Thursday, May 14, 2020

Landmark Wings poll finds that the SNP's popularity is crucial to preserving the coalition of support for independence

One of the reasons I knew in advance there was a Wings poll on its way was that people who had been interviewed by Panelbase mentioned there were "a lot of oddly-worded questions about the trans issue".  But it turns out that the oddly-worded questions weren't just confined to one subject.  Check out this monster - 

Please consider the following hypothetical scenario: the SNP issue a legally-binding commitment that in the event of a Yes vote for Scottish independence, they will permanently disband the party and step down from government as soon as the independence negotiations are concluded.  In that event, how do you think you would vote in an independence referendum?

Oh-kaaaaaay, Stu.  I mean, why stop there?  Why not ask people how they would vote in an independence referendum in the hypothetical scenario that Nicola Sturgeon and the entire SNP cabinet make a legally-binding commitment to blast off on a rocket bound for Saturn the following day?  I'm not a lawyer, but I have my doubts as to whether it's even possible for the kind of pre-commitments Stuart is talking about to be legally-binding.  For the SNP to disappear "permanently", I presume it would literally have to be prohibited by statute in much the same way that Germany has banned any form of Nazi party.  As for government formation, that's a matter for the Scottish Parliament at any given moment in time - options can't be closed off months or years in advance.

So what the hell was the point of Stuart asking such a ludicrous question?  Reading between the lines, it appears to have been a propaganda exercise, intended to establish that the SNP are a drag on support for independence.  If so, it backfired totally, because the result is the opposite - support for independence actually decreases from 50% to 47% when people are asked to assume that the SNP will no longer be around.  That really shouldn't have been such a surprise to Stuart, because a number of people have become independence supporters precisely because they've seen the SNP run a devolved administration with a high degree of competence, and expect more of the same with the full powers of independence.  As soon as you take away even the possibility of a post-independence SNP government, the reassurance disappears and those people are left with a considerable amount of uncertainty about what independence would look like and whether it would be a success.

Having failed to get the result he wanted, Stuart naturally does his usual "heads I win, tails you lose" thing, and tries to spin the result so that it supposedly still shows that the SNP are the main obstacle to independence (because their voters allegedly care more about maintaining SNP rule than about achieving the party's goal).  Yeah, whatever.

In science, there's an important concept called 'falsifiability'.  One implication of it is that if you set up a study in the hope of proving that a theory is true, there has to be a way in which the study could also prove the theory is false.  For example, if someone is claiming to have psychic powers, and you ask them ten questions to prove they are a charlatan, you have to accept that if they get all ten questions right, you've failed to prove what you set out to prove.  You can't then shift the goalposts and say "oh, but this just proves how cunning a charlatan he is!"

Stuart's claim (that his poll proves that the SNP are the main obstacle to indy) fails the falsifiability test, and fails it utterly.  He would literally have made exactly the same claim if he had got precisely the opposite result - and that was what he was seeking.

Prematurely relaxing restrictions on so-called "low-risk" groups is an exceptionally high-risk thing to do - unless you can somehow totally segregate the generations, which you can't.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The BBC can't have it both ways: if they want to criticise the Scottish Government for not taking stronger action than Westminster, they can't simultaneously dismiss devolved laws as toytown rules that shouldn't be taken too seriously

I said yesterday that the BBC were partly justified (and I stress only partly) in asking whether the Scottish Government could have saved lives by locking down earlier than the rest of the UK.  But if the BBC want to have any credibility in suggesting that devolved administrations should diverge more from the UK government line, it would be helpful if their own presenters and journalists didn't dismissively refer to the stricter lockdown laws that now exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as if they're toytown rules that don't need to be taken too seriously.  I'm sure you already know what I'm talking about - it's the notoriously sneering exchange on the BBC News channel between host Simon McCoy and Home Affairs Correspondent Daniel Sandford.

*  *  *

Simon McCoy: If you want to get in your car, you can, you can drive as far as you want, but you're not allowed to go into another nation.

Daniel Sandford: (chuckles incredulously) Don't cross the border!

Simon McCoy: (incredulously) Don't cross the border!

Daniel Sandford: I think this goes to the heart of the problem that the Westminster government is having with trying to make sure that the other nations march alongside them a bit.  Of course to a degree there's some politics going on, the other nations are flexing their muscles a bit, saying 'we're not going to take regulations from Westminster'...but it is a ridiculous situation where someone who lives in England on the Welsh border can drive all the way along to the coast of East Anglia to go to the coast but can't cross five miles across the border into Wales under these same rules, but to be honest with you, nobody's going to police that.  That's just what they're asking people to do because of the different rules in the different countries.  

*  *  *

Crikey.  If anyone doubted that Anglocentricity is alive and well at the BBC in London, this should put their minds to rest.  Where to start?

* First of all, as I understand it, the Welsh police are in fact attempting to police the restrictions, but it obviously becomes considerably harder for them to do that if the state broadcaster is wrongly giving people the impression that the law is optional and will not be enforced.  It's no exaggeration to say the BBC have undermined the law of Wales.  That warrants a prominent correction and apology.

* Given that the law in Wales this week is essentially the same as the law in England last week, and given that the police in England were enforcing that law last week, why would it seem in any way strange or unthinkable that the Welsh police would be enforcing it this week?  Unless of course Sandford thinks that laws passed in Cardiff are 'pretend' laws and only laws passed by Westminster are the real thing.

* Note the downright weird implication that the three nations that remain united in upholding the "stay at home" policy are the ones who are out of step, rather than the one nation that has actually decided to go off and do its own thing.

* Note the suggestion that the devolved administrations are a "problem" for the English authorities.  Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that England going rogue is a problem for the devolved administrations?

* Note the subtext in "trying to make sure that the other nations march alongside them a bit" that Westminster is the long-suffering 'parent' administration and the devolved administrations are stubborn children who aren't doing the very reasonable and modest things that are being asked of them.  You'd think after more than twenty years of devolution, the BBC might by now have got their heads around the idea that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have parity of esteem with Westminster on devolved matters, and that if the four governments are going to "march in step", that requires dialogue and compromise - not everyone just doing whatever Westminster decides is best.

* Note that Sandford thinks that the impact of "politics" has only been felt in the decision of the devolved nations to stick with the previous UK-wide policy.  It seems far more likely that the devolved nations have actually been following scientific advice, and that the dog's breakfast of the new policy in England can be largely explained by political considerations (ie. splits within the Tory party).

* No, Daniel, it is not "ridiculous" that different laws are applied and enforced in different jurisdictions.  It is, in fact, entirely routine and unremarkable.  Look at it this way: people in Dover are twenty miles away from France and several hundred miles away from Newcastle.  Is it "ridiculous" that the laws that apply in Dover also apply in Newcastle but not in France?  No?  In that case, why the incredulity about exactly the same principle applying to someone who lives five miles from the Welsh border?  Could this betray a proprietorial attitude towards Wales in particular?  Cardiff can play at law-making, but as soon as those laws interfere with the God-given right of an Englishman to do what he likes "in his own back yard", they must obviously be disregarded?

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dr Mike Ryan of the WHO ferociously denounces UK-style herd immunity strategies: "Humans are not herds", "No-one is safe until everyone is safe"

I posted the other day about Iain Macwhirter quoting Dr Mike Ryan out of context to give the false impression that the World Health Organization had somehow endorsed the reckless Swedish philosophy of "this virus isn't as dangerous as all that, you know" and "we can safely allow it to move through the population".  Needless to say, Ryan actually takes the completely opposite view, as he helpfully demonstrated in yesterday's WHO media briefing with one of the most eloquent denunciations of 'herd immunity' that you'll ever hear or read.  There's a touch of biting sarcasm in this, and it's hard to believe it wasn't aimed at least partly at the likes of Dominic Cummings ("so what if we lose a few old people along the way"), Chris Whitty ("there was an assumption that when the seroepidemiology comes it will demonstrate that most people have been infected and this will all be over") and Patrick Vallance ("this idea that, well, maybe countries that have had lax measures and haven't done anything will all of a sudden magically reach some herd immunity").

"Herd immunity, a term taken from veterinary epidemiology, where people are concerned in animal husbandry with the overall health of the herd.  An individual animal in that sense doesn't matter from the perspective of the brutal economics of that decision-making.  Humans are not herds, and as such the concept of herd immunity is generally reserved for calculating how many people would need to be vaccinated in a population in order to generate that same effect.  So I think we need to be really careful when we use terms in this way around natural infections in humans, because it can lead to a very brutal arithmetic which does not put people and life and suffering at the centre of that equation.

What also does concern me in this narrative is that there was an assumption as this disease spread around the world that we're really just seeing the severe cases and the difficult cases, and when the seroepidemiology comes, it will demonstrate that most of the people have been infected, and this will all be over and we'll go back to normal business.  Well, the preliminary results from the seroepidemiologic studies is showing the opposite.  It's showing the proportion of people with significant clinical illness is actually a higher proportion of all those who've been infected, because the number of people infected in the total population is probably much lower than we expected.  And as Maria has said, that means we have a long way to go, and it means, as the Director-General has been saying for months, this is a serious disease, this is Public Enemy No. 1.  We have been saying it over and over and over and over again.  We really do need to now step back and sort of recalculate this as a 'mild illness' and effectively make the same mistakes we made the first time round in terms of not taking this seriously, and not putting in place the necessary measures.  

We have a second chance now, as a society, to put in place the necessary public health interventions, to put in place the necessary community support, to support our vulnerable populations, be they in long-term care facilities, or be they in refugee camps.  No-one is safe until everyone is safe.  

So I do think this idea that, well, maybe countries that have had lax measures and haven't done anything will all of a sudden magically reach some "herd immunity", and so what if we lose a few old people along the way, I mean this is a really dangerous, dangerous calculation, and not one that I believe most member states are willing to make.  Member states, responsible member states, will look at all their population, they'll value every member of their society, and they'll try to do everything possible to protect health, while at the same time obviously protecting society, protecting the economy and other things.  We need to get our priorities right as we enter the next phase of this fight."

The quoted section can be viewed below from approximately 47:52.

The BBC's criticism of Scotland's slowness to react to the crisis is *partly* justified - but the BBC itself has questions to answer about its own failings in March

Quite a few SNP and independence supporters have reacted angrily to a BBC Scotland programme earlier this evening that suggested 80% of the deaths in Scotland could have been prevented if we had locked down two weeks earlier.  But in a sense that was just a statement of the obvious - we already know from the example of other countries (Denmark, New Zealand, Greece, etc) that locking down earlier and harder could have averted the worst of the catastrophe.  The bigger question is whether the BBC is apportioning blame in the wrong place, because Scotland didn't really have the legal power to fully lock down in early March.  (There's even an ongoing debate over whether the newly-won power to unilaterally maintain lockdown is meaningful, given London's control of the purse-strings.  But luckily we should only need to diverge for a matter of weeks rather than months, as long as we get to grips with testing and contact tracing quickly.)

It was the collective 4 Nations approach that failed, and Scotland's role in that was quite complex - it would have been realistic for us to go our own way in some respects but not in others.  There are four mistakes for which I think the Scottish Government can be legitimately criticised -

1) Not stopping large public gatherings earlier.  They eventually took that step a few days earlier than England, so there's no question that they could and should have done it even earlier.  The Lewis Capaldi concert should not have gone ahead, and neither should the Rangers v Leverkusen match or the Scotland v France Six Nations fixture.

2) Not closing schools earlier.  Again, this is undoubtedly a devolved power and there was no good reason for remaining in lockstep with England for so long.

3) Abandoning testing and contact tracing at the same time as the UK government.  Whatever the capacity issues, it should have been continued to the maximum extent possible.

4) Not issuing strong social distancing advice earlier.  You don't need to have or use draconian powers to get people to listen to your advice when you suggest that they should stay away from each other as much as possible.  That could really have made a telling difference, but instead, in those crucial days of mid-March, the leading Scottish Government spokesman was ludicrously advising people to increase their contact with vulnerable relatives, to go to mass gatherings, and boasting that he would do so himself.

And make no mistake - Leitch didn't issue that irresponsible advice because he was unaware of how bad the situation was. He was quite open in a number of interviews that his objective was for the vast majority of the population to be infected (albeit in a managed way) to achieve population-wide immunity. That was unforgivably reckless, given how little was known about the virus at the time - not least how deadly it is and how long any immunity actually lasts after infection.

So, yes, the BBC had a point tonight - albeit only partly. But the BBC itself should be answering questions about one of its biggest-ever failures as a public service broadcaster. During the herd immunity episode, it wasn't probing the UK government about the plans to expose the bulk of the population to a deadly pathogen, it wasn't asking the obvious question: "you're going to do WHAT?" Instead, it merely acted as a dutiful relayer of the state's messaging, "explaining" to viewers what was going to happen to them - exactly as a state broadcaster would do in an authoritarian country.

Monday, May 11, 2020

As predicted, Stuart Campbell performs *another* 180 degree turn: his new case for a list-only party flatly contradicts the one he was making only a few months ago

Stuart Campbell's latest rant today is fascinating (and mildly depressing) in at least one respect.  I had assumed his initial positive noises about the setting up of a new pro-indy fringe party meant that the idea of a Wings Party had finally been laid to rest, and that he would be throwing his weight behind the new outfit instead.  But nope, not a bit of it.  He says a list-only party can only work if it has "a well-known brand or profile or leadership figures", which strongly suggests he's still nursing the misguided notion that the Wings "brand" and "profile" can somehow overcome a lack of well-known or credible leadership figures.  (As I've pointed out before, Wetherspoons is a very well-known brand, but it's not like you can put the word Wetherspoons on a ballot paper and expect to have a viable political party.)  So it now looks possible that pro-independence representation at Holyrood will be threatened next year by the intervention of at least two new fringe parties who stand little or no chance of winning any seats at all.

As I noted when Stuart's own Panelbase poll was released last week, the Holyrood voting intention numbers effectively destroy the specific case that he made last year in favour of his own party.  He argued that, in the absence of a 'helpful' intervention such as a Wings Party, we were heading for the loss of the pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2021 - mainly due to the supposed inevitability of the SNP taking an enormous hit as a result of the Alex Salmond trial.  He's been proved wrong about that, and his own polling suggests that in the post-trial world, we're now on course not just for a pro-indy majority, but for a single-party SNP majority.  But the other thing I noted last week is that arguments in favour of "gaming" the system have a habit of conveniently mutating when circumstances change, and we therefore shouldn't necessarily assume that Stuart would give up the ghost.  And so it has proved.  He's now making entirely the opposite case to the one he made last year - he's arguing that because the SNP will win so many seats, they won't need any list votes.

So just to be clear: if the SNP are expected to do badly, that makes the case for a list-only party.  If the SNP are expected to do well, that makes the case for a list-only party.  Literally everything makes the case for a list-only party in Stuart's mind.  (Unless of course it's 2016, in which case any attempt to game the system with a list-only party is a "mug's game".  But, hey, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, yeah?)

I'm pretty confident I felt my ears burning at this point in Stuart's piece - 

"One website has now published, we think, over 30 articles packed with increasing amounts of raging personal abuse about it, although none of them have ever attempted to address the arguments in Gavin Barrie's calm, professional analysis from last September."

Hmmm.  I must confess I haven't kept track of the number of times Stuart has made passive-aggressive comments of that sort, but I suspect it's rather more than 30.  (Before today's, the most recent was of course his petulant reaction to my column in last month's iScot magazine, which he clearly felt should have been censored - in spite of the fact that neither it, nor any of the other articles he's fuming about, contained even the slightest trace of personal abuse, "raging" or otherwise.)  All the same, it's quite an achievement for Stuart to have a purported running tally of Scot Goes Pop posts about the Wings Party, but to have mysteriously missed my detailed twenty-three paragraph rebuttal of Gavin Barrie's pseudo-scientific assertions.  Having a bit of a snooze that day were we, Reverend?

Incidentally, one thing that puzzles me about the new Independence for Scotland party is that there's quite a bit of overlap between its supporters and people who hope that Joanna Cherry will become SNP leader.  If there's a vacancy at the top at some point in the coming years, I can well imagine that I'll find myself supporting a leadership bid by Ms Cherry, but I can tell you one thing for certain: that bid will not be helped by some of her natural backers having left the SNP altogether.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

If Britain has ceased to look like "one United Kingdom" tonight, it's because Boris Johnson has insisted upon a go-it-alone English-only policy change, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain united around "stay at home"

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The latest film from Phantom Power...