sturgeon's absolute bottom line.  The Greens (who have disorientated us all by reinventing themselves as the new indy fundamentalists) have demanded that it must be the latter, and I'm convinced that's how it will be.

I've never met Nicola Sturgeon (I've never even had a selfie taken with her, so I really am the lowest of the low), and therefore can't read her mind.  I've heard it said, as I'm sure we all have, that she's instinctively more cautious than Alex Salmond, although I also remember hearing it said in 2012 that she was actually much more bullish than Salmond about the all-or-nothing gambit of calling a single-question referendum on independence without a Devo Max option on the ballot paper.  Regardless of the truth about her temperament, though, the real reason why a second independence referendum now looks almost inevitable is that she has to take her party with her when she makes the final decision.  It's just a non-starter to imagine that the SNP rank-and-file are going to accept calling off the dogs on indy in return for departure from the single market, and no special status within Europe for Scotland - which is all that will be on offer from the UK government, barring a wildly improbable climbdown.  The only way I could imagine the membership signing up to that 'deal' would be if there is some kind of compensatory offer involving a massively beefed-up devolution settlement - but London seem to be showing zero interest in that idea as well.

The unionist media are, as is their custom, telling themselves precisely what they want to believe - that the SNP membership don't matter, and that Sturgeon will be guided solely by opinion poll numbers and a private acceptance of the economic importance of an entirely fictional concept known as "the UK single market".  It may be that it will continue to be possible to portray the opinion poll evidence as discouraging for Sturgeon over the coming months - Scottish polls are largely commissioned by anti-independence clients, after all, which means that the supplementary questions are often framed in a way that will produce the most negative answers.  But that will not be the determining factor on whether a referendum goes ahead.  Public opinion at the end of both the independence and Brexit referendums bore little resemblance to public opinion at the start of the campaigns.  It would be a brave unionist who felt sure that initial Yes support in the mid-to-high 40s will not prove to be a successful springboard to victory.  Which is a point well worth pondering - do the forces of unionism seem relaxed to you, in the way they would be if they really thought a referendum was unwinnable for Sturgeon?  No, they don't seem relaxed to me either.

*  *  *

Theresa May seems to have an unconscious desire for a career in comedy.  Only two years ago, her party told Scots to vote No because it was supposedly the only way to keep Scotland in the European Union.  As a direct result of the electorate falling for that line and voting No, we are now on course to be forced out of the EU against our will.  And yet Ms May innocently says that there is still "no need or reason" to revisit the decision on independence.  It's a bit like someone saying to you "OK, I will marry you, but ONLY if you never, ever steal ANY of my chocolates EVER again", and you absolutely promise to go along with that, and then two months later you express bafflement about her decision to call the whole thing off while you're busy munching on her After Eights.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Yes, "The Vow" could have been delivered - but the UK government chose not to do it

I've been meaning to make an additional point about the UK government's outrageous legal arguments relating to the Sewel Convention. I noticed on Twitter a few days ago that some independence supporters seemed to be getting two different concepts muddled up, and as a result were grotesquely (albeit unwittingly) giving the Tories something of a free pass. Basically the confusion relates to the words 'unenforceable' and 'repealable'. There is a strong argument (not unchallengeable, but strong) that it would be next-to-impossible to enshrine the Sewel Convention into law in a way that is unrepealable, simply because of the principle of absolute parliamentary sovereignty. Any law can in theory be repealed by simple majority vote. But the crucial point is that for as long as any such law is on the statute book, it ought to be perfectly enforceable.

To give an example : the Canada Act 1982 terminated Westminster's power to pass laws for Canada. Even if you argue that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty theoretically means that decision can be unilaterally reversed (a point that might be accepted by the UK courts but certainly not by the Canadian ones), there would actually have to be an "Act to Repeal the Canada Act" before Westminster could return to regulating the drains in Toronto, or whatever. So here's the problem - the Scotland Act 2016 didn't even get us that far in respect of Sewel. It used self-sabotaging language to render itself unenforceable, even while it's on the statute book. That was a deliberate choice of the UK government - there was nothing inevitable about it, and they have quite openly boasted in the Supreme Court about how the law was framed to ensure that nothing whatever changed (in particular by the insertion of the words "it is recognised" and "normally").

It's a distinction we must be absolutely clear about. That the Sewel Convention is not unrepealable is arguably part-and-parcel of the UK's most fundamental constitutional principle. But that the Sewel Convention is unenforceable right now was a political choice made by the London government - and that choice was made in brazen contravention of the "Vow" that secured the No vote in September 2014. They mustn't be allowed to get away with the fiction that an unenforceable declaration of commitment to Sewel was the best they could possibly have done within the confines of the constitution, because that simply isn't true.

*   *   *

Even by his own exalted standards, Mike "can't be arsed" Smithson of Stormfront Lite fame has been making some dubious comments of late, so I just thought I'd take a moment to deal with a couple of his daftest points.  Firstly, he ludicrously claimed last week that the polls on Brexit were not actually wrong, and that anyone who says otherwise is talking "rubbish".  To support this notion, he pointed out that 59% of polls in the last month of the campaign showed "non-Remain leads" (meaning either a tie or a Leave lead).

There's a hole in that logic that a poorly-educated hamster could see through.  If public opinion changes during an election campaign, as it clearly did in the run-up to polling day in June, it will very often be possible to artificially select a time-frame that makes the polls look much more accurate than they actually were.  For example : everyone knows that the polls (with a single honourable exception) got the 1970 general election hopelessly wrong.  They pointed to a Labour overall majority, and the real outcome was a Conservative overall majority.  But between 1967 and 1969, the Tories had actually been way in the lead in the polls, before Labour seemingly turned things around.  Mike Smithson would doubtless argue that, contrary to the universally-held perception, the 1970 polls were not wrong, because over a three-year period they showed the Tories ahead on average.  That would technically be accurate, and is no more or less silly than what he's said about the Brexit polls.

To credibly pray in aid a poll that gets the result broadly "right" a month before polling day, there must at least be an absence of evidence that public opinion changed significantly in the intervening weeks.  Unfortunately for Smithson, the evidence that there was a late swing to Remain as June progressed is overwhelming.  In early June, YouGov "correctly" gave Leave a 4% lead, but the eve-of-referendum poll from the same firm put Remain 2% ahead, and the on-the-day poll saw the Remain lead extend to 4%.  Other firms showed a similar trend.  The likelihood is that all of those polls were inaccurate, and that when Leave appeared to be slightly ahead, they were actually ahead by a significant margin.

It seems Smithson would like to think that the high level of advance postal voting is an adequate excuse for the inaccuracy of the later polls - but it isn't.  If people had already voted by post, the polling firms asked them how they had actually voted, rather than how they planned to vote.

*   *   *

Elsewhere, Smithson rather desperately used aggregate numbers from a tiny handful of by-election results to demand that the BBC should revert to treating his own party (the Lib Dems) as more important than UKIP.  Now, it may well be that the BBC have been guilty of giving UKIP disproportionate coverage over the years and thus unleashing the Brexit monster, but what's done is done - they can't now ignore the fact that UKIP received almost one-and-a-half million more votes than the Lib Dems in the general election, and have remained ahead of the Lib Dems in most opinion polls over recent months.  Even since Richmond Park, there has been a poll giving UKIP a slight lead over the Lib Dems.

I would hope that somewhere, deep down, Smithson has just enough self-awareness to be embarrassed about his wildly unrealistic demands on behalf of his own party - especially bearing in mind his offensive and downright Orwellian claim a few years back that the SNP were guilty of "censorship" for simply trying to gain fair access to the televised leaders' debates.

Lashings of loveliness in Leven as SNP score key by-election triumph

Leven, Kennoway and Largo by-election result, 15th December 2016 :

SNP 37.0% (-4.0)
Labour 28.4% (-6.9)
Conservatives 18.5% (+11.7)
Liberal Democrats 14.3% (+4.3)
Greens 1.8% (n/a)

Things have come to a pretty pass when Labour are quite genuinely 'celebrating' a defeat in a former heartland, a 7% drop in their own vote share, and a 1.5% net swing from Labour to SNP.  But it's probably fair to say that, in the context of the times, this is a tolerably good result for them.  If extrapolated nationally on a 'just a bit of fun' basis, it would put them only a few points behind the SNP.  The snag is, of course, that there is absolutely no evidence from any opinion poll or from any other recent by-election to suggest that their resilience tonight is anything more than a freakish one-off.  The chances are that there were local or personality factors that worked in their favour in this particular contest.

Should we be at all concerned about the slippage in the SNP vote, given that the party had only a modest national lead in the last local elections in 2012?  A loss of support is certainly more noteworthy in this sort of by-election than it would be in areas of traditional Tory strength - we can't just neatly put it down to a small number of No-voting ex-SNP supporters finding a way of resolving their cognitive dissonance.  However, the most recent national opinion poll (conducted only two or three weeks ago) gave the SNP almost half of the popular vote, and in spite of the question marks that now hang over the polling industry, it's unlikely that polls would completely fail to detect a dramatic shift in public opinion.

The small increase in the Liberal Democrat vote is very much in line with last week's Scottish local by-election, the parliamentary by-election in Sleaford and North Hykeham, and also a couple of Britain-wide opinion polls.  So there does seem to have been a genuine post-Richmond Park bounce for the party.  The problem is that they'll need to follow up that win at some point if they want to maintain their momentum, and respectable third or fourth place finishes aren't really going to be enough.  The afterglow of a single by-election success - no matter how spectacular - is generally pretty short-lived, and if what we're seeing now is as good as it gets for the Lib Dems, they're not really back in the game in any meaningful sense.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Heartbreak for Rennie as Carnoustie by-election fails to show much trace of a Richmond Park bandwagon effect

Immediately after the Richmond Park result became clear a few days ago, Professor John Curtice speculated about the possibility of an 'Eastboune effect' - a reference to a by-election gain out of the blue in 1990 that got the Lib Dems back into the game after a couple of years during which they had appeared to be fading into irrelevance.  Well, the first little test of whether we're about to see something similar came in yesterday's Carnoustie by-election, and although there was an increase in the Lib Dem vote, it was pretty trivial in scale.

Carnoustie & District by-election result, 5th December 2016 :

Independent - Cheape 43.5% (n/a)
SNP 32.1% (-4.2)
Conservatives 17.7% (+11.6)
Labour 4.4% (-1.8)
Liberal Democrats 2.3% (+1.4)

I think the reason why a full-blown Eastbourne effect is unlikely is that British politics is much more fractured than it was in 1990.  Not only are there more 'major' parties to choose between, but Scotland is also now much more psychologically detached from the rest of the UK.  People here will have regarded the Richmond Park result as almost irrelevant to us - if you want to back an unashamedly 'Remain' party here, you'll generally do it by voting for the SNP, and not for a party that incomprehensibly voted against European single market membership in the Scottish Parliament only the other week.

That said, there's clearly scope for a 'niche' Lib Dem comeback in parts of England with decent levels of Remain support.  I was shaking my head in disbelief on Thursday night at Diane Abbott's complacent line of argument that the Lib Dems' pro-European pitch will not play well in areas that voted to Leave.  It doesn't need to, Diane - they're not trying to win a general election.  46% of the English electorate voted Remain, and if the Lib Dems can win over just one-third of those people, they'll essentially double their vote and regain a number of their old seats.  Polls prior to Richmond Park suggested that the "Brexit Means Brexit" Tories were still comfortably outpolling the Lib Dems among Remain voters in England.  There is now a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to reverse that.

To return to Carnoustie, the SNP vote has actually held up much better than in the by-election in the same council area last week.  There seems to be a pattern in the north-east of some No voters switching from the SNP to the Tories, but it hasn't happened on a big scale on this occasion - most of the boost in the Tory support came from elsewhere.  Technically, this result is an independent gain from the SNP, but as is so often the case in STV by-elections, that's pretty meaningless - the SNP didn't actually win the popular vote in the ward last time around (they finished second behind a different independent).

As was the case last week, when the lower preferences of Labour voters were distributed, there were more transfers to the SNP (35) than to the Tories (20).  Has Kezia backed the wrong horse?

Friday, December 2, 2016

UK government boasts that "The Vow" was a gigantic con-trick

As we all remember, a key part of the panic-stricken last-minute "Vow" that helped to secure a narrow No victory in the independence referendum was the promise that the devolved Scottish Parliament would be made "permanent".  Implicit in that pledge was that the Sewel Convention (which, among other things, prevents the powers of the parliament from being altered without the consent of MSPs) would be put on a statutory footing.  Without that safeguard, "permanence" would plainly be meaningless - the parliament could be left as an empty shell, unilaterally stripped by Westminster of all or most of its powers.

It was widely noted that, technically, it was next to impossible to guarantee either the permanence of the parliament or the inviolability of the Sewel Convention, because the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament means that any constitutional law can simply be repealed later on.  Nevertheless, the UK government insisted that the Scotland Act 2016 provided as much assurance as was humanly possible to give within the UK constitutional framework.

A number of us were a tad sceptical about that, and couldn't help wondering whether the use of weird and seemingly redundant wording within the legislation such as "it is recognised that" and "the UK Parliament will not normally legislate without consent" were deliberately intended to be self-sabotaging, and to render the whole thing unenforceable.  Not at all, we were told. That was just paranoia.  Yet more SNP grudge and grievance.

Hmmm.  As it turns out, all it's taken is eight months since the Scotland Act passed into law, and the UK government are already openly admitting that we were correct in each and every respect about the cynical game they were playing.  So desperate are they now to head off the risk of the Supreme Court granting the Scottish Parliament the kind of say over the Brexit negotiations that might actually befit "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world" (ahem), they've dropped all the former pretence, and have submitted a legal argument that explicitly argues that the wording of the relevant section of the Scotland Act deprives it of all credibility.

"The legal irrelevance of the Sewel convention is expressly accepted"

"the convention does not purport to prescribe an absolute rule. Its content is only that “Westminster would not normally legislate” (emphasis added). Whether circumstances are ‘normal’ is a quintessential matter of political judgment for the Westminster Parliament and not the courts. There are no judicial standards by which to measure such a question..."

"Nothing in that analysis is affected by the amendment of s. 28 of the Scotland Act 1998 (by s. 2 of the Scotland Act 2016) to include: “(8) But it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament”. All s. 28(8) does is to recognise the terms of the political convention in legislation. That does not render the application of it in any particular instance a justiciable matter for the courts. It is trite that legislation may include provisions which do not give rise to justiciable legal issues. The content of s. 28(8) is the same as that of the convention, save that its purely political nature is further emphasised by (a) the opening wording that it is “recognised”, and (b) its placement immediately after s. 28(7) which affirms the unconstrained legislative competence of the Westminster Parliament."

In plain language, this is a boast that the supposed placing of the Sewel Convention on a statutory footing was a con-trick. Further, it's an invitation to the Supreme Court to confirm that the deception was pulled off successfully. That whole section of the Scotland Act, we're being told, was the equivalent of a pretty illustration in a textbook - ie. for decorative effect only. At best, it was like forgoing a marriage certificate in favour of a small tattoo saying "Jenny and Kevin 4eva".

The eccentric notion that the government which crafted the law, and not the courts, should get to decide how to interpret the meaning of the word "normally" reminds me a touch of the Führerprinzip in Nazi Germany (ie. the government's word is above the written law), or the right of the communist Chinese National People's Congress to interpret the Hong Kong Basic Law. The rule of law in democratic countries does generally rest on a basic separation of powers - the political legislature passes the law, and then the non-political courts interpret and enforce it. That is the only way of ensuring non-arbitrary application of the law.  Apparently, Westminster's exercise of overlordship in Scotland is exempt from that general principle.

The UK government's lawyers could have saved themselves a lot of time by submitting a legal argument that simply read : "OUR CONTEMPT FOR THE PEOPLE OF SCOTLAND IS ABSOLUTE. WE LIED, WE CHEATED, AND WE NO LONGER CARE WHO KNOWS ABOUT IT. SUCK IT UP, JOCKS."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

You've dunnit again, Gov.

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website about yesterday's YouGov poll on independence.  It also rehearses some of the many shortcomings of YouGov's polling during the indyref.  You can read the article HERE.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"Engrossing" YouGov poll finds that Scotland is behind Sturgeon's drive to remain in the EU after the UK leaves - and understands this will require independence

A new full-scale Scottish YouGov poll is out today, and the most significant finding is that there is narrow majority support (albeit within the margin of error) for Scotland seeking to remain in the European Union after the UK leaves...

Would you support or oppose Scotland seeking to negotiate with the European Union to remain part of the EU after the rest of Britain leaves?

Support 42%
Oppose 41%

The subsequent question reveals that, by a massive 62%-22% margin, people understand that independence will be required to remain in the EU after Brexit.

There's particularly vexing news for Kezia Dugdale here.  As you'd expect, SNP voters are firmly in favour of retaining Scotland's EU membership, and Tory voters overwhelmingly follow the 'Brexit Means Brexit for everyone' doctrine.  But Labour voters are essentially split down the middle on this point.  It appears that Dugdale may have miscalculated in her belief that the rump Labour support (which is all she appears to care about holding onto) shares the hardline unionist DNA of the Tory support.  Incredible though it may seem, therefore, there are clear grounds for optimism that even more Labour voters could be won over to the SNP if Dugdale maintains her inflexible stance on leaving the EU.

The poll was commissioned by a rabidly anti-independence client (The Times), who are naturally keen to draw attention to the portions of the poll they find more palatable.  In particular, they seem to be beside themselves with excitement to discover that, for the first time since 2014, a YouGov poll has found that headline support for independence is fractionally lower than it was in the indyref.  (The operative word here is 'fractionally' - the Yes vote in the referendum was 44.7%, and YouGov currently has it at 44%.)  But the reality is that the general pattern of recent times has been a Yes vote that hovers only a little higher than the 2014 result, with a figure of 47% being particularly typical.  If that's roughly where we are, you'd fully expect the odd individual poll to put Yes slightly below 45%, simply due to sampling variation (ie. margin of error).  It's theoretically possible that this poll is the first to detect a genuine dip in support, but there's absolutely no reason to jump to that conclusion - unless of course you're indulging in wishful thinking.

By the same token, The Times are ascribing significance that simply cannot be statistically justified to minor changes on the supplementary questions.  For example, opposition to a second independence referendum being held before the UK leaves the EU (ie. within a very tight two-year timescale) has increased since the poll in August from 50%-37% to 54%-35%.  But that change can be easily explained by the margin of error - if, say, the true 'oppose' figure has remained steady at around 52%, the margin of error means that the reported figure in individual polls would be expected to be anywhere between 49% and 55%.  So The Times' liberal use of words like 'slump' is, I'm afraid, a tad over-excitable.

One thing to watch out for today : YouGov have, frankly, become notorious over the years for their lack of objectivity on the topic of Scottish independence.  After their last poll in August, they posted a ludicrous article which brazenly misrepresented their own results.  They stated baldly that a majority of Scots were opposed to a second referendum, but, in fact, respondents hadn't even been asked such a broad question - they'd only been asked whether they wanted a referendum before Britain leaves the EU, which could be very soon indeed.  YouGov also stated that, if and when a referendum takes place, a majority would vote No again.  There was absolutely nothing in their results that would even begin to justify such a wild claim.  The headline question on independence had merely asked, in line with normal practice, how people would vote on independence if a referendum was held tomorrow.  Both of those facts also apply to today's poll, so just keep an eye out in case YouGov attempt the same misrepresentation on this occasion.  At time of writing, they haven't so far.

One small piece of credit I can give YouGov, however, is that they've finally put their house in order and started interviewing the correct electorate - ie. over-16s, rather than just over-18s.  So we no longer have to worry about Yes and SNP support being underestimated for that specific reason.  It's very hard to understand why it's taken such a ridiculously long time for basic good practice to be followed - but better late than never.

It shouldn't be overlooked that today's poll makes fairly grim reading for Theresa May personally.  Her net personal rating has collapsed from +13 in August to -5 now.  Margin of error 'noise' certainly can't explain such a big change.  The Prime Minister still has a long way to go before she reaches Thatcher-style depths of unpopularity, but on her current trajectory (and bearing in mind that her honeymoon period has only really just ended), it's perfectly possible she could eventually arrive at that destination.  If she does, the consequences for opponents of independence could be catastrophic.

The final question of the poll is a bit of an oddity.  Unionists have gleefully leaped on it as proof that 'only' 13% of the population have been involved in the SNP's recent consultation process (which would actually be a pretty impressive figure).  But the wording of YouGov's question leaves a lot to be desired.  The survey is cited as the "National Conversation", whereas to the best of my knowledge it's actually been generally referred to as the "National Survey".  Respondents are also asked whether they have been "approached to take part" in the survey, which on the face of it would exclude anyone who took part without being "approached".  Whether the wording of the question is just clumsy, or whether it's deliberately intended to muddy the waters, is hard to say.

A general point that needs to be made about all polling at the moment : regardless of whether it's good or bad, we simply can't be sure it's reliable.  Fergus Ewing was asked about the headline independence results today, and he pointed out that polls in recent elections and referendums had mostly been wrong.  In years gone by, a politician trying to rubbish the polls would have been regarded as a bit desperate, but as things stand it's hard to deny he's got an excellent point.  It's particularly worth taking a look at the huge leads the Remain campaign had in telephone polls for such a long time.  No-one can say with any great confidence what the true support for independence is right now - let alone what it will be in a few months' time, or in a couple of years.  That's a statement of fact.  The era during which it was rational for political leaders to make strategic decisions on the basis of a couple of percentage points here or there in opinion polls is well and truly over.  At best, the polls of today are a ball-park guide - and that park seems to be getting ever bigger.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Amazement and astonishment in Arbroath, Angus as buoyant SNP bag a by-election belter

Not entirely sure why a by-election was held on a Monday - it's deeply unnatural, like an accurate John McTernan prediction, or something like that.  Anyway, here is the result...

Arbroath East and Lunan by-election result, 28th November 2016 :

SNP 35.0% (-8.8)
Conservatives 27.0% (+12.2)
Independent - Speed 17.2% (n/a)
Independent - Smith 11.8% (n/a)
Labour 6.7% (-6.0)
Liberal Democrats 2.3% (-0.6)

At first glance, that looks like a routine SNP hold on a reduced majority - but as is so often the case with STV by-elections, it's not that simple.  The vacancy was caused by the resignation of an independent councillor - so it's technically an SNP gain from independent, even though the independent was 18% behind the SNP in the popular vote in the ward last time around.  According to the 'Mike Smithson Doctrine', which ludicrously takes no account whatever of the previous result in the ward, this is therefore a result of unalloyed wonderfulness for the SNP (which is probably why Smithson hasn't mentioned it).

Back in the real world, there has been a significant swing from SNP to Tory, which very much follows the pattern of realignment we've been seeing recently - with Yes-voting ex-Labour supporters in west-central Scotland moving en masse to the SNP, and to a lesser extent No-voting ex-SNP supporters in the north-east moving to the Tories.  In a proportional representation election, that swap will always work out quite well for the SNP, but it could potentially lose them a few seats in the next first-past-the-post Westminster contest.  In retrospect, it seems a minor miracle that the post-indyref swing to the Tories in their former heartlands was delayed long enough for the SNP to clean up quite so comprehensively in last year's general election.

As the SNP candidate was elected on the sixth count, we're able to see where the various transfers went.  It's refreshing to discover that Scottish Labour's love affair with the Tories isn't shared by a majority of their own voters in Arbroath - 31 Labour transfers went to the SNP, and only 18 to the Tories.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Scot Goes Pop mourns the passing of Fidel Castro

We interrupt your normal programming with a special message for our resident troll, who had this to say earlier -

"Not even a mention of Fidel on this fash right wing Nat si blog."

Consider Fidel mentioned by this commie left-wing anti-YoonYoon-sis blog.

Actually, the serious answer is that the record of Castro and Cuban communism is a mixed one.  There have been appalling human rights violations, and Cuba is now basically the only outright dictatorship in the American hemisphere - but there have also been extraordinary gains in health care and literacy.  Which side of the coin matters more?  They both matter.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

To state the bleedin' obvious : yes, the US presidential polls were wrong

As GA Ponsonby wittily put it a couple of hours ago -

"The social media relationship between James Kelly and Stuart Campbell has broken down. Yet another reason for Humza to resign quite frankly."

Yes, it's true - after God knows how many years of following each other on Twitter and having a very amicable relationship, Stuart Campbell of Wings Over Scotland abruptly blocked me today.  He had become increasingly angry after I challenged his claims that the opinion polls in the US presidential election were not especially inaccurate, and he eventually told me in trademark fashion to "f*** off".  I have to say I find this a very sad development - over the years, I've backed him to the hilt over the totally unfounded allegations of misogyny and other assorted forms of bigotry, and to be fair he's also stood up for me on a number of occasions.  But throughout my near-decade of writing this blog, I've always felt very strongly that it's important never to let the 'patronage' of a leading blogger deter me in any way from pointing out when I think that person has got something wrong.  I did it with Mike Small in January.  I've actually done it a few times with Stuart before (for example in a debate about the morality of the Hiroshima bombing), and he has always previously reacted in a very constructive and mature way.  For some reason I simply don't understand, today was different.

I wasn't planning to make any further comment on the exchange, but the nature of having a dispute with someone who has several times as many followers as you do is that some of those people pile in after the event, demanding that you answer certain points.  So, free of the 140-character restraint on Twitter, here is my response.

One thing I've felt about Stuart for quite some time is that he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the standard 3% margin of error in public opinion polls.  I seem to recall that after last year's polling disaster at the UK general election, he argued that the polls hadn't really failed, because they averaged out at a level-pegging race, which was more or less within the margin of error of the commanding 7% Tory lead we ended up with.  But that simply isn't how it's supposed to work.  The margin of error takes account of one type of error, and one type only - namely error caused by random sampling variation.  It assumes that everything else - demographic targets, weighting, etc - will be absolutely bang-on correct.  What that means in practical terms is that, although small errors in individual polls will always be commonplace, they should be distributed in a fairly random way.  If, for example, the polls had been correct to within the margin of error at the general election (leaving aside the complicating factor of a possible late swing), we might have seen a pattern in the final polls along the following lines...

Poll 1 : Tory lead of 5%
Poll 2 : Tory lead of 11%
Poll 3 : Tory lead of 5%
Poll 4 : Tory lead of 7%
Poll 5 : Tory lead of 6%
Poll 6 : Tory lead of 8%
Poll 7 : Tory lead of 3%
Poll 8 : Tory lead of 8%
Poll 9 : Tory lead of 6%
Poll 10 : Tory lead of 5%

In that hypothetical example, six out of ten polls underestimate the Tory lead, three overestimate it, and just one is absolutely correct.  That's the sort of thing that can easily happen by random chance.  But what you're NOT seeing there is every single poll underestimating the Tories, and almost all of them doing it by an amount that is either at the extreme end of the margin of error, or that exceeds the margin of error.  According to Wikipedia, and excluding a Survation poll that conveniently only appeared after the election result was already known, these were the actual last ten polls of the 2015 campaign -

Populus : Tied race
SurveyMonkey : Tory lead of 6%
Ashcroft : Tied race
Ipsos-Mori : Tory lead of 1%
YouGov : Tied race
ComRes : Tory lead of 1%
Survation : Tied race
ICM : Labour lead of 1%
ICM : Tied race
Panelbase : Labour lead of 2%

Not only did all of those polls underestimate the Tory lead, but the majority of them did so by slightly more than the margin of error.  That is not the sort of pattern that is remotely likely to occur by random chance - which tells us that the error wasn't primarily caused by the sampling variation allowed for by the margin of error, and that significant methodological mistakes were probably to blame.  (Again, that conclusion leaves aside the possibility of late swing, but it's probably correct to do so, given that YouGov's on-the-day poll was wildly inaccurate.) 

What Stuart would say, and what he effectively did say eighteen months ago, is that because on average the final polls 'only' underestimated the Tory lead by around six or seven points, they were basically accurate to within the margin of error (ie. with Labour overestimated by around 3% and the Tories underestimated by around 3%).  That just doesn't stack up.  The 3% margin of error only applies to each individual poll.  Random statistical noise should to a decent extent balance itself out over a large batch of polls, leaving you with a much smaller error.  In my hypothetical example above, the polling average underestimates the Tory lead by only 1% after rounding, which is much more typical of what you'd expect if the polls were essentially 'right'.

In my exchange with Stuart today, I was only really interested in disputing his points about margin of error, but he tried to sidetrack me into discussing other factors - in particular that polls are snapshots not predictions, and that the US presidential election is not decided by the national popular vote.  Technically, those are reasonable points to make, but when you put them together to try to construct a case that the polls didn't really get it wrong, you do start to get into the realms of the fantastical.  According to the final polls, Hillary Clinton had a national lead of around 4% going into election day.  It is simply not credible to claim that Trump could have won the election if that had actually been the result.  In any case, the possibility of a freak outcome in the electoral college is precisely what the state polls are there to warn us about - and they were even more inaccurate than the national polls!

As far as very late swing is concerned, yes, that can happen, but it won't generally be on an enormous scale, and it should show up in the exit polls (the only polls that are genuinely predictions, rather than shapshots of opinion).  As you can see HERE, the exit polls pointed to a clear Clinton victory in the electoral college.  In the vast majority of states polled, Trump was underestimated.  In almost half of the states, he was underestimated by a greater amount than the margin of error could - even theoretically - explain.

No matter how big the error, it's always possible to attempt to cobble together some kind of tenuous narrative that gives the polling firms a free pass.  If a 40% Labour lead vanishes into thin air on polling day, you can argue that 20% of voters may have changed their minds at the very last second.  But in the real world, there comes a point where you have to accept that the emperor has no clothes, and that the polls were just plain wrong.  They were wrong on Netanyahu, they were wrong on Cameron, they were wrong on Brexit, and they were wrong on Trump.  As I acknowledged the other week, everything is relative, and I would still pay much more heed to polls than to other so-called 'predictors' such as betting and financial markets.  But as of this moment, polls are plainly nowhere near as reliable as they are supposed to be.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The corner of Scotland that will be forever Trumpton

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website, about the terrifying lessons Scotland has learned about Donald Trump from our own ill-fated dalliance with him a few years ago.  You can read the article HERE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Winning With Willie (again)

Much of the mainstream media breathlessly and uncritically reported Willie Rennie's claim at the weekend that the Scottish Liberal Democrats were "winning again".  For those with short memories, here is how the Lib Dems actually fared at the Holyrood election in May...

* SLIPPED from fourth place to fifth, after being overtaken by the Greens for the first time.  To put that in historical perspective, in 1999, 2003 and 2007 they were within just one seat of tying the Tories for third place.

* FAILED to make any seat gains, remaining on the miserable 5-seat tally they've held since 2011.  For comparison, they won 17 seats in both 1999 and 2003, and 16 in 2007.

* SLUMPED to their lowest-ever share of the vote on the constituency ballot - just 7.8%.  For comparison, they took 14.2% in 1999, 15.3% in 2003, and 16.2% in 2007.

If all of that amounts to "winning again", the mind boggles as to what a humiliating defeat would look like.  Apparently on Planet Willie, they can tell that they're winning from the "howling" of "Cybernats".  But back in the real world, we can tell that they're losing simply by checking the results of the election.

The losing streak continued today in the Scottish Parliament as the Lib Dems grotesquely joined forces with the Tories to vote against continued Scottish membership of the single market, but mercifully were defeated by the combined forces of the SNP and Greens, with the pro-European motion being comfortably passed by 65 votes to 32.  This means that an absolute majority of Scottish parliamentarians have now explicitly backed continued single market membership, and the taking of any steps necessary to ensure that.

Labour are taking a lot of flak for abstaining on the motion, but for my money it's the Lib Dems who deserve the opprobrium on this occasion.  You can make an arguable case for abstaining on an elaborate motion that contains several different points, some of which you agree with, and some of which you don't think are ideally worded.  But for a party that was once the most passionately pro-European outfit in Scotland to actually vote against single market membership is nothing short of extraordinary.  They have abandoned all pretence of being anything other than British nationalist zealots - for them, as for the other unionist parties, it's now Brexit or Bust.

Friday, November 11, 2016

New Podcast : Trumpocalypse Now

Just a quick note to let you know that myself and Paul Kavanagh (of Wee Ginger Dug fame) are the guests on the latest edition of the Newsnet podcast, hosted as always by Derek Bateman.  Topics under discussion this week include...well, DONALD TRUMP, basically, although we do also touch on the progression of Brexit, and a possible timescale for the second independence referendum.  You can listen to the podcast HERE.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The neverending curse of McTernan produces its biggest catastrophe yet

I don't think what has just happened can be fairly compared to Brexit.  The prospect of losing European citizenship is thoroughly dismaying, but it doesn't scare me in the way that President-elect Trump does.  He properly terrifies me. 

I'm trying very hard to convince myself that it's not going to be so bad, and that life will go on after January.  I do draw some comfort from Craig Murray's assessment that Trump will be more of a peacemaker than Clinton would have been.  As you know, my own instinct is that the opposite is true, simply because Trump is such an unstable character.  In particular, I can't help thinking back to how he went from describing Alex Salmond as "an amazing man" to branding him as "Mad Alex" within a dizzyingly short period of time.  If his opinion of Putin were to change equally dramatically, the potential consequences for the world hardly bear thinking about.  But it's reassuring to know that at least some people have confidence that Trump will deliver what he promised about avoiding military adventurism, and we'll just have to hope they're proved correct.

If Trump can somehow avoid destroying the world, perhaps a little good may yet come out of all this, and some long-cherished goals of the left might be achieved almost by accident.  The inevitable loss of respect for America's leadership role, and the question marks that will now hang over NATO's future, might lead to the birth of a more multi-polar global order, which would be no bad thing.

As for John "The Gardener" McTernan, the extraordinary run of defeats he's helped to mastermind goes on - Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard, Jim Murphy, Owen Smith, and now the biggest casualty of all in Hillary Clinton.  It's little wonder that the media continue to worship at his altar, because there can't be a "political strategist" anywhere else on this planet who can boast a record quite like that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

From Brexit to Trump : can we trust the polls anymore?

I think it's probably fair to say that it's been a great many decades since US media coverage of an American election has referenced British politics so frequently.  That's a sign of how Brexit matters internationally in a way that routine changes of government don't, but it's also a sign of Trump supporters casting around for glimmers of hope wherever they can be found.  The theory is that support for Trump is vaguely similar in character to support for Brexit, and that if the latter was underestimated by the polls, there's no reason to think the former isn't being underestimated as well.

From this side of the Atlantic, there have been two reasons commonly cited for why that is probably wishful thinking.  The first is that we knew in the days prior to the EU referendum that the postal votes that had already been cast were painting a different picture from the opinion polls, and that Remain had a significant deficit to overcome on polling day itself.  On the whole, the opposite seems to be happening in the US at the moment, with the early voting data tending to look more promising for Clinton than for Trump.  The second reason is that, supposedly, the opinion polls in the EU referendum were nowhere near as inaccurate as portrayed.

The first reason makes perfect sense to me, but I have to say I think the second one is pushing it a bit.  This goes back to the meat of a rather unpleasant (and now largely deleted) argument I had with a New Statesman journalist and a few others on Twitter in August, on the topic of "can we ever trust the polls again?".  Immediately after that exchange, I had been planning to write a blogpost setting out my thoughts, but I decided against it because the whole thing had become too heated.  However, this may be a good moment to make some of the points I had been planning to make that night (but leaving aside the personalities involved, obviously).

* First of all, it really must be understood that the standard 3% margin of error in individual opinion polls does not provide any sort of alibi for the polling failure in June.  If the methodology used across the industry is basically correct, the error on the polling average should be considerably lower than 3%.  For example, if one campaign is actually on 44%, you would expect just as many polls to have that campaign one, two or three points below 44% as have them one, two or three points above 44%.  The underestimates would balance out the overestimates, and you would end up with an average that is pretty close to being bang on the money.  So it's a form of sophistry to look at the string of late polls that overestimated the Remain vote, and claim that the ones that fell within the margin of error (or came close to doing so) were all technically "accurate".

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I had been completely open to the strong possibility of a Leave victory throughout the referendum campaign, but when the last polling numbers came in on 23rd June, I finally threw my hands up in the air, and said that if the polls were right, there was clearly going to be a Remain victory of some sort.  My exact words were -

"Leave can only really win now if there's been some kind of systemic problem with the public polls - although that's scarcely unheard of."

I entirely stand by that summary, and exactly the same is true of the situation in the US right now.   Donald Trump still has a chance, but that categorically isn't because he's "within the margin of error".  He may be within the margin of error in individual polls, but if he was really tied with Clinton, and if the polls were getting it right to within the margin of error, there ought to be as many polls putting him three or four points ahead as there are putting him three or four points behind.  Self-evidently, that isn't the case.  The reason he still has a chance is because it's fairly common - as our own referendum demonstrates - for polls to be misleading due to factors that are not taken into account by the standard margin of error.  That 3% wiggle-room only allows for normal sampling variation, and basically assumes that the underlying methodology is otherwise going to be perfect - which is pretty optimistic in this day and age.

If Trump wins, or if Clinton wins much bigger than we expect her to, it'll be because the polls were wrong, just as they were on Brexit.  Not necessarily wrong by all that much, or by a historically unprecedented amount, but certainly wrong in a way that the margin of error can't account for.  (Although polling firms will doubtless attempt to make that excuse by cherry-picking individual polls.)

* It's been suggested a number of times that the EU referendum polls were much more accurate than supposed, because people tend to only look at the last batch of polls, and ignore the ones earlier in June that were more favourable for Leave.  That's plainly a load of nonsense, because the reason why the later polls moved towards Remain is remarkably simple - there was almost certainly a genuine swing towards Remain as polling day approached.

The word "accurate" is a bit slippery when used in relation to opinion polls, because strictly speaking, and with the obvious exception of exit polls, all polls are snapshots of public opinion rather than predictions of election results.  A poll can be an accurate snapshot even if it differs markedly from the final outcome.  Nevertheless, if "accurate" is used to mean closeness to the final result, it's perfectly reasonable to say that later polls should be more "accurate" than earlier ones, because the closer you get to election day, the more people have made up their minds.  Therefore, the fact that the EU polls got progressively less "accurate" towards the death of the campaign makes it worse for the polling industry, not better.  It strongly implies that there was a significant in-built error all along.  When Leave appeared to be slightly behind, they were actually slightly ahead.  When Leave appeared to be slightly ahead, they actually had a decent cushion.  And so on.

* One of the apparent saving graces for the polling industry in June was that, against all expectations, online polls proved to be somewhat more accurate than telephone polls.  Nevertheless, the performance of the online polls was significantly tarnished by a Populus poll published on referendum day that was absolutely miles out from reality - it gave Remain a 55% to 45% lead.  It was suggested to me that somehow that poll doesn't really count, because it was the only published Populus voting intention poll of the entire campaign, and is therefore difficult to put into proper context.  I must say I can't make head nor tail of that line of argument.  We know that Populus had been conducting extensive private polls throughout the campaign, meaning they'd had as much opportunity as any other firm to hone their techniques.  It may well be that a 55%-45% lead was an outlier from their normal results, but it shouldn't have happened at all if their methodology had been essentially sound.  (Even the occasional 'rogue poll' that statistically will happen one time in every twenty shouldn't really be out by as much as 7%.)

So, yes, that Populus poll does deserve to be treated as an online poll like any other, and the fact that it was one of the final polls of the campaign (when it should have been more accurate, not less) does detract from the notion that online polls in general performed tolerably well.

*  *  *

To return to the original question, I think the simplest way of putting it is this.  If you want polls to be as accurate as the industry claim them to be, then you can't and shouldn't trust them, because recent history suggests you'll often (but not always) be disappointed.  If, however, you just want a ball-park sense of public opinion that is more reliable than, say, Neil Lovatt's beloved betting and financial markets, then yes, polls are still a very useful tool, and the outcome in June bears that truth out.  It really just depends on how demanding your own expectations are.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A progressive alliance may soon be needed more than ever

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website, about how last week's High Court ruling could turn out to be an emergency for pro-Europeans and progressives if it triggers an early general election.  You can read it HERE.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Freedom to silence

I had a short Twitter exchange with the Spectator's Alex Massie earlier tonight, which was sparked by his observation that "a free press requires accepting the freedom it will write things you find distasteful or even deplorable" - a reference to the pro-Brexit media's appalling reaction to the High Court judgement. I pointed out to him that freedom of speech also requires the press accepting the freedom of others to criticise the press. He innocently denied that anyone had ever disputed that point - and so I reminded him of the furious reaction from journalists to the measured criticisms a couple of SNP politicians made of Stephen Daisley. Suddenly the goalposts shifted - somehow the criticism of Daisley wasn't legitimate after all, because that was 'beyond' criticism. It was a 'silencing'. I'm puzzled by that distinction, because although the sequence of events is hotly disputed, one fact that no-one can reasonably deny is that the Scottish Government and the SNP have no power whatever over broadcasting. Even if it's true (and it doesn't seem to be) that John Nicolson and Angus MacNeil had something to do with STV's decision to change Daisley's role, the only weapon they ever had at their disposal was the strength of their own arguments. If that alone proved sufficient, doesn't it suggest that their arguments were actually rather persuasive, and probably correct? A cynic might conclude that Massie doesn't so much have a problem with the freedom to criticise journalists, but rather with the freedom to do so convincingly and non-impotently.

The other point that occurs to me is this : if Massie thinks that the freedom to criticise journalists is not absolute, but must always fall short of his own arbitrary definition of "silencing", shouldn't exactly the same exception apply to the freedom of the press? Why should the press be allowed to intimidate judges, for example? It doesn't seem terribly outlandish to suggest that the real target of the reporting in the Daily Mail and the Sun was not so much the three High Court judges who were vilified, but rather the Supreme Court judges who will hear the appeal. The message was effectively : "you're next, unless you make a decision we approve of". Does Alex Massie think the freedom of the press extends to the right not merely to 'silence' judges, but to actually subvert the law of the land?

By the way, a little memo for the press : a direct democracy involves the electorate making decisions by referendum, and those decisions being automatically implemented by virtue of the rules laid down by the constitution. Theresa May getting to decide whether and when to invoke Article 50 is not direct democracy, any more than parliament making exactly the same decision would be. If you don't like it, campaign to change our constitution to make it more like Switzerland's. There's no point in moaning because judges refuse to ignore the law.

*  *  *

As you may already have seen, the Tories scored two local by-election gains in Aberdeenshire on Thursday.  Both were in wards where the SNP topped the popular vote last time around, although thanks to the now-familiar quirk of the STV voting system, the Inverurie result was technically a gain from the Liberal Democrats rather than the SNP.  (And I'm sure we've all noted that Mike "can't be arsed" Smithson is considerably less eager to propagandise about technicalities when it's the Lib Dems on the receiving end.)  Weirdly, the SNP vote more or less held up in Inverurie but dropped steeply in Banff - I don't know if that contrast can be wholly or partly explained by personality factors.  In both elections, though, it looks as if the Tories ultimately have unionist tactical voting to thank for their triumph (along with the traditional tendency of Tory voters to be more inclined to turn out in low-interest contests).

Inverurie and District by-election result :

Conservatives 38.8% (+21.4)
SNP 34.6% (-2.6)
Liberal Democrats 22.5% (+5.2)
Labour 4.1% (-9.1)

Banff and District by-election result :

Conservatives 44.0% (+20.9)
SNP 36.2% (-19.2)
Liberal Democrats 19.8% (+8.7)

There's actually nothing radically new in these results - they follow the same pattern as the Holyrood election in May, with heavily No-voting areas coalescing around the unionist party best-placed to beat the SNP.  To the extent that some ex-SNP voters are switching direct to the Tories, those are highly likely to be people who voted No in 2014 and who have little prospect of changing their minds at the next indyref.  What we're seeing, then, is simply a mirror-image of the phenomenon of Yes voters in working-class Scotland bringing their party allegiance into line with their constitutional preference.  That's not a cause for concern for the Yes campaign in a referendum (we're chasing floating voters, not the unpersuadables), but it might well pose a problem for the SNP in the snap general election that now seems to be a distinct possibility.

For the first time in my life, I must say that I can't muster much enthuasiasm for the prospect of an early election, because I struggle to see how it can possibly leave us in a better position than we're already in.  The likelihood is that the SNP would remain dominant, but would shed a few seats - to the Tories, and possibly to the Lib Dems as well.  The crude projections suggesting Labour could be wiped out are almost certainly wide of the mark - unionist tactical voting would once again save Ian Murray's bacon.  And the seemingly inevitable Conservative landslide at UK-wide level would rob the SNP of the balance of power they currently hold on a small number of key issues where the Tories are divided.

Would there be any advantages?  Well, it would be an opportunity for Nicola Sturgeon to further amplify the mandate she already has to hold a second referendum if she deems it to be in Scotland's interests.  And it's possible that a 1983-style crushing UK-wide defeat for Labour might lead to 'constructive despair' among the progressive unionist vote in Scotland, thus boosting support for independence.

So, yes, there are pros and cons, but on the whole I hope Theresa May continues to bottle it.

*  *  *

"But what will [the Tories] do about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?" asks Mr Smithson in big bold letters.  Hmmm.  Would "repeal it" be too obvious an answer?  The other options would be to obtain a two-thirds majority for an election by daring Labour to vote in favour, or to deliberately lose a vote of no confidence in the government.  One way or another, though, there isn't really much of an obstacle to an election if May decides to go for it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Why I held my nose and voted for Hillary Clinton

I've voted in every US presidential election since 2004.  I could have voted in the Bush v Gore election in 2000 as well, but irritatingly I didn't even realise I was eligible to vote until several years later.  I don't need to beat myself up too much over that, though, because I wouldn't have been voting in Florida, or in any other swing state for that matter.  And the latter point is what it all boils down to, really - I've voted for fringe left-wing candidates in all of the last three elections (including a revolutionary communist in 2012, who strangely enough I backed with the encouragement of Lib Dem blogger Caron Lindsay!), because there just didn't seem to be any point in doing anything else.  If my vote has no chance whatever of swinging the balance, why would I give my endorsement to centre-right Democratic candidates who take an abhorrent stance on the death penalty?

There is something intensely irritating, though, about seeing your vote for the most powerful office in the world treated as an abstention or a non-vote.  If you look back at footage of results programmes from previous presidential elections, you'll find that with very few exceptions, the vote tallies for third parties are not even mentioned or shown on screen.  Of course, that's a very good argument in favour of continuing to vote for fringe candidates - ie. to embarrass the media into changing their ways and helping to open up the system.  But throughout this year, there's been a nagging voice at the back of my head saying "wouldn't it be nice, in this election of all elections, to be able to vote for a credible non-Trump candidate, and to do so in all good conscience?"

And for long spells, it looked like that might just turn out to be possible.  Although Bernie Sanders was always the underdog in the Democratic primaries, there were times when it seemed he had a genuine chance of pulling it off.  And there were certainly times when it was hard to see how Clinton could ignore the Sanders movement in her choice for Vice-President nominee - surely, even if she couldn't bring herself to pick Sanders himself, she'd have to reach out to his voters with someone like Elizabeth Warren?  But no, it wasn't to be.  The choice of right-wing, pro-death penalty Tim Kaine seemed like an absolute kick in the teeth, and a classic example of an arrogant politician saying to her own base : "I can do whatever I like and you'll have to support me, because you have nowhere else to go".  Well, there's always somewhere else to go, and I started resigning myself to 'opting out' for a fourth time in a row, and voting for the Green candidate Jill Stein.

However, the attraction of voting for the only candidate who can actually defeat Donald "Make Our Doons Great Again" Trump just wouldn't quite let me go.  When I filled in my ballot paper a few days ago, I voted in every single down-ticket race before I could even bring myself to properly look at the presidential box - that's how ill the dilemma was making me feel.  In the end, I averted my eyes from the words "Jill Stein" and "Green", and got the dirty deed over with as quickly as possible.  This is how I justified it to myself -

1) This election, far more than most, doubles up as a proxy vote to decide control of the Supreme Court - possibly for the next two decades.  In the wacky world of US politics, the Supreme Court has effectively become a quasi-legislature with well-defined conservative and liberal caucuses.  From that point of view, voting for anyone other than Clinton or Trump genuinely is an abstention - because one or the other will be nominating the new justices.  In the dream scenario, if Clinton wins and the Democrats make significant gains in the Senate, there would be no impediment to the shaping of a liberal-dominated court that could transform America over the coming years.  It would be a decisive victory in the interminable culture wars.  (The alternative, of course, is to risk a decisive defeat under Trump.)

2) By American standards, Clinton is reasonably strong on gun control, which was the one issue on which she ran clearly to the left of Bernie Sanders.  That's not nothing.  I haven't bothered checking whether our old friends in the Kevin Baker Fan Club are generally backing Donald Trump or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, but I think we can safely assume that a Clinton presidency is just about their worst nightmare.

3) During the primaries, Clinton was dramatically challenged by a man who had spent years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, and asked how she could possibly maintain her support for capital punishment after hearing his story.  I was quite surprised by how far she went in her response - she said she would be happy enough if the Supreme Court eliminated the death penalty in the states, leaving only a federal death penalty for the worst terrorism offences.  It goes without saying that it is disturbing and appalling that in the year 2016, a supposedly "liberal" candidate in a "liberal democracy" is still in favour of the state putting its own citizens to death.  But the depressing reality is that Clinton's words represented progress in an American context.  She may well not really have meant them, but if a Democratic congress were to pass legislation imposing new restrictions on the federal death penalty, she'll find it very hard to justify using her veto after what she's said.

4) I suggested in the spring that there was perhaps a 3% chance of a Donald Trump presidency resulting in the destruction of human civilisation.  A couple of anonymous commenters mocked me for saying that (one of them used it as an example of why I don't understand 'real' politics and should stick to polling analysis!), but I absolutely stand by it.  If you look at the sequence of events that triggered the First World War - an accidental and unnecessary war that nobody really wanted - it's clear that bombast, buffoonery and narcissism played a big part.  The mere possibility of an unstable character like Trump having his finger on the nuclear button is a crisis for the whole of humanity, and averting the danger overrides all other priorities.  What complicates that point, of course, is that Clinton herself is being deeply irresponsible in her hawkish noises-off about Russia, meaning that the risk of nuclear war under her presidency would not be zero.  But I'm confident that the risk would be dramatically lower with her than with Trump.

5) If there's a Brexit-style, small-to-moderate systemic error in the polls, it's still perfectly possible Trump could win the national popular vote.  That obviously matters less than the outcome of the electoral college (which only voters in swing states can meaningfully affect), but if, say, Clinton were to win the presidency and Trump were to win the popular vote, it would be much easier for Trump to cast himself as the 'rightful king across the water', and keep his 'movement' alive to fight another day.  It's probably a good idea to try to prevent that happening.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Support for independence stands at 47% in new Poll of Polls

An otherwise surprisingly fair piece in the Economist about the prospects for Scottish independence is slightly tarnished at the start with a statement about the current polling situation which is flatly untrue - in fact, it's basically the polar opposite of the truth.  We're told that "opinion polls now put support for a 'Scoxit' from the United Kingdom at or below the 45% achieved when the question was formally put in 2014".  Rubbish.  Every single opinion poll that has asked about independence since the EU referendum has put the Yes vote above 45%.  The lowest figure has been 46% (albeit admittedly the most common figure is only a little higher, at 47%).  Even if you include the dodgy BMG poll, which was misrepresented in much of the media as an "independence poll" when it clearly wasn't, the lowest figure would be 45%.  It is literally impossible to find a poll that can even be misrepresented as showing that Yes support has fallen since September 2014.  Even at a stretch, then, the most that the Economist are entitled to say is that "opinion polls now put support for 'Scoxit' from the UK at or above the 45% achieved in 2014".

So how did the word "below" get into the article in the first place? The most likely - and disturbing - answer is that the author didn't even bother to check the numbers, and just assumed that the narrative being pushed by the right-wing London press must have some vague basis in reality.  Always a schoolboy error, that.  Perhaps the time has come to challenge the misinformation with an update of this blog's Poll of Polls.


Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 47.0% (-3.8)
No 53.0% (+3.8)

The reason for the drop in the Yes vote is that the last update was way back in late July, and all but one of the four polls taken into account at that point had been conducted in the days immediately after the EU referendum, when there appeared to be a sharp pro-Yes swing which later receded.  But as you can see, Yes support remains 2.3% higher than its September 2014 level.   Given that most firms now weight by recalled indyref vote, we can be pretty confident that's a genuine increase in support.

The methodology for the Poll of Polls remains exactly the same as before - only the most recent poll from each firm is included, and if a firm hasn't reported for more than three months, they are left out altogether.  Therefore, the five polls taken into account on this occasion are YouGov from late August (Yes 46%, No 54%), TNS from August/early September (Yes 47%, No 53%), Survation from early September (Yes 47%, No 53%), Ipsos-Mori from early September (Yes 48%, No 52%) and Panelbase from mid-September (Yes 47%, No 53%).

Needless to say, the dodgy poll from BMG has been excluded, because contrary to the bogus claims that were made about it (including disgracefully by the firm themselves), it simply didn't ask a question about independence.  It instead asked whether Scotland should "remain a member (sic) of the United Kingdom" or "leave the United Kingdom".  For the avoidance of doubt, "leaving the United Kingdom" can in no sense be regarded as a proxy form of words for "independence".  There are several potential outcomes to leaving the UK, of which independence is only one.  Here are some others -

1) Becoming a self-governing dependency of the UK.  (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are all in this position - they are all outside the UK, and indeed outside the EU.)

2) Entering into a free association agreement with the UK.   (This is a form of 'sovereign non-independence'.  The best-known example is perhaps the Cook Islands' relationship with New Zealand.   When the Cook Islands were formally decolonised, they freely agreed to allow New Zealand to continue to make decisions for them on foreign affairs and defence.)

3) Becoming part of another existing sovereign state.  (An example of this is the decision of northern Schleswig, by referendum in 1920, to leave Germany and become part of Denmark.)

Without specifying what Scotland would be leaving the UK to do, the BMG question was utterly meaningless.  I hope we're not going to see any more of that kind of nonsense - and if by any chance we do, I certainly hope that reputable sites like What Scotland Thinks will stop joining in with the pretence that we are somehow dealing with genuine polls on independence.

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NOTE : I've had to make a small adjustment to the numbers originally mentioned in this post.  Ironically that's because, for quick reference, I had used the What Scotland Thinks list of polls, which I've since realised contains a little error.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Throw Scotland out! Take your blasted oil away! And give us our nukes back so we can stick them on the Thames - where they belong!

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article on the TalkRadio website, about the epic pleasures of the #ThrowScotlandOut hashtag, and the petition that inspired it.  You can read the article HERE.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A question for Theresa May

"The UK must speak with one voice on Brexit."

"In all of its public statements, the Scottish Government must loyally support the single UK negotiating position.  If they do not, they will be undermining us."

"The Scottish Government does not have a veto on the UK negotiating position. We will tell them what it is, and then they must support it to the hilt."

Isn't that called colonialism, Theresa? It sure as hell isn't called the respect agenda.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Siobhan McFadyen and "hitting the nail on the head" : how do you actually argue with stupidity like this?

As shockingly documented by Wings Over Scotland today, Siobhan McFadyen of the Express is one of the most cynical, disreputable and dishonourable "journalists" currently working for the British press - and that's quite an accolade. But give her her due, she's occasionally good for unintentional light relief as well. What you're about to see is so breathtakingly spectacular that I had to double-check it a few times just to make sure it wasn't the work of a brilliant parody account.

* * *

UPDATE : Ms McFadyen has now blocked me on Twitter, but not before sending yet another mind-boggling tweet -

Answers on a postcard, folks. I did a Google search for "Nicola Sturgeon says kill with hammers", but it drew a blank.

Friday, October 21, 2016

No, the Westminster government cannot prevent Holyrood from voting on whether there should be an independence referendum

In case you're wondering, the story that appeared on the Courier website last night about the draft indyref bill is a monumental red herring.  Basically the claim was that the Scottish Government wouldn't even be able to table the bill at Holyrood without London's "permission", because the Presiding Officer might not certify it as being within the parliament's powers.  But it doesn't actually matter whether that's true or not, because the introduction to the draft bill states this -

"If the Scottish Government decided to formally introduce this Bill to Parliament, it would be expected that a section 30 order would be sought and agreed, as in 2014."

The most reasonable interpretation of those words is that a section 30 order would be sought and agreed before the bill is formally introduced.  No parliamentary vote is required for the Scottish Government to simply pick up the phone to London, but as there have been speculative (and utterly hopeless) mutterings about a "lack of mandate", the likelihood is that a symbolic vote would be held to put beyond any dispute that a referendum is the will of the directly-elected Scottish Parliament.  In contrast to the rules on legislation, it is possible for Holyrood to debate and vote on motions relating to absolutely any subject, even one that has nothing whatever to do with the parliament's current powers.  Previous examples include the Iraq War, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the principle of independence.

It's also not the case, as our resident troll Aldo tried to claim yesterday, that the draft bill "reveals" that Westminster's permission is "required" for any independence referendum to take place.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  The bill notes that the purpose of the section 30 order last time around was simply to "put it beyond doubt" that the parliament had the right to legislate. The clear implication is that even if the London government were stupid enough to try to stand in the way, it might well still be possible to hold a consultative referendum without a section 30 order - albeit the question would probably have to be very carefully framed. The legal expert Professor Robert Black has stated that this would be a viable option.

If all else fails, of course, there's still the nuclear option that we've discussed a few times on this blog - the Scottish Government could resign and trigger an early Scottish Parliament election. That election would have one of two functions - either a) to gain a "double mandate" for a referendum just to ram it down Theresa May's throat that the mandate exists whether she likes it or not, or b) to gain an outright mandate for independence itself. The latter would be achieved by the SNP (and probably also the Greens) putting the necessary wording in their manifesto.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Are we closer to discovering the boundary between "small" and "decisive" in BBC arithmetic?

As we all recall, the BBC seemed to have a strategy in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum for preventing a narrative from taking hold that the vote had in any sense been a close run thing that could have gone either way.  Basically the strategy consisted of using the word "decisive" as much as humanly possible.  Almost every BBC report slipped in the word, often rather gratuitously.  We had not merely "rejected independence", we had done so "decisively".  The result of the referendum was, of course, No 55.3%, Yes 44.7%.

In view of which, I was somewhat bemused to read an article on the BBC website today explaining how a second indyref might come about, and in particular the role of the Scottish Parliament, where we're told "the SNP and Scottish Greens form a small pro-independence majority".

"Small"?  Hmmm.  Excluding the Presiding Officer, who is politically neutral and only votes when there is a tie (and even then is expected to do so in line with convention rather than his own views), there are 128 seats in the Scottish Parliament.  69 of them are held by pro-independence parties and 59 by anti-independence parties.  In percentage terms, that works out as 53.9% for pro-independence parties, and 46.1% for anti-independence parties.

Now, admittedly, 53.9% is a smaller number than 55.3%, so this use of language doesn't directly contradict the notion that the No vote in 2014 was "decisive".  Nevertheless, if there is any grey area at all between "small" and "decisive" in BBC arithmetic, it appears to be very narrow - the boundary between the two terms seems to fall somewhere between 54.0% and 55.2%.

Useful to know for future reference.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

With just a single touch, JK Rowling can cure any journalist of his misogyny

You've probably heard by now about Nick Cohen's batty piece which depicts STV's Fox News-style columnist Stephen Daisley as a modern-day Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who has been "silenced" by the totalitarian SNP "state".  Actually, Cohen tries terribly, terribly hard to avoid tripping off the familiar "one-party state" klaxon, probably because he's finally noticed how easy it is for people to respond with the simple but rather important observation that Scotland has lots of parties and isn't a state.  Instead, he carefully brands our country a "one-party democracy" at the start of the article - but he just can't help himself.  By the end, he's back to raging about the NUJ in Scotland taking the side of the "state" rather than Daisley - apparently oblivious to the fact that he's accusing them of taking the side of the Tories rather than the SNP.  Yes, Nick, the state in Scotland is known as "the United Kingdom", and it's run by someone called Theresa May.  None of us have ever had a chance to vote for or against her, but paradoxically yer man Daisley is a big, big fan of hers.  He told us so in those fearsome, state-challenging STV articles of his.

I'm sure, by the way, that it's a total coincidence that the journalist we're invited to regard as a martyr just happens to share Cohen's own establishment worldview about absolutely everything - pro-Blairism, anti-Corbyn, pathologising every criticism of the Israeli government, etc, etc.  It's also inspiring to see Cohen defend journalism from outside interference by denouncing STV's editors (who alone were responsible for the decision to change Daisley's role) as "unworthy of their senior position" - a pretty unambiguous call for them to be sacked.  Self-awareness really isn't Nick's thing, is it?

There's just one other main point I want to make about the article, and it becomes fairly self-evident when you consider the following four indisputable facts -

1) The Twitter troll account "Brian Spanner" (championed by Daisley and strongly suspected by many to be the alter ego of one or more well-known unionist journalists) has been guilty of some of the most appalling misogynistic abuse directed against female politicians that you're ever likely to see.  Arguably the worst example of all was when he said this of Labour's Margaret Curran : "Is she the victim of FGM? She is a torn faced C***".

2) The notoriously litigious Labour-supporting billionaire JK Rowling befriended "Spanner" and spoke of him in glowing terms.

3) Even when Spanner's track-record was pointed out to Rowling, she failed to disassociate herself from him.  Instead, she doubled down by mocking his detractors and threatening one of them with her team of lawyers (much to the delight of Stephen Daisley).

4) This sequence of events reflects extremely badly on Rowling.

But not on Planet Cohen - oh no.  Instead, Nick explains that Spanner cannot possibly be misogynistic or abusive in spite of the overwhelming evidence of our own eyes, simply because Rowling likes him, and she would never take a liking to anyone who is misogynistic or abusive.  If Cohen's piece had been a scientific paper, someone would currently be taking him aside and gently reminding him of the concept of 'falsifiability'.  It seems that it is literally impossible for JK Rowling to keep bad company, because her friendship is in itself sufficient to redeem anyone of their wrongdoing.

For example, if JK Rowling were to write a positive review of Mein Kampf on Amazon, would Nick Cohen say that was -

a) Unwise


b) Away and don't be so daft.  Of course Adolf wasn't a genocidal dictator.  JK Rowling likes his book, for pity's sake.

Yup, you're getting the idea.

Monday, October 17, 2016

So what was it about Brexit that finally won Kezia Dugdale over?

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the TalkRadio website, about Scottish Labour's curious journey from being officially undecided on whether to support a second independence referendum on 24th June, to being dead set against it now that all the reassuring facts about Brexit have come to light.  You can read the article HERE.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A suggestion for Labour on Trident

Owen Smith's failed pitch to the Labour selectorate was basically "Corbynism with bonus weapons of mass destruction", so the people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn may now want to ask for a refund, because it looks like Corbynism plus Trident is exactly what they're going to get anyway.  A few months ago, I defended Corbyn when he was met with affected bewilderment over his statement (which was really an affirmation of the bleedin' obvious) that he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons as Prime Minister.  "This buffoon doesn't understand that a nuclear deterrent is already defunct without the credible threat of its use!" was the cry.  The reality, of course, is that -

a) undermining the nuclear "deterrent" is kind of the object of the exercise for any lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons,


b) Trident is not, unfortunately, rendered useless simply by one Prime Minister at one particular moment at time saying that he would not fire the missiles.  Unless he actually disarms, the weapons are still there in working order for his successor to use after he departs the stage.

So Corbyn's position was perfectly logical and consistent, but I suspect it's going to be much harder to justify now that Labour's collective stance is apparently that "we must get behind" a weapons system that their leader considers to be abhorrent and unusable.  In view of which, let me make a modest suggestion.

We all know that the 'deterrent' theory is utter garbage anyway - does anyone seriously think that Switzerland is more at risk than we are of nuclear annihilation over the next twenty years because it doesn't have a 'deterrent' and we do?  If anything, the reverse is true.  But just for the sake of argument, let's look at the issue from the perspective of someone who truly believes that we are somehow being kept safe by a deterrent effect.  That person would surely have to acknowledge that, like it or not, the deterrent would indeed temporarily cease to exist for the duration of a hypothetical Corbyn premiership.  Corbyn would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons.  He would ensure that his named 'second person' is someone who would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons.  His handwritten 'letters of last resort', to be opened by Trident submarine commanders in the event of the government being wiped out, will order that nuclear weapons should never be used.  What's more, any theoretical enemy of the UK will know all of these facts to be true.  That ensures there will be no deterrent whatsoever from the moment Corbyn takes office until the moment he resigns, and yet Labour are currently proposing to waste huge amounts of money by having the non-deterrent redundantly at sea during the whole of that period, for every hour of every day of every week.

So why not simply pledge to take Trident out of operation (apart maybe from the odd training exercise) for the duration of Corbyn's tenure as PM, and save the fabled "hardworking families" of this country a lot of cash?  What exactly would we be losing?  Perhaps Owen Smith can explain.

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Fanciful notion though it may seem, I genuinely went to a "separatist dinner" earlier tonight in Glasgow.  I think the common factor linking the people who were invited is that they are all active on Twitter, so I was kind of an odd one out, because I'm not really a heavy Twitter user (leaving aside the odd epic slanging-match with Duncan Hothersall and Neil "Alligators" Lovatt, naturally).  But I did know a few of the people there.  Not a huge amount to report from the evening, although my jaw dropped a tad when I learned that a prolific nationalist Twitter user who I had always assumed (with a certain amount of justification) to be a man is actually a female of the species.  And for the first half of dinner I was sitting next to Katie McGarvey, who brandished a flick-knife and then flung a large quantity of alcohol onto my trousers.  I'm sure you get the picture.  (Actually, the weapon came with dinner, and she apologised profusely for accidentally knocking over her drink.)