Friday, May 28, 2021

"It's the blog that everyone's talking about!", no. 5492

Here's a puzzle.  The SNP were, by all accounts, deeply concerned about the arrival of the Alba Party - and they were self-evidently right to be, given the scale of defections from both MPs and councillors.  There was apparently considerable relief when it became clear that Alba were averaging around 2% of the vote, below the level at which they were likely to win any seats.  But wouldn't you think the SNP would then want to finish the job, and ensure they didn't have to worry about Alba anymore?  Instead, every comment uttered about Alba by certain key SNP parliamentarians since the election seems to have been perfectly callibrated to keep the new party going as a potential thorn in the SNP's side.  And if that appears to make no sense, it's because it doesn't.  Hatred of the people involved in Alba has caused the SNP leadership to set aside all strategic good sense.

It would have been perfectly possible to make Alba go away after the election.  New parties that suffer electoral setbacks on their first outing are vulnerable to total collapse, as Change UK demonstrated two years ago.  But Change UK ceased to exist largely because a number of the key players found an alternative home in the Liberal Democrats.  If the SNP wanted a similar exodus from Alba that would eventually lead to the party ceasing to be viable, the way to achieve that would have been to smother Alba with kindness.  They could have said "we have shared values and objectives, your poor result gives us no pleasure, our door remains open to you". Instead the SNP have treated Alba members as scum who have no place in civilised society, let alone the independence movement.  The latest manifestation of that is Pete Wishart's new "blog that everyone's talking about" (sic), which gloats at considerable length about Alba's low vote share and leaves little room for doubt that he viscerally despises Alba members.  To use Ian Davidson's immortal words, the likes of Wishart, Stewart McDonald and Kirsty Blackman want to spend their time "bayonetting the wounded" rather than healing the rift.  That destructive attitude is producing the natural and rational response: "if we have no home in the SNP, then our home is Alba, and we're going to make it work".

The point Alba-haters are missing is this: to try to jump from 2% of the vote to 5% is not really all that ambitious, and that's all Alba really need to do at this stage.  If they could get 5% of the first preference vote in the local elections (or perhaps even 4%), that would be enough to build up some credibility as a serious player as long as they get a few councillors elected as well.  And given that some of their candidates will be incumbents who have had time to build up a personal vote, that's not beyond the bounds of possibility.  With a half-decent local election result, they would then force their way into the conversation about which parties are entitled to TV and radio coverage under Ofcom regulations.  The SNP would constantly have to worry about losing the votes of the most radical independence supporters, in a way they simply haven't in the past.  That's the scenario Wishart's own handiwork could be helping to bring about.

Incidentally, because Wishart lists a series of largely spurious "reasons" for Alba's setback, it's worth pointing out one much better reason that was discussed at length before the election but not so much afterwards - the Electoral Commission's refusal to allow the Alba logo or description to appear on the ballot paper.  A lot of people were struck by how hard it was to find Alba, even though they were close to the top - they really didn't stand out at all.  That's where it might have been an advantage to have a "Ronseal" name like Independence for Scotland - because the name itself would have doubled as the description.  I'm not suggesting that the Electoral Commission's decision swung the balance between winning seats and not winning seats, but I do think it may have reduced Alba's vote share somewhat.

As for Alex Salmond's future, I'm just going to wait and see what he decides - there's no better political tactician than him, and whatever decision he makes will probably be the right one for the party.  I can see the argument that a new leader would remove the 'distraction' of every single BBC interview being an attempt to rerun the trial, but I think there's a strong counterargument as well - the grass doesn't always turn out to be greener on the other side.  Every time Nigel Farage has stepped down as leader of UKIP or the Brexit Party, that's always been followed by a slump, because Farage was not only the party's main electoral asset, he was also the glue that kept the whole outfit together.  Although Alba is a very different party from UKIP, and Alex Salmond is a very different politician from Nigel Farage, the same principle could apply.

That said, Alba are blessed in having two MPs (including a former Justice Secretary) as credible alternative leaders, so it's not impossible that a change at the top could work out - but I hope it's all thought through very carefully before any rash decisions are made.

Parliamentary petition for a Scottish Eurovision entry, Take 2: updated

UPDATE: Thanks again for your help - the five signatures necessary for the petition to be checked for publication have been received.  No more signatures can be accepted while it's still being checked, so I've removed the links below, and I'll keep you updated.

Unsurprisingly, the UK Parliament petitions website have rejected my proposal for a petition calling for a Scottish Eurovision entry, but what did surprise me was that they took the trouble to give me specific reasons for the rejection.  That gives me the opportunity to make a second attempt using new wording that removes any basis for their objections.  I'm not going to go round in circles with this forever, but I think it's worth having at least one more go - either the petition will be approved this time, or they'll come back with a whole series of new objections which will leave little room for doubt that they're not acting in good faith.

The main issue they identified is that under the BBC Charter, the government cannot interfere with BBC managerial independence - but there's more than a touch of sophistry in that line of argument, because petitions on the website can call on either parliament or the government to take action, and it should have been abundantly clear from my deliberate use of the word "legislate" that it was parliament I had in mind, and not the government.  Under the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, parliament has unlimited power to undo or change legislation governing the BBC as it sees fit.  I've made that point explicit rather than implicit in the new petition wording.  

There was also a reference in the rejection to Eurovision being a matter for the BBC "and the organisers", so to avoid the European Broadcasting Union's jurisdiction being the next excuse, I've made clear that a Scottish entry should merely be a condition of any BBC involvement in the contest.  (In the real world it's highly unlikely the EBU would resist any proposal for a Scottish entry from the BBC, which is one of the contest's major funders.) 

The main problem with having to waste space on these legalistic clarifications is that there's a strict character limit, which hasn't left me much room to actually make the case for a Scottish Eurovision entry, which after all is what the petition is actually about.  However, there wasn't really much option if I wanted any chance of the petition being approved.  To get it checked for publication, I'll need at least five people to sign once again.

Petition title: Reform the BBC Charter to open the way for a Scottish entry at the Eurovision 

What is being requested: The UK Parliament has unlimited legislative powers on domestic matters, including the power to alter or revoke the BBC Charter, and even to disregard the principle of BBC managerial independence if it so chooses. It should use those vast powers to maximise the chances of a Scottish Eurovision entry. 

More details: The UK Parliament boasts of its unlimited sovereignty on domestic affairs, including for example the ability to unilaterally change the Scottish devolution settlement without Scotland's consent. There can therefore be no credible dispute that parliamentary sovereignty extends to legislation governing the BBC. That legislation should be reformed to require the BBC to make separate Scottish representation a condition of any BBC involvement with cultural competitions such as the Eurovision. 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Here's why the independence referendum must take place before the next UK general election

This was the result of the 2017 UK general election in Scotland...

Vote share:

SNP 37%
Conservatives 29%
Labour 27%
Liberal Democrats 7%


SNP 35
Conservatives 13
Labour 7
Liberal Democrats 4

By any standards that was an exceptionally good result for the SNP - they took 59% of the seats in Scotland, higher than the percentage of seats Mrs Thatcher won across the UK in her 1987 landslide.  Their 37% vote share was identical to the winning UK-wide vote share for David Cameron in 2015 that paved the way for the EU referendum, and it was slightly higher than the 36% share Cameron took in his first election win in 2010, and the 35% won by Tony Blair in his third victory in 2005.

And yet the result was portrayed by the media as an unmitigated disaster for the independence movement.  Midway through the BBC results programme, the former President of YouGov, Peter Kellner, declared that independence was "dead" - a ludicrous claim that went completely unchallenged.  The general consensus among journalists was that the independence referendum that Nicola Sturgeon had only just announced was now a non-starter, and depressingly the SNP leadership themselves seemed all too eager to buy into that narrative.

We were fortunate to get a second chance in 2019, and most of the losses the SNP suffered in 2017 were reversed.  But we mustn't squander that good fortune by allowing another UK general election to happen before an independence referendum.  The 2017 experience shows that the SNP will be judged by an absurdly high standard in Westminster elections that are 'away fixtures' for them due to their exclusion from much of the TV coverage.  If they fail to meet that standard, momentum will drain away and it could be much harder to hold a referendum, let alone win it.

The obvious lesson: the independence referendum must by held by autumn 2023 at the absolute latest, and ideally by autumn 2022 in case Boris Johnson cuts and runs with an early election in May 2023.  Unfortunately, though, a suspicion is beginning to grow that the SNP plan to deal with the 'once in a generation' jibe by actually waiting for a generation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The early history of the pandemic mustn't be conveniently rewritten to suit government officials who played fast and loose with people's lives

It's been a long, long time since I've written a Jason Leitch-bashing blogpost, mainly because it's seemed a bit unnecessary - Leitch has been signed up to the Scottish Government's sensible strategy for over a year now, which means his salesman's patter has been put to far better use than it was in the earliest stages of the pandemic.  But that doesn't mean it's OK to rewrite the history of what happened in February and March 2020 or his own disgraceful role in that.  

I was a bit stunned to see on Twitter this afternoon that people were saying they had no recollection of Leitch ever advocating herd immunity - the implication being that it couldn't possibly have happened.  In reality, of course, Leitch embarked on a Grand Complacency Tour of the TV and radio studios in the weeks leading up to lockdown and was considerably more explicit about his support for mass infection than most UK government officials.  He wasn't, in fairness, the main instigator of the herd immunity strategy - but when you're faced with a calamitous error in government policy which is likely to cause tens of thousands of needless deaths, and you have a choice between pushing back against that, or embracing it and selling it wholeheartedly to the public, I think it's appropriate that you take your share of responsibility if you follow the latter course.  At the moment, Leitch's antics at the start of last year are like the embarrassing family secret that he and others think will just go away if it's never spoken of.

I've been accused in the last few months of being "on the wrong side of history" because of my support for Alba and my dislike of the SNP's turn towards identity politics.  The jury is still out on those points, but one thing I'm entitled to say that I was undoubtedly on the right side of history about was my vocal opposition to herd immunity in those crucial weeks in early-to-mid-March 2020.  Unthinking SNP loyalists were trying to shout me down, telling people to ignore "irresponsible bloggers" like me and to listen to "experts" like Leitch instead.  I'm quite proud of the fact that I was one of the people pointing out that the emperor had no clothes when it was not at all comfortable to do so. 

Remember the plaudits Leitch received for smugly telling Piers Morgan that it was absolutely right to go to a crowded concert just before lockdown when the virus was spreading like wildfire, and indeed that he would have done so himself?  In retrospect it's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.  At a time when we now know Boris Johnson wanted Chris Whitty to inject him with coronavirus on live TV to demonstrate how 'mild' the illness he later almost died of was, the Scottish Government was still in complete lockstep with London.  That was a catastrophic error that can't just be swept under the carpet, no matter how well Nicola Sturgeon has done since she belatedly broke with the UK-wide approach last spring.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The folly of delaying progress on an independence referendum any further

A few days ago, I tweeted this -

"The Yes movement is now made up of three camps: 

1) Those who 'know' an indyref will not be held.

2) Those who 'know' an indyref will be held and are already trying to 'win' it. 

3) Those who want to make sure the mandate for an indyref is actually used.

I'm in group 3."

But judging from the replies it seems that I was being rather naive and that there's a fourth group of independence supporters who don't want a referendum to take place at all, because they're worried about losing it.  The snag, of course, is that without a referendum or equivalent democratic event, Scotland will never become independent, and it can therefore be argued that people who oppose a referendum are only 'independence supporters' in a very nominal sense.  

I honestly thought we'd moved beyond this.  A couple of weeks ago the SNP and Greens won a mandate to hold a referendum in this parliamentary term, and that mandate was not conditional on Yes reaching a certain level of support in the opinion polls.  I assumed the only remaining questions were whether the SNP could be persuaded to keep their word, and whether they would just take "no" for an answer if the obstructionism from London continues.  But it appears that there are still people who think the SNP's number one objective should be - and is - to avoid losing a referendum by not even attempting to hold one unless the polls show a fantastical level of Yes support that no-one sensible actually believes is attainable.  We could reach the 2040s without having held a referendum, and the Pete Wisharts of this world will be patting themselves on the back saying "we dodged a bullet there", all the while missing the actual point of salience that Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom - in other words, exactly the same outcome that holding and losing a referendum would have produced.

Perhaps the time has come to stop asking these people what their mythical "perfect moment" to hold an indyref would actually look like.  The more important question is: how long do we wait for the "perfect moment" to arrive before we say "that's long enough" and act anyway? There surely has to be some cut-off point if the referendum policy isn't a fiction.  I would suggest that moment will come, at the absolute latest, when any further inaction would make it difficult or impossible to hold a referendum well before 2026 - and given the potential obstacles that may need to be cleared, that leaves little room for delay before at least setting the ball rolling.  Any notion of quietly letting the mandate expire must, this time, be regarded as an absolute non-starter.

And let's not forget what the rationale of that mandate is.  What pro-independence parties have said to voters, quite rightly, is that Brexit drove a coach and horses through the basis upon which people voted against independence in 2014, and that Scotland now has a right to revisit its decision.  Regardless of whether people vote Yes or No, their right to choose is what matters.  If what the SNP leadership were really thinking was that Brexit would only be useful if it produced a decisive Yes surge, and that people's right to choose wasn't so important if that didn't happen, then voters have been misled quite seriously.  Remember that some EU citizens made decisions to stay in this country specifically because Nicola Sturgeon had reassured them that a referendum was coming, and that it would provide an opportunity for an independent Scotland to remain in the EU.  That pledge has already been semi-dishonoured because full-fat Brexit has been allowed to occur without an indyref.  If we let another few years go past, the notion that a referendum is in any sense a response to Brexit will look obviously bogus.

Another point that a number of people have made is that the implied logic for saying that a referendum has to wait until after Scotland has recovered from the Covid crisis is that we are better placed to recover within the UK - essentially a unionist argument.  If we're saying we don't need independence to recover, how on earth are we going to convince people that we need independence after we've recovered?

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Petition (updated): Scotland must have its own Eurovision representation and escape the annual fiasco of the UK entry

Update: Thanks to your help, we've cleared the first hurdle - enough signatures have been received for the petition to be checked to see if it qualifies for publication.  It looks like no more signatures can be accepted until that happens, so I've removed the links to the petition for now, and I'll keep you updated.

In view of the embarrassment of Scotland being associated with the latest "United Kingdom" nul points fiasco at the Eurovision Song Contest last night (in reality there's been no Scottish involvement in the UK entry since 1988), and bearing in mind that the Panelbase / Scot Goes Pop poll in April found 60% support for Scotland having its own entry at the Eurovision, I thought the time might be ripe to start a petition on the UK Parliament website.  

In theory, if the petition goes live and attracts a very large number of signatures, it would trigger a debate in the House of Commons.  That's an enormous 'if', though, and the first hurdle to jump is to get five signatures to qualify for possible publication of the petition.  

Petition title: Legislate to give Scotland its own entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. 

What is being requested: Powers over Scottish broadcasting are reserved to Westminster. As the BBC have ignored representations to respect Scottish public opinion and give Scotland its own representation in cultural events including the Eurovision Song Contest, the UK Parliament should legislate to require this to happen. 

More details: There is overwhelming evidence that the people of Scotland wish to be represented by Scottish entries, not UK entries, at cultural events such as the Eurovision. A reputable poll conducted in April found 60% support for Scottish representation, with only 40% preferring a UK entry. The BBC's ignoring of licence payers' wishes has become particularly intolerable in view of the annual embarrassment of the UK's Eurovision performance. For national dignity, Scotland demands its Eurovision freedom.