Saturday, July 4, 2020

For the second time in a few weeks, Ruth Davidson demonises a leading scientific expert on the basis of what is essentially a falsehood. This is beginning to look like a vendetta, Ruth.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie has made the most despicable comment of the pandemic - and lives may be lost as a result

Whatever the stereotypes about 'Cybernats', there can be very few independence supporters who truly think that border restrictions with England would be some sort of optimal outcome.  An infinitely preferable way to keep the public safe would have been for the whole UK to follow the careful path that Nicola Sturgeon has charted, and for the number of infections to be uniformly low across all four nations.  Trying to stop imported cases from a neighbouring country, where the virus is being allowed to circulate at a higher level, can only be a poor second-best.  It's bound to be somewhat less effective, and it curtails all of our freedoms in an undesirable way.

But our leaders have to deal with the situation as it actually is, and not as we would like it to be.  Countries all over the world have grappled for months with the problem of differential infection rates in different territories, and border controls have often proved to be an important tool in preventing the virus from spreading from a hotspot to a lower-intensity area.  It's got nothing to do with politics, or ideology, or nationalism, or racism, or chauvinism.  It's purely a question of public health.

In that context, a comment made two days ago by Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie about the mere possibility of restrictions at the Scotland/England border was close to being unforgivable.

"We are one nation. Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish. We are in this together. Please stop this divisive, nasty talk of closing borders to 'others'."

He knew that was profoundly dishonest on multiple counts when he said it.  The use of the word 'others' in inverted commas falsely implied that border restrictions would be motivated by prejudice based on nationality or ethnicity.  In reality, the rules would apply to anyone crossing the border regardless of who they are - there would be no discrimination between Scottish people returning home and English people coming up for a visit.  The freedoms of English people already in Scotland would be totally unaffected.  Bowie is also well aware that the whole idea of asking travellers from England to quarantine is not something the SNP leadership would be instinctively keen on doing, precisely because they'd want to avoid hysterical suspicions in certain quarters about their motives.  The fact that they're even considering it suggests that government advisers must be sending a very clear message that it may be necessary to save lives.

Bowie therefore had a choice.  He could make it easier for the Scottish Government to save lives by assuming their good faith, or he could make it harder.  He chose the latter course.  Make no mistake - by saying what he did, it's not totally inconceivable that he may have prevented a vitally important public health measure from being implemented, and that people will die as a result.  SNP politicians are human, and once the suggestion that a health intervention is xenophobic becomes normalised as part of political discourse, it does become psychologically more difficult for them to act.  I truly hope they find the courage to completely set aside the disgraceful antics of their opponents and to take whatever steps are warranted by the scientific evidence.

Incidentally, it was pointed out on social media that the border has previously been closed since Scotland became part of the UK.  It happened in 1950, to be exact, when the police were trying to recover the Stone of Destiny so it could be returned to Westminster Abbey.  Odd how it's perfectly OK to compromise the sacred indivisibility of Our Precious Union in order to locate a symbol of subjugation, but it's apparently not OK to do it to keep thousands of people alive.  British Nationalism 1, People 0. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A solution in search of a problem

Just a quick note to let you know I have a new article on The National's website, responding to Ruth Wishart's piece that advocated tactical voting on the regional list.  You can read it HERE.

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I'm hearing (as Laura Kuenssberg would say) that there is yet another Scottish poll from Panelbase currently in the field, featuring the standard independence question, voting intentions for Holyrood and Westminster, and a wide range of supplementary questions.  Some of the questions look distinctly Wings-like to me (GRA and a list party) and others don't, so I'm wondering if it's another composite survey for more than one client.

A plea to both sides of the "game the system" debate - stop using misleading terminology that will increase the risk of independence supporters spoiling their ballots by mistake

I was reading the Barrhead Boy blog yesterday, and just for a moment or two I thought I felt my ears burning.  But then I realised that "one blogger in particular" probably referred to Peter A Bell and not myself.

"The glass half empty brigade are having the time of their lives. One blogger in particular who for years has been demanding that the SNP and Movement needs to stop playing by Westminster rules and do things differently has gone full circle. No, no, we must keep voting SNP 1 2 he cries we need to keep doing the exact same things I said for years weren’t working."

I'm not sure off the top of my head whether Mr Bell does use language like "SNP 1 & 2", but I would once again urge people on both sides of this debate to stop doing so.  That would actually be in everyone's interests, because we live in a country that uses three different voting systems for different elections (until Brexit it was four), which means there's plenty of room for dangerous confusion.  Voters have become familiar with using numbers to vote in STV elections for local councils, and if we say it's possible to vote "SNP 1 & 2" for Holyrood, they might just take us literally and put those numbers on the ballot paper.  The last thing we need is a disproportionately high number of spoilt ballots from independence supporters.

In a way I can understand why the "game the system" lobby are willing to risk sowing that confusion, though, because "SNP 1 & 2" gives the false impression that the list vote is a sort of "second preference" vote - which they might hope will lead people to feel that the SNP are being "greedy" in "hoarding" those votes.  The reality is that the Additional Member System is not a preferential system, and the expectation in all countries that use it is that the vast majority of people will vote for the same party on both ballots.  The only reason for having two ballots in the first place is to give the voter some discretion to vote tactically or for a favoured individual on the constituency ballot.  For example, a Green supporter in Edinburgh Central at the last election might have concluded that their party had little chance in the constituency vote, and so could have voted for the SNP to attempt to keep Ruth Davidson out, safe in the knowledge that they would still be voting Green on the really important ballot - ie. the list ballot.  The composition of the whole parliament is roughly proportional to how people vote on the list ballot, not the constituency ballot - and for that reason people should always vote for their first-choice party on the list.

As an SNP slogan once put it, "with the constituency vote you're choosing an MSP, with the list vote you're choosing a government".  There's more than a grain of truth in that.

I've thought once or twice recently about responding to the commentary on Barrhead Boy about the possibility of gaming the system, because to be perfectly frank it's contained half-truths, wild conspiracy theories and a skipload of wishful thinking.  However, as I said yesterday, it seems to me that the belief that there's a way of "hacking" AMS is like crack cocaine for some people, and once they're addicted they effectively become immune to rational argument.  One thing I do want to address, though, is the repeated claim that a "voting system that makes it virtually impossible for a single party to govern on its own" is some kind of weird aberration that could only have come about due to a conspiracy by the British state against independence.   What Barrhead Boy appears to be talking about here is simply proportional representation, which is the norm across the entire continent of Europe - the UK is practically the only European country that doesn't use it for national elections.  The idea that reverting to first-past-the-post would represent some kind of national liberation from London tyranny is, let's be honest, completely nuts and doesn't stand up to more than a moment's scrutiny.

I know it's part of Yes mythology that the Holyrood voting system was chosen to stitch up the SNP, but as far as I can see that belief is based on a single-word response by Jack McConnell at a press conference many years ago.  Would we take McConnell's word as gospel on any other subject?  It may well be that concerns over an SNP majority government made it easier for the Lib Dems to persuade Labour to accept the case for proportional representation, but the bottom line is that it's quite simply a superior system to first-past-the-post and it empowers the voter more.  It actually doesn't prevent voters from choosing a single-party majority government, but it does mean that the party in question will need something close to a majority of the votes to get into that happy situation, which is exactly as it should be.  You basically get whatever you vote for - there's no extra bang for your buck by voting for a smaller party, and indeed in many cases there's less bang for your buck, because if you vote for a fringe party that doesn't hit 5% or 6% of the list vote in your region, you might as well have abstained.

In truth, AMS has worked out pretty well for the independence movement - it delivered an SNP majority government in 2011 on a minority vote, and it also delivered a pro-independence majority in 2016 on a minority vote.  In 2007 it gave us an SNP minority government when first-past-the-post would have given us a Labour majority government.  And in 1999 and 2003 it ensured that the SNP opposition to the Labour-Lib Dem coalition was far stronger than would have been the case under first-past-the-post.  In those days, the vast majority of pro-independence seats were list seats, and it was the unionists who used to complain about those MSPs being "unelected".  Barrhead Boy seems to think that unionists have an in-built advantage because their vote is split between multiple parties, but the complete opposite is true - it's the SNP's dominance of the pro-indy vote that has led to the combined forces of Yes being slightly over-represented in recent years.

Barrhead Boy also uses a number of dubious examples to support his theory that it will somehow be possible for a fringe party to come out of nowhere and win loads of list seats.  The dodgiest example of all is -

"Have they forgotten that the SNP went from 6 to 56 MPs in one election?"

Yup, you're away ahead of me here.  That's an apples-and-oranges comparison because it happened under first-past-the-post.  The 2015 surge was a remarkable phenomenon, no question, but if the election had been conducted under proportional representation, the SNP's seat numbers would only have increased from around 12 to around 30.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Want to know how to maximise pro-indy representation at Holyrood? The dull (but correct) answer is "vote for a party large enough to have a chance of winning seats"

It was brought to my attention the other night that a few people have been falsely claiming that my position on "tactical voting on the list" has changed, and that for some unspecified reason I now regard the idea as workable.  That is categorically untrue.  My jaw dropped to the floor when I heard about the misrepresentation, because I've banged on so much about the subject that it's very hard to see how anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter could sincerely have got the wrong end of the stick about my stance.

My guess is that Stuart Campbell's self-interested propagandising may have something to do with this, because a few months ago he theatrically pretended to think I had driven a coach and horses through my opposition to "gaming the system" by reiterating a point I've actually been making for a long time - namely that Alex Salmond is pretty much the only person who could make the idea work, because he's the one politician who has an extremely large personal following that could be confidently expected to vote for any party he decided to front.  But that exception to the rule is not particularly important unless you actually think Mr Salmond is going to lead a list-only party in opposition to the SNP.  At the moment I'm not aware of any indication that he is minded to do so.  RevStu's implicit claim was that "James is saying that you only need a well-known person on board and it'll work fine", but that's absolutely not what I'm saying.  The more I've thought about this, I've come to the conclusion that I literally cannot think of a single other person apart from Alex Salmond who has a big enough following to make a success of a pop-up list party.  Jim Sillars could maybe have pulled it off if it was 1990, but it's not 1990 anymore.

I'm not sure how much time it's worth devoting over the next year to warning people about the risks of so-called "tactical voting on the list", because it's increasingly like a dialogue with a brick wall.  People become so infatuated with the tantalising prospect of a "voting system hack" that can supposedly get rid of Murdo Fraser and his ilk that they refuse to engage with the inconvenient reasons why it won't actually work in the real world.  Indeed, as we've seen, they'll sometimes convince themselves that you're telling them that it will work.  It's like a sort of deep trance.  What I would compare it to is a gambler who spends all his time fantasising about how he's going to spend his vast winnings on a 100-1 bet, and refuses to face the fact that there's a 99% chance (or higher) that he's actually going to lose money.

What makes it even more bewildering is that a lot of the people currently caught in the trance were utterly scathing about "gaming the system" in 2016 when it was the Greens and RISE pushing the idea.  It's as if they think it was only unworkable in 2016 because of the "wokeness" of its proponents.  And the reverse is true as well - people on the radical left who were adamant in 2016 that gaming the system was feasible have now changed their view, but only because of their horror at the possibility of "TERFs" picking up a few list votes.  Speaking as the rarity of someone who has remained totally consistent on this, and who has pointed out that the laws of mathematics and the nature of the voting system aren't affected by the wokeness of the candidates, it would be rather nice to at least gain some credit for my consistency rather than having people make up fairy-tales about my position.  But it seems that's too much to ask.

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I see that Ruth Wishart has a piece in The National today about how to "maximise pro-indy seats".  It's not online yet, but I know from what she's said on Twitter that she's going to come out in favour of the "gaming the system" wheeze.  Let me yet again set out the real way in which it's possible to maximise pro-indy representation, even though it won't be what people want to hear -

Vote for pro-indy parties that are large enough to have a hope in hell of winning seats.  That means voting for the SNP on the constituency ballot, and either the SNP or the Greens on the list.  The important caveat on the latter point is that you should always vote for your first-choice party on the list - if you're an SNP supporter, switching "tactically" to the Greens on the list is pointless and possibly counterproductive, because there's no reason whatever to think that the Greens have a better chance of winning list seats than the SNP.  Some people did chase shadows in that way in 2016, and all they succeeded in doing was contributing to the loss of the SNP overall majority, with all the negative consequences of that in terms of squandered momentum for the independence movement.  To put it in perspective, in 2016 the SNP won four list seats and the Greens won six.  In 2011 the SNP won sixteen list seats and the Greens won only two.  The SNP are absolutely capable of winning list seats even when they poll strongly on the constituency ballot.

But who won't win list seats?  Fringe parties.  It takes at least 5% or 6% of the vote in an electoral region to win a seat, and fringe parties almost never reach that level of support.  The only exception was the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party, which won a single seat in 2003 by putting up Celtic legend Billy McNeill as a candidate.  (That was a stunt, because McNeill was far enough down the list to ensure he wouldn't be elected, but it did the trick and the unknown John Swinburne became an MSP instead.)

In almost all circumstances, if you vote for a fringe party you might as well be abstaining, and you simply make it easier for unionist parties to win more seats.

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I'm the guest on the latest edition of the podcast A Broken World, hosted by Grant Parker - you can listen to it HERE.  (Bear in mind it was recorded two-and-a-half weeks ago.)

Sunday, June 28, 2020

New podcast

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm the guest on the latest edition of the podcast A Broken World, hosted by Grant Parker.  It was recorded more than two weeks ago when I was still publishing the results of the Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll (in fact I think I had to surreptitiously hit "publish" in the middle of the recording), so that was one of the topics of conversation, but there were plenty of others - it's over an hour long, so we had well and truly set the world to rights by the end of it.  You can listen HERE.