Thursday, December 27, 2018

How will Nebulous Theresa answer the Lorraine Mann Question?

Over at Stormfront Lite, Alastair Meeks has made a set of rather bold political predictions for the coming year - including that Britain won't leave the European Union on schedule in March, and that there will be a fresh referendum.  I don't agree with that - although a referendum is certainly possible, I think the odds are still against it, and it's probably around 50/50 whether Brexit will happen on 29th March.  In particular, where I think Alastair is going wrong is that he believes Article 50 will be revoked by parliament if that's the only way to avoid No Deal.  I just can't see that happening, because both Tory and Labour MPs know the optics of that would be that they are arrogantly overturning the 2016 referendum result.  (OK, theoretically it could be argued that a revocation is just intended to provide breathing space and that Article 50 will be re-invoked again later on, but nobody will buy that, and rightly so.)  So the only way Brexit will not occur on schedule is if Article 50 is extended rather than revoked - which is an important distinction, because if my hazy understanding of the legal position is correct, the impetus for an extension can only come from the government, and it's not something parliament can insist upon.  And unlike a revocation, an extension can't be decided upon unilaterally by the UK.

Essentially what that means is that Theresa May can ensure that Britain leaves in March if she is determined to do so, but that might well involve her accepting No Deal.  So the key to understanding what is about to happen is inside May's head - would she actually do that?

In the mid-1990s, Alex Salmond and George Robertson took part in a televised head-to-head debate on the respective merits of independence and devolution.  Towards the end of the programme, the audience member Lorraine Mann coined what became known as "the Lorraine Mann Question" - she asked each leader what their second preference would be for Scotland's constitutional status.  In other words, she wanted to know whether Alex Salmond would prefer devolution or continued direct rule from London, and whether George Robertson would prefer direct rule from London or independence.  Both men looked as if they wished the question had never been asked, but Mr Salmond answered it clearly - his second preference was devolution.  Mr Robertson, by contrast, made a complete fool of himself - he refused to answer, and suggested (wrongly) that Lorraine Mann was an SNP plant.

Mr Robertson did, however, have the luxury of knowing that it was an academic question - he was never going to be forced to publicly reveal that he preferred London rule to independence.  Theresa May isn't so lucky.  She says the choice is between her deal, No Deal and No Brexit.  If that's right, when and if her deal is defeated in the Commons, she's going to finally have to reveal what her own second preference is.  We know what some of her Cabinet colleagues would do in her shoes - Andrea Leadsom's second preference would clearly be No Deal, and Amber Rudd's would be No Brexit.  But which way will May jump?  If she prefers No Deal, Brexit will probably happen on schedule, but if she prefers No Brexit, we could be looking at an extension of Article 50 and possibly a second referendum.

*  *  *

Sunday, December 23, 2018

What happens if a "People's Vote" is won by Leave?

Quite often when the SNP introduce a new policy or strategy that I'm not sure about, I "sip it and see", and end up realising it was a good idea all along.  But with this whole "People's Vote" thing, I find I'm going at a rate of knots in the opposite direction.  When the change in policy was first announced, I could see some value in it, because it ended the bickering on social media between SNP supporters and the People's Vote diehards, and it also headed off any suggestion that the SNP weren't truly sincere in their efforts to keep the UK in the single market and customs union.  But what I didn't anticipate was the sheer unbridled enthusiasm with which the SNP were going to end up campaigning for a UK-wide referendum (in which Scotland could very easily be outvoted again), at a time when they're very noticeably not actively campaigning for a referendum in which Scotland can take charge of its own destiny.  Ian Blackford has been cheered to the rafters at slickly-choreographed People's Vote rallies down south, where he's shared platforms with the likes of Jo Johnson, Vince Cable and Anna Soubry.  It's fair to say that the SNP are now more popular with liberal opinion in England than they've been for a very long time, possibly ever, which is scarcely surprising given that they've 100% fallen in behind a London-led liberal agenda, and have put an independence referendum to one side for the moment.  

Where is this actually getting us?  Is the idea that the SNP are building up a reserve of goodwill with liberal England that can be cashed in later?  Do they reckon a centrist, pro-European government, perhaps led by Chuka Umunna or Yvette Cooper, is going to eventually take power and will be so grateful to the SNP that they'll feel compelled to grant a Section 30 order?  I'm not sure power politics works that way. Gratitude will only get you so far - ultimately any Westminster government will act in its own self-interest.

I've already pointed out how damaging a UK-wide referendum could be for the cause of independence if it results in a Remain vote.  Fretful swing voters in Scotland would look back on the last two years of chaos as a bad dream, and would not countenance the risk of repeating that process in order to negotiate independence.  But what if the opposite happens?  What if a People's Vote produces a second victory for Leave?  It was easy in 2016 for the SNP to say that Scotland's decision to stay in the EU had been ignored, but it won't be so easy this time.  They'll be asked one simple question: "You've spent months demanding a UK-wide referendum rather than a Scottish independence referendum.  You even romanticised that UK-wide referendum as a 'People's Vote'.  How can you possibly not accept the result now?"

What will be the answer?  Has this been adequately war gamed?

*  *  *

The controversial journalist David Leask doesn't seem to have much of a fan base, but after my blogpost of the other day one or two people did speak up to defend his obsession with Russia.   Basically they suggested that Putin is trying to erode western democracy by undermining our "unity", ie. by identifying pre-existing differences of opinion, exacerbating them, and turning them into full-blown conflicts.  I can't help noting the irony of that line of argument, because undermining unity from outside is exactly what Leask himself is attempting to do in respect of the SNP.  He's taking relatively minor differences of emphasis between various people within the party and trying to turn it into a full-blown civilisational war between two supposedly incompatible factions that he calls "the real SNP" and "alt nats".  It's not working, partly because of the indescribable silliness of the notion that Alex Salmond and Angus MacNeil are not part of "the real SNP", but nevertheless that's what his game is.

There's also a sense in which Leask himself is undermining western democracy.  He's trying to get us into the mindset of war by arguing that the threat from Russia is so overwhelming that we must maintain monolithic unity to defeat it, and avoid taking positions that echo Russian "messaging".  I'm not at all convinced that we face such a state of emergency.  What is Russia actually doing?  Funding political parties?  Engaging in astroturfing?  We've faced that kind of interference in our politics for decades from non-state actors, and we generally regard it as a nuisance rather than as a threat to our civilisation that we must surrender our freedoms to face down.

And surrendering our freedoms is what Leask is demanding we must do.  Democratic politics is about the freedom to take opposing views.  In other words it's about division, which Leask tells us we must avoid at all costs if we are to stand up to Russia.  To coin a phrase, 'now is not the time' to self-indulgently argue for Scottish independence, or for withdrawal from NATO, if that would damage the 'unity' of the Anglo-American alliance.  And you can forget all about the democratic freedom to express your own views if they happen to coincide with Russian "messaging".  The example given in the CommonSpace piece was Leask's attack on Neil Findlay for calling the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament a "fascist", a descriptor that has a strong basis in fact.  It seems we must avoid even making reference to facts if they happen to have already been mentioned at some point by Mr Putin.

*  *  *

The "impartial election expert" Mike Smithson, known for writing letters to thousands of people in East Dunbartonshire out of the sheer goodness of his heart, has a long and proud history of producing the most risibly shallow 'analysis' of politics in the Celtic nations.  I call it "Bedfordsplaining".  My favourite example was when he Bedfordsplained to us the true meaning of the phrase "ninety-minute nationalists", which apparently we had misunderstood for all these decades.  

Smithson has outdone himself over the last two days with a fatuous claim that the DUP will be so spooked by the new Lucid Talk opinion poll (showing support for Irish unity in the event of a no deal Brexit) that they will do a U-turn and back the draft deal.  The funniest bit was when he doubled down yesterday by saying he had "dealt with" the DUP's position and that May could therefore regard their votes as being in the bag.

I mean, where do you start?  The DUP have been taking their hardline position in the full knowledge that opinion polls have shown for months that a no deal Brexit would dramatically increase support for a united Ireland.  They haven't been spooked, and there's no reason why that's suddenly going to change just because Mike Smithson has finally noticed one of the polls.  Their position may be entirely rational, because people are notoriously bad at answering hypothetical questions in polls.  Of course the DUP would in an ideal world prefer to avoid any theoretical risk of a united Ireland by getting a Brexit deal through, but they're not going to do it at absolutely any cost.  They would need a substantial renegotiation of the deal to neutralise the backstop - and at the moment there's no indication that the EU are willing to go down that road.  If the deal remains unchanged and is put to the vote, the DUP will vote against it - that is simply a fact.

Smithson may be on marginally stronger ground in speculating that Corbyn secretly wouldn't mind if the draft deal went through, because it would prevent him having to make a decision about a People's Vote that his party wants but he doesn't.  That sounds plausible enough, but whether he can actually engineer that outcome while remaining publicly opposed to the deal himself is more doubtful.

*  *  *

Friday, December 21, 2018

The controversial journalist David Leask, and the notes from THAT shady meeting : a factcheck

You probably saw yesterday that CommonSpace had some rather uncomfortable questions for controversial "alt-journo" David Leask, who in recent years has moved to the fringes of media discourse as he peddles increasingly wild and paranoid conspiracy theories about the supposed links between certain Scottish politicians/bloggers and the Putin regime in Russia.  (His general rule of thumb is that if someone disagrees with his own basic worldview and they're not a Putin agent, they must instead have been planted by MI5 to make the pro-indy movement look bad.)  It's now been confirmed that Leask gave a private briefing to the Integrity Initiative, a "shadowy charity" which is funded by the British state, and which has been accused of seeking to undermine Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party.

I'll leave it for others to judge whether Leask's role as informant for a state actor is a breach of journalistic ethics.  That's probably not the most important question from his own point of view anyway, because we know that the one thing he absolutely can't bear is not being taken seriously, and the "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier..." mockery on social media last night was pretty relentless.  (Probably just as well that he's long since blocked half the planet on Twitter!)  From my own perspective, what I find most interesting are the contents of the notes from the meeting, as obtained by CommonSpace, because they reveal as never before the sheer blinkered fanaticism of Leask's Russian-obsessed worldview.  I mean, that's fine if the Integrity Initiative were just looking to have their own views reinforced by someone of like mind, but if this stuff is actually being taking seriously as an "information" gathering exercise...well, the mind boggles.

"Dr Paul Monaghan - lost seat due to intemperate comments on social media, including pro-Kremlin views."

There can't be a single other person who truly believes that Paul Monaghan's supposed "pro-Kremlin views" (presumably a reference to the fact that he refused to join in with the knee-jerk demonisation of RT and Sputnik) played a significant role in costing him his seat.  The notion that Monaghan's general social media persona played a part is somewhat more commonly heard, but even that is a theory rather than an established fact.  The SNP vote in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross fell by 17.1% last year - not dramatically higher than the 13.1% drop across Scotland.  It can only be speculation as to whether the extra 4 point slip was caused by local demographic factors, by personality factors, or by a bit of both.  And even if Monaghan had managed to limit the drop to the national average, it looks pretty likely that he would still have lost the seat narrowly.  So Leask's claim that the seat was lost "due to intemperate comments" is hyperbole, and it has no basis in hard fact.

"Wings Over Scotland is extreme and soft on Putin, constantly equating Russia and its broadcasting with the UK."

Interesting use of the word "constantly" there, because Wings mentions Russia once in a blue moon, which is scarcely surprising for a Scottish politics website.  And what exactly is "extreme" about Wings?  He has well-known specific views on the causes of the Hillsborough tragedy, which most people would probably disagree with - but those views rarely come up and they have nothing to do with his general political standpoint anyway.  He has strong views about certain aspects of identity politics, which are undoubtedly provocative and controversial, but which probably chime with the centre of gravity in public opinion.  Beyond that, he simply reflects the views of the half of the population of this country who support independence.  If anything, he's something of a hard-headed pragmatist - he once suggested that an independent Scotland should enter into a sort of grand bargain that would allow Trident to remain in Faslane in return for hefty payments from London which could be used to finance Scottish public services.  I suspect that view is somewhat closer to Leask than it is to the SNP mainstream (or indeed to me for that matter).

"Mainstream Scotland more left-wing than England.  See Corbyn as positive - overtaking SNP from left."

There is no evidence at all that Corbyn-led Labour is "overtaking" the SNP.  Quite the contrary - the current polling average suggests that the SNP have extended their lead over Labour since last year's general election. It's true that Corbyn is doing a little better in Scotland than Ed Miliband did, but that's not remotely the same thing as "overtaking the SNP".

"No credible Corbyn-like figure to take over the SNP at the moment."

I'm not even really sure what that's supposed to mean, because the SNP under Sturgeon is just as radical as Labour under Corbyn, if not more so.  Maybe Corbyn's instincts are more radical than Sturgeon's, but he's heavily constrained by Labour internal politics and by what he thinks the voters of Middle England will stomach.  Perhaps Leask means that Sturgeon and her likely long-term successor Humza Yousaf are better dressed than Corbyn, or something like that.  Heaven only knows.

"Salmond is mainly shunned now but some are still beholden to him - 'alt nat'."

That reminds me of Alan Cochrane saying that something or other was "more commonly known as the Nat Tax", which meant more commonly known to himself, because no-one else actually used that name.  The only people I've ever heard use the words "alt nat" are Leask himself and a handful of his most sycophantic followers.  Bless his heart, he's doing his level best to paint support for Alex Salmond as some kind of lunatic fringe position, light-years outside the SNP mainstream - but that's a losing battle, for the very obvious reason that Salmond was leader of the SNP for almost one-quarter of its entire existence to date, and only stepped down four years ago.  Of course we're in a period of limbo at the moment because Salmond is facing allegations of sexual harassment, but if his name is cleared (and I only say 'if' - I'm not prejudging anything), you'd quickly find that he's not "shunned" by many people in the SNP.

"[Nationalist] fringe sees English (Anglo-American/Anglo-Saxon) as the enemy; they're easily led by Kremlin activities aimed at dividing.  They see British media as mouthpieces of the 'occupying state'.  Nasty when challenged."

It's fascinating that Leask apparently views anti-Americanism as an extension of ugly anti-Englishness, because his own rhetoric has become unmistakably anti-American over the last few years.  Specifically he uses the word "Trumpist" ad nauseam as a synonym for extremism.  In other words the President of the United States is just about the worst thing in the world he can think of.  I wouldn't necessarily disagree with him about that, of course, but coming from a man who clearly sees slavish loyalty to the Anglo-American alliance as a test that must be passed to avoid being a 'useful idiot for Moscow'...well, it looks a trifle odd, that's all I'm saying.

"Does [Scotland] need to be independent?  Doesn't need to be independent.  Not laying the groundwork for foreign policy expertise: can't do the equivalent of an A level in Russian.  Politicians still talking about student issue politics rather than big issues of now."

Leask loves to publicly paint himself as a "neutral" on the independence issue, perhaps because he wrongly thinks that will give him licence to paternalistically "guide" pro-indy people towards accepting his rather eccentric notions of what constitutes the "real SNP" and what constitutes "alt nats".  But let's be honest - what we're looking at here are the words of a man who voted No in 2014 without a second thought.  He didn't necessarily do it because he has any problem in thinking of Scotland as a country (he's actually surprisingly progressive on Scottish cultural issues such as the Gaelic language), but it's clear enough that he doesn't think Scotland is even close to being "ready" for independence - a standard Project Fear, "eat your cereal" position.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

No, Mr Kellner, support for staying in the EU has not "rocketed"

Just a quick one, because I see Peter Kellner has gone into full-blown propaganda mode on behalf of the "People's Vote" campaign, and is using his status as a prominent former pollster to attempt to convince people that the "polls are clear" and that support for staying in the EU has "rocketed".  His evidence?  A new YouGov poll showing that people prefer staying in the EU to leaving on the basis of Theresa May's deal by a margin of 59-41, which he contrasts with polls earlier this year showing Remain ahead by around four to six percentage points.  But he knows perfectly well, indeed he knows better than anyone, that the comparison he's making is not remotely meaningful or like-for-like.  The poll he's referring to also asked the standard question that YouGov have been asking since the EU referendum, about whether the UK was right or wrong to leave the EU.  The results on that question were much more familiar -

Right to leave: 41%
Wrong to leave: 47%

YouGov haven't provided figures with Don't Knows excluded, but it must be either a 53-47 or a 54-46 split, depending on how the rounding worked out.  On the high side for Remain, yes, but hardly evidence of "rocketing".

So why were the results so different on the new question giving people a straight choice between Remain and May's deal?  It's probably partly a "question ladder" effect.  Before being asked that question, respondents were first asked whether they support or oppose the draft Brexit deal, and by a margin of almost 2-1 they said they were opposed.  It would have been difficult for some people who are essentially Leave supporters to say they think the deal is awful one minute, and then say they would vote in favour of it the next minute.  After all, several prominent Brexiteers have said that they would prefer to remain in the EU to leaving on the basis of the deal.  But if it ever actually got to the point where there was a straight choice in a referendum between Remain and May's deal, it's safe to assume that almost all Brexiteers would get behind the deal (however grudgingly) and those numbers would in all likelihood start to look very different.

*  *  *

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Nebulous Theresa has made a U-turn, so it must be Wednesday

The BBC are reporting that Theresa May has changed her mind (yet again) and is now planning to hold a series of indicative votes in parliament on various alternatives to her own deal.  When that idea was originally trailed, the purpose of it was to break the deadlock and find an alternative that actually worked, but the implication now is that May would like all the alternatives to be defeated, thus concentrating minds when the main vote on her deal takes place at the end of proceedings.  In other words she's taking a punt on psychology - she reckons MPs won't want to look ridiculous by dismissing the only deal on the table when every other hypothetical option has been rejected anyway.  I'm not entirely sure whether that'll work, because presumably opposition MPs will receive their instructions from the whips about how to vote on the deal before the indicative votes take place.  It's a lot easier to cope with looking faintly ridiculous if you're simply adhering to party discipline.

Whether any of the alternatives to the deal have a chance of passing depends essentially on two questions - a) will a second referendum be one of the options?, and b) if so, will Labour back it?  On a strict reading of Labour's policy as agreed at conference, they shouldn't vote for a referendum at that stage because they wouldn't have yet tried to force a general election, which is supposed to be Step 1.  But presumably Corbyn will come under pressure to bend the policy if Labour pro-Europeans feel that they've arrived at the only realistic time at which a "People's Vote" could be secured.  He might try to square the circle by giving his MPs a free vote - which would almost certainly lead to the proposal being defeated.  Even if he can bring himself to whip his MPs to vote in favour, though, the arithmetic would be tight.

Other than a second referendum, I can't see any of the alternatives to the May deal having a chance of attracting a majority.  The Norway Plus idea would certainly be doomed to defeat, because it entails the retention of free movement, which both the Tory and Labour leaderships agree (wrongly, in my view) is inconsistent with the Leave vote in 2016.

*  *  *

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Is Jeremy Corbyn unwittingly saving us from ourselves by frustrating the push for a "People's Vote"?

Quite a few people have been wondering aloud whether Labour are holding off from a proper no confidence motion because they don't want to be in power at the moment Britain leaves the EU, and end up taking the blame for the ensuing chaos.  I must say I don't buy that.  If a genuine window of opportunity opened up where it looked like the arithmetic was there to defeat the government, I suspect the Labour leadership would take the risk of being tarred with the Brexit brush, because they'd know there might not be another chance to bring about a general election for up to three years, by which time the Conservatives might be back in a commanding position and the Corbyn moment might have passed.

The much more plausible explanation for the delay, fudge and inaction is internal Labour politics.  They now have a tortuous compromise policy which states that they will first try to bring about a general election and only then consider the option of a so-called "People's Vote".  So if we assume Corbyn himself doesn't want a referendum, there's every incentive for him to run down the clock and avoid getting to the point where he can be said to have failed to secure a general election.  Frankly, I think he may be doing us a favour, because for the life of me I don't see how it will do anything but harm the cause of independence if the SNP get what they say they want, and Britain as a whole stays in the EU after a second UK-wide referendum.  The Liberal Democrats are already making the case that "people are now seeing what major constitutional upheavals look like, and they don't want any more, thank you".  That line is unlikely to gain much traction for the moment, because people are actually looking for radical solutions to the current crisis, and independence is one obvious solution.  But if Britain unexpectedly stays in the EU, middle-of-the-road Remainers in Scotland will look back on the events of the last two or three years as a bad dream, and think to themselves "never again".  I know it may sound insanely unjust, but the independence cause will suffer tremendously because of the incompetent failure of British nationalists to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU.

I have a degree of sympathy with Craig Murray's view that the SNP should respect the democratic decision of England and Wales to leave the EU, and use that respect as a shining example to others of how to respect Scotland's decisive choice to remain in the EU.  That actually was the SNP's position in the aftermath of the EU referendum - indeed I can remember them saying that England and Wales "must" leave the EU in line with the wishes of voters.  I have no problem with them making a tactical switch to supporting a UK-wide referendum if they've calculated that it will never happen anyway and if they think they will win brownie points with Remain voters for at least trying their hardest to avoid Brexit for the whole UK.  But it's hard not to get the impression that it's gone way beyond that now, and that the SNP leadership really do want the People's Vote to happen.  If so, it's puzzling.

It was suggested to me by several different people in 2015 and early 2016 that, contrary to the assumption of cynical unionist commentators, the SNP were honestly hoping for a Remain vote.  That wasn't because they wanted to put off holding a second indyref until the fabled "generation" had passed by, but they did want to wait until the 2021-26 parliament, when they calculated they would have the best chance.  I do wonder if some senior SNP people would quite like a UK-wide Remain vote to take us back to that Plan A, and to be fair they have People's Vote diehards constantly whispering in their ears, trying to convince them that Scotland will have a better chance of becoming independent if England and Wales never leave the EU (averting a hard border and so on).  But the reality is that the current chaos is changing the calculation utterly, and from here on in it may be impossible to convince people to choose independence for any other reason than as a solution to Brexit.  I'll be expanding on that point in my column for the next issue of iScot magazine.

There's also the wider point that by becoming so wildly enthusiastic about a People's Vote, the SNP are unavoidably associating with people who are deploying arguments that should be deeply uncomfortable for anyone who believes in democratic self-determination.  It's being said, for example, that the Leave vote in 2016 doesn't have to be respected because it was a "stupid" decision that will cause harm to the people who made it - in other words, the elite knows better than the voters.  It's not hard to imagine a similar case being made in the wake of a Yes vote in Scotland.  It's also being said that the outcome in 2016 was somehow illegitimate because a majority of the registered electorate didn't vote Leave.  That's effectively an argument that no major constitutional change can happen without a 1979-style supermajority, which is very, very dangerous territory for the SNP to get into.

OK, I'll admit there's a flipside to the coin - we have Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liam Fox and apparently some unnamed Tory MSP saying that a second EU referendum within three years would set a precedent for Scotland.  And it's true that it would make it harder for Westminster to justify refusing to grant a Section 30 order, although it's fairly likely they would still refuse.  I'm not convinced that a little discomfort in Whitehall will make up for all the immense disadvantages of another UK-wide referendum.

*  *  *

Monday, December 17, 2018

Just for the record...

Those of you who are active on Scottish political Twitter may be aware of a very unpleasant long-running saga involving David Hooks (aka PoliticsScot) and someone called Pauline.  There are allegations of bullying on one side, and stalking on the other.  To be perfectly honest, I don't know enough about what's happened to form any sort of view.  Every explanation I've read has left me scratching my head - it's like starting to watch a film in the middle and trying to make sense of what's going on.  My impression of David is that he's a very decent guy, and I've noticed that some of the usual suspects on the radical left have been piling in against him, which leads me to suspect that if I did understand the whole thing better, my sympathies might well be with him.  But it would be totally unfair to jump to any conclusions without enough information, so I just haven't got involved at all.

About a month ago, and completely out of the blue, I received two very long emails from Pauline setting out her side of the story.  I ignored them for three reasons - a) it's absolutely none of my business, b) I couldn't actually make head nor tail of what she was talking about, and c) the emails seemed to be primarily intended for Paul Kavanagh.  It looked like I had just been copied in as an afterthought.  She sent me a third long email yesterday, and by then I had reached the point where I just couldn't be bothered, so I didn't even read it.  But last night somebody claiming to be her mother randomly messaged me on Twitter and needlessly tagged in a radical left troll, so at that point I started to get a bit suspicious, and went back and read the email.  I was a bit shocked and bewildered to discover that there was an allegation that I had been directly involved in the saga.  This is the relevant paragraph -

"Around 3 months ago a pro indy blogger who I considered a pal at that time contacted my mum and said that he had been given DMs by James Kelly showing that David Hooks spoke to Steve Sayers, its an open secret that he does, but he was accused of passing on information. He was going to do an expose on him, sharpening his knives against him. He said that James Kelly gave him the DMs and wings also knew about this. When my mum pressed him the excuses not to expose him became more fantastic. Pete Bell was brought into it and he said said that it was Pete who had the final say on whether this was going to go ahead."

For the avoidance of doubt, that is an absolute fairy-tale.  I have no idea if David Hooks speaks to Steve Sayers.  I do not care less whether he does or he doesn't.  I have no evidence that he does, and I have not passed any evidence on to anyone else.  I have not made any accusations or given anyone any DMs.

My involvement in this affair has been literally zero, so there are only two explanations here - either a) someone has got their wires crossed very badly, or b) the entire story about me has been deliberately and cynically concocted.

As I stated at the outset, I know next to nothing about the background to this dispute, and I have not taken sides.  But if someone is going to make up a pack of lies about me and email it to all and sundry, I make no apology at all for pointing out what they are doing.  Whoever is responsible, kindly just pack it in.  Thanks in advance.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Do the Tory Brexiteers care more about Brexit than they do about their own careers?

Reading the front page story in the Sunday Times today, I could for the first time just about start to see a semi-plausible scenario under which a "People's Vote" could take place on Theresa May's watch, leading potentially to the cancellation of Brexit.  If the government's own proposal for a referendum was for a straight choice between May's deal and No Deal, it could be argued that this is not a betrayal of any red line because either outcome would result in Britain leaving the EU.  And then when parliament amends the proposal against the government's wishes to add a Remain option to the ballot paper, May could just shrug her shoulders and say "nothing to do with me, guv".  That wouldn't wash with the ERG - they'd probably end up regarding May as a Ramsay MacDonald-type "traitor".  But we know from past experience that May doesn't fret that much if people can see straight through her, just so long as her excuse sounds defensible in her own head.

The odds are still against it, of course.  It's probably significant that the plan is reported to have the endorsement of "Theresa May's team" rather than May herself, and we know there are also strong forces in the Cabinet tugging her in completely the opposite direction, and towards an acceptance of No Deal.  Even if the plan was to be put into operation, there must at least be a question mark over whether the addition of a Remain option would command a majority in the Commons.  The assumption so far has been that the parliamentary arithmetic on a People's Vote would be very tight, and logically exactly the same ought to apply to any Remain amendment (although perhaps the government conceding the principle of a referendum would embolden more Tory Remainers to rebel).  And having repeatedly promised that Brexit will happen bang on schedule on 29th March, it would be hard for May to call a referendum on her deal knowing that a referendum campaign would eat up much of the remaining three months, and that she'd inevitably have to request an extension of Article 50 simply to have enough time to actually implement the deal if the public gave her the go-ahead.  But perhaps she could put on an indignant voice and blame a short delay on "saboteurs", or whatever.

Then there's the problem that the leaking of a plan like this can in itself make the whole thing less likely to happen.  Brexiteers now know where the danger lies, and May could find herself under intense pressure to explicitly rule out any Deal v No Deal referendum over the coming days.  If it ever looks like something might come of it, though, I do wonder if the hard-core Brexiteers could look towards the nuclear option of approaching Labour and indicating they might vote against the government on a motion of no confidence, or at least abstain.

A lot of people have asked why there would be any problem getting a no confidence motion passed, given that the number of Tory rebels required would be quite small.  The answer is simple - in most parliamentary votes, Tory MPs have the option of voting against the government without facing any terrible consequences, but confidence votes are completely different.  Even a non-authorised abstention on a confidence vote would lead to an automatic withdrawal of the whip, which in turn makes it impossible to stand as a Tory candidate at the next election.  So unless you're someone like Douglas Carswell, with enough of a personal vote that you could hold your seat regardless of party label, you'd be looking at career death.  That was why the Maastricht rebels in the 1990s all instantly fell into line as soon as the government tied the issue to a vote of confidence.  They of course justified it to themselves as a principled decision - Bill Cash said he was damned if he would hand the Maastricht ratification process over to a Labour government who would sign Britain up to a "federal superstate".  And there was a small grain of truth in that  - polling in 1993/4 left little room for doubt that Labour would win a snap election.

No such excuse is available this time, because it's anyone's guess who would come out on top in an election held over the next few weeks.  And in any case, is it just possible that the prospect of Brexit being cancelled is such a big deal for some MPs that they might, just this once, be prepared to put their careers second, and their principles first?

It might not seem immediately obvious what they would have to gain by triggering an election, given that there is so little to choose between May and Corbyn on Brexit.  But in fact there could be a few things -

* With parliament dissolved for several weeks, any attempt to legislate for a referendum could be severely interrupted, with the clock still ticking down towards the 29th March deadline.

* May and the rest of the Tory leadership would be forced to write a manifesto that appeals to the Leave vote that the party is now so heavily reliant on in elections.  They might find themselves making cast-iron promises that Brexit will definitely happen, and that it will happen on time, and that the backstop won't be permanent, etc, etc.  OK, they wouldn't be the first politicians to betray a promise within days or weeks of winning an election, but it's never a comfortable thing to do.

* Any substantial seat gains for the Tories would probably lead to an increase in the number of Leave-supporting MPs in the Commons (although they'd still be in the minority).

* There would be scope for a tactical voting drive, with websites directing Brexiteers towards the candidate in their constituency that is most likely to vote for a 'real' Brexit.  In some cases that will be a Tory, in a very few seats it might be a sitting Labour MP like Kate Hoey, and in others it could be a UKIP or Faragist candidate.  Usually that sort of targeting has only a very marginal effect, but given the passions that Brexit is arousing, it might just be different this time.

*  *  *

Friday, December 14, 2018

Chortle. John McDonnell wants us to believe that the SNP are only calling for a no confidence vote because they don't want a general election.

Two astonishingly silly statements were made the other day about the SNP's motivations in relation to a vote of no confidence in the Tory government.  Labour's Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed that the SNP were only pushing for such a vote to take place so that it would fail, thus ensuring there wouldn't be an early general election, in which Labour would supposedly be breathing down the SNP's necks and poised to make seat gains.  On the other extreme, our dear old friend Mike Smithson, known fondly to thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as an "impartial election expert", claimed that the SNP would not be planning to vote against the government unless they were very confident that they would hold all of their 35 seats and perhaps make gains.

Two completely contradictory claims, and ironically both wrong.  But which is the daftest of the two?  On this occasion I'd have to say McDonnell just about shades it.  There's something quite exquisitely risible about the claim that the SNP are demanding a vote of no confidence because they don't want a general election.  I know the notion that an election is less likely if you table the motion too soon might seem vaguely plausible to some (and Torcuil Crichton of the Record was predictably credulous about it), but the reality is that a) any no confidence vote is likely to fail regardless of timing, and b) no confidence motions are not a finite resource in any case.  If one fails, it doesn't stop you tabling another later on, and it doesn't prevent the result being different the second time around.  The famous no confidence vote of March 1979 was not the first one that the Callaghan government had faced.

Smithson, of course, is just making his customary mistake of assuming that the SNP have some sort of decision to make on how to vote on a no confidence motion, and that the way they jump will be cynically determined by their own immediate electoral prospects.  It's been pointed out to him umpteen times that it is utterly inconceivable for any left-of-centre party in Scotland to do anything other than vote to bring down a Tory government if the opportunity arises.  But that message just isn't getting through to him, and I suspect it never will.  Can you imagine what would actually happen if the SNP even abstained on a no confidence vote?  It wouldn't just be a problem at the next election, it would haunt the party for decades to come.  No, Mike, that was never an option, and it wouldn't have been an option even if the SNP were at 6% in the polls.

I'm fairly sure that Smithson and McDonnell are both equally wrong about the SNP's expectations for seat gains and losses in a snap election.  The polling average at the moment suggests that the SNP's lead over Labour has increased since June 2017, so it's obviously nonsensical for McDonnell to suggest that the SNP are resigned to losing seats.  But on the other hand, the increase in the lead is not so dramatic that it couldn't be reversed (and indeed more than reversed) if there were the kind of sudden shifts of public opinion during the course of an election campaign that we saw last year.  There are a large number of ultra-marginal seats, some held by Labour, some held by the SNP, meaning that relatively small swings could make the difference between landslide and disaster.  Nobody can possibly say which way it will go on the basis of current polls, or at least not with any confidence.  If the SNP are optimistic about their prospects, I would suggest it's more likely to be because they feel they've cracked the problem of finding a winning campaign strategy.  It may well be (and I'm just speculating) that the recent relentless focus on cancelling Brexit for the whole of the UK has been designed to make the SNP look like the only logical home for Remainers in a 2019 election - and Remainers, let's not forget, make up 62% of the Scottish electorate.  They're in the majority even in Moray (albeit only just).

*  *  *

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

May wins the vote, but loses the narrative

If I was a Brexiteer Tory MP, I think I'd be quietly fuming tonight about the conduct of Sir Graham Brady, who doesn't strike me as being anything like as neutral in his handling of leadership matters as his predecessors.  Every step of the way yesterday and today, he seemed to be acting in collusion with the incumbent leadership and against the rebels.  Downing Street effectively controlled the timing of the announcement that the 48 letter threshold had been met, the timing of the vote itself, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they also had something to do with the neat little stunt of the overall outcome of the vote being announced before the precise numbers.  That's a totally illogical way of presenting the result of any vote, and presumably was intended to provide the TV news with a self-contained clip depicting Theresa May as an unalloyed victor, with the inconvenient detail that 37% of her own MPs want her gone being hurriedly dispensed with later on as if it was of only academic interest.

It was an attempt to set the narrative, but it quite simply failed.  I was struck by the complete contrast between tonight's proceedings and the aftermath of another Tory leadership challenge many years ago.  In 1995, just like today, people were fairly sure that the incumbent leader would be officially re-elected, but the question was always the margin of victory.  In the end, rather more MPs voted against John Major than had been anticipated, but it didn't matter because the rebels grudgingly acknowledged his mandate after the result had been announced.  The complete opposite happened tonight - the ERG doubled down and demanded that May should resign.  Jacob Rees-Mogg may be a buffoon, but the way he laid down a marker within seconds of the result being revealed was an absolute masterclass.  "The vast majority of non-payroll MPs voted against her" was exactly the angle to take, and it's a point that's very difficult for May loyalists to shut down.  It's impossible for them to argue that May doesn't need the support of backbenchers.  If they try to claim she still has that support, by definition that would have to mean that a substantial number of government ministers secretly voted against her, which would be even worse.

The counter-framing from the May camp was much less convincing than Rees-Mogg's effort.  The pre-prepared line that had obviously been given to everyone was that May's percentage of the vote was higher than when she was elected leader in 2016.  That's a complete nonsense, because she wasn't actually "elected leader" at all.  The members' ballot was called off when Andrea Leadsom withdrew, and May became leader by default.  The contest didn't progress beyond a three-way preliminary ballot of MPs, and nobody would really expect any candidate to get 63% of the vote when they have two opponents.  (Although as it happened she got close.)

The other thing that struck me tonight is that anyone who's been thinking there's a non-trivial chance that a "People's Vote" might somehow take place under Theresa May's watch should just forget that idea.  She has a weak renewed mandate, and it was won largely on the promise that she will "deliver the Brexit people voted for".  She is even more boxed in than she was before, and for however long she remains Prime Minister, a referendum with a "Remain" option is inconceivable.  If the assumption is that she will still be around on March 29th, Remainers should probably switch their focus to securing an extension of Article 50 - because if that doesn't happen, Britain will undoubtedly be leaving the European Union.

*  *  *

Now is the time - but has anyone told Tory MPs?

If nothing else, what today has revealed is just how blatantly the rules for Tory leadership challenges are slanted to help an incumbent leader survive.  We maybe lost sight of that because the same rules were successfully used to topple Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, but he was of course the most hapless Tory leader in post-war history.  Think of how differently things would be playing out under the rules that applied thirty years ago - ie. an automatic annual leadership election in which any MP could stand if they had a proposer and seconder.  We'd be straight into a battle between Boris Johnson and Theresa May (and possibly others) in which the candidates would have parity of esteem, and May's deficiencies would be cruelly exposed.  She'd probably lose.

As it is, she isn't standing against anyone, so the vote today has become a simple matter of loyalty or disloyalty in the leader.  No wonder so few MPs have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet and say publicly that they are voting to remove her.  That has sucked some of the momentum out of the anti-May drive, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the leadership were in effective control of the timetable of the vote, and chose the ultra-quick option so that wavering MPs have no time to think.  The leadership also effectively controlled the timing of the announcement of the vote, allowing for a choreographed 'shock and awe' campaign of endorsements for the PM early this morning.  The TV news dutifully reported all of that, as if Cabinet ministers supporting their own leader was somehow surprising or significant.

On the other hand, we won't know for sure until the result is announced, and secret ballots of Tory MPs do sometimes throw up wild surprises.  Most famous is the 1975 example, in which large numbers of MPs who had publicly endorsed Edward Heath must have quietly voted for Mrs Thatcher.  And in 1997, the scale of William Hague's victory over Kenneth Clarke took everyone by surprise.  We'll see.  Given what happened on the evening of the EU referendum, I would certainly caution everyone not to read too much into the calmness of the financial and betting markets.

*  *  *

Yes, Virginia, a two-year polling high for Yes was worth reporting

Every few weeks, I can't resist logging out of Twitter and doing a search for my name, just to see if the small army of people who I've had to block or have blocked me (mostly RISE types, Brit Nat trolls and a handful of militant anti-indy journalists) are saying anything I should know about.  And I'm so very rarely disappointed.  Last night I found a short exchange between David "IT'S THE RUSSIANS!!!" Leask and the SSP's "online coordinator" Scott Macdonald, during which Scott commented on the recent Panelbase poll putting the Yes vote at 47%...

"I know. And like many of the other respectable polls, within the margin of error of 18th September 2014. That's not news, unless you're Scot Goes Pop."

I presume that can be reasonably interpreted as criticism and/or mockery of my blogpost about the Panelbase poll.  If so, I think it's worth taking a moment just to defend that post, because quite honestly, the idea that this particular poll was not worthy of note is a bit batty.

Let's start with the obvious: Scot Goes Pop is a polling blog.  (Not exclusively, but to a large extent.)  Pretty much any full-scale Scottish poll is worth reporting here, even if it shows no change at all.  Scottish polls aren't exactly ten-a-penny outside election periods, so they always tell us something interesting.

Secondly, Scott is quite wrong to imply that I thought the significance of the poll was a 2% increase in the Yes vote since the 2014 referendum.  In reality, I was much more interested in the fact that 47% is a two-year high for Yes in Panelbase polls, and is significantly better than the recent 'normal range' for Yes reported by Panelbase, which has been around 43-45%.  Here is the sequence of Yes votes in the last ten Panelbase polls -

44 - 45 - 45 - 44 - 43 - 44 - 44 - 44 - 45 - 47

If you don't think the 47 at the end sticks out like a sore thumb, you must be pretty determined not to see it.  Now, of course, it's perfectly possible that support for independence has remained steady at around 44%, in which case the standard margin of error could just about produce a freakish 47% result now and again.  That's one possible explanation, and if it's the correct one it'll become obvious soon enough because the next couple of Panelbase polls would in all likelihood show a reversion to the 43-45% norm.  But there is another very obvious possible explanation - that the jump in support for Yes is either real or partly real.  If an unexpected poll result comes along and raises the possibility that Yes has significantly narrowed the gap, are we really supposed to look away in a state of total disinterest?  Come now.

The third and more general point is that Scott is making a schoolboy error (albeit a very common one) by assuming that because a large number of polls are putting the Yes vote within the margin of error of the 45% vote in 2014, no conclusions at all can possibly be reached about changes in public opinion since the indyref.  This is exactly the same mistake people made when they said that it didn't actually matter that Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump in the vast majority of polls, because in a lot of those polls her lead was within the margin of error.  (As you'll recall, Clinton went on to win the popular vote by some three million votes.)

Take a glance at the recent run of Yes results in polls from Survation, which unlike Panelbase is not one of the more No-friendly firms...

46 - 47 - 46 - 46 - 47 - 47 - 46 - 45

If looked at individually, then yes, all of those polls are within the margin of error of the 45% vote in 2014.  None of those polls on their own would constitute proof of an increase in the Yes vote since the indyref.  And yet if you look at them collectively, it's entirely right and proper to draw the opposite conclusion.  Seven out of eight of the polls have Yes above 45%, and not a single one has Yes below 45%.  That's an extremely improbable pattern if Yes is supposed to have been flatlining at exactly 45%.  If that had been the case, and if the margin of error was the explanation for Yes sometimes getting as high as 47%, it would be more likely that we'd have seen a rather more even spread of results above and below 45%.  So, if by any chance Survation have their methodology exactly right (and admittedly that's a big if), it can be said with a bit of confidence that the Yes vote has generally been a little higher over the last year or so than it was on referendum day in 2014.

*  *  *

Monday, December 10, 2018

Crisis deepens for Tyrannical Theresa as bombshell Panelbase poll shows support for independence at a two-year high

OK, I admit it, I've obviously been living down a hole today, because I've only just noticed this rather significant new poll, which apparently was published early this morning.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 47% (+2)
No 53% (-2)

So you might remember the SIF-funded Panelbase poll from a few weeks ago, which I was first to publish (a bit of a contrast from today) and which I mentioned was an eighteen-month high for Yes?  Not anymore, it's not.  A further two-point boost has taken Yes well above its recent normal range in Panelbase polls.  47% would not be unusually high if this was a Survation or Ipsos-Mori poll, but Panelbase have over the last couple of years become noted for being firmly on the No-friendly end of the spectrum.  The last time there was a result as good as this in a Panelbase poll was way back in the autumn of 2016.

Of course it's possible that the high Yes vote may just be an illusion caused by sampling variation, although if that was the correct explanation you might expect the poll's sample to be unusually favourable towards the SNP as well, and that isn't really the case.  There's no improvement at all for the SNP on Westminster voting intentions (which will be a disappointment to those who hoped recent YouGov subsamples were the first sign of a breakthrough), and although there's a 2% boost on the Holyrood constituency vote, that simply takes the party back to where they were in the Panelbase poll before last.  It's only on the Holyrood regional list vote that the SNP are clearly doing better than the recent Panelbase norm.

Scottish voting intentions for the next Westminster general election:

SNP 37% (n/c)
Labour 26% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 41% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-2)
Labour 23%  (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 38% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 22% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Greens 6% (n/c)

Although seats projections from polls need to be taken with a heavy dose of salt, on a uniform swing these figures would give the SNP and Greens 62 Holyrood seats in combination - just 3 short of a majority.  So even if the next Scottish Parliament election was a lot less than two and a half years away, there would still be a fighting chance of retaining the pro-independence majority.

It's not the headline voting intention figures from the Panelbase poll that are making the headlines, though - it's the results of supplementary questions that ask respondents to make a straight choice between independence and two different Brexit scenarios.  Independence is slightly preferred to remaining in Brexit Britain even if there is a negotiated deal (and the wording doesn't specify that the deal has to be Theresa May's deal - it could just as easily mean a better Norway-type deal).  But there is an overwhelming majority in favour of independence if the alternative is a no deal Brexit.  Although we've seen majorities for independence on this type of hypothetical question before, a majority on the scale of 59-41 is unusual.

Do you believe Scottish independence or a no deal Brexit would be better for Scotland?

Scottish independence: 59%
No deal Brexit: 41%

Do you believe Scottish independence or remaining in the UK but outside the EU under a negotiated Brexit deal would be better for Scotland?

Scottish independence: 53%
Remaining in the UK but outside the EU under a negotiated Brexit deal: 47%

The snag, of course, is that the results of hypothetical polling questions can't be regarded as being quite as credible as the results on the standard independence question.  People can very easily overestimate how big an impact a hypothetical event will have on their own voting intention.  We might find that, if and when no deal Brexit becomes the status quo, people's instinctive passivity and small 'c' conservatism will kick in and there won't be much of a boost for Yes at all.  However, it's interesting that people clearly feel that Brexit ought to increase their support for independence, and that might be a point of some significance in the heat of an indyref campaign.

Last but not least, there is a sizeable majority in favour of a snap general election if Theresa May's deal is voted down by the Commons - something that should happen this Tuesday (yikes!), unless the vote is cancelled.

If the Prime Minister fails to secure a majority in a vote in the House of Commons for the Brexit deal, would you favour another general election being held?

Yes: 61%
No: 39%

*  *  *

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wondrous SNP wangle wizard win in windy Wester Ross

I was up to my neck yesterday, so apologies for being a bit late with this excellent news from the Highlands. In a break from the pattern of the recent past, the SNP have not underperformed expectations in a local council by-election - quite the reverse, in fact.

Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh by-election result (first preferences):

SNP 33.1% (+7.0)
Conservatives 26.0% (+7.6)
Independent - Greene 15.6% (+1.4)
Greens 9.0% (-2.2)
Liberal Democrats 8.0% (-5.4)
Labour 4.4% (-0.7)
Independent - Davis 3.3% (n/a)
UKIP 0.4% (n/a)
Scottish Libertarians 0.2% (n/a)

Technically, this was an SNP gain from the Liberal Democrats, but that's just one of the familiar quirks of the STV system - in fact the SNP topped the poll in the ward last time around, and the Lib Dems trailed in fourth. Nevertheless, by any standards this was a dismal attempt from the Lib Dems at defending the seat - they suffered a net swing to the SNP of more than 6%. We probably shouldn't get as excited about the SNP surge as we would do if it had happened in a central belt ward - there's much more of a tradition in Highlands local politics of electing an individual, rather than a political party. But a splendid result for the SNP is always preferable to the alternative.

*  *  *

Friday, December 7, 2018

Congratulations to the Independent for the silliest, most misleading headline about polling since...well, since the last one

The Independent is a digital-only newspaper these days, but it still nominally publishes a "front page", and today it bears the following headline: "Just two constituencies back May's deal...and 600 of the 650 want to remain in the EU, poll finds".  That gives the strong impression of a dramatic swing to Remain, because there would have to be a very large gap between the two sides for Leave to only be ahead in 50 seats.  But you perhaps won't be surprised to hear that things are not quite as the Independent are presenting them.  In fact that's the understatement of the millennium - incredibly, the headline is in fact referring to a poll which shows that there would be a very significant risk that a second EU referendum would produce the same outcome as the first, even if the question offered a stark choice between Remain and No Deal.

YouGov asked an enormous sample of more than 20,000 people to choose between different Brexit options, and found that there was a 50/50 split when the choice was between May's deal and Remain, and that there was a razor-thin 52-48 margin in favour of staying in the EU when the choice was between Remain and No Deal.  In other words, almost regardless of the question asked in any referendum, the public is essentially split down the middle and it's anyone's guess what would happen.  The only choice that doesn't produce a virtual dead heat is between May's deal and No Deal, but as either of those options would mean leaving both the EU and the single market, that's no great comfort.

So how on earth did the Independent manage to turn this Leave-friendly poll into a headline that implies a renaissance of Europhilia in the English shires?  Well, YouGov also invited respondents to make a three-way choice between Remain, the May deal, and No Deal.  46% chose Remain, and 54% chose one of the two Brexit options - meaning that the Independent's claim that the vast majority "want to remain in the EU" is the polar opposite of the truth.  But because support for the two Brexit options was split down the middle, that technically means Remain's 46% was enough for a handsome lead on a first-past-the-post basis, and that's what the Independent are getting at.  I've no idea what the relevance of that is supposed to be, given that there isn't a cat in hell's chance that any multi-option referendum would actually be conducted by first-past-the-post.

The Daily Record would have been proud of this one.

*  *  *

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Why a no deal Brexit may still be more likely than a "People's Vote"

There's an anonymous commenter on this blog who keeps trying to get a narrative going that a second EU referendum is "almost certainly" going to happen.  The latest event which has supposedly made this almost certain outcome even more almost certain is the confirmation from the DUP that they will rescue the government on any no confidence motion that follows the rejection of Theresa May's Brexit deal, which should mean that Labour then revert to supporting a so-called "People's Vote" (if they stick to their word).  With Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Tory rebel support, the theory goes, there would be majority support for a referendum and it would be bound to happen.  And yet, if you check the betting markets, you'll find that punters currently rate the chances of a referendum next year at significantly less than 50%.

As long-term readers know, I don't share Neil "Alligators" Lovatt's faith in the betting markets as some sort of predictive God.  But in this case, I've no doubt that they're a lot closer to being right than our "almost certain" friend.  First of all, although it's true you get to a majority if you add up all Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru MPs and add on the likely Tory rebels, it's far from being a comfortable majority.  It's inevitable that there will be a Labour counter-rebellion against a referendum, meaning that it's very difficult to know which way the vote would go.  Self-evidently, if there's a reasonable chance that a pro-referendum amendment will not be passed, there's also a reasonable chance that a referendum will never take place.

But it doesn't end there, because even if a pro-referendum amendment is passed, that still doesn't guarantee a referendum will actually happen.  It would take primary legislation to bring about a referendum, and it's phenomenally improbable that would happen without government support, or at least acquiescence.  The bottom line is that the government may not have the ability to get its own preferred option through, but it's certainly in a strong position to prevent anyone else's option getting through if it's determined to do so.  If we assume that Theresa May will remain Prime Minister through to the spring, and most people do seem to make that assumption, the question we should be asking ourselves is which undesirable option she would be most able to live with.  She doesn't want Remain, she doesn't want a referendum of any sort, she doesn't want No Deal, and she doesn't want a soft Brexit that would entail the retention of free movement.  But only three of those four possibilities would constitute an outright betrayal of what she has been saying to her political base.  The one exception is No Deal.

Some people are nursing the fond belief that No Deal simply can't happen, because there's a natural parliamentary majority against it, and parliament would therefore eliminate it as a possibility.  But this gets back to the old joke about parliament voting against bad weather - there are some things that MPs are simply powerless to do anything about.  If a deal isn't approved, the default position is not Remain, and it's not a second referendum.  The default is No Deal, and that's the case even if parliament passes a non-binding amendment "ruling out No Deal".  Positive action would have to be taken to change that default, and that means action by a government which may have no inclination to do any such thing.

There's a new article by Ian "Smug? Moi?" Dunt, which lambasts Brexiteers for suggesting a non-binding parliamentary vote could simply be ignored.  He suggests that this would be as outrageous as Remainers ignoring the outcome of the 2016 referendum, which was also technically non-binding.  But I'd suggest the government will have a pretty straightforward answer to that point - they could say that however important the will of parliament is, it can't be allowed to overrule the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.  So this, they could argue, is the one narrow circumstance in which the government has a democratic justification for disregarding an instruction from parliament.

That's not to say that No Deal would in any sense be a pain-free option for May - it would trigger yet another wave of resignations and once again threaten to topple her government.  But she may well still do it, because what other option is there that wouldn't unleash similar chaos?

Incidentally, on the subject of parliament not being able to legislate to change the weather, I was struck by the DUP's logic for committing to prop up the Tories in a confidence vote.  Nigel Dodds said that it would be odd to bring down the government if his party had only just achieved its objective of forcing the government to negotiate an alternative deal.  But rejecting the current deal doesn't actually have that effect.  It doesn't require the government to take any particular course of action, and it certainly doesn't require the EU to play ball with any renegotiation.  I just wonder what the DUP's attitude would be if Labour were to delay the confidence motion for long enough that it became clear that the government were planning to put the original deal (perhaps with a few cosmetic modifications) to the vote for a second time.

But even if the DUP never pull the plug on the Tories, there would still be a decent chance of an election at some point in 2019.  If a government simply can't get its business through, there comes a point where it has to take its chances and seek a fresh mandate at the most promising available moment.

*  *  *

Be warned: the remainder of this post is a self-indulgent stats post.  Here is the latest ranking of Scottish alternative media sites, based on estimates of unique visitors over the last 30 days from Traffic Estimate.  (I was going to post this on Twitter, but I came up against the character limit.)  As you can see, Scot Goes Pop is sitting pretty in a very creditable fourth place.

1) Craig Murray: 291,200 unique visitors
2) Wings Over Scotland: 181,400 unique visitors
3) CommonSpace: 103,100 unique visitors
4) Scot Goes Pop: 73,900 unique visitors
5) Wee Ginger Dug: 71,800 unique visitors
6) Talking Up Scotland: 68,500 unique visitors
7) Bella Caledonia: 57,400 unique visitors
8) Random Public Journal: 43,500 unique visitors
9) Indyref2: 40,900 unique visitors

Monday, December 3, 2018

Is a new route-map to independence starting to take shape?

The Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter today rebuked those who were pushing for alternatives to an independence referendum by pointing out that a referendum is firm SNP policy, and that she personally does not believe that there is any route to independence without a referendum.  That argument troubles me a bit, because the vast majority of people who are talking about alternatives are not doing it because they oppose a referendum - quite the reverse, in fact.  A referendum is their preferred option, but they feel it has now been closed off.  If the referendum policy must be regarded as gospel, then by all means let's hold a referendum - but even the dogs on the street know that will entail going ahead without a Section 30 order, which both the Tories and Labour appear to be committed to refusing for the foreseeable future.  We're told that Nicola Sturgeon would never go ahead without a Section 30, which is exactly why there needs to be an alternative to a referendum.  It would be intellectually dishonest to maintain that you're in favour of a referendum if you're implacably opposed to actually taking the steps necessary to bring a referendum about in the real world.  That would be a strategy for not even really seeking to obtain independence, while having a good excuse with which mollify your supporters.

Fortunately, however, it appears that other senior SNP people disagree with Mhairi and are giving serious thought to possible methods by which an outright mandate for independence can be secured by an election, rather than by referendum.  An article in the Sunday Times suggested that the next Westminster election could be used to reinforce the current mandate for an independence referendum, and if that was ignored a subsequent Westminster election could then be used to obtain an outright mandate for independence itself.  It was implied that the second mandate would require some kind of super-majority in terms of seats won, but not necessarily an absolute majority of votes cast.

I must say that sounds unnecessarily convoluted to me.  We already have the mandate for a referendum, that mandate has already been ignored, so the obvious next step is to seek an outright mandate for independence at the next appropriate election - which I think logically should mean the next Holyrood election.  Even if we did end up seeking yet another mandate to hold a referendum, it seems a bit odd to say that we need a majority at Westminster for that, given that the 2014 indyref was held when the SNP had only 6 out of 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons.  The much more natural arena for settling these questions is the Scottish Parliament.

On the plus side, though, at least there's a chance that the next Westminster election could only be a few months away - that's largely outwith our control, but it could well happen.  If that's the way it pans out, at least we wouldn't be mucking about indefinitely.  And even if I'm slightly dubious about the exact details of this strategy, I'm very glad that consideration is being given to credible options for breaking the logjam.

There was a unionist chap on Twitter yesterday who described any suggestion of abandoning the referendum idea in favour of an election as "fundamentalist".  If that's true, the source of the fundamentalism is a newly-radicalised British nationalist establishment that has made the holding of a referendum either difficult or impossible, and has left us with no option but to find an alternative.  Taking the best available option within the constraints that others have placed on you is a form of pragmatism, not extremism.  (The alternative course of action, which I fear Mhairi Hunter is agitating for, would be impotent utopianism.)  One thing I've started to do is delete comments on this blog which gloat that "there isn't going to be a referendum", not on the basis that the Scottish people don't want one, but simply on the basis that Westminster will block it regardless of circumstances.  If the only argument you've got is "you're living in a dictatorship, suck it up", you haven't really got an argument at all.

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Saturday, December 1, 2018

How the dice could be loaded in favour of Brexit in a "People's Vote"

There's been a lot of talk over the last few days about the increasing possibility of the ludicrously-dubbed "People's Vote" actually taking place, partly because Sam Gyimah has resigned to support it, and partly because John McDonnell has been making unusually positive noises on behalf of Labour.  I still don't think it will happen, because there would inevitably be a substantial Labour rebellion against it, and even if it got to the point where it looked like the arithmetic was there, the Prime Minister would then come under Tory pressure to preempt the issue with a snap general election.

If by any chance it does go ahead, though, everything would hinge upon the format.  McDonnell seemed to be hinting at a multi-option referendum, which presumably would include the May deal, remaining in the EU, and no-deal.  But how would a three-option vote actually work?  Nobody would ever seriously contemplate a first-past-the-post rule, because that would be like settling the constitutional future of the UK on a lottery (although of course that does beg the question of why we routinely choose governments that way).  A bit more plausible would be a preferential voting system or a French-style run-off, which I suspect would be Remain's best realistic hope.  But my guess is that we might instead end up with a two question format - the first question would ask whether the May deal should be approved, and the second question would give a straight choice between no-deal and Remain if the answer to the first question is "No".  (The result on the second question would be voided if there was a majority 'Yes' on the first question.)

If you think it through, the dice would be loaded in favour of Brexit on that format.  There would be extensive polling on both questions, and if the second question polling showed a clear majority for Remain (as you'd intuitively expect it to), Brexiteers would have every incentive to make a tactical switch in favour of campaigning for a Yes vote on the question about the May deal.  With government, media, and Brexiteer support, the deal would in all likelihood be approved, and Britain would leave the EU as a result.

Incidentally, it's impossible to know whether there is already a natural majority in favour of the May deal without that sort of tactical switch.  A Survation poll the other day showed a narrow majority in favour of the deal for the first time, but a new YouGov poll conducted at roughly the same time continues to show a massive majority against.  That sort of difference can't be explained by the standard margin of error - either one firm is getting it completely wrong, or they both are.  The YouGov poll also continues to show that Scotland is less supportive of the deal than any other part of Great Britain...

Support for the Brexit deal by region:

London: 22%
Rest of South: 29%
Midlands & Wales: 27%
North of England: 23%
Scotland: 20%

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

If Ruth Davidson, David Mundell and Theresa May "hate" the Common Fisheries Policy, why did they all vote Remain?

There has been a lot of disquiet in recent days about how the mainstream media is effectively allying itself with the Tory party in either falsely claiming that the SNP want Scotland to remain in the Common Fisheries Policy, or that the SNP's opposition to the CFP is some sort of farcical sham.  For the avoidance of doubt, SNP policy is that the CFP should be scrapped, or comprehensively reformed (which amounts to the same thing).  But because the SNP aren't Brexiteers, this would have to be achieved by agreement with our European partners.  It couldn't be done unilaterally.

"Unilaterally" is an interesting word, because it calls to mind the issue of nuclear disarmament.  Thirty years ago, the Labour party abandoned the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament, but insisted (as it still does today) that this didn't mean it wasn't still committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons.  It just wanted to achieve that objective by multilateral means.  In other words, the implementation of the policy depended on the agreement of other medium-sized nuclear powers such as France and China, in much the same way that the SNP's hopes of abolishing the CFP depend on the consent of our European partners.  But, as you've probably noticed, the media have never seemed to find the concept of multilateral disarmament inherently ridiculous.  So it seems more than a touch odd that journalists and TV presenters are inviting us to to accept that no political party can be regarded as truly opposing the CFP unless they want to scrap it unilaterally.

The irony is, of course, that Labour's support for nuclear disarmament is a sham in a way that the SNP's opposition to the CFP isn't.  Labour are hiding behind multilateralism because it's too awkward to admit that they want to retain Trident, come what may, as a national status symbol.  By contrast, nobody can seriously doubt that the SNP genuinely loathe the CFP and would make the case for reform as an independent Scottish government, however likely that might be to fall on deaf ears in other European capitals.  And if journalists honestly believe, as they are forever telling us, that Nicola Sturgeon privately wants to kick Indyref 2 into the long grass and is therefore reconciled to Brexit occurring in some form, what would be so hard to understand about the SNP saying: "Withdrawal from the CFP is the one and only part of Brexit that would actually be in the Scottish national interest, so you'd damn well better at least deliver that if we're going to have to suffer the rest"?

A final point: someone quite reasonably asked in this blog's comments section the other day why journalists don't challenge the hypocrisy of Ruth Davidson, Theresa May and David Mundell, who all voted Remain in 2016, and therefore by their own standards (and by the media's standards) were all voting and campaigning for Scotland to remain within the "hated" CFP.  Why did they support the CFP back then?  Why have they changed their minds now?  They can scarcely argue that the Tory government would have agitated for reform of the CFP in the event of a Remain vote.  David Cameron had a golden chance to prioritise fishing in his pre-referendum renegotiation, but failed to do so.

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Andrew Gilligan (he of Hutton Inquiry fame) claimed a couple of days ago that the Scottish Government had left its plans for gender self-identification open to legal challenge by changing its Twitter cover photo to the words "Dear transphobes, we have a phobia of your hatred.  Yours, Scotland".  This was clearly intended to coincide with the publication of the outcome of a consultation on self-ID, in which 60% of respondents were in favour of the proposal.  I would be amazed if there is any prospect of a legal challenge succeeding, but I do think the timing of that change of cover photo was deeply ill-advised.  Imagine how it must have made opponents of self-ID feel, especially if they participated in that consultation in good faith.  One perfectly plausible interpretation was that the 40% who didn't support self-ID were being implicitly branded as transphobes.  If so, the consultation was not a genuine listening exercise, but was instead a presentational stunt that always intended to make an example of ideological undesirables.

Where does this identity politics zealotry end?  We've had the newly-elected SNP Equalities Convener openly use the dehumanising slur "TERF" against her ideological opponents on the self-ID issue, and express her generic distaste for the male gender.  In years to come, will people who persist in opposing self-ID find themselves expelled from the SNP on the grounds of "transphobic hate-speech", in the same way that Grouse Beater has just been expelled on a highly questionable charge of anti-Semitism, having had his guilt prejudged weeks in advance by the aforementioned Equalities Convener?  And if the SNP are ever foolish enough to go through with their relatively new policy of implementing the Nordic model on prostitution law in Scotland, thus defining certain types of consensual sex as "violence against women", will those who oppose the law be shunned by all right-thinking people as "enablers of violence"?

If you've ever wondered what Robespierre would have been like if he'd been an avid fan of A Thousand Flowers, we could be about to find out.  Let's reinject a bit of common sense before we meet that ghastly fate.  Let's debate those we disagree with, and not attempt to destroy them.  Politics, not pulverisation.

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Monday, November 26, 2018

Sky News are hellbent on undermining Scottish democracy - they must be challenged, and stopped

You may have seen today that SNP depute leader Keith Brown has written to Sky News chiding them for their apparent plan to exclude Nicola Sturgeon from the proposed TV debate on the Brexit deal.  Now, it's possible that Sky may argue that this is not a general election debate, we're not in a regulated general election period, and therefore all that is needed is the leading representative from the pro-deal side (Theresa May) and the leading representative from the anti-deal side (Jeremy Corbyn).  But that won't wash, for the simple reason that Sky News are right in the middle of a bizarre months-long crusade to exclude Scotland's leading party from future general election debates as well, so their plans for the Brexit debate are clearly fuelled by exactly the same Anglocentric mindset.

Not that they're being upfront about their desire to exclude the SNP, of course - they're simply badgering viewers to sign an innocuous-sounding petition to "make leaders' debates happen".  But the very few explanatory words at the top of the petition set out exactly what Sky's definition of a "debate" is, and it's nothing short of extraordinary.

"Genuine leaders' debates took place in 2010, but in the next two elections didn't happen."

What?  What?  What?  The "genuine debates" in 2010 excluded the SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Greens.  Whereas in 2015 there was an immaculately inclusive debate on ITV that included the leaders of all of those parties, alongside the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.  According to Sky that was not a "genuine debate".  Why?  Presumably because the Jocks and the Taffies were cluttering up the set and making it hard for viewers to concentrate on the "real choice" between the terribly important London-based parties, who are terribly important because they're based in London.

Make no mistake - Sky's agenda is to destroy Scotland's political distinctiveness and to impose a one-size-fits-all London model on the entire UK.  They must be stopped.

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

YouGov poll suggests that Scotland is even more opposed to May's Brexit deal than the rest of the UK

"The British people want us to get this done!" says Theresa May, implying that they want parliament to endorse her Brexit deal.  The only snag: opinion polling suggests they want no such thing.  Here are the latest GB-wide numbers from YouGov...

Support the deal: 23%
Oppose the deal: 45%

In fairness that represents an 8% increase in support for the deal, which mean things have gone from catastrophic to merely disastrous for May.  But if the Scottish subsample of the poll is to believed (and yes, there are the usual caveats about the reliability of any individual subsample) things are even worse for her here.  Only 14% of Scottish respondents support the deal, and 51% oppose it - more than a 3 to 1 margin against.

The likes of Kenny Farquharson, and May loyalists in the Tory government, have tried to get a narrative going that says the SNP should act responsibly and in the national interest by letting the deal through. But for as long as only 14% of the public actually support that notion of "responsibility", there will be absolutely zero pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to reverse her plans to vote the deal down - and with a bit of luck to bring the wretched May premiership to a long-overdue end.  Now is the time, Prime Minister, now is the time.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Putting a second indyref on pause for the last eighteen months may yet prove to have been beneficial, but only if that pause ends soon

Robin McAlpine has another article over at CommonSpace in which he castigates the leadership of "the movement" (by which he presumably means Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues) for inaction on an independence referendum, and for potentially letting a historic opportunity slip by.  I'm trying to work out how much of it I agree with.  There's one small part that I definitely disagree with, because it's factually inaccurate - Robin claims that it's been almost two years since an opinion poll last pointed to a pro-independence majority at Holyrood, but that's categorically not true.  A Survation poll as recently as July suggested that the SNP and Greens between them would have a fairly comfortable majority.  Obviously there are a number of different projection models, but there was another poll as recently as last month that might just about have translated into a pro-indy majority.  It's true that most recent polls have suggested the SNP and Greens would fall short, but not all that far short, and there are still two and a half years to go until the next election anyway.

I'm also inclined to disagree with Robin's call for the development of a detailed prospectus for independence.  Clearly the public need to be inspired by the possibilities of independence, but what we shouldn't do is require "the movement" to monolithically support something that closely resembles a party political manifesto for a post-indy election.  There needs to be space for centrist or centre-right indy supporters to say that they hope to take Scotland in a very different direction from the one Robin McAlpine has in mind.  For similar reasons, I'm agnostic about Robin's calls for the SNP to abandon the Growth Commission report, which is very much a radical left preoccupation.

But on the main thrust of the article, I'm just not sure.  As the old joke about the French Revolution goes, it's probably too early to tell. 

In the immediate aftermath of last year's general election, I was extremely worried that the SNP leadership might have lost their heads (over what was, after all, a clear victory), and were about to make a terrible mistake by putting an independence referendum on the backburner as a sop to voters in the minority of seats that were now held by the Tories.  I wrote blogpost after blogpost urging that the triple-lock mandate for a pre-2021 referendum should be honoured, and at one point I was even quoted in the Financial Times with words to that effect.  That attracted the anger of a number of fellow SNP members who loudly told me, in defiance of quite a bit of publicly-available evidence, that the leadership's position was absolutely unchanged.  "Just trust Nicola" was a common refrain.  When the new policy was eventually revealed, it of course turned out that there had been a significant shift, but I nevertheless breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I didn't personally agree with an eighteen month pause in the plans for a referendum, but as long as we were still headed towards the same destination, that was all that mattered.  And I could see that there was a plausible argument that voters would in the long run be more accepting of a second indyref if the SNP had spent a decent period of time concentrating on securing the least worst Brexit for the whole UK, and had been seen to fail in spite of their very best endeavours.

But of course everything hinges on the assumption that the SNP leadership were being honest that this attempt to improve Brexit is strictly time-limited, will come to an end soon and will give way to a renewed all-out push for independence.  If that's what happens, the delay could well have been beneficial and Robin will be proved wrong.  But if the pause was instead a cover story for the beginning of an indefinite delay and for the SNP's gradual transformation into a primarily anti-Brexit party, then Robin is right and those who "trusted Nicola" made a mistake.  I genuinely don't know which way it's going to go, but I still very much live in hope.

One thing Robin is undoubtedly right about is that it's not good enough for the leadership to say to the rank-and-file: "stop thinking and talking about process, just leave all of that to us, we know what we're doing, and you don't need to know what we're planning".  I am inclined to trust Nicola Sturgeon, but at the end of the day those of us who are members of the SNP joined because we believe in Scottish independence, and not because of a quasi-religious belief in the infallibility of one person.

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Here's why the Scotland in Union propaganda poll should not be included in any list of independence polls

A few hours ago, I was bemused to be contacted on Twitter by graph-wielding unionist uber-troll Steve Sayers, who I'm quite sure I blocked a year or two back in a successful bid to free up an extra three hours of leisure time per day.  Presumably he must have cunningly set up a new account at some point, and we're all going to have to block him all over again.  Anyway, he presented me with a graph (gasp!) which purported to track a decline in support for independence over the last few years, and which needless to say depended for its impact on the inclusion of a poll which had absolutely no business being there - ie. Tuesday's propaganda poll from Scotland in Union, which was portrayed in some quarters as an independence poll but was no such thing.

After "discussing" this point with Steve for a little while, it suddenly occurred to me that I'd better check Wikipedia's list of independence polls, just to reassure myself that nobody had been mad enough to add the SiU poll.  I wish I hadn't bothered, because sure enough it was there.  (The words "non-standard question" had been added in the notes section, as if that made the whole thing OK.)  Let me try to explain why it shouldn't be there, and why it should undoubtedly be removed, if such a thing can be achieved without triggering a destructive edit war.

As I pointed out in my original post about the poll, Survation online polling using the standard independence question typically produces a Yes vote in the mid-to-high 40s.  The last one was published less than a month ago and had Yes on 45%, which was actually a touch on the low side, probably due to random sampling variation.  It is phenomenally improbable that there has been a genuine 5-point slump since then, especially given that last week's Panelbase poll suggested that support for independence was holding up and perhaps even increasing.  The overwhelming likelihood is that the atypical result instead came about purely because of the usage of the ridiculous question, "Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?", which bears no resemblance to the question asked in normal independence polls.

There have been at least two suggestions made about why the remain / leave question would produce such a radically different result.  One is that some respondents may not actually know what "the United Kingdom" is and may wrongly assume that "leaving the United Kingdom" is tantamount to abandoning the monarchy.  The second suggestion is that the words "Remain and "Leave" are now so strongly associated with the EU debate that a minority of respondents may have not read the question correctly, and wrongly assumed that by selecting the "Remain" option they were indicating a desire for Britain to remain in the EU.  I gather there is anecdotal evidence that one respondent almost did exactly that.  Personally I think the monarchy is the more plausible explanation, because there have been similar findings in polls that predated the EU referendum.  But it may well be a bit of both.

Now, I know some people will raise the objection that the possibility that respondents may have misunderstood the question does not in itself invalidate a poll.  After all, there are a lot of very stupid people out there, and some of them are probably even capable of misunderstanding the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?"  But the problem with the Scotland in Union poll goes a lot further than that, because even on the literal meaning of the question it is quite simply not a poll about independence.  It's no exaggeration to say that respondents would have had to read something into the wording of the question that was not actually there if they were to understand that it was intended to be an independence poll.

To put it in a nutshell, "leaving the UK" is not synonymous with "becoming an independent country".  There are several possible outcomes if a territory leaves a sovereign state, of which independence is only one.  Others are that the territory can become an integral part of a different state, or can become a dependency of either the existing sovereign state or another state, or can become an associated state (see the relationship of the Cook Islands to New Zealand).  Now, it's arguably pretty likely that most respondents would correctly infer that "leaving" probably means "independence" in our own case, but I don't see how Scotland in Union can have their cake and eat it on this point.  If no allowance can be made for respondents incorrectly interpreting the question, the basic premise can only be that people were answering the question that was actually in front of them, without making any additional assumptions.  Polls can't depend on respondents being mind-readers - that would be ridiculous.

That being the case, this was not an independence poll.  It's not inconceivable that a poll containing the pejorative words "leave the UK" could be regarded as a genuine independence poll (albeit that would be highly unsatisfactory), but only if there were additional explanatory words, ie. "leave the UK to become an independent country".  There is no such clarification in the Scotland in Union poll, and it should therefore be removed from Wikipedia's list of independence polls.

My strong suspicion is that it only ever found its way onto the list because of the spurious credibility given to it by the Scotsman's front page story.  It's unlikely that a similar propaganda poll run by a pro-independence organisation would ever make the list.  This is the problem with the lack of plurality in our mainstream media - it distorts our sense of reality.

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