Saturday, June 20, 2020

Plan B, and dual mandates

A reader kindly let me know a few days ago that there was another Scottish poll from Panelbase in the field.  It asked the standard independence question, but in the middle of a sequence of questions that were primarily about social attitudes (some of them were bordering on philosophical in nature).  I couldn't see any unifying theme at all, or even hazard a guess as to who the client might be.  The mystery has now been partly solved, because Wings Over Scotland has released the results of a "mini-poll", which presumably means it was a composite survey conducted for more than one client.  So there are three possibilities about the independence question, the results of which are not publicly known as of yet: a) it was part of the Wings mini-poll, b) it was asked by Panelbase for technical reasons so the Wings results could be properly weighted, or c) it was part of the poll commissioned by the other client.  I'd imagine c) is the least likely of those options.

The results that we do know about show that respondents, by more than a 2-1 margin, do not think the UK government will "grant a second independence referendum" if pro-independence parties win a majority of votes or seats in next year's Holyrood election.  As I've pointed out before, there are some questions on which public opinion is all-important and others on which it barely matters at all, and I'd suggest this is one of the latter.  If by any chance the UK government were minded to grant a Section 30 order, it wouldn't make much difference whether the public saw it coming or not - although admittedly voter scepticism might make it tougher for the SNP to fight the election on the premise that victory will make Westminster cave in.

As it happens, I agree with the public verdict on this occasion - I think there's precious little chance of the current Tory government conceding a Section 30, although remember that isn't the same thing as "granting a referendum".  The Scottish Parliament still has the option of legislating for a consultative indyref and waiting to see if the UK government challenge it (and more to the point waiting to see the Supreme Court's verdict after the UK government do inevitably challenge it).

I can't see any particular reason why Stuart Campbell would have commissioned this poll unless he was trying to strengthen the case for a 'Plan B' on independence.  That makes it even more incomprehensible that he made such an angry attempt last week to undermine the impact of this blog's Panelbase poll showing a large majority in favour of 'Plan B'.  He really does cut off his nose to spite his face sometimes.

*  *  *

On the subject of cutting off noses to spite faces, that's what the SNP are doing by considering a rule-change to forbid "dual mandates".  The move seems to be motivated by a tribal desire to thwart Joanna Cherry's path to a Holyrood seat, and thus make it harder for her to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader.  But the reality is that Ms Cherry already seems to have made up her mind to seek to become an MSP, and she's unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of being forced to resign her Westminster seat.

So who actually loses from this?  It may well be the SNP as a whole, who will needlessly end up facing a Westminster by-election in potentially tricky Edinburgh terrain.  Alex Salmond held a dual mandate for his first three years as First Minister, and the sun didn't fall out of the sky, so it's not as if there's actually a problem to solve here.

Friday, June 19, 2020

I'm in the dughoose

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm the guest on the latest edition of the Wee Ginger Dugcast, hosted as always by Paul Kavanagh.  Topics discussed include the recent Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, the disgraceful British nationalist thuggery in Glasgow, the risks of attempting to 'game' the Holyrood voting system, the alternatives for securing an independence mandate if a Section 30 order is refused, and the cautious easing of the lockdown in Scotland.  You can listen to the podcast HERE.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Ruth Davidson's catastrophically misjudged attack on Devi Sridhar may unwittingly reveal a lot about the toxic culture of the Scottish Tory party

Ruth Davidson made a catastrophic error of judgement yesterday - not just morally, but also from a public relations point of view.  She questioned the independence and integrity of Professor Devi Sridhar, someone who has earned a deserved reputation with the public during the pandemic for fearlessly speaking truth to power when many other experts have been silent or overly cautious.  Sridhar is not ideological - she'll praise any politician who she thinks is doing the right thing from a public health point of view, and castigate any politician who she thinks is doing the wrong thing.

What led to Davidson's gaffe was a misunderstanding - probably an honest one - on the part of the ITV journalist Peter MacMahon, who thought a tweet from Sridhar calling for schools to reopen properly in mid-August constituted an implied criticism of the Scottish Government's policy.  In fact, Sridhar was calling for the virus to be suppressed so thoroughly that it would actually be safe to relax social distancing in August, which puts her on precisely the same page as Nicola Sturgeon.  (Not a coincidence, because she almost certainly played a part in persuading Ms Sturgeon to adopt that policy in the first place.)  She categorically wasn't saying that we should throw caution to the wind and abandon restrictions while the virus is still present in the community at dangerously high levels, which is essentially the position of the Scottish Government's most vocal critics.

I'd suggest the misunderstanding came about because of a difference in communication style between politicians and journalists on the one hand, and academics on the other.  When stating what she thinks should be done, Sridhar has always been careful to honestly point out the other side of the story and the potential downsides.  When lockdown was announced in March, something she was firmly in favour of, practically the first thing she did was to stress the harms of lockdown and the undesirability of continuing with it for too long - ironically echoing some of the language of the "let the virus rip" brigade she opposes.  Any spin doctor would have been tearing their hair out at her 'naivety', because there was an obvious danger of undermining her own main objective.  Politicians in her shoes would instead have had a laser-like focus on making the case for lockdown, and would have played down or ignored any counter-arguments.  But it's Sridhar's honesty in painting a complete picture that has won her so much trust.  That's what she was doing on schools - she was saying the virus needs to be suppressed and that children need to be back in school as soon as possible.  Both of those statements are true, not just one of them, and there is no contradiction between the two.  Sticking with stronger restrictions now is what will hopefully make a relaxation in August feasible and responsible.

Having posted a second tweet to clear up any misapprehensions, it was fascinating that her clarification was automatically assumed to be dishonest by Ruth Davidson - even though anyone who follows Sridhar knows it is absolutely consistent with what she has been saying for months.  It seems that Davidson could not conceive of the possibility that anyone, even a leading academic, might have nuanced thought-processes they would actually want to share with others.  Instead, the former Scottish Tory leader thought the only plausible explanation was that Sridhar had been leaned on by Ms Sturgeon and had cravenly 'walked back' her original statement.  The even bigger misjudgement was to assume other people would find that a plausible explanation too.  Almost nobody did.

If Davidson's hopelessly faulty instincts on this matter are the product of her personal experience of human nature over the last few years, I would suggest that she's unwittingly revealed rather a lot about the toxic culture of the Tory party.  It's fear and bullying that make the world go round, but only if you happen to live in a world where nobody has any integrity, or principles they're willing to abide by.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

This is the problem with not being an independent country

At the outset of the pandemic, New Zealand was on one end of the spectrum in controversially arguing that the virus could be completely eliminated.  On the other end was the UK, which insisted (in defiance of evidence that already existed from China and South Korea) that it was literally impossible to contain the epidemic, and that it was therefore pointless - and somehow harmful - to even try.  I lost count of the number of times Chris Whitty put on a patronising little smile as he spoke about those naive souls who thought that the goal of the government should be to actually prevent people from being infected, rather than to ensure that the majority of the population was infected in the most 'orderly' way.  "Look at the map," he would say.  "Look at all the countries around us where the virus is.  The idea that this thing is going away does not strike me as terribly plausible."

That's the sort of statement that superficially appears to be highly intelligent and grounded in realism, but is actually totally daft.  It rests on the implication that the virus can somehow move from one country to another in a way that cannot be stopped, which in the case of the UK means that it would have to be able to fly across the English Channel on its own propulsion.  It cannot do that, which means Whitty was wrong: if a country can control its own borders, and can eliminate the virus within those borders, there's no need to fret so much about what's happening elsewhere.  We know that the UK can, if it wishes, control its borders, so that leaves only one question: is it feasible to eliminate the virus on this island?

Initially, Devi Sridhar (Professor at Edinburgh University and one of the voices of sanity throughout this crisis) seemed sceptical that outright eradication could be achieved, and instead tended to argue for the virus to be suppressed as much as possible while we wait for a vaccine or effective treatments to arrive.  But she's come round more to the idea of eradication now that New Zealand has proved its critics wrong.

The Scottish Government, to its credit, has been increasingly bullish about using the word 'eradicate' -

But the snag, of course, is that the Scottish Government does not have all of the tools required to eliminate the virus, because it is not the government of an independent sovereign state. A devolved government can, as we've seen in recent weeks, have success in pushing the virus back and suppressing it, but total elimination requires control over borders and the ability to quarantine people who arrive from countries (such as, for example, England) where the epidemic is far from being extinguished. That doesn't mean elimination is impossible, but it does mean it can only happen if the UK Government are persuaded of the need to attempt it, which at the moment looks a distant prospect. (I suspect the penny will drop eventually, but on past form every painful lesson seems to take far too long.)

The cost of not being independent will on this occasion be counted in the loss of human lives.

* * *

On the other extreme from Devi Sridhar's thread is one from former Scottish Tory spin doctor Andy Maciver, who seems to have learned no lessons at all over the last few months. He's arguing that, in spite of the success of New Zealand and other countries, it's for some reason not possible to stamp out the epidemic in this particular country, and that we should therefore accept that the virus might be around into the long-term. Essentially what he wants is for the Scottish Government to throw caution to the wind on the reopening of schools. He sticks his head firmly in the sand on two points in particular -

"There is a reason why we never hear about children dying or even becoming ill from Covid - it’s because it is not happening."

"I know, I know, it’s not about the children, it’s about who they contact. Firstly, it is worth noting that there is no hard evidence that children infect adults at all."

The idea that we don't hear about children even becoming ill is ludicrous. I personally know of a young child who was symptomatic for several days after being infected. But even leaving aside anecdotal evidence of that sort, there's well-documented evidence of children suffering from a rare inflammatory condition as a result of coronavirus. As for there being "no evidence" of children infecting adults, you'd think we might by now have grasped the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that the precautionary principle dictates that you don't take risks with people's health when there just isn't enough information to know one way or the other.

* * *

I've said a few times that I don't see the need for a new pro-indy party, but that if one is formed it's really important that it has a purpose in life other than 'gaming the system'. If your Party Election Broadcast is an embarrassing three-minute monologue about the d'Hondt formula, you can safely assume you've gone badly wrong somewhere. Alas, judging from the website of the freshly-formed Independence for Scotland party, that mistake has not been avoided. One of the first articles on the site is a tortuous explanation of why the SNP failed to win a list seat in the north-east in 2016, and of how the ISP can supposedly remedy that on behalf of the independence movement if they win "just" 7% of the vote.

The north-east is actually a really poor choice of example, because the SNP succeeded in taking a list seat there in 2011 in spite of winning every constituency seat in the region. A repeat of that type of scenario is not guaranteed, but it's certainly infinitely more likely than a fringe party taking 7% of the vote on its first attempt. What really gives the game away, though, is the fact that the article openly prays in aid Gavin Barrie's pseudoscientific 'analysis' from last year, which many authoritative voices have pointed out was deeply flawed.

It's stated that a voting system designed to prevent a single-party majority means that the forces of unionism have an in-built advantage due to being comprised of three major parties rather than just one. That is, frankly, absolute rubbish. It's the complete opposite of the truth. The SNP's dominance of the Yesser vote has worked firmly in favour of the pro-indy camp - in 2016, a pro-indy majority of seats was won without an absolute majority of the popular vote on either ballot.

I'm troubled also by the suggestion that the ISP exists to challenge a "single party system". That characterisation is simply not accurate - the SNP run a minority government at Holyrood and can't get anything through the Scottish Parliament without the support of at least one other party. But the claim echoes the chorus of spurious unionist complaints from 2015-17 about a "one-party state" - and that period did not end well for the Yes movement. Avoiding self-inflicted wounds is always a good idea.