Saturday, December 24, 2022

Could a Westminster veto of the GRR Bill cause the SNP and Green leaderships to be suddenly radicalised on independence?

Almost as soon as I'd posted the above tweet, a couple of people partially corrected me by pointing out that the UK Government also have the option of invoking Section 35 of the Scotland Act, which until now has never been used.  Here is the key part of the text:

"Power to intervene in certain cases. 

(1) If a Bill contains provisions— (a) which the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to believe would be incompatible with any international obligations or the interests of defence or national security, or (b) which make modifications of the law as it applies to reserved matters and which the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to believe would have an adverse effect on the operation of the law as it applies to reserved matters, he may make an order prohibiting the Presiding Officer from submitting the Bill for Royal Assent. 

(2) The order must identify the Bill and the provisions in question and state the reasons for making the order. 

(3) The order may be made at any time during— (a) the period of four weeks beginning with the passing of the Bill, (b) any period of four weeks beginning with any approval of the Bill in accordance with standing orders made by virtue of section 36 (5), (c) if a reference is made in relation to the Bill under section 33, the period of four weeks beginning with the reference being decided or otherwise disposed of by the Supreme Court."

Surprisingly, then, no discretion at all appears to be given to the Presiding Officer - she seems to be obliged to simply follow the 'instruction' given to her by Alister Jack.  This harks back to the controversial "Governor-General" (or more accurately colonial Governor) role given to the Secretary of State for Scotland in the original 1978 devolution legislation that never actually took effect.  Crucially, though, this is still not a God-like power that can be exercised on a whim - it's potentially open to the courts to make a ruling on whether Jack has interpreted the Scotland Act correctly.  And ultimately whether a devolved law ends up before the courts because of a UK Government challenge, or because of a Scottish Government challenge to a Jack veto, may be a distinction without a difference.  The bottom line is that judges would decide whether the GRR Bill gains Royal Assent.

And if the courts rule against the Scottish Government, as they have a noticeable tendency to do in these cases?  It would either stop or pause a very bad law, to be sure, but I'm a bit disturbed by the number of independence supporters (perhaps I should call them 'former' or 'nominal' independence supporters by this point) who seem all too keen to achieve their objective of stopping the GRR Bill by such an obviously colonial mechanism.

That said, even I can see that there might be a side-benefit to a Westminster veto if that unfortunate event should actually arise.  Many of us worry that the SNP and Green leaderships are somewhat tepid in their support for independence - as if it's something they believe in as a distant ideal, but aren't that bothered about in the here and now.  But nobody could accuse them of feeling that way about gender self-ID - the circus of this week has been caused by them apparently regarding it as utterly unthinkable for this calendar year to pass without the GRR Bill being approved by Holyrood.

So how would they react if they discover that gender recognition reform isn't actually achievable under devolution?  We might suddenly find that independence is an absolute and urgent imperative for them after all - because they'd see it as the only way of getting the GRR Bill onto the statute book.  The only caveat is that they might have the thought at the back of their minds that a Starmer government in 2024 will remove the roadblock - but, there again, if they have sufficient patience to wait for Starmer, why the undue haste we've seen thus far?

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Friday, December 23, 2022

New Panelbase poll finds Alba are not the toxic entity that the likes of John Nicolson want to portray them as

A few people wrote to me almost simultaneously this morning to ask if the new poll results on the Alba website were real.  The answer is yes, its a perfectly real poll - it's one of the Alba-related questions I mentioned a few days ago from the recent multi-client Panelbase survey.  Here are the key findings:

Would you vote for the pro-independence Alba Party with your Scottish Parliament Regional List vote if you thought it would help elect a higher amount of pro-independence MSPs to the Scottish Parliament?

Yes 19%
No 63%

Among current supporters of independence:

Yes 37%
No 41%

Among those who plan to vote SNP with their list vote at the next Holyrood election:

Yes 31%
No 46%

Among those who plan to vote Labour with their list vote at the next Holyrood election:

Yes 12%
No 78%

Among those who plan to vote Green with their list vote at the next Holyrood election:

Yes 27%
No 57%

I've thought long and hard about how to cover this poll, because on the one hand I'm an Alba member and am keen to see evidence of the party making strides forward, but on the other hand, long-term readers will spot instantly that this poll is very similar to the type of "Archie Stirling" poll that I heavily criticised Stuart Campbell for running a few years ago to try to get the idea of a Wings Party off the ground.  I wouldn't have much credibility if I didn't point out that some of the exact same flaws apply here.  The operative word, though, is "some", because if I recall correctly the Wings poll used the phrase "would you consider voting for..." in order to maximise the positive result.  The Alba poll is a bit more direct because it asks "would you vote for..."

Let's start by looking at the positives.  The poll undoubtedly shows that Alba are not the toxic entity that some SNP politicians (for example John Nicolson) would fondly like to believe.  The mention of the name Alba was not enough to send voters scurrying for the hills - if the circumstances are right, well over a third of current Yes supporters are open to voting Alba.  Even a non-trivial minority of Labour voters are open to the idea - which is potential gold dust for the Yes movement, because to state the obvious those people are not doing the independence cause much good by voting Labour.

However, Alba are claiming the poll shows them winning more than twenty list seats at Holyrood.  That's obviously a bit far-fetched.  To remind you of what an "Archie Stirling" poll is, in the run-up to the 2007 Holyrood election, the wealthy theatre producer Archie Stirling (father of the actress Rachael Stirling and ex-husband of Diana Rigg) commissioned YouGov to ask respondents if they would consider voting for his new Scottish Voice party.  Around 20% said they would.  He then put out a press release which convinced several newspapers to breathlessly report that Scottish Voice was on course to win dozens of list seats.  But when the election came around, Scottish Voice took just 0.2% of the list vote, and weren't even within light-years of winning any seats.

The point, of course, is that if you single out just one small party and ask poll respondents if they would consider voting for that party, or would vote for that party if certain circumstances apply, a lot of people will answer "yes" because they're trying to be reasonable and can't find any fault with the proposition being put to them.  It's a very different matter if that party is instead presented - as it will be on the ballot paper - as just one of a menu of parties all in competition with each other, and from which only one option can be selected.  What would have been a more meaningful question to ask would have been something along the lines of -

"If you thought voting for the pro-independence Alba Party on the Scottish Parliament Regional List would help elect a higher amount of  pro-independence MSPs, how would you vote with your Regional List vote at the next Scottish Parliament election?

Liberal Democrats

Even that would have been a highly leading question wording, but it would have produced a better indication of Alba's potential vote (or perhaps a better way of putting it is their potential maximum vote).  You can only really know if voters are willing to switch from SNP to Alba if you give them an SNP option and they select Alba instead.

The other thing I would say is that the breakthrough Alba are claiming from the Panelbase poll entirely hinges on the premise set out in the question wording that a list vote for Alba would increase the overall number of seats held by pro-indy parties.  That points to a repeat of the 2021 "supermajority" strategy, which was dependent on urging people to vote SNP on the constituency ballot and Alba on the list.  If so, I'd gently suggest there needs to be some joined-up thinking here, because I saw very senior Alba people on social media last night saying that nobody should vote for the SNP ever again because of the GRR Bill, and even equating a vote for the SNP as a vote for Jimmy Savile.  That kind of rhetoric is going to have to be toned down massively if we don't want voters to perceive the idea of Alba working with the SNP to produce a supermajority as an obvious confidence trick.  Furthermore, Alba will have to be very careful not to split the pro-indy vote in a Westminster general election conducted under first-past-the-post, because if it's seen that Alba are happy enough to reduce the number of pro-indy seats in one election, few voters will believe that Alba are motivated by a desire to increase the number of pro-indy seats at the following election.

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Thursday, December 22, 2022

Yes vote steady at 49% in new Savanta poll

I missed this Savanta poll yesterday, which (albeit narrowly) breaks the run of seven successive polls with a pro-independence majority.

Should Scotland be an independent country?  (Savanta / The Scotsman, 16th-21st December 2022)

Yes 49% (-)
No 51% (-)

The reaction to this poll in unionist quarters is to suggest that a transitory Yes surge is now easing off due to memories of the Supreme Court ruling fading, and that we can now go back to sleep because it's business as usual and nothing has actually changed.  And they may yet turn out to have a point, but it's far, far too premature to say that just now, for one obvious reason - the margin of error.  If the true Yes vote is in the low 50s, as Panelbase and Redfield & Wilton recently suggested, you'd expect an occasional poll like this with Yes in the high 40s due to a slight underestimate.  It'll only become clear that the Yes surge has genuinely eased off if we get at least two or three polls in a row with a small No lead.

I'm also a bit sceptical about Savanta's independence polls given the extraordinary events of early 2021.  First, there was the #Matchettgate fake poll scandal, when Savanta effectively disowned (albeit using diplomatic language) bogus independence numbers published in their name by their client Scotland on Sunday.  Then Savanta retrospectively changed the results of their previous independence polls due to a counting error being pointed out to them - and in the blink of an eye they had changed from being one of the most Yes-friendly firms to being one of the most No-friendly.  It's not exactly a track record that inspires total confidence.

Also bear in mind the fact that Ipsos polls, and Ipsos telephone polls in particular, persistently show better results for Yes than other firms - meaning that when a firm like Savanta reports a slim No lead, it's fairly likely that an Ipsos poll conducted at the same time would produce a Yes lead.  It's easy to lose track of the importance of that fact, given that Ipsos polls are obviously much rarer than non-Ipsos polls, but it's perfectly conceivable that Ipsos are getting it right and others are getting it wrong for two key reasons - a) only Ipsos use telephone fieldwork, and b) Ipsos are virtually the only firm to refrain from weighting by recalled 2014 indyref vote.  The other firms' adherence to 2014 weighting is a very dubious practice after eight-and-a-bit long years.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Rishi Sunak is absolutely right: British nationalism is simply Greater England nationalism by another name, and the census results bear that out

Issue a gentle reminder that Scotland exists and London politicians will look at you in total bafflement as if you're speaking a foreign language.  And if you need any evidence of that, check out the extraordinary exchange between Joanna Cherry and Rishi Sunak in a Commons committee.  Mr Sunak responds to Ms Cherry in a perfectly good-natured manner, but repeatedly fails to grasp the elementary point she's making - that you can't call something a "British Baccalaureate" when Scotland and England have always had entirely separate education systems.  To add insult to injury, the committee chairman appears to cut Ms Cherry off by saying "she has made her point" - well, personally I'd have said her point would only have been made when Mr Sunak showed the slightest glimmer of actually understanding it.

Some of Mr Sunak's replies were truly baffling, but he's been interpreted in some quarters as meaning that the use of "British" should be considered innocent in this case because it's a word that is routinely used in England as shorthand for "English".  And if that is what he meant, let's be fair - there is fresh statistical evidence to demonstrate that he is quite right.  Here is what the 2021 census found were the top national identities in England and Wales - 

British only: 54.8%

English only: 14.9%

Which is quite a turnaround from the previous census only a decade earlier, which showed - 

English only: 57.7%

British only: 19.1%

This apparently total transformation over ten years in how the people of England see themselves is plainly not credible.  If there had been substantial movement from "English only" to "both English and British", that might have been a tad more believable, but you don't go from one exclusive identity to another exclusive identity in such a short space of time - unless of course the original identity was extremely shallow in the first place.  But nobody who has just watched the bizarre spectacle of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show could ever accuse our friends down south of having a shallow national identity.

And sure enough, even the Office for National Statistics felt they had no option but to sheepishly admit when they published the results that the trend was not real, but was instead an artefact of methodological change in the census.  In 2011, the English-only option had been presented first, and in 2021 the British-only option had been presented first.  That seemingly minor change was enough to produce a 43 percentage point drop in the number of people calling themselves English.  There are very few examples in polling where the sequence in which possible responses are presented to respondents has such a dramatic effect, and frankly the only logical conclusion to be drawn is that people in England think the words 'English' and 'British' mean literally the same thing - and therefore they simply chose the first version that they saw of that same thing.

I don't think I ever caused more outrage among the Tories on Political Betting (better known as Stormfront Lite) than when I described the UK as "Greater England".  There is no English empire!, they said.  England didn't absorb Scotland!, they said.  Britain is a genuine and voluntary union state of equals!, they said.  In which case they'll have to explain why their own countrymen and countrywomen plainly see Britain as nothing more than England in expanded form.  I really struggle to think of a better way of characterising that state of affairs than "Greater England".

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Monday, December 19, 2022

WINGS-WATCH: Fact-checking the bogus claim that the new Panelbase poll shows "SNP voters hate women"

So as Magnus Magnusson used to say back in the day, there's "just the one" factual inaccuracy to be corrected from today's Wings output - but, alas, it's an absolute whopper.

Mr Campbell claims that the majority of SNP voters who replied to Panelbase's latest poll think that the Scottish Government's planned gender recognition reforms pose a threat to women's safety, and that the majority of SNP voters in the poll also say that the reforms would make them even more likely to vote SNP.  He then goes full Sherlock, dons a deerstalker hat, puts two and two together and makes twenty-two, and declares that this combination of alleged results means that SNP voters hate women because they must be positively enthused about a policy that they think will put women at risk.  To emphasise that he means this absolutely literally, he sums up as follows...

"SNP voters say they’re MORE likely to vote for the SNP specifically because of a policy that they themselves think puts women in danger."

VERDICT: Lie.  There is, in fact, not a scrap of evidence in the poll that SNP voters support the idea of women being put at risk, and every reason to believe that the polar opposite is true.  Although a plurality of SNP voters say that the gender recognition reforms would put women at risk, this in fact amounts to only 39% of SNP voters in the sample (31% take the opposite view and the remaining 30% don't know).  Similarly, it's only a plurality of SNP voters who say that the reforms would make them even more likely to vote SNP, and it's a smaller plurality at that - just 28%.

To state what ought to be the bleedin' obvious, it is eminently possible that the 28% of SNP voters who say the reforms make them more likely to vote SNP, and the 39% of SNP voters who say that the reforms will put women at risk, are not actually the same people.  Indeed, it's overwhelmingly likely that they are not.  If there's any overlap at all between the two groups, it's likely to be extremely minor.

From listening to Mr Campbell you'd be forgiven for thinking that SNP-voting respondents to opinion polls all get together in a room and decide what the collective line is by majority vote.  "Right, chaps, we've decided that the reforms put women at risk, so all further questions must be answered in that light."  Er, no, Stu.  Each SNP-voting respondent in an opinion poll is an individual, answering individually, from their own individual perspective.  The question on whether the reforms make people more likely to vote SNP is not a proxy for whether SNP voters hate women or are excited about putting women at risk, because 61% of SNP voters do not buy into that premise and are therefore not answering the question with that premise in mind.

But that doesn't stop Mr Campbell piling bogus assumption upon bogus assumption and wandering deeper into Narnia with this ludicrous statement:

"Indeed, less than one in five of the party’s supporters are troubled by the fact. 53% of them merely don’t care that women will be put in danger, while 28% of them are actively enthused by the idea. (And of that 28%, two-thirds say they’re MUCH more likely, not just a bit more likely, to vote SNP as a result.)"

Back in the real world, it can be safely assumed that most of those "two-thirds of the 28%" come from the substantial minority of SNP voters who DON'T think the reforms will put women at risk.

One thing I will say about the Panelbase poll is that it's a tremendous relief to discover that the gender recognition questions appear to have been commissioned by the Sunday Times and not by Wings.  That means the wording of the questions is much more neutral and the findings therefore have far more credibility.  They add to the vast weight of polling evidence we already have - including from the earlier Panelbase poll commissioned by Scot Goes Pop - that the public are opposed to the reforms which are expected to be passed by the Scottish Parliament this week.  As I've said before, it's not illegitimate in a parliamentary democracy for MSPs to legislate in defiance of public opinion.  But what is absolutely not OK is for them to gaslight us into thinking that they are acting with the support of the public when they are doing the reverse.  Thankfully, we now have enough polls with a clear enough message to make it very hard for them to get away with that.

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Sunday, December 18, 2022

Momentous Panelbase poll is SEVENTH in a row to show a pro-independence majority

Should Scotland be an independent country? (Panelbase / Sunday Times, 12th-16th December 2022)

Yes 52% (+3)
No 48% (-3)

So at least part of my guess from a few days ago turned out to be correct - the voting intention questions from the Panelbase poll that's been in the field were indeed commissioned by the Sunday Times.  I think, as it turns out, the trans and gender related questions were also for the Sunday Times (I had initially thought it might be Stuart Campbell), but presumably the questions about Alba were for another client - possibly Alba itself.  Anyway, what matters most is that the independence results are broadly in line with what we've been seeing from every other firm since the UK Supreme Court ruled that Scotland is a prisoner in a non-voluntary union.  Once again, there's a clear Yes majority.

As soon as I mentioned this poll on Twitter, someone replied to say they were actually disappointed, because they had been hoping that Yes would now push on to 60%. That gave me a sense of déjà vu from the last Yes surge a couple of years ago, and I'd suggest it offers an insight into where parts of the independence movement, including people very close to the top of the SNP, have been going wrong for years. There are twin assumptions: a) that once independence support starts rising, it ought to be expected to keep rising, and b) that 60% is both attainable and necessary.  Neither assumption is true.  We might eventually see 60% Yes support in the odd isolated poll, but I don't expect it to ever happen on a sustained basis.  But luckily, in a democracy, 50% + 1 is enough.

Ian McGeechan (a staunch unionist like so many rugby people) used to say when he was Scotland coach that you don't need to "beat" bigger countries like England or South Africa - you just need to contrive a way to be one or two points ahead when the referee blows the final whistle.  It doesn't matter if the other team has been ahead for most of the game and has dominated territory and possession.  I think that's how it will be for the independence campaign - we'll squeeze out a tightly fought 52% or 53% victory at the crucial moment, and we won't need to worry about whether that lead would have been sustained.  

That path to independence can hardly be further removed from the belief of the likes of Andrew Wilson that it'll just fall into our laps after we patiently wait for a "settled will" of 60% to be established.  My view is that if we're overly squeamish about winning independence by a narrow margin among a divided electorate, then we'll never reach our goal.  The good news is that history strongly suggests that a consensus that independence is a good thing will quickly develop after independence has actually happened.  Very few countries or territories that were previously ruled by London want to turn the clock back.  There's the odd exception like Hong Kong - but it's no coincidence that Hong Kong is also one of the few former colonies that are not actually independent.  Nostalgia for colonial rule in Hong Kong is really just a proxy for a desire to restore personal liberties and the rule of law.

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Red lines for the SNP's special conference in March

I have a lot of concerns about what might emerge from the SNP's special conference, which we learned today will be held on 19th March.  I'm worried about the vague language being used by senior SNP people to characterise the purpose of the event, which leaves open the possibility of it being used as part of the choreography for yet another climbdown.  I'm troubled by the way in which comments made in recent months by the likes of Angus Robertson, Toni Giugliano and Mhairi Hunter are not even consistent with a plan for a de facto referendum, thus making the whole concept sound like a ruse.  

However, I can't see the point of screaming blue murder about a betrayal that hasn't actually happened yet, and that may never happen.  The conference itself will be the moment of truth.  If whatever is decided ticks the boxes of a genuine plebiscite election, all of us need to get off the fence and get full-bloodedly behind the endeavour - and that includes the Alba Party, because we'll never forgive ourselves if we self-sabotage a golden opportunity to win our country's independence.  If, on the other hand, there's another climbdown, we'll have no choice but to start looking ahead to doing independence the hard, slow way by challenging the SNP in 2026 and beyond.  Make no mistake, that would be very much the second-best outcome, but we'd have nowhere else to go.

So what should be our red lines for the March conference?  I know many people will be prioritising the replacement of a Westminster plebiscite election in 2024 with a snap Holyrood plebiscite election in 2023.  I agree that would be overwhelmingly sensible, but it's not absolutely essential.  The true bottom line is that the plebiscite election must happen, it must genuinely be a plebiscite election and not a con-trick, and it must happen within the timescale we've been led to expect.  So in more concrete terms...

* The de facto referendum, regardless of whether it's Westminster or Holyrood, must take place by the end of 2024.  There must be no delay until 2026 - which would be a whole decade after we learned Scotland was to be dragged out of the EU against its will.

* It must be absolutely crystal-clear that the mandate being sought in the election is for independence itself, not for an independence referendum.

* It must be crystal-clear that if a mandate for independence is secured, the UK government will be expected to negotiate an independence settlement without any need for a further referendum.

* There must be no repeat of the mistake of using language like "once in a generation" - in other words, we mustn't bind our own hands by saying there could be no repeat of a plebiscite election for a long period if we don't win on this attempt.  That's not to say that we'd necessarily use every single scheduled election in the future as a plebiscite, but we must absolutely reserve the right to use whichever election we may deem appropriate.  The whole beauty of switching back to using elections as the means of seeking independence is that no British Prime Minister can say at the end of a five-year term "now is not the time for an election", and it would thus be very stupid of us not to leave our options wide open.

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