Friday, March 3, 2017

Sturgeon takes the gloves off : No Tory Mandate Means No Tory Mandate

Just a quick note to let you know that I have a new article at the International Business Times, about the extraordinary unwillingness of Theresa May to meet Nicola Sturgeon even a quarter of the way, let alone halfway, and the increasing signs that Sturgeon intends to play hardball from here on in.  You can read the article HERE.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A point worth repeating, because it's a fact : *AGRICULTURE IS ALREADY DEVOLVED*

In an article for the Herald, Iain Macwhirter wonders aloud whether Nicola Sturgeon's new warnings about the Tories removing powers from the Scottish Parliament may be a sign that the SNP have 'blinked' on the holding of an early independence referendum.  I must say my own reading is that the opposite is true - it seemed to me that Ms Sturgeon was simply adding one more casus belli for an indyref to a long and familiar list, and thereby making the case even more watertight.  However, I don't base that assessment on any special knowledge of the SNP leadership's private thinking, so we'll just have to wait and see.

On one point Iain is undoubtedly wrong, though.  He claims to be setting people straight on their "misunderstanding" that powers over agriculture and fisheries will be automatically transferred to Holyrood after Brexit.  He reckons that, instead, the nature of devolution is that Holyrood will in future be constrained on these policy areas by UK law in much the same way that it is currently constrained by EU law.  But the reality is that it's Iain who fundamentally misunderstands how the current devolved settlement works.  As things stand, Holyrood can only be constrained on devolved matters by EU law.  Practically the definition of a devolved power is that it's something UK law cannot constrain - because Holyrood can simply repeal any law of the UK parliament that gets in the way.

Now it's quite likely that Iain is correct in the sense that this will all soon change and that London is determined to re-establish overlordship on agriculture and fisheries - but the point he's missing is for that to happen, the devolved settlement as we know it will essentially have to die.  A coach and horses will have to be driven through the Sewel Convention, and powers over agriculture and fisheries will have to be transferred from Edinburgh to London without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.  That's not a small matter, so the SNP's anger about it should not be misinterpreted as being synthetic or tactical.  Even if we weren't leaving the European Union, I'd suggest the end of the Sewel Convention would in itself be sufficient grounds for holding a second independence referendum.

The extent of Iain's misunderstanding is betrayed when he charges John Swinney with having struggled to come up with examples of powers that are going to be taken away from Holyrood, bearing in mind that the UK government have already said that no power currently held by Holyrood will be removed.  But that misses the point that the UK government are (deliberately) talking at cross-purposes with the SNP.  When London talk about 'current powers', they're only talking about powers that are in practice currently held in Scotland, and are excluding other powers that are automatically held as of legal right by Scotland unless EU law is there to constrain them.  Quite understandably, the SNP do not make that distinction.  Agriculture is a devolved matter, not a reserved matter.  Unless the Sewel Convention is breached and the devolved settlement ripped up, powers over Scottish agriculture cannot be 'repatriated' from Brussels to London - only from Brussels to Edinburgh.  Those powers may not be exercised by us at present, but they already belong to us.

Here's an analogy.  You're paying rent to two absentee landlords - one in London, one in Brussels.  You're forced to give up the flat owned by the Brussels landlord - but then the London landlord announces that he'll be immediately increasing the rent on his own flat by exactly the amount you were previously paying to Brussels.  "You won't really notice the difference, will you?" he says.  "You'll be no worse off than you were.  In fact, you'll be slightly better off, because after I've hiked the rent, I'll consider giving you a 50p discount.  Possibly.  If I'm in a good mood."

That's not a natural progression - it's a cynical, opportunistic rip-off.

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For an example of why pro-independence voters should use their lower preferences in the local council elections, look to Northern Ireland

You may not have noticed it at all, or only be very dimly aware of it, but today is the day of the Northern Ireland Assembly election.  It's taking place in weird circumstances, because it's perfectly possible that no government will be formed as a result of it - the province could well be hurtling towards a prolonged period of direct Tory rule from London.  However, I would still advise anyone with some spare time tomorrow to take a peek at the results programme on BBC Northern Ireland, because it'll provide a timely insight into how the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system works.  That's the same voting system we'll be using for the Scottish local elections in May, but is radically different from the Additional Member System (AMS) used for the Scottish Parliament election last year.  From a voter's point of view, the most important difference is that STV is a preferential voting system, meaning that any lower preferences you give to parties other than your first choice cannot possibly harm your first choice party in any way.  By contrast, although each voter has two votes in the Scottish Parliament system, if you cast either of those votes for a party other than your first choice, you are directly voting against your first-choice party - a point that is vividly illustrated in yesterday's report by John Curtice, which concludes that attempts at "tactical" vote-splitting by SNP supporters may have backfired and cost Nicola Sturgeon her overall majority.

Polls suggest that, as the Northern Ireland results come in tomorrow, it's possible (not likely, but possible) that Sinn Féin will finish slightly ahead of the DUP on first preference votes, which would probably also mean being ahead in terms of seats in the early stages.  If that happens, watch out for how STV then weaves its magic (or 'dis-magic') as lower preference votes start to be taken into account for the allocation of later seats, and the DUP almost inevitably overtakes Sinn Féin in the final seat tally.  The reason a DUP victory is so likely is simply that the unionist population is bigger than the nationalist population, and there is a bigger pool of lower preference votes out there for the DUP to pick up.

But suppose Northern Ireland hadn't been using the STV system for decades, and the unionist population didn't understand the vital importance of using lower preferences for other unionist parties.  Suppose the vast majority of unionists just voted for their first-choice party, while a large proportion of nationalist voters made sure they used their lower preference votes for their second-choice nationalist party.  In those circumstances, the unionist population would be putting itself at a massive disadvantage, and there would be every chance of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest single party, with the automatic right to the office of First Minister.  Indeed, there would be a decent chance of that happening even if Sinn Féin hadn't won the popular vote on first preferences.

Hopefully this demonstrates the importance of SNP supporters in Scotland using their lower preferences for other pro-independence parties when we vote under the same STV system for the local elections in May.  Admittedly, the risks of not doing so may not be quite so high as in Northern Ireland, because in many wards the SNP will probably be the only pro-independence party standing, and in other wards the likes of the Greens may have no realistic chance of taking a seat.  But if you look through the 2012 results, you'll find a decent smattering of wards where the Greens either took a seat, or were in serious contention.  In that sort of ward, SNP supporters refusing to give lower preferences to other parties may literally end up handing a seat to Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems - and that'll happen completely pointlessly, because there is literally no risk to using lower preference votes.  It cannot possibly harm your first-choice party in any way.  It's completely different from vote-splitting under the Scottish Parliament system.

I agree with those who say that it's infuriating that we currently have four different voting systems in Scotland, and that voters cannot be expected to easily grasp that the 'tactical' options available (and the risks attached to them) are so radically different in each case.   But all we can do is educate ourselves and others as much as possible.  Here's a cut-out-and-keep guide...

"Tactical" vote-splitting under the Scottish Parliament voting system : Highly risky, may well backfire.

Using lower preferences for other parties under the local council voting system : Risk-free, can only do good.  You're only taking a risk if you DON'T do it.

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If you've enjoyed my writing in recent months and feel a strange inexplicable urge to 'buy me a hot chocolate', bear in mind that my fundraiser from two years ago is still open for additional donations - it can be found HERE.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

ERS Scotland fib about the contents of their own report - what are they playing at?

Well, this is a novelty for me - I've had to pre-schedule this post to appear at one minute past midnight, because I received an email containing information that was embargoed until exactly that time.  You may remember that way back in January, there was a highly misleading article in the Sunday Herald about a report penned by John Curtice that was supposedly going to appear within the week.  It had been commissioned by the Scottish branch of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), so I kept checking their website, but nothing ever appeared.  It's finally been published after a mysteriously long delay, and I'm absolutely astonished to say that the accompanying ERS Scotland press release contains a direct fib about its contents.  The organisation's summary of Curtice's findings baldly states that "it was not votes on the regional list for other pro-independence parties which cost the SNP a majority".  Hilariously, that is directly contradicted only a few paragraphs later in Curtice's own summary, which states that "this [SNP/Green vote-splitting] may have cost the SNP one or two list seats".  You probably won't need a calculator to work out that two extra list seats for the SNP would have taken them to a total of 65 - exactly the number required to secure a majority.  As Curtice was the guy who actually wrote the report, I think we can safely regard his own summary as being the more authoritative of the two.

ERS Scotland's excuse for this brazen misrepresentation appears to be Curtice's verdict that "the main reason the SNP lost out" was constituency losses - but all he means is that there were fewer SNP list seats squandered as a result of vote-splitting than there were unexpected constituency defeats.  That's not the same thing as denying that there might well have been an SNP majority if "tactical voting on the list" had not occurred, and he doesn't deny that - indeed he concedes the point openly on page 44.

"In Table 4.8 we report on how the distribution of list seats would have been different in each region if the SNP had won 2.2% more of the list vote and the Greens 2.2% less. As anticipated the Greens would have won four fewer seats, leaving them on the two seats that they won in 2011. Two of those lost seats would have been claimed by the SNP, but the other two would have been allocated instead to Labour or the Conservatives. Two extra seats would have been just enough to deliver the SNP a majority with 65 seats."

Good luck to anyone who attempts to reconcile that passage with ERS Scotland's characterisation of the report (I'm sure someone, somewhere will valiantly give it a go).

As you know, I'm sick to the back teeth of having to rebut propaganda about "tactical voting on the list" - it really should be the last thing on our minds with an independence referendum potentially coming up long before the next Holyrood election.  However, for anyone who wants to read in more detail about the yawning chasm between ERS Scotland's claims and the truth, I would invite you to have another look at the blogpost I wrote at the time of the Sunday Herald article - depressingly, the distortions haven't changed at all since then.

So what are ERS Scotland playing at?  In many ways, they're actually pretty open about their agenda - they disapprove of majority government, regardless of the party in power.  That's absolutely fine, but it doesn't justify them pulling the wool over the public's eyes about how the electoral system works in an attempt to artificially engineer their own desired outcome.  Their actions have been nothing short of cynical.

My own support for proportional representation pre-dates my support for independence by several years, so I'm instinctively very sympathetic towards the Electoral Reform Society, but it's impossible to deny that my respect for them has now been severely undermined.  Self-evidently, their reputation as a non-partisan organisation has also been somewhat tarnished.  OK, they've only taken an interest in reducing the number of SNP seats because the SNP happen to be the dominant party at a particular moment in time - but it's hard not to take this sort of stunt personally when you're the ones on the receiving end.

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I mulled over the possibility of writing a full response to the Claire Heuchan "racism" article, but on reflection I decided life is too short.  As you can imagine, though, I have a lot of fellow feeling towards those who are bewildered to learn that the simple fact of being "white Scots" apparently disqualifies them from expressing any view at all on Sadiq Khan's outrageous assertion that support for Scottish independence is no different from racism.  Much the same thing happened to me and a number of others a couple of months ago when we were literally told to "shut up" after daring - as men - to express our own views about the John Mason controversy.  It's intriguing how quite a few people found/find themselves on different sides of the two disputes, in spite of the fact that the principle at stake is identical.  The following two tweets pretty much sum up everything I want to say.

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If you've enjoyed my writing in recent months and feel a strange inexplicable urge to 'buy me a hot chocolate', bear in mind that my fundraiser from two years ago is still open for additional donations - it can be found HERE.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Respecting democracy", Yookay-style

At the weekend, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn grotesquely urged the SNP to "respect democracy" by doing absolutely nothing while a hard-right Tory government drags Scotland out of the EU, the single market and the customs union against its will.  To state the bleedin' obvious, the reason the SNP do not have to "respect" a 52%-48% UK-wide vote is because Scotland is a country in its own right, and has voted twice over the last three years to remain within the EU.  The No vote in the 2014 independence referendum was explicitly won on the basis that it would keep Scotland inside the EU, and the pro-European mandate was emphatically confirmed in the EU referendum itself by a 62% to 38% margin.  After that sequence of events, the idea that Scotland being forced to leave the EU is all about "respecting democracy" would be enough to make an East German communist blush.

All the same, though, there were English MPs (including many from Corbyn's own party) who also voted against triggering Article 50.  Those people are equally entitled to raise an eyebrow or two at the "respecting democracy" schtick, given a very clear past precedent of how democracy actually works in the UK.

Here is the UK-wide result of the EU referendum last year -

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Leave 52%
Remain 48%

And here is the result of the referendum on setting up a devolved Scottish Assembly in 1979 -

Do you want the Provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?

Yes 52%
No 48%

The margins of victory for Leave and for Yes were identical, and yet the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 were not put into effect.  One of the very first things the Thatcher government did upon taking office a mere few weeks after the majority Yes vote was to defy the results of the referendum and repeal the Scotland Act.

The so-called "40% rule" that applied in the 1979 referendum was of course a deliberate and shameless attempt at rigging the outcome.  On the respectable turnout that was actually achieved, a near 2-1 majority in favour of Yes would have been required to clear the artificial hurdle.  Nevertheless, the 40% rule is also much-misunderstood.  Contrary to popular belief, it did not mean that devolution automatically failed if 40% of the entire registered electorate didn't vote Yes.  It simply required that if the target figure was not met, an order to repeal the Scotland Act should be tabled in parliament.  It was then entirely up to MPs to decide whether to vote in favour or against that order.  If they voted against, the Yes result in the referendum would have stood and an elected Scottish Assembly with limited powers would have sat in Edinburgh throughout the 1980s and 1990s, tempering some of the worst effects of Thatcherism.

The SNP urged the Labour PM James Callaghan to immediately table the order of repeal and whip Labour MPs to vote it down.  He refused to do so, on the grounds that the referendum result was not clear enough, and that devolution could only go ahead at some unspecified date in the future if the package was thoroughly revised.  That was tantamount to taking an outright anti-devolution position, because it was obvious from opinion polls that a Thatcher government was inevitable within months.  Labour and the Conservatives were therefore equally culpable in overturning the 52%-48% verdict of the people of Scotland.

So the next time anyone from those two parties (or from UKIP) starts wittering on about the SNP "disrespecting" the 52%-48% will of the British people, just ask a simple question : "where was our Assembly for twenty years?"

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If you've enjoyed my writing in recent months and feel a strange inexplicable urge to 'buy me a hot chocolate', bear in mind that my fundraiser from two years ago is still open for additional donations - it can be found HERE.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Memo to Corbyn : the most recent polls show an INCREASE in support for independence

Jeremy Corbyn said a number of puzzling things in his dire speech to the Scottish Labour conference today (he surprised even himself by saying "well done to our SNPs!"), but none more so than this...

"Regular polling since Brexit has shown a drop in support for independence."

This begs the obvious question - what regular polling?  No firm has really carried out regular polling on independence since the referendum in September 2014.  The only possible exception is BMG, who recently seem to have started conducting polls on independence for the Herald at vaguely regular intervals.  So far, though, they've only done two polls that used the same question, and that are therefore directly comparable.  For what it's worth, the most recent poll in the series showed a 3.5% increase in support for independence.  That may well have been an illusion caused by sampling variation, but the only other poll we've had since then (from Panelbase) showed a very slight and statistically insignificant increase in support for Yes, rather than a decrease.

There is thus no planet on which it is possible to accurately claim that "regular polling" has shown a drop in support for independence.  You could say that it's shown an increase in support, or that there hasn't been enough regular polling to draw any firm conclusions.  There's no third option here.

Elsewhere, Adam Bienkov of Business Insider randomly trotted out the hoary old claim that the SNP are "the governing party in a near one-party state".  The word "near" covers a multitude of sins, because -

a)  Scotland is not a state.

b)  Five parties are represented in the Scottish Parliament.

c)  None of those parties has even a slight majority of the seats in parliament (unlike the governing party at Westminster, for example).

When these facts were pointed out to Adam, he hurriedly shifted the goalposts and insisted he had instead been referring to the SNP's total dominance of Scottish representation in the House of Commons.  But that makes even less sense.  The SNP are indeed a "governing party" of Scotland - albeit only a semi-autonomous government that is not permitted to hold the most important levers of power.  None of the powers they do hold are derived in any way from their relative strength at Westminster, where they have just 8% of MPs and are routinely outvoted by the party which possesses an absolute majority of seats (the Conservatives).

If this is a "near one-party state" that Adam is describing, he seems to have identified the wrong party and the wrong state. 

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If you've enjoyed my writing in recent months and feel a strange inexplicable urge to 'buy me a hot chocolate', bear in mind that my fundraiser from two years ago is still open for additional donations - it can be found HERE.