Thursday, January 18, 2018

The ultimate betrayal: Scottish Tory MPs vote to destroy the devolution settlement as we have known it for the last twenty years

I wasn't following the notorious events in the Commons the other night very closely, so I was intrigued to see what the wording of the Labour amendment on protecting devolution actually was.  Hansard is murderously hard to make sense of sometimes, but as far as I can see this is the one -

"(4) The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament proposals for replacing European frameworks with UK ones.

(5) UK-wide frameworks shall be proposed if and only if they are necessary to—

(a) enable the functioning of the UK internal market,

(b) ensure compliance with international obligations,

(c) ensure the UK can negotiate, enter into and implement new trade agreements and international treaties,

(d) enable the management of common resources,

(e) administer and provide access to justice in cases with a cross-border element, or

(f) safeguard the security of the UK.

(6) Ministers of the Crown shall create UK-wide frameworks only if they have consulted with, and secured the agreement of, the affected devolved administrations."

And the explanatory note on the effect of the amendment -

"This amendment removes the Bill’s proposed restrictions on the ability of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on devolved ​matters and creates new collaborative procedures for the creation of UK-wide frameworks for retained EU law."

As you can see, the amendment would not, if it had been passed, have changed the status quo in respect of devolution - it would instead have upheld the status quo, and rectified the parts of the EU Withdrawal Bill that are intended to repeal the central principle of the Scotland Act 1998, namely that anything not specifically reserved to Westminster is fully devolved, without exceptions.  (You might recall that this principle has been so watertight until now that it was discovered a few years ago that powers relating to Antarctica had been devolved to Holyrood in 1999 without anyone even noticing.)

As has been well-rehearsed, if the Scottish Tory MPs had voted as a bloc for the amendment, it would have narrowly passed by two votes, and the devolution settlement they are supposed to regard as sacred would have been preserved.  Instead, they voted against what they claim to believe in, and the amendment was defeated by twenty-four votes.  It's important to stress that the Bill has now entirely completed its passage through the elected chamber, and will automatically pass into law in its current devolution-busting form unless the Lords amend it, which self-evidently is something that Scottish Tory MPs (let alone SNP MPs) can have no direct control over.  It is literally the case that the Scottish Tories have voted to rip apart the devolved settlement as we have known it for the last twenty years, and are now relying on a ragtag of hereditary peers, Anglican bishops and Tony's Cronies to put it back together again for us.  And this is standing up for Scotland, Ruth?  This is "bloody well getting it done", is it?  This is what "producing results that the SNP's grievance politics can't" looks like, yeah?

It's become the fashion among unionist commentators to scoff at the notion that the pre-referendum "Vow" was never implemented. One frequently-heard (and extremely cynical) argument is that the promises made were so vague and unspecific that the UK government could have done or not done pretty much anything and still accurately claimed to have delivered the Vow. But let's take one component of the Vow that was pretty specific, namely that "the Scottish Parliament is permanent". No reasonable person would have taken that to mean "there will permanently be an institution called the Scottish Parliament, but whether it retains any or all the powers it currently has will be decided at the whim of the UK government". The pledge was quite properly interpreted as meaning that the powers held by the Scottish Parliament in 2014 were the minimum that could now be regarded as permanently protected. As things stand, the EU Withdrawal Bill that the Scottish Tories have just voted through will therefore directly breach the Vow. That's the default position Ruth Davidson's handiwork has left us with. But perhaps the 7th Marquess of Salisbury and the Bishop of Durham will step in and save the day? Fingers crossed, eh?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Body blow for hapless Leonard as Labour slip back in first Scottish poll of 2018

Many thanks to Stuart Dickson for alerting me to the first full-scale Scottish poll of the New Year, conducted by YouGov for the Scottish edition of The Times.

Scottish voting intentions for the next Westminster general election (YouGov, 12th-16th January):

SNP 36% (-4)
Labour 28% (-2)
Conservatives 23% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
Greens 3% (+2)
UKIP 3% (+2)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (constituency ballot):

SNP 38% (-4)
Conservatives 26% (+1)
Labour 23% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+2)
Greens 3% (+1)
UKIP 2% (+1)

Scottish Parliament voting intentions (regional list ballot):

SNP 32% (-3)
Conservatives 25% (+2)
Labour 22% (-2)
Greens 10% (+4)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
UKIP 3% (+2)
SSP 2% (-1)

It may seem obvious that a drop of four points for the SNP is significant, but it's impossible to know that for certain.  If, for example, support for the party in Westminster terms has remained steady at around 38%, the margin of error could have flattered them by two points in the last YouGov poll in October, and understated them by two points in this poll, thus producing an entirely illusory four-point shift.  It's also conceivable that there has been a genuine drop, but that margin of error effects are exaggerating it.  Certainly there was no sign at all of the SNP going backwards in the Survation poll conducted in early December, so I'd be more inclined to the view that nothing much has changed - at least until we see another poll confirming the trend reported by YouGov.

Should Scotland be an independent country?  

Yes 43% (-1)
No 57% (+1)

The Times' interpretation of the above finding is ludicrous to the point of being almost embarrassing - they claim that support for independence has "dwindled", but in fact a 1% drop is of no statistical significance whatever in a poll with a margin of error of 3 points.  The 43% share for Yes is firmly within the 'normal range' produced by recent YouGov polls - indeed the last-but-one YouGov poll had Yes on exactly 43%.  So this is essentially a no change result, and categorically not a "setback for Yes".

We'll have to see the datasets to be sure, but the likelihood is that YouGov have persevered with their reprehensible practice of excluding 16 and 17 year olds from their independence polling, which leaves open the theoretical possibility that the reported Yes vote is 1% lower than it should be (after rounding).

Much is being made of the finding that 36% of respondents want an independence referendum within the next five years, and 54% don't - but that just appears to be a 'house effect' of YouGov's polling.  They've been asking that question for quite a while and have always produced a negative result, in complete contrast to the 50/50 splits that have often been reported in Panelbase's polling on whether there should be an independence referendum within as little as a couple of years.  We can only speculate as to whether YouGov's panel is for some reason more hostile to a referendum than Panelbase's, or whether there's something about the way YouGov pose the question that produces such markedly different results.

In fairness to The Times, it's not just the SNP and the independence movement they're spinning against - they're also reading far too much into a small drop in Labour support that may or may not prove to be genuine.  However, one detail from the poll can't even conceivably be explained away by the margin of error - Jeremy Corbyn's net personal rating has dropped catastrophically from +20 in October to -3 now.  I would imagine that has been caused quite simply by the fact that we're three months further away from the hoo-ha of the general election campaign, and that people are gradually reverting to the view they held of Corbyn before the Labour surge during May and June.  The million dollar question is whether they would once again swing to a more favourable opinion in the heat of a general election campaign - and on the answer to that question may hang the fate of several SNP-Labour marginal seats.