Friday, June 26, 2020

Plan A is dead, long live Plan B

Sir Keir Starmer may have unwittingly done the SNP a huge favour yesterday by more or less putting the luckless "Plan A" out of its misery and forcing us to look at more viable options. If there had been any realistic prospect of a future Labour government looking more favourably upon a Section 30 order than the Tory government do, the 'delay' faction within the SNP would undoubtedly have been tempted to hold on until 2024 or 2029 or however long it might have taken, and in the meantime just string the rank-and-file membership along with the illusion of activity. Of course Starmer's stance doesn't mean that the 'delay' faction will automatically embrace "Plan B", but it does massively complicate any efforts they might make to hold the line. It'll be difficult for them to credibly claim that they're still in favour of independence if they're angrily denouncing any suggestion that we should actually try to bring our objective about in any circumstances that are remotely likely to exist within the next ten or fifteen years. Back in the 1990s, we used to scoff at the London media's ignorance in referring to the "devolutionist" and "pro-independence" wings of the SNP, but we're perhaps on the verge of genuinely seeing a small, de facto devolutionist wing take shape for the first time, particularly at Westminster - and that will fundamentally change the relationship of those parliamentarians with activists and members who are for the most part deadly serious about making independence happen.

Is there no hope at all that Plan A could still work? I can only see two paths by which it might be reactivated as a viable option, and both of them are long shots -

1) Labour might do so badly in next year's Holyrood election that they embark on yet another round of soul-searching. I discuss this possibility in a forthcoming column for iScot magazine - Labour are probably nursing the hope that they're going to make some sort of recovery in the election due to Keir Starmer's encouraging Britain-wide polling numbers, but at the moment Scottish polls still put them firmly on course to lose yet more seats and slump to a new all-time low, which would be a shock to their system. It doesn't necessarily follow that Starmer will provide a boost once the campaign is actually underway, because it's Richard Leonard that will be leading the campaign and facing up to Nicola Sturgeon in the TV debates - a comparison that could look almost embarrassing. Remember that this time Ian Murray won't be able to disingenuously blame any seat losses on Corbynism - his own fingerprints will be all over the results, and his constitutional extremism may take a hefty share of the blame. From the SNP's point of view, this outcome is certainly worth pursuing, and probably the best way of maximising the chances of a Labour slump is to foreground the question of independence and coax the electorate into making a polarised choice between SNP and Tory. However, the reason it's a long-shot is that bouts of Labour soul-searching always seem to follow the same pattern - once the initial shock of an election defeat wears off, they revert to type and decide that the fault lies with the voters and not with themselves.

2) The 2024 election could result in a hung parliament, thus forcing Starmer to do a deal with the SNP if he wants to become Prime Minister. No-one can deny this is theoretically possible, but the problem is that hung parliaments happen by random chance - there's no way of campaigning for them or making them more likely to occur. There have been twenty-one general elections since 1945, and only three of them have not produced a majority for a single party - a 14% strike rate. And of course one of the three hung parliaments was in 2017, when the SNP had more than 5% of the seats in the Commons, but still didn't hold the balance of power. So you don't just need a hung parliament, you need the right sort of hung parliament. I would guess the chances of it happening in 2024 are 10% at the absolute most, and we simply can't bet the house on that kind of outside hope.

Which moves us on, if we're sensible, to "Plan B". Fortunately, the people of Scotland seem to be firmly behind both of the two main options for seeking an independence mandate in the absence of a Section 30 order...

Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, 28th-31st January 2020:

There are differing legal opinions on whether the Scottish Parliament currently has the power to hold a consultative referendum on independence without Westminster’s permission. If the UK government continues to refuse to give permission, do you think the Scottish Parliament should legislate to hold a referendum and then allow the courts to decide whether it can take place?

Yes 50%
No 39%

With Don't Knows excluded...

Yes 56%
No 44%

Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, 1st-5th June 2020:

If Boris Johnson and the UK Government manage to block an independence referendum, do you think that pro-independence parties such as the SNP and the Greens should consider including an outright promise of independence in their manifestos for a future election, to give people an opportunity to vote for or against the idea?

Yes 49%
No 29%

With Don't Knows excluded...

Yes 63%
No 37%

And the choice between those two possibilities isn't necessarily binary. I think the most logical approach is to legislate for a consultative referendum first, and if the Supreme Court blocks it (a very big "if"), use that ruling to demonstrate to voters that the referendum route has been closed off, and that an election will have to be used instead.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Back to school?

Monday, June 22, 2020

Memo to Pete Wishart: "Plan A" has left Scotland in a "hellish limbo" already. Do you have a single credible proposal for getting us back out of it?

There's a principle in science that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".  I sometimes think that certain leading figures within the SNP regard any suggestion that "Plan A" might not work, and that there might be a more viable alternative means of obtaining an independence mandate, as such an extraordinary claim that it must be held to a higher standard of proof.  It's hard to think of any other explanation for the double-standards that abound in this debate.  "Plan A" simply isn't subjected to the same degree of scrutiny and scepticism as its rivals.  We are told that one of the hurdles that any plan must clear is that it has to be capable of actually delivering independence - and yet "Plan A" clearly fails that test catastrophically.

What is "Plan A"?  It's the idea that if you just ask for a Section 30 order persistently enough, it will be impossible for the Westminster government to say no.  Well, that's been proved wrong.  Twice.  Theresa May said no, and Boris Johnson said no.  There's every indication that even if we twiddle our thumbs for the next four years and wait for a Labour government that might never actually arrive, Sir Keir Starmer would then say no anyway.  It's unclear why "Plan A" fans are so convinced that a strategy that has so conspicuously failed to work for several years will suddenly start working if we wish hard enough, but if they do believe that, the onus is on them to supply some proof that they're not asking us to flog a dead horse for another few years.  The onus is most certainly not on those who make the eminently reasonable point that a failed strategy must be replaced - and that if you don't replace it, you don't believe in independence in any meaningful sense.

And that's the nub of the issue, isn't it?  "Plan A" diehards demand to be shown absolute certainty that "Plan B" will lead to independence, but the reality is that "Plan B" would be demonstrably superior to "Plan A" even if it only has a chance of delivering indy.  There is no such chance with "Plan A", which requires the Scottish Government to take no further action when the Westminster veto is deployed.  If anyone can explain to us how quite literally doing nothing can lead us to our objective, I'm sure we're all ears.

But you'll search in vain for any answers of that sort in Pete Wishart's latest blogpost (which like all his previous ones he'll inevitably describe as "the blog that everyone is talking about!").  His lack of self-awareness is truly astounding - he sneers at the idea that, having refused a referendum, the UK government will accept an election result as a mandate for independence.  And yet Pete's own implicit argument is that, having refused a referendum, the UK government will suddenly do a U-turn and grant a referendum because of opinion polls showing that Scots aren't happy.  In other words, Boris Johnson will be far more impressed by opinion polls than by election results.  Oh-kaaaaay, Pete.  Best of luck with that one.

Back in the real world, it's the obvious fact that election results are harder to ignore than opinion polls that gives "Plan B" a realistic chance of gaining some traction.  I'm not necessarily claiming that it would "work" in the sense of forcing London to negotiate an independence settlement straight away, although I do think that's possible if the mandate is strong enough.  But at the very least I think that a crisis of legitimacy would be created, and that the UK government might end up at the negotiating table to resolve it.  That could, for example, lead to an agreed referendum.

Pete asserts that "Plan B" could take us into a Catalan-style "hellish limbo".  But let's turn that on its head for a moment and imagine what would have happened if the Catalans had adopted the "Scottish model" of asking politely for a referendum and then taking no as a valid answer.  It's not hard to work out: nothing would have happened.  Madrid would have said no, Barcelona would have said "that's fine", and Catalonia would currently be living through precisely the kind of "hellish limbo" that Scotland is living through.  What exactly is your point here, Pete?

Oh, and I must just address a very silly straw man from Pete's blogpost -

"[Plan B] would therefore mean that the 2021 election ceases to be a General Election in the conventional sense and instead becomes a single issue plebiscite exclusively on the proposition that if the SNP secures a majority we move towards becoming an independent state. If it was to happen there would be no programme for Government, no defence of a record in power, just a straight forward one issue independence question."

Absolute rubbish.  To gain a credible mandate, independence would have to be Item 1 in the manifesto, but there would be lots of other items as well.  Independence would take months or years to negotiate, and no party putting itself forward for government for such a long period would ever present the electorate with a blank sheet of paper.  So, no, it wouldn't be a single-issue election - merely one in which the independence issue is predominant.

* * *

Yesterday, Iain Macwhirter gave Nicola Sturgeon what was quite possibly the worst piece of advice she's ever received. He told her to just "go with the flow" and abandon the 2 metre rule if that's what England decides to do. Has he learned no lessons at all from the catastrophe of March? How many more thousands of innocents must die because some people seem to perversely think that the purpose of devolution is to obediently rubberstamp decisions made in London?

I was trying to work out what Iain's tweet reminded me of, and I suddenly realised it was the philosophy of passivity put forward by a rather sinister rabbit in Watership Down -

"Take me with you, wind, high over the sky. I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind...

Take me with you, stream, away in the starlight. I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-stream..."

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Whichever way you cut it, there's more support for independence now than there was in 2016

The news that the pro-independence vote has reached an all-time high of 54% with Panelbase was characterised by a certain website as Yes going "back to where it was four years ago" - a rehashing of the bogus claim from a couple of weeks ago that Yes support has not really budged for years.  This is getting a bit silly now.  There were twelve independence polls conducted between the EU referendum result becoming known and the end of 2016.  Eleven of them had a Yes vote lower than last night's poll.  Nine of them had No in the lead.  By contrast, six of the eight polls in 2020 so far have had Yes on 50% or higher, with an average Yes vote of 50.9%.  (And it's a smidgeon higher if the YouGov / Hanbury poll, which used a non-standard question, is excluded.)

Furthermore, if you're going to compare one individual poll with another individual poll, both have to be conducted by the same firm.  If they're not, you're comparing apples with oranges, because each firm has its own 'house effects'.  The 54% recorded in June 2016 was in a Survation poll, not a Panelbase poll.  But as it happens there was a Panelbase poll conducted at around the same time, and it had Yes on 52%.  So, whichever way you cut it, there's more support for independence now than there was back then.

The new poll is also unusual in that it shows a Yes lead that is big enough not to be considered what the Americans call a 'statistical tie'.  In other words, even if the poll's margin of error is taken into account, Yes would still be ahead.  As far as I can see, this is only the third time that has happened in any poll from any firm since the indyref in 2014.  

Furthermore, this is only the second poll since the indyref that has shown Yes on 50% or higher even before Don't Knows are excluded.  (The other one was the Ipsos-Mori poll from 2015 that I mentioned last night.)  I'm not sure how important that is, because there's no good reason why undecideds should be left in.  But it does give us a useful response to unionist commentators who like to portray Don't Knows as "presumed No voters".

The earth shakes as support for independence soars to 54% - the highest EVER in a Panelbase poll

So you've probably seen the headline in the Sunday National about a poll that appears to show this...

Should Scotland be an independent country?  (Panelbase)

Yes 54% (+2)
No 46% (-2)

I don't have any further information yet, but having done my usual Kremlinology on Twitter, it does look like a credible poll rather than a subsample - which makes sense, because we know there was a Panelbase independence poll in the field over recent days.  I don't know whether it was commissioned by Wings, or whether the Sunday National themselves commissioned a question as part of the same composite survey.  Either way, if it's confirmed as a full-scale poll this is the highest ever Yes vote in a Panelbase poll - the previous highest was 52%, which has been recorded on a few different occasions, most recently in the poll for Scot Goes Pop earlier in the month.

I'm also struggling to remember a higher Yes figure than 54% in any poll from any other firm.  The highest figure in the indyref campaign was 54% in an ICM poll published on the Saturday before polling day (although the firm pretty much disowned it straight away as being a likely rogue poll).  The highest since the indyref was 54% with Survation.  So if it's ever been 55% or higher, it must have been many, many years ago.

When the Scot Goes Pop poll showed a 2% increase to 52%, I did worry that it might be a temporary effect caused by anger over Dominic Cummings' jaunt to Barnard Castle, and that it would quickly recede.  But it now appears to have been more like a springboard than a high watermark.  The supplementary questions from that poll showed the handling of the pandemic had caused a remarkable shift in underlying attitudes towards constitutional change, and that probably explains the further boost.  Let's hope the transformation stands the test of time.

*  *  *

UPDATE: I've been going through the records just to make sure what I said above is accurate.  There was an Ipsos-Mori poll conducted in August 2015 for STV which showed Yes on 53%, No on 44%, and Don't Knows on 3%.  I've looked and looked and none of the reporting seems to mention what the figures were with Don't Knows excluded, so perhaps Ipsos-Mori never made that calculation.  But it must have been either Yes 54%, No 46%, or Yes 55%, No 45%.  As far as historical polling is concerned, it looks like Yes might have slightly exceeded 54% with Don't Knows excluded in research conducted in 2006.  People forget that it wasn't unusual for polls to show a pro-independence majority in the early years of devolution, long before the surge during the indyref campaign.  But of course in those days any choice on independence seemed an extremely long way off, so it's debatable whether people who said they were in favour had thought about the issue in any great depth.  That caveat doesn't apply now.

*  *  *

UPDATE II: It's just been confirmed that the new poll is indeed a full-scale Panelbase poll, and the client is Business for Scotland.  I think it's worth making the point that there have now been seven polls in this calendar year that have asked the standard independence question, ie. 'Should Scotland be an independent country?'.  Three were commissioned by alternative media sites (Scot Goes Pop and Wings Over Scotland), two were commissioned by pro-independence organisations (Business for Scotland and Progress Scotland), one appeared to be self-funded by the pollster itself (YouGov) and only one was commissioned by a mainstream media outlet (the Sunday Times).  Unionist journalists love nothing better than a good sneer about the pro-indy alternative media, but it's getting to the point where in one specific respect we're actually doing a job that the mainstream media used to do and is now failing to do.