Thursday, February 20, 2020

The flexible laws of unionist mathematics

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm quoted in a new article by Alasdair Soussi on the Al Jazeera website about whether there should be an artificial threshold for a Yes victory in the next independence referendum.  You can read it HERE.

I must say that the views from Kenny Farquharson quoted at the end of the piece are truly extraordinary.  As far as I can gather, this is how he thinks the rules should handle various close results -


Hmmm. Round our way, we call that cheating.  And this is supposed to be the antidote to division and grievance?  Good luck with that, Kenny.  If Scotland votes for independence and is then told that it's remaining in the UK because 47 is a bigger number than 53, you'd soon have civil disobedience on a scale that wasn't even seen during the poll tax era.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A consultative referendum is an opportunity to be grasped, not a bogeyman to cower away from

Pete Wishart is one of the de facto leaders of the 'indefinite delay' faction within the SNP, and judging from his latest blogpost he seems to have been put on the defensive by the results of this blog's Panelbase poll from about ten days ago that showed, by a clear majority of 56% to 44%, that the Scottish people think Holyrood should go ahead and legislate for a consultative referendum if the UK government continue to refuse to grant a Section 30 order.  Pete rehearses a number of objections that we've heard many times before, but let's go through a few of them anyway.  (For clarity, I'n paraphrasing him below, rather than quoting directly.)

'The new support for Yes is incredibly fragile, and we will lose all of those converts with talk of UDI, dissolved unions and wildcat referendums.'  

First of all, it goes without saying that "UDI" and "dissolved unions" have nothing - absolutely nothing whatever - to do with a consultative referendum, and so those are pretty blatant straw men on Pete's behalf and should be totally disregarded.  The use of the word "wildcat" is also absurdly inappropriate for a referendum that is legitimately legislated for by the Scottish Parliament, and that is either upheld by the courts or isn't subject to a legal challenge in the first place.  But to turn to the substance of the point, Pete has made unsubstantiated claims in the past (usually based on vague doorstep anecdotes) about the impact that certain supposedly 'hasty' actions would have on support for independence.  We're fortunate in that we now have polling evidence with which to test those claims, and frankly that evidence very strongly indicates that Pete has got it wrong.  A mere 4% of the people who are currently minded to vote Yes (and who are now, don't forget, a majority of the electorate) told Panelbase that they are opposed to legislating for a consultative referendum without a Section 30.  By contrast, 10% of current No voters support the idea, so if anything we might actually gain more support by being bold!

'If we legislate for a consultative referendum, the UK government won't challenge it in the courts, but will allow it to take place and then boycott it.'

Apparently we're now expected to believe that a good reason for not legislating for a referendum is that the UK will allow it to take place on a legal basis.  On the logic put forward in Nicola Sturgeon's Brexit Day speech, that would actually be an argument for proceeding without delay, because the main objection she raised was that the courts might rule against her.

However, back in the real world, Pete is almost certainly wrong.  There would be a legal challenge.  Everything about the UK government's recent militant behaviour points overwhelmingly to that conclusion.  That means we'd get clarity on the legal position, and the referendum would only take place if the Supreme Court upholds it as the law of the land.  In those circumstances it would be considerably more difficult for the unionist side to boycott it, and even if they did, there would be major doubts over whether a boycott would actually detract from the legitimacy of a scrupulously legal vote.  The onus would be on us to maximise legitimacy by delivering a high Yes turnout - if we have more than 1.8 million Yes votes, we'd be able to point out that we almost certainly would have won even without a boycott.

Incidentally, I am not remotely convinced that No voters would dutifully boycott as a bloc.  I think a decent percentage of them would turn out and vote, particularly if the perception is that the boycott is a Tory project.

'We'd need more than 50% of the total electorate voting Yes to claim victory.'

No we wouldn't.  See above.  Nobody is going to assume there would have been a 100% turnout if the boycott hadn't taken place.

'After a Yes victory, the UK government would legislate to retrospectively make it illegal.'

So let me get this straight.  The UK government wouldn't challenge a referendum in court.  They wouldn't legislate to prevent it happening.   They would let it take place, and allow Yes to win, and only then make the whole process illegal.

Come off it, Pete.  This is just silly.

'People say that victory in a consultative referendum would make the UK government engage, but they haven't explained why this would happen.'

I really, truly don't know whether to laugh or cry at this juncture.  Pete is a leading member of a faction who would have us believe that if we just do absolutely nothing for a few more years, if we just twiddle our thumbs and take no steps to obtain an independence mandate, then all the obstacles will vanish and independence will fall into our laps at some unspecified but long-distant point.  He has never explained (indeed he has never even come within light-years of explaining) how and why the sheer passage of time will lead to the UK government conveniently surrendering, and yet he's now criticising others for not explaining why the UK government will change its attitude?  It's brazen, I'll give him that.  Nobody can know with certainty what will happen, but I do believe that a Yes vote in a consultative referendum (on a sufficient turnout, that is) would be a massive shock to the London establishment and that it would be difficult for them to simply ignore it.  I might be wrong about that, but I'd respectfully suggest that my own belief is somewhat more plausible than Pete's strategy of "let's take no action and then Boris will cave in for no apparent reason in a few years' time".

'There would be pressure to declare UDI after a consultative referendum, and if we did that it would weaken our international standing.'

So what if there's pressure?  Just resist the pressure.  Does anyone seriously believe that any SNP leader would declare UDI in the foreseeable future?  Does anyone believe that even Alex Salmond would have done it?  I don't.  It's a complete red herring.

A solution in search of a problem

The "People's Alliance" plan for a new pro-independence party is yet more People's Front of Judea stuff, and the notion that it's going to ensure we have pro-indy parties as both the government and opposition in Holyrood is absolute pie in the sky.  However, I'm much less concerned about it than I was about the proposed "Wings party".  My fear about what Stuart Campbell was doing was that it might end up falling between two stools - I was almost certain that he wouldn't attract enough votes to win any seats, but I did think it was possible that he might take just enough votes away from the SNP and the Greens (perhaps 0.5% or 1%) to reduce the overall number of pro-indy MSPs.  I don't believe there's much prospect of the People's Alliance causing that sort of damage - it has no big names behind it, it has no ready-made support base, and if it does put up candidates its vote is likely to be negligible.

All the same, I'm puzzled by the timing of this latest development.  I said six months ago that the Wings party was "a solution in search of a problem", ie. Stuart Campbell was saying we'd lose the pro-indy majority unless we gamed the voting system, and yet opinion polls at the time were suggesting that we were on course to retain the pro-indy majority without gaming the system.  That's even more true now - the recent Survation and Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase polls both showed that the SNP and Greens are heading for a thumping majority of Holyrood seats between them.  So why would we want to reinvent the wheel?

The only real answer I ever get to that question is a dark whisper about the potential impact of the forthcoming Alex Salmond trial on public opinion.  I must say I'm not totally convinced - within relatively recent history both the Tories and Liberal Democrats have had ex-Cabinet ministers who served jail sentences, and there's no real evidence that either of those cases had a major effect on voting patterns.  The trial of Jeremy Thorpe (who was ultimately acquitted) probably did hamper the Liberals' performance in the 1979 election, but not by anything like as much as expected - they only suffered a net loss of a couple of seats.  And within two years, the Liberal/SDP Alliance were riding high in the polls, and the Thorpe episode had been virtually forgotten.

However, we'll soon find out.

Monday, February 17, 2020


On the day that Kate Forbes delivered the Scottish Budget, the controversial anti-independence journalist Kevin Schofield made a trademark straw man reply to one of my own tweets.  He said he couldn't think of a bigger story that day than the SNP Finance Secretary being forced to resign just hours before he was due to give his Budget address.  It was an incredulous-sounding defence of the extreme prominence being given to the story across the media, ie. "how could anyone seriously doubt that it's justified?".  Now, it's quite true that Derek Mackay was the author of his own downfall and that his resignation was a significant embarrassment for the Scottish government, but there are reasonable suspicions that the timing of the Sun's exposĂ© was just a bit too convenient from a journalistic point of view. Had they been sitting on the story for some time with the irresponsible intention of sabotaging the Budget process?  If so, was it tantamount to a declaration of war against a government that they urged their own readers to vote for?  And is the new hostile posture as a result of orders from the rabidly pro-Brexit Rupert Murdoch, who will presumably want the SNP to cease being such a thorn in the side of Boris Johnson?

We'll have to wait for more full-scale Scottish polls to find out whether Murdoch's tactics are succeeding in chipping away at public support for the SNP, and possibly for independence itself.  But there's a reassuring straw in the wind from the new GB-wide Opinium poll, which shows the SNP on an unusually high 6% of the vote.  (4% or 5% of the vote is more typical, although a post-election revision of the weighting scheme may be having an impact.)

Actually there are a number of supplementary questions about Scotland in the poll as well, but unfortunately one of them starts with a blatant factual inaccuracy, which misinforms respondents and thus effectively invalidates the results.  Here is the full wording -

An independence referendum in Scotland can only legally be held if the UK government agrees to it.  The UK government agreed to the 2014 referendum after the SNP won a landslide in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.  Supporters of another referendum argue that:
*Circumstances have fundamentally changed since 2014 where one of the main arguments was that Scotland would have been forced to leave the European Union if it became independent.  
*Scotland has now been "dragged out of the EU against its will" given that 62% of voters in Scotland voted Remain.
Opponents argue that:
*The 2014 vote was "once in a generation" and settled the issue.
*Holding another one opens the door to a "neverendum" where the question gets repeated until Scots eventually vote for independence.
Which comes closest to your view?

You probably won't need me to point out the inaccuracy, but I'll do it anyway.  It is flatly untrue to claim that an independence referendum "can only legally be held if the UK government agrees to it".  The UK is not Spain, and even private citizens in this country can legally organise consultative referendums, as Brian Souter proved two decades ago.  It may even be legally possible for the Scottish Parliament to specifically legislate for a consultative referendum without Westminster's consent - legal opinions differ on that point, and it has never been tested in court.  Essentially Opinium's question presents the UK government's untested opinion as indisputable fact.  That's an outrageous thing to do, although arguably the Scottish Government have to accept a small share of the blame, because they've been far too hesitant and apologetic in challenging the London narrative of "illegality".  Hopefully this sort of incident will be a wake-up call.

For what little it's worth, the result of the inaccurate question was that 43% of respondents across Britain think there should be another indyref, and 57% don't.  That's a bit closer than I would have expected.

Another question finds that 44% of respondents think that majority support for Yes in the opinion polls should be the determining factor in whether a referendum takes place, and only 23% say election results are more important.  In a way that suits us well enough, because Yes are in the lead in the most recent polls.  But as I've said many times, giving opinion polls a de facto status in the British constitution is utterly ludicrous.  There are never any guarantees that pollsters are getting it right.

35% of respondents expect Scotland to leave the UK within the next decade.  That's not a bad figure, but we could do with working on it a bit, because a greater sense of inevitability would undoubtedly work in our favour.