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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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