28 October 2012

For A' That: Episode, the First...

It's one thing to lament the smallness of the Scottish public sphere, another to try to make a wee contribution to opening it up and elaborating it. I'm sure several of you have been listening to Michael Greenwell's interesting and diverse series of Scottish Independence podcasts, touching most recently on the environment, but ranging across the land, and across topics, in an...

"... attempt to discuss some of the real choices coming up for Scotland without the jingoism and, frankly, the silliness, that surrounds much of the debate at the moment."

Admirable goals, it seems to me. Michael was kind enough to come to visit me in Oxford on a bright day over the summer, and after recording a session, we got nattering down the pub about ways we might try to foster a bit of debate, and endeavour to hew out some space for a different sort of conversation about Scottish independence, yes, but also about society and politics in general, without the adversarial atmosphere and inevitable compression which characterises the debates we hear all too often on radio, and see even more so on the telly. 

Our new For A' That podcast, launched today, is the fruit of that conversation. An informal discussion format, we intend to record the show weekly and pop the episodes online every Sunday (damnum fatale permitting). Mixing the timely and the untimely, we hope to look at recent headlines and neglected topics in Scottish, UK, European - and why not? - world politics, to boot.  No more than about half an hour long, the episodes will be a more discursive companion to the interview-style of Michael's Scottish Independence podcasts, and my own planned occasional series looking at English perspectives on the political and constitutional predicament which Britain now finds itself in. (Incidentally, I'm pleased to say that I've got my first mystery guest lined up for this, and he's a cracker).

In the podcast's inaugural week, as we tinker with the tech, Michael and I had a blether about the SNP's (still ongoing) EU legal predicament, the prospect of votes for sixteen and seventeen year olds - and for prisoners - in the referendum, and the riotous headlines strapped across the Scottish broadsheets this week, accusing the SNP trying to "rig" the referendum by imposing stringent campaign financing rules. In  future, we're also very keen to jumble up the conversation, and hope to get a new and diverting guest on every week to ruminate and cogitate about the stories which have caught their eye, or the topics which they feel have been or are being unjustly neglected. The same goes for you, our audience. If there are any issues, questions or whatnot you'd like Michael, our guest and I to discuss - do just pop one of us an email.  You can collar me at lallandspeatworrier@gmail.com.

There'll be no cosy Mitt Romney impressions here. We'll be looking to invite on guests of a range of political stripes, and are enthusiastic about provoking a modest - but generous-spirited - stramash where we disagree. Although Michael and I are supporters of independence, and of the left politically, we also come to our politics from rather different perspectives (he'd say he's leftier and more constitutionally cynical than I am; I'd admit I've been debauched by my legal education).  Chalk the outbreak of consensus in this first recording to tentative politeness.

In any case, here's the first episode of For A' That. The sound quality is a bit shoogly at times (some of that attributable to Michael's attention-seeking feline), but we're looking into improving the quality post haste for future podcasts. All responses, recommendations, reactions - gratefully received.  I hope you enjoy it.

You can also listen to the show online here, or alternatively, if you'd prefer to imbibe our dulcet tones at your leisure, download the show from your iTunes or from Spreaker in .mp3 format, here.

27 October 2012

Uncertainty which cannot be eliminated, certainly shouldn't be avoided.

Not black, not white, but mingling motley.  If there was one lesson powerfully to emerge from the legal-political debate before the Edinburgh Agreement, it is that Scottish politics is apparently constitutionally incapable of dealing sanely with legal complexity.  

In the Unionist corner, we had Ian Davidson, Jim Wallace and their ilk erroneously asserting with knock-down certainty that the referendum was clearly ultra vires without Westminster's say-so.  In the nationalist corner, every effort was made to ignore the more nuanced legal realities facing Scottish parliament and ministers, projecting instead an air of brisk confidence, giving every appearance that Holyrood's competence to hold the poll was beyond legal question. 

Neither of these positions, and the apparently confident, polarised, black-and-white absolutism of their respective claims, reflected the objective ambiguity of the legal situation around the independence poll, susceptible to different constructions in the absence of any binding precedents on the key arguments.  None of the key political actors were willing to own up to the shoogliness of their legal positions, and the political solutions which were called upon to resolve those legal challenges.  

Last week's agreement on the draft section 30 order may have done the business, but throughout, the public have been treated like numpties by our politicians.  Rather than being addressed like adults, able to understand that in law as in life, we have to deal with ambiguity - particularly when we're breaking new ground, whether by holding a referendum on independence under devolution, or dissolving the state which has entered into European agreements these last decades - we've been smoothly manipulated in the interests of partisanship. Complexity denied, contingency disavowed, both pro-nationalists and those who oppose independence assumed attitudes of bullish certitude. It's understandable that many folk felt at a loss about whose categorical claims to believe.

Plenty of parties are complicit in this, not least our print and broadcast media. Complexity and indeterminacy are ruthlessly pathologised by journalists' glib demands for simple answers, and the shellacking politicians will inevitably receive if they are unable to claim dead-certainty in defence of their positions. I sympathise a great deal with politicians, keen to avoid being put through the wringer, who marshal what legal experts they can find, and march out into the glare of the cameras, apparently full of certainty and bravado.  Emphatic political performances may not eliminate the legal uncertainties you're determined to sideline, but they can at least clear the cawing flock of hacks from off your back. Overall, though, denying the complexity of your legal situation doesn't strike me as a wise strategy. Sometimes you might get away with it, but uncertainty denied has a nasty habit of bubbling up from the cthonic regions which you hoped to consign it to, leaving you looking daft, or worse, disingenuous.  

The Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh, Neil Walker, has an important piece over at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum this afternoon, "Beyond the Black and White of Legal Advice", on the extent to which the legal debate on Scotland's position in the EU is beginning to sound an alarming echo of the discussion around the referendum earlier this year:  It is a wide-ranging piece, but after this week, I find myself very much sharing his core concerns about how we deal with these tricky legal topics in Scottish politics.  The lesson? Uncertainty which cannot be eliminated, certainly shouldn't be avoided.

"Alex Salmond has done himself no favours with his lack of candour on the question of legal advice on the pathways to EU membership, and by the complacent assumption which seemed to lie behind this. His attitude, like that of some of his political opponents, has contributed to an atmosphere in which the question of a right to continuing or renewed membership is seen in unhelpfully black and white terms. Either future membership on the part of an independent Scotland is ‘nae bother’ – something which will happily unfold according to the nationalists’ own agenda, or it is a path strewn with dangerous, unpredictable and perhaps insurmountable obstacles. Regardless of the legal niceties, the true state of affairs it is clearly neither of these extremes, but something in-between." 

Read the whole thing on the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum here.

26 October 2012

What are Margo's chances?

I meant to discuss this at the time, but better late than never, I suppose. During September, the news quietly circulated that Margo Macdonald has again secured sufficient signatures from her fellow parliamentarians, to allow the issue of assisted dying to be revisited in Holyrood this session.

Her last attempt to reform the law was eviscerated by an ad hoc committee chaired by Ross Finnie, and the discussion of the Bill was halted at stage one, rejected on its general principles by the Scottish Parliament on an unwhipped vote of fifteen to eighty-five. Whether by conscious strategy, or down to the dismal dreich December weather, the vote was marked by a very large number of absences. Of voting members (i.e. excluding the Presiding Officer), some 20% of the parliament didn't express a view on the Bill's general principles, one way or the other.

No new draft bill has yet been lodged but her nineteen supporters are identified here. In 2009, Margo was able to secure twenty signatures, of whom thirteen MSPs remain in the parliament  - Patrick Harvie (Green), Elaine Murray (Lab), James Kelly (Lab), John Park (Lab), Sandra White (SNP), Christine Grahame (SNP), Jamie Hepburn (SNP), Bill Kidd (SNP), Angela Constance (SNP), Joe Fitzpatrick (SNP), Jackson Carlaw (Tory), Jim Hume (Lib) and Liam McArthur (Lib).  Today, she draws the majority of her support from SNP MSPs, including George Adam, Marco Biagi, Chic Brodie, Roderick Campbell, Jim Eadie, Christine Grahame, Jamie Hepburn, Bill Kidd, Richard Lyle, Mark McDonald, Fiona McLeod and Sandra White. Support elsewhere, from both Green MSPs, from Argyll Tory man Jamie McGrigor and Orkney Liberal Liam McArthur, and from three Labour MSPs: Kezia Dugdale, John Park and Mary Fee. Interestingly, eleven of Margo's nineteen supporters are members newly-elected in 2011.

Obviously, Margo's private member's Bill was rejected by a large margin in 2010. Are its chances of appearing in the law books better today? Prima facie, you might think not, but a look at the numbers suggests that the changes affected by the last Holyrood election present opportunities as well as challenges. Of the fifteen MSPs who - at the very least - wanted to continue discussing her proposals in 2010, six (40%) no longer sit in the parliament.  Margo has also lost one of her most vocal supporters in the Liberal Democrat Jeremy Purvis, defeated in the Borders by Christine Grahame in the 2011 election. But as you'll recall, 2011 was a poll with unexpected consequences, not least that many more familiar faces and old political hands were not returned, and a whole new cohort of Labour and Nationalist MSPs were elected, many of them rather younger than the traditional Labour and Nationalist tribalists who secure their party's nomination for office.  New faces, new opportunities.

What's more, Margo has indicated that this won't be an unaltered rerun of her abortive last attempt to amend the law of homicide.  The draft Bill she will introduce will apparently be an reframed, rejigged text, drawing on the criticisms which she proved unable to fend off in parliament's last session, although I imagine the "general principles" which she seeks to promote are more or less unaltered. It's also worth recalling that a number of those MSPs who supported her at stage one in 2010 made explicit in their speeches that they were in favour of continuing the parliamentary conversation, not necessarily endorsing the merits of her proposals. 

All that considered, opportunities and challenges both, from Margo's perspective the prospects for these new proposals looks bleak. The parliamentary arithmetic suggests the scale of the challenge before her.  By my reckoning, here's how the new chamber which will be reconsidering assisted-dying shapes up...

Margo's notoriously no faintheart, and I'm sure she will fight on with this policy, despite opposition.  But what are the chances that she'll prevail on this second try? Slim, I'd say. Very slim. 

25 October 2012

Salmond: Nixonian, Clintonian, Delboyian...

And in a single bound, free. Well, not quite, but Alex Salmond certainly cleared some much-needed waddle-room for himself at this afternoon's First Minister's Questions, in great part because of the ineptness of his sapskulled interrogators. After a bruising week of often Jesuitical evasions from the Scottish Government, skeptical hacks perched like rooks in the Holyrood rafters, ready to pick over Salmond's carcass, the stage was meant to be set for an uncomfortable encounter for the First Minister.  

Hitherto, there's been something of Schrödinger's cat about Salmond's account of himself. The condensed version of his Holyrood statement was essentially "The concept of legal advice obviously includes and excludes any advice about law which I may and may not have received." The justification has been full of doubleness, distinguishing legal advice which he did and did not ask for or possess, and could and could not disclose, distinctions which he claimed were implicit in, but not really made explicit to Andrew Neil in their BBC interview. For most, a bemusing guddle of an answer, which could prompt only boredom and disengagement  - or a significant dollop of mistrust.  Salmond's been stewing in this stuff for days now, despite the defensive sallies he and some of his colleagues have launched on telly and on radio in his defence.

Plenty of choice ingredients, you might well think, for an underemployed leader of the opposition to fork through, selecting the choice cuts to serve up to Salmond this afternoon. Lamont, conspicuously absent from the EU advice controversy so far, was spotted practising on a tumshie with her mashie niblick on top of Arthur's Seat this morning. Davidson's neighbours report she's been pummelling an aubergine-shaped punch-bag in a double-breasted suit into the wee small hours over in Partick. Wee Willie Rennie, ill-luck dogging him, is still recovering from last night's BBC Newsnicht and wasn't allotted a question today. At the very least, he no doubt rehearsed enthusiastically braying and pooh-poohing dubiously, as Salmond was taken seriously to task in the chamber. 

None of that materialised. Instead, both Lamont and Davidson were abject, feeble, unfunny, unfocussed. Instead of dragging him across the coals as anticipated, they bungled on content and style, Davidson more ridiculously. They might as well have put him up in a yielding leather armchair beside a nice cosy fire instead. 

I've been pondering how they were able to cock it up so merrily. Poor advice? Bare incompetence? For at least two days, both leaders were in a position to prophesy more or less what Salmond's defence would be. It should have surprised neither of them that he resorted to his nifty device - the independent panel on the ministerial code - to try to douse the controversy. Neither were the lines of justification which he offered novel, or a radical departure from earlier accounts of himself, and the import of his words and actions. They could also rely on Salmond resorting to the old debater's techniques of quibbling with definitions, deflecting from the main thrust of questions by pouncing on perceived errors in their construction.  

Accordingly, it seemed obvious that they'd need to be on top of the precise contents of the Ministerial Code, if they were to stand a hope in hell of catching him out.  Instead, neither politician seemed to have done their homework. Save, that is, for drafting and reading out their prepared remarks, with greater and lesser degrees of dudgeon.  Ruth's approach might be summarised as: "this is an important, serious matter. Now for a series of jocular interludes". It helps if the jokes are witty, and preferably, didn't involve the (more or less) vital, youthful Tory party leader referencing television programmes which were finally discontinued over a decade ago, its glory days already long behind it.  It seems a waste to squander youth's bounty, for the sake of a flaccid gag.

Looking back over past showings, it seems to me that Johann and her advisers are unable to keep critical focus.  At all. Instead of more forensic, detailed dismantling of the First Minister on specific policies, specific failings, setting up tripwires for him to blunder over on themes of wider resonance, she feels much more comfortable delivering acid perorations and pre-chewed put-downs. At length. Accordingly, every week, she skimps on the analysis, and rushes to denunciation, almost in a single breath.  Very rarely do you see her dangling a hook in the water, waiting for Salmond to take the bait, then goggling wetly as the hook finds his throat. 

Instead, Lamont tends to posit an SNP scandal or failure up front - take it for read - and then crack on with Salmond bashing. As a result, we almost never see Alex wriggling uncomfortably, dangling on the line, forced into an awkward admission.  Lamont is simply too predictable, and always furnishes him with some partisan ball to bat back her way from the very get go. She has no lightness on her feet whatsoever as a debater, but being so mechanically pre-scripted, she really should resist the urge to talk so much. Today's little failure in Holyrood was an object lesson in these vices. I'm sure the First Minister appreciates the assistance at this difficult time.  

What might the Tory and Labour leaders have said instead?  Their questioning could go down at least two distinct lines.  I suppose the first is more attractive if you are focussed on Nationalist defeat in Holyrood, the second if you are most concerned with discrediting nationalism more generally in the referendum.  The first, favoured by Labour, was anticipated by Paul Martin's characterisation of the First Minister as a "barefaced liar".  On this line of questioning, the EU topic is of peripheral consequence: the goal is to paint Salmond as a duplicitous scoundrel, a chancer, who habitually lies to journalists, fibs to parliament, and litigates to cover up his falsehoods. It's classic ad hominem stuff, an attempt to dent the personal credibility of the leader, and its effectiveness relies on building up a miasma of mistrust and mislike around the man.

Instead, you might take another approach - one that backgrounds the issue of falsehood, misspeaking, distortion - and instead focusses precisely on the issue of Nationalist credibility on the EU. For my money, while the media and parliamentarians might find the "liar" angle most interesting, it is this second line of questioning which strikes me as more potentially damaging for nationalists, though neither Davidson or Lamont came close to nailing the case.  It might go something like this:

"First Minister. You've been a nationalist for over thirty years. You've been First Minister for six. In that time, your government has brought two referendum bills before this parliament to separate Scotland from the UK.  We now discover that in all those years, it never once - never once - occurred to you to ask your law officers for their opinion on Scotland's EU status after secession. You seem remarkably incurious about this vital question. Scotland's people need an informed debate about independence.  How can the ordinary citizen hope to understand the choices before us, when First Minister's own best notion of the legal possibilities and challenges facing his policy are apparently borrowed from newspaper cuttings from the 1990s, and selective quotes from academic journals? This isn't what a serious, credible nationalist case for independence within the EU looks like."

In the event, both Ruth and Johann wanted to pluck on both strings, but managed to produce two dud notes, rather than one clear one. 

22 October 2012

WARNING: unsupervised triangulation kills.

Over the summer, I borrowed the first volume of Chris Mullin's (2009) diaries from my father. As the title of the collection - A View from the Foothills - implies, Mullin was a creature of the lower slopes in Tony Blair's Labour government, and after the 2005 General Election, was booted even further down the incline, evicted from his comfortable bothy as African Minister in the Foreign Office, to no obvious purpose. The book is full of diverting incident and character-sketches from the period, cataloguing the effects of Blair's extroverted charm, but also the former Prime Minister's tendency towards shallowness and mercurial shifts in activity, sprayed with new management sloganising about modernisation and reform. 

Although not an unsympathetic authorial voice, the image of Mullin I carry in my head suffers from him reminding me of the League of Gentlemen's toad-collector, Harvey Denton.  He has something of the dowdy geography teacher about him. I'm sure he wears cagoules, enjoys a good cup of tea, and if he's feeling racy - perhaps pairs the cup with a modest crumb of fruit cake. Endowed with a very English sort of flaccidness, Mullin is unfashionable, understated, polite, and I imagine a decent cove - but remains somehow bloodless, and a bit ponderous with it.  

Having enjoyed the first book well enough, I recently cracked open the second volume of the diaries, which run from May 2005 to May 2010.  Its title, Decline and Fall (2010), maps the end both of Mullin's political career, and that of Gordon Brown, and his abortive premiership.  I'm only a short ways into the text, but was particularly struck by this entry, dated Monday 21st November 2005. 

The Strangers' Cafeteria, House of Commons

Joined at lunch by a Yorkshire MP, a mild-mannered fellow, incensed by The Man's [Blair's] latest foray into education.  "We're opening the door for selection.  Whatever safeguards we put in place, whatever assurances we give will be absolutely worthless once the Tories are in power". And then: "I think we will lose the next election.  The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems and we'll find that we've opened the door to the market in health and education.  And when we protest, they will reply, "But this is your policy; you started it. We'll be vulnerable for years.  Our benches will be full of ex-ministers who won't have the stomach for the fight".  As he talked his anger mounted and most of it was directed at The Man.  A straw in the wind.

A cardinal lesson, I'd say, that when you adopt the discourse of your opponents, when you co-opt their vocabulary and their concepts, you might think you are working a neat political trick, triangulating your way to triumph.  For a time, it might seem as if you've wrong footed your enemies, as they struggle to compose salient responses to your unexpected theft of their political costumes. The proponents of this sort of thing will always have soothing, apparently practical, words to allay any intellectual pangs you might feel.  

This logic can take singularly grotesque forms.  I'd hazard a guess that something like it was implicated in Phil Woolas' Oldham West and Saddleburn campaign in the 2010 general election. What if adopting a soft anti-immigrant rhetoric could keep the real racist bastards out? Wouldn't you, shouldn't do it? Isn't that really the right thing for an anti-racist to do, to make sure the real racists don't get in? Whatever we actually say and do, we know we're all really working for the cause, don't we?  Sure, it's ugly, but the end justifies the means, can't you see that?

Becoming adept in a secular sort of mental reservation is critical for the tyro triangulator.  The tragedy of such strategies, however, is that most of the time, they're simply too clever by half.  Instead of burglarising your opponents' political house while keeping your own ideological soul intact, more often than not, that soul very quietly, often imperceptibly, transmogrifies into theirs. The dismal fact is that triangulation is a way of letting your opponent win, whether you retain office, or they boot you out.  It is a recipe for an asphyxiating political consensus, for conceding your opponents' "common sense", and not for victory on something like your own ideological terms.

How prescient that parliamentarian from Yorkshire proved.  Lessons here, both for the UK Labour Party which Miliband is trying to resurrect, and after last week's NATO vote at Conference, for the SNP too, I'd reckon. 

18 October 2012

Scottish Independence: those chancy Ipsos-MORI trends...

A somewhat uncomfortable juxtaposition this, given yesterday's jeremiad against commentary on Scottish independence which obsesses unduly over polling numbers, and which campaign is ahead by a nose, or as circumstances might have it, by a proboscis of Pinocchioesque scale.  What can I say? I'm going hazard the Americanisation, threaten complicity in the saturation of our politics with statistics, and take a closer took at Ipsos-MORI's latest independence poll, published this morning.  Commentary on these polls tends to be governed by how the relate to the study undertaken immediately previously, and if the analysis hitherto is anything to go by, then the good ship independence isn't exactly holed below the waterline, but this October poll shows it leaking support in a less than encouraging fashion. 

It strikes me, however, that it might be interesting, and certainly wiser, to cast our minds back a wee bit further than July this year, to see the ebbs and flows of these opinion polls in their proper aspect.  Accordingly, in slight amendment to my past approach to presenting polling data, this time I'll be contextualising the new findings, not with respect to the immediately prior poll, but to all five Ipsos-MORI independence surveys back to August 2011.  There is no particular reason of principle for my stopping at this point. That was merely when easily-accessible data stopped, and is I think far enough back, to offer perspective to today's findings, without exhausting us all with too much information.  

The lesson of this longer-term perspective? Firstly, you're really struck by the volatility of findings beneath the topline. While in poll after poll you find lower support for independence amongst women, and higher support for it amongst poorer than richer Scots, the rates of difference are all over the place, sliding hither and thon like a drunken centipede, giving rollerskates a try.  Opposition to independence amongst men, for instance, has ranged across fourteen percentage points, from a high of 58% opposition last August, to January 2012's low of 44%, increasing in July, and falling again by two pips this October. Women's support for independence has been consistently on the slide in Ipsos polls (down from 34% last August to 25% today).

Beyond the extremes, how support for independence might break down by age is mostly hunchwork.  We can consistently say that the oldest cohort of Scots is the most opposed to independence, but shy of that, all one can soberly say about those under fifty five is that they are consistently inconsistent in their constitutional preferences.  By way of an example, take the youngest group, 18 to 24 year olds.  Their support for independence in Ipsos polls has vacillated 12 percentage points from the highest to lowest level of support.  Indecision even more so, shifting 18% upwards today, compared to just 3% of the cohort questioned who said they were undecided about Scotland's constitutional future last December.  Over-confident analysis of these fluctuating findings looks decidedly chancy.  

One final observation or two on the latest poll, before the charts.  Across all but one of the categories we're looking at here - of gender, of social deprivation and of age, indecision is on the increase, and not solely at the expense of the pro-independence side of things. The percentage of respondents who are undecided in October's Ipsos-MORI is higher than any of the other four, whether they are men, women, old or young, and with only one exception, whether those questioned were wealthy or impoverished.  Divided up into the five percentiles of deprivation, only the second least deprived 20% felt less uncertain this October about how they might vote, than every other category of people.  This is at its starkest amongst the poorest 20% of Scots, usually independence polling's strongest supporters.  While independence remains the majority choice of the poorest 20%, levels of indecision have increased from a low of 9% in last autumn's poll, to a full quarter or respondents today. 

All in all, though, these aren't splendid-looking polls for those who support independence. Levels of support for independence today are at their lowest since August 2011 amongst men, amongst women, amongst the poorest, amongst 25 to 34 year olds, those aged 35 to 54, and amongst the inveterately opposed old codgers, counting more than fifty five years to their name. I suspect my own feelings mirror those of most nationalists surveying these results: they simply underline the challenge before us, rather than fostering despair. Salmond's buccaneer sensibility is the right one. Confound the bean-counters. Make the arguments. Strive to persuade your neighbours, your colleagues and friends. Keep the heid. It's not sewn up just yet.

And with that, to the pretty charts.  Let's start with gender, and their shifting Ipsos trends.

After which, to age.  For convenience, I've broken all of this down into Ipsos age bands.  I pondered a vast, mad, spider's web of a line graph, but it make for an impenetrable thatch of data to try and tease through.  If anyone has particular requests or preferences in terms of the presentation of the information, do please let me know. You'll notice, by the by, that Ipsos use slightly different, slightly fewer age brackets than, say, TNS-BMRB. Chronologically, the pollster's findings were as follows...


Unlike the social grading used by TNS-BMRB, which is based on the occupation of the "head of household", Ipsos favours distinguishing its respondents into one of five categories of affluence, running from the 20% who live in Scotland's most deprived areas, to the 20% who stay in the least deprived quarters of the land.  

One infelicity of this approach is that it is a bit tricky to entitle the data in a readily comprehensible way, save for the extremes of poverty, and extremes of wealth.  For accessibility, I've styled the arid categories 2, 3 and 4 as - second most deprived 20%, the middle 20%, and the second least deprive 20% respectively.  The charts run in order down the page, from poorest to richest to aid in their construction.  Already starkly hostile to independence, this month's poll records the lowest level for support for independence from the richest Scots yet, falling beneath 20%, while levels of indecision, as elsewhere, look to be on the rise.


17 October 2012

American lessons for Scotland...

Looking in on US federal politics is a queer business. I’ve never crossed the Atlantic myself, but have several American friends and acquaintances (Oxford is awash with them), and like them, I’ve been obsessively tuning in to see Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and President Obama spar in their 2.00am debates. Such is the familiarity of the wry observation that Britain and the United States are “two countries divided by a common language” that it is easy to forget the germ of caution which the witticism prudently commends.

There are several perils for the international watcher of American politics, foremost amongst which are ‘false friends’. A familiar tactic in British politics has been to steal the rhetoric of your opponents – Tories nuzzling up to the NHS and the Labour Party’s enthusiasm for new management mumbo-jumbo and the introduction of internal markets into English public services. For all of this triangulation, and for all of these costume changes, if we listen to an Ed Miliband speech, or a policy announcement from a Tory cabinet minister, we, “parse” the concepts we hear, as the Americans say. When Alex Salmond speaks about the conception of “social justice” which his government is committed to, we mentally tick off the sort of things this means in concrete policy terms. In his case, we might think of the universal provision of certain public services, no tuition fees, a progressive taxation system, but lower levies on corporations. 

For those who are not steeped in domestic American politics, or savvy about the main details of the federal programmes and entitlements being discussed – like me – presidential debates are littered with opportunities for confusion and outright misunderstanding, as American rhetoric is mistranslated into domestic political terms. Take this short segment from last night’s debate. In the second half of the debate, Obama said: 

“I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy’s grown. That’s how we build the world’s greatest middle class”.

I dare say that few folk would disagree that people should “have a fair shot”, but Obama’s views on the metrics of fairness, and how government ought to do to foster opportunity, diverges wildly even from the political consensus in Westminster, and the albeit embattled idea that the state has an extensive moral vocation to support its citizenry. Enthusiasm for Obama among left-leaning Europeans wildly outstrips the sort of joy his right-wing political convictions warrant. Certainly, the vulcanised Mr Romney, is the more obviously appalling of the two, but the lesser of two evils, and the choice between two reactionaries, is surely not, on most people’s sober analysis, something to be enthused by. 

There are other perils too for the English-speaker, bewitched by the apparent transparency of the language used, trying to understand these debates on their own terms. For those hailing from Britain, it is all too easy to conflate Congress with Parliament, and so to forget the implications of the American federal constitution, and the extensive jurisdiction which the US states enjoy to prescribe their own rates of taxation and to promote more conservative or liberal social agendas. A Congress without parliamentary sovereignty, and a trifurcated federal government of executive, legislature and judicial branches, affords no free hand to order or reform the American state freely as the president, the Supreme Court justices, or the Houses of Congress alone, see fit. 

Being on the outside looking in is not entirely disadvantageous, however. Leafing through the reams of blog posts, op-eds, news bulletins, twitter feeds and broadcasts which accompany these debates, it is striking  how hackneyed and repetitive they are. For all of the breadth and depth of writing on the US election and the debates which is going on, the discourse is dominated by endlessly repeated, circulating clichés. Characteristically, the fetishising of numbers abounds, as if the debate was reducible to an objective bean pile which political scientists and journalists need only neatly count, "reading off" and relaying the significance of the data to a credulous public, awaiting instruction on the science of whether Mitt or Obama triumphed. This obsession is buttressed by a range of instant technologies, firing out as-it-happens figures, which are enthusiastically taken and echoed by commentators who show striking faith in their importance for analysing the argument between the two candidates in proper aspect. 

You struggle to find any individual authorial voice in the industrial scale babble of sporting and war-waging metaphors which the numberless American gobjobbers and yammering consultants, bloggers and columnists manufacture. “Which Obama will turn up tonight?” “What does Romney need to do?” “Who won on points?” “Will he get a bump in the polls?” “How many percentage points?” “Who lost?” The word “narrative” is incontinently sprayed around, as is the “dynamic”. “Who dominated?” Did MSNBC “call it a draw”? How did candidates “pivot”, “back off” from, or “double-down” on their positions? “I’d say Romney won that, but only 5-4. Not enough to seal the deal” “How many times did he say “middle class”? What did the CNN dials do, what did the snap poll say, how did that go down with undecided white blue-collar workers in Ohio without a college degree? “That’ll damage him amongst women.” “What about the electoral college math?” Obama “won Benghazi”, one says, another that Romney nailed “small business”. Throughout, the assessment is primarily aesthetic, and it's all Win, win, win, win, win.

In a recent edition of Rolling Stone, the entertaining dyspeptic Matt Taibbi acidly describes the media’s response to the first debate between the two main candidates: 

“Romney’s performance was better than Obama’s, but only if you throw out criteria like ‘wasn’t 100% full of shit from the opening bell’ and ‘made an actual attempt to explain who he is and what his plans are’. Unfortunately, this is good enough for our news media, which drools other the gamesmanship aspects of these debates, because it loves candidates who sink their teeth into the horse-race nonsense that they think validates their professional lives”.

In an earlier piece, Taibbi describes "how the hype became bigger than the election", and (half seriously) suggests that publishing opinion polls should be proscribed during presidential campaigns: 

“Think about it: banning poll numbers would force the media to actually cover the issues. As it stands now, the horse race is the entire story – II can think of a couple of cable networks that would have to go completely dark tomorrow, as in Dan-Rather-Dead-Fucking-Air dark, if they had to come up with even 10 seconds of news content that wasn’t centred on who was winning”. 

This week, I've been particularly struck by the emerging Scottish parallels to this, in at least two respects. 

Firstly, we can already detect a tendency in reporting to personalise the politics of the constitution. “Is this really a referendum on your popularity, Alex Salmond? Will David Cameron’s intervention drive voters into the Yes camp?” With the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement, the echo of the American discourse was uncanny. On Monday, the Telegraph argued that “the PM has run rings around Alex Salmond over independence for Scotland”. The New Statesman declared a victory for "winner" Salmond instead. Both BBC Newsnicht and STV's Scotland Tonight presenters directly asked their guests whether Salmond or Cameron had “won” the negotiations, implying, of course, that the explanatory framework of victory or defeat was absolutely mandatory. Newsflash! It isn’t, and as I noted, Monday's Edinburgh Agreement represented a good result for both nationalists and unionists, if not for the disappointed middle, who'd prefer more devolution.

What's more, we’re arguably even beginning to ape the American fixation on numerical data, and the very thin range of concepts which polls survey for. "Who is winning at the moment? What do the polls say about the mountain the SNP have to climb? What does Alex Salmond have to do to win this?" Questions like these have more often than not, dominated the analysis we've seen on the telly this week. Robin McAlpine had this decent recent primer on some of the perils of quantification, rightly emphasising that polls do not simply reflect underlying opinion. Interpretations are inscribed on the limited (and often delphic) categories which pollsters elect to ask about, shape the sorts of opinions which are counted, and invariably reduce the complexity of the real world to an brisk but essentially impoverished table of numbers and percentages, leaving an infinite amount of important, relevant information uncounted, unarticulated, and critically, unconsidered if we limit our discussion to the numerical contents of opinion polls. The apparently inexhaustible ubiquity of John Curtice on our screens should serve as a warning on this score.

The vacuity of the American discussion is an object-lesson in what we shouldn't want the referendum to look and sound like. If we want to have a serious debate about independence, the threatened shift in our political discourse towards a US style horse-race, sustained by a number-crunching obsession with who is winning, rather than the arguments and the evidence, will have to be resisted, and resisted sturdily. 

16 October 2012

Blinded by the Westminster prism...

On the theme of significant political images, yesterday afforded another telling little scene, courtesy of the BBC's midday Daily Politics.  Jo Coburn was sitting in for Andrew Neil and the discussion, understandably, turned to the issue of Scottish independence, and Cameron's jaunt up to Edinburgh to subscribe to the deal.  In an earlier segment of the programme (starting about 7:00 minutes in), Coburn interrogated SNP local government minister, Derek Mackay, about the Nationalist position on a range of topics, opening with the gambit that "the terms of trade have been agreed, but we don't yet have a question.  What would you like the question to be?"

Now, I don't object to this style of interviewing, which poses, as if from a position of ignorance, critical questions, permitting politicians to make their views plain. But I wonder if there might be more to it than this. Coburn then proceeded to put several needling propositions about independence to Mackay, as is her right and indeed, journalistic duty. James Caan shared his unrecognisable, tin-eared interpretation from a position of palpable cluelessness.  Somewhat later in the programme, after a few shots of Cameron bounding up the steps of St Andrew's House, Coburn introduced her panel to "discuss this historic moment".  

A balanced bench of judges, this, consisting of Deputy Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, the Liberal Democrat MP for Solihill, Lorley Burt, and for the Tories, Steve Brine, MP for Winchester.  None of which were, as you can imagine, particularly complimentary about Scottish independence, as is their prerogative.  During this section, she announced, as if it was news to anyone, that the SNP does indeed have a preferred referendum question, squinting down to consult a note, as if she'd only just discovered this from the lips of Derek Mackay. Seasoned Scots political watchers no doubt fell out of their armchairs in shock at this startling revelation.

For the nationalist, the gripe about the political balance of the piece composes itself.  This was like an edition of Scottish Questions in the House of Commons, where the vast majority of participants agree that nationalists are a bemusing cadre, to be reported as the somewhat eccentric, Other, marginalised in the conversation and certainly not to be taken too seriously.  As a representative balance of political opinion on the topic, it was a signal failure.

But bracket the issue about the representativeness of the conversation broadcast. On this critical day in the referendum's progress, it's more than accidental, but significant and telling, that the BBC should cobble together a debate, reflecting not the realities of contemporary Scottish politics, but the old Westminster spectrum of opinion, in which a complete spread of views need only include beams of red, blue and canary yellow.

As someone living down south at the moment, I'm interested in what folk in England make of the process, and what significance, if any, they can see in the referendum for their own vision of politics and of the United Kingdom. I'm keen to hear, from time to time, how pro-federal English Liberals talk about Scottish independence, or listless half-unionists from the Tory benches defend their, often modest, enthusiasm for "keeping Britain together", or the extent to which apparently non-nationalist democratic socialists from the Labour benches account for their universal adherence to the United Kingdom.

I've written before about devolution, and the accelerating social disunion we can already detect, as the political spaces of Westminster and Holyrood - and their attendant reading and broadcasting publics - pull apart. Despite the proliferation of potential sources for the journalist or reader based furth of Scotland, despite the relative ease with which folk can find out more about the emerging sense of a distinct Scottish political space, we don't see a London media showing greater savvy about issues at the core of the referendum debate. Instead, hackneyed imagery of nationalism are endlessly repeated, reportage is dominated by the implications of distinctly Scottish politics on Westminster - isn't it unfair that you charge the English for tuition fees? Why should Scots get free prescriptions, and the English pay?

The binary language of "them" and "us" is often employed, oblivious to the significance of such pronouns, and the presumed audiences they purport to distinguish and address. One doesn't have to be a devotee of Scottish nationalism to recognise this ongoing trend, and the social and political drift which underwrites it. The Spectator's Fraser Nelson, no friend to the SNP, has repeatedly identified the phenomenon of a drift apart in UK public affairs,  Even under devolution, the social union is breaking down, precisely because a shared politics is part of constituting a shared social and public life.

For all of their hostility towards Scottish nationalism, it is ironic that through the exclusions of their reporting, and the projection of Scottish politics as a foreign vale, populated by curious natives whose political convictions refuse neatly to fit into the categories of Westminster-centric political analysis, these self-same London-based media outfits foster a critical sense of difference, and reinforce the boundaries between UK and Scottish constitutional and political space, by increasingly seeing and writing and talking about Scotland as if it were a foreign country, covering Scottish stories as they might developments in France, or German politics. To put it another way, albeit unwittingly, the unionist UK media are helping to create the conditions which Salmond was able to exploit yesterday, making Cameron look like a foreign dignitary, rather than a Prime Minister on his own turf. I'm reminded again of Michael Ignatieff's description of political life in Canada, and the effect of the divergent political conversations happening in Quebec, and the rest of the country:

“The problem here is that we don’t have anything to say to each other any more. There’s a contract of mutual indifference which is very striking for someone of my generation ... Now effectively – effectively – we’re almost two separate countries."

This already looks like a recognisable and escalating feature of the relationships between the "London centre" and the "devolved periphery" to me.  What is interesting, too, is that you find curious and telling manifestations of this sort of feeling everywhere, beyond the papers, the news bulletins and discussion programmes. I recently attended an otherwise engaging lecture in Oxford.  The (English) academic in question was keen to subvert the (pervasive) idea that the international recognition of a right of peoples to self-determination was rooted in Wilsonian idealism in the wake of World War II.  The speaker was keen, instead, to promote an alternative genealogy of self-determination, rooted not in American liberalism, but instead in communist and socialist political history. 

To underline the significance of his study, he listed several "independence struggles" for self-determination from across the world.  Quebec warranted a mention, as did the Catalans and the Basques., along with Palestine and the Chechens. I waited for the S-word.  His longish list ended, and he moved on, having identified, as he saw it, all the important examples of self-determination which his audience might be interested to consider. I sat, at once astonished, and on another level, hardly surprised, that the independence movement on his own doorstep, imminently imperilling the integrity of his own state, didn't seem to warrant inclusion.

Looked at abstractly, this is profoundly strange omission, and reflects remarkable complacency on his part. When I challenged him about the domestic gap in his account, he shrugged it off as an accidental exclusion, a meaningless oversight, and not to be read too much into.  I was unconvinced. The absence of Scotland from this English lawyer's imagination was not incidental, but tells us a good deal about how a sense of understanding about Scotland is circulating (or not) within the UK, despite his considerable resistance to seeing it that way.

In what other state but the United Kingdom is it even conceivable for smart, highly-educated scholar of self-determination, listing significant instances of his topic, not to think of secessionary movements within his own borders immediately, not first, not second - but not at all?

15 October 2012

Cameron: a willing actor in Salmond's drama?

Just a brief supplementary observation on top of what one reader described as this afternoon's whistle-stop tour through the main implications of the draft independence referendum Order in Council, published by Scottish and Westminster governments today.  Looking at the official snaps taken, and the footage being broadcast as I write into homes the length and breadth of Scotland, one can't help but be struck by how far and how successfully Salmond has been able to cast the Prime Minister in Alex's preferred role, at the end of the first act of this constitutional drama.  

A photograph does not an independent nation-state make, but they project important images, make subtle connections, inflect credibility, and arguably do much more work in making institutions credible and imaginable than most folk would be willing to admit. Today's stage managed little encounter is not an isolated example. Salmond has assiduously cultivated opportunities to project an image of a statesmanlike First Minister, and of a Scottish government generally,  "comfortable on the world stage".  Recall his early publicity coup in 2009, with a (no doubt brief) meeting with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. 

At the time, the more grinchly Scottish political contingent, predictably, pooh-poohed this for a publicity stunt.  The First Minister's critics saw in this sort of escapade evidence primarily of Salmond's bombast and pomposity, ignoring the boundaries of his office, brashly shoving himself to the fore and generally intervening where his interventions aren't called for.

These criticisms arguably miss the broader significance of these little vignettes, and the images which circulate from them. Salmond is, by soft degrees, subduing Scots to the idea that our politicians might sit unembarrassedly in international councils and negotiations, might not make a pig's ear of it, or otherwise show us all up by being bungling lackwits.  He has the Scottish cringe in his sights. It is a modest, but critical, contribution to encouraging - and concretising on screen - the idea of Scottish statehood is not only conceivable, but practical and achievable.  That it is literally imaginable.  Surveying just a few taken in Edinburgh today shows how far you can gain this sort of international frisson even within domestic UK politics.  What is surprising, however, and what might leave many Tories disgruntled, is just how far Cameron has been willing to go along with maestro Salmond's performance.


Cameron emerges from a spanking black car. The pair enjoy a formal, photographed meeting on the steps in front of the forbidding St Andrew's House. Consensus between the Westminster and Holyrood governments is not simply reached, unpretentiously confirmed by an email or a phone call, and announced in a speech or bulletin, but instead the Scottish government stage a dramatic encounter between the two leaders, a "signing ceremony" as the BBC's Daily Politics today had it. There is a surfeit of handshakes, and plenty of photos taken.  The echo of a treaty - reached, lest we forget, by co-equal nation states - is surely intentional and striking. 

The parallel is reinforced by several touches. Everything was calculated to emphasise the equality of the participants. Not a Prime Minister meeting a subordinate and parochial leader, but the visit paid by one a head of government to another, meeting and negotiating on more or less equal terms.  The ritual simultaneous co-signature, as both men put their names to an agreed text (the only aspect of the drama which arguably lacked elegance. The impersonal font, and A4 printed page, is hardly a new Declaration of Arbroath in vellum and sealing-wax). Even christening it the Edinburgh Agreement, its capitalisation a canny and conscious rhetorical move, suggests the sort of symbolism the nationalists are striving to promote.

And by gum, they succeeded. Cameron has proved an amazingly pliant co-participant.  You can't imagine Gordon Brown being so readily willing to hop to Salmond's jig in this way, partly, presumably, because our erstwhile Prime Minister felt more confident with his own Scottish credentials, and accordingly, couldn't be dragooned into this dance in the same way as Cameron was today.  Alan Trench has a nice phrase in a splendidly good post today on the detail and history of the section 30 negotiations.  The SNP, he says...

"... has won a symbolic game, by ensuring that Salmond only met Cameron, and leaving more junior ministers in each government to deal with the details."

The unsubtle point of all of this, is that events like today do more than simply mark agreement and resolve political controversy between the two governments in a functional, practical way.  They represent are an opportunity to project an image of what Scottish diplomacy might look and feel like after independence, with the English Prime Minister received in a neighbourly and constructive way.  As Alex Massie observes:

Exit Cameron, wet. 

The Edinburgh Agreement: legally, what does it mean?

In Scotland today, one group of people are lachrymose, their disappointment stinging.  This afternoon the Scottish and Westminster governments agreed the terms of a draft section 30 order under the Scotland Act, to be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and Holyrood, to put the legality of the referendum beyond doubt, and materially, beyond legal challenge. 

Quietly, in the dim litigious light, between the leather-bound tomes, you can hear the sobs of thwarted lawyers unsettling the dust, mourning the big bonanza constitutional case that is not, now, to be.  No controversial Supreme Court hearing. No fractious unionist litigant, not to be dissuaded.  No increasingly perilous rhetoric from frustrated nationalists, trapped in the syrupy stuff of law's delays, with time trickling inexorably on.  No high-wire act either for Lords Hope and Reed to walk, invited to choose between upholding one reasonable reading of the Scotland Act over another, and declaring incompetent a democratically-mandated referendum, much intensifying the political acrimony and instability thereby.  Jim Wallace may now repair to his bed unhaunted by night terrors of having to challenge the referendum himself in court, while Alex Salmond can turn in without a looming shadow of the Law engulfing his primary political project.

At last, years on from when this conversation began, my unremitting sweats and fears about the legislative competence of the referendum may finally ease.  I'll need wringing out. That an agreement has been reached - and, Lords permitting - will put the legality of the referendum beyond doubt, should be a huge relief to all involved.  Believe me or not, cherish eccentric legal theories if you prefer, but the legality of the referendum, sans a section 30 order to rearrange the matters reserved by schedule 5 of the Scotland Act, was always, at best, arguable, and what is arguable is subject, inevitably, to legal argumentation in higher and higher courts.

A legal challenge - which would have been inevitable - would have been a calamity for all involved.  It would advance the debate not one iota, and have lobbed vial after vial of wrath and poison into the already-turbulent pool of Scottish political discourse, imperilling what little stream of civility and meaningful discussion we permit ourselves in Scotland.  The negotiation process has not been without their manipulations, and mischief.  The real victims of these manoeuvres have been those who favour a second devo-something question, whose ambitions have been merrily shafted by the mannered intergovernmental exchanges preceding this deal.

But what precisely does it say? The critical document is the draft section 30 order, reproduced in an appendix to the No.10 Agreement document.  Remember, the purpose of the order is to change the list of matters reserved in schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998.  As you will remember, the general structure of the Act is that Holyrood enjoys power to legislate over everything that isn't reserved.  It doesn't take terrifically long to enumerate the order's substantive changes.  These are:

Modification of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998
3. In Part 1 of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 (general reservations), after paragraph 5 insert—
“5A.—(1) Paragraph 1 does not reserve a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom if the following requirements are met.
(2) The date of the poll at the referendum must not be the date of the poll at any other referendum held under provision made by the Parliament.
(3) The date of the poll at the referendum must be no later than 31 December 2014.
(4) There must be only one ballot paper at the referendum, and the ballot paper must give the voter a choice between only two responses.”.

Supplementary provision
4.—(1) The following provisions of Part 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (“the 2000 Act”)(a) apply to an independence referendum as if it were a referendum to which that Part applies—
(a) section 127 (referendum campaign broadcasts), and
(b) paragraph 1 of Schedule 12 (right to send referendum address post-free)(b).
(2) In those provisions as applied by this article, references, however expressed, to a person or
body designated under section 108 are to be read as references to a person or body designated under an Act of the Scottish Parliament for the purposes of an independence referendum as representing those campaigning for a particular outcome in relation to the question in the referendum.
(3) The following (which apply to a referendum campaign broadcast within the meaning of section 127 of the 2000 Act) do not apply to such a broadcast within the meaning of that section as applied by this article—
(a) section 112 of the 2000 Act;
(b) paragraph 1 of Schedule 13 to that Act;
(c) paragraph 18 of Schedule 12 to the Communications Act 2003(c).
(4) Where paragraph 1(3) of Schedule 12 to the 2000 Act, as applied by this article, applies section 200A of the Representation of the People Act 1983(d) (remuneration for free postal services), the reference in that section to a sum being charged on and issued out of the Consolidated Fund is to be read as a reference to that sum being paid by the Scottish Ministers.
(5) In this article “independence referendum” means a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, held in pursuance of provision made by or under an Act of the Scottish Parliament.

A wee breakdown of what some of this means.  Firstly, Holyrood is being empowered to hold a referendum a limited period of time, until the end of 2014.  If we are defeated in 2014, 2035 rolls around, and no further changes to this part of the Scotland Act are made, another referendum would, arguably, be ultra vires.  This order ensures that a political commitment to a "once in a generation" poll is backed up by the law.  If a pro-nationalist government of the future wanted to hold another referendum, we'd have to go through this entire rigmarole of negotiation again, or hang the referendum on the (now even shooglier) peg that Holyrood can hold referendums about reserved matters anyway, section 30 or no section 30 order.  

Secondly, the referendum may only competently be framed as a single question, with two options, though entertainingly, there is nothing in the draft order that binds Holyrood over to those two answers being "yes" or "no" to independence, though I strongly imagine it'll take that form.

Thirdly, Holyrood is prohibited from holding a second referendum on the same day.  On one level, this is surely to avoid the politics of the occasion becoming cluttered, but also betokens suspicion in Westminster. Will wily Salmond, say, induce us to put the legality of an independence beyond doubt, and then, for villainy, pass a separate bit of legislation to authorise a devo-something referendum on the same day, separated only by the legal fiction that the two polls are distinct? This provision of the order seeks to anticipate, and curb, that possibility by making the competence of the independence vote contingent on the absence of all others that day.  

Looking at the order, and marking a significant absence, you may be thinking, what about the franchise? What about 16 to 17 year olds? The political agreement between the two governments explicitly recognises that it will be for the Scottish Government, within the time afforded, to determine through legislation in Holyrood:

• the date of the referendum;
• the franchise;
• the wording of the question;
• rules on campaign financing; and
• other rules for the conduct of the referendum.

So why not a breath of this in the Order itself? Here, we have to recall again the way the Scotland Act works.  The Order, and the aspect of the Scotland Act it will amend, specifies reservations of power, rather than explicit grants of power.  Holyrood may do anything that is not reserved, and anything which is compatible with EU law an fundamental rights.  Essentially, the Westminster government are proposing not to reserve the question of the franchise for the purpose of an independence referendum. Holyrood may do what it chooses.  

Fifthly, you may be wondering about what happens next, and what procedurally Holyrood and Westminster will have to do to put this piece of subordinate legislation into effect.  Practically, it will have to be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and before Holyrood, all of whom will have to agree to its terms.  As I understand it, however, these orders may only be accepted or rejected.  They cannot, for example, be amended by the likes of Darth Forsyth, or Lord Foulkes, as the paper wends its way through Westminster.  As a consequence, if the ultramontane unionists in the House of Lords wish to make a rumpus, they are limited simply to opposing the whole endeavour, rather than promoting wrecking or mischief-making amendments to the order itself. 

Sixthly, and finally, it is worth briefly traipsing back to January 2012, when Michael Moore took to his pins in Westminster, and outlined the terms and conditions which the UK government initially wished to impose on the referendum.  So what's changed? Compare and contrast today's draft with January's. 

“5A.—(1) Paragraph 1 does not reserve a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom if the following requirements are met.
(2) The date of the poll at the referendum must not be the date of the poll at any other referendum held under provision made by the Parliament.
(3) The date of the poll at the referendum must be no later than ***.
(4) There must be only one ballot paper at the referendum, and the ballot paper must give the voter a choice between only two responses.
(5) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum must be the persons who would be entitled to vote in an election for membership of the Parliament—
(a) if one were held on the date of the poll at the referendum, or
(b) if one were held on that date but alterations made in a register of electors after a particular date were disregarded.
(6) The referendum and arrangements in connection with it must be in accordance with Part 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (referendums) as if the referendum were within section 101(2) of that Act, subject to any modifications specified in subordinate legislation.”

Overall, the text adopted today is strikingly similar.  The power to hold a referendum is time limited, limited to a single question, and cannot be held in conjunction with another referendum on the same day. The only striking change is the extent of the franchise for the poll, which the UK government formerly insisted  “that an established franchise should be used” and that “the debate about extending to vote to 16 and 17 year olds should be conducted separately and that any decision should be taken for all elections and not for one single vote”.

The question, the franchise, framing the precise funding rules for the campaign: Holyrood, and by dint of which, its SNP majority, has got its paws on all of it. I know some folk have today's been celebrating the end of process. Legal quibbles buried, and inter-governmental stramashes allayed, we can embark on a substantive discussion about independence, its promise and its perils. That assessment may be a bit previous. There are plenty of potentially controversial and significant rules and parameters, still to frame.  

At least we may now do so, however, no longer feart of the dread knock on the door from a wigly crow figure, advising us that an action has been raised at the Court of Session, and the whole endeavour as been waylaid. Devomaxers and devoplussers may be weeping into their cock-a-leekie, and they have my sympathies, but if nothing else, today ends the interminable legal shadow-boxing and - michty - that makes it a good day for nationalists and unionists both. 

12 October 2012

Indyref: TNS-BMRB's October poll...

Apologies for being a mite slow off the draw with this one, but you may have noticed that pollsters TNS-BMRB fired out the findings of a new October independence poll this week, hot-footing after their last effort in July this year.  As is customary, I thought I'd chop the latest findings up into manageable pieces, for your information and edification.  Interestingly, the pollster doesn't favour asking the question likely to appear on the ballot paper come 2014 - "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" - but instead hark back to 2010 formulation, and ask: 

"The SNP are outlining their plans for a possible referendum on Scottish independence in the future.  If such a referendum were to be held tomorrow, how would you vote?".  

Respondents are given the option of agreeing or disagreeing...

"... that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state."

The ghost of devo-something is proving difficult to put to rest, too. The pollster has poses a fourfold question on "the future of Scotland" asking which of the following constitutional options they most favour, roughly along the lines of status quo or devo-max, independence or indecision.
  • "Keeping the current arrangement of a Scottish Parliament with its existing powers".
  • "Transfer more powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, including tax and welfare but excluding defence and foreign affairs".
  • "Full independence for Scotland".
  • Don't know. 

In other preliminaries, despite the (still unconfirmed) scuttlebutt that those over the age of sixteen come 2014 will be able to vote in the referendum, TNS-BMRB's respondents are all over eighteen years of age. Moreover, the figures given are for all respondents, and do not factor in, for example, likelihood to vote. So what did they uncover, and what changes, if any, can be seen in the futures since July? Let's take a look at the topline figures on independence first.

What about our old friend, the gender gap? It's more or less steady as she goes on that score, though October's gap of eight percentage points is smaller than some of the figures we've seen this year, though unleavened by the fact that, overall, support for independence is at best, holding steady at just shy of a third of respondents questioned.

And from TNS-BMRB's female respondents:

October furnishes another insight into the volatility of all of these polls' findings on attitude to independence by age, save for the generalisation that the oldest cohort of respondents is invariably the most inveterately and consistently opposed to independence.  One again, we see that the attitudes of the youngest segment of Scots hops all over the place, which ought not to be surprising: the data used to construct these these age bandings amount to a handful of people - a couple of hundred at most.  October's figures:

Compare and contrast with last July:

TNS-BMRB also divide their respondents up using the AB, C1, C2 and DE social gradings, which are based on the occupation of the "head of household", hoping (though obviously, not unproblematically) to capture the "upper and middle classes (AB), lower middle class (C1), skilled working class (C2) and the working class and those at the lowest levels of subsistence (DE).

As we've seen reflected in past polls, levels of support for independence are substantially higher amongst the poorest Scots than the richest (in October, a 13% gap in support, but still a minority of both groups). The upper and middle classes (AB) also identify as more decided in their constitutional convictions (9% lower than DEs), and more remain substantially more opposed to independence than any other grade (ABs' opposition to independence in this poll is a whopping 22% higher than DEs).  First the new figures, and then a comparison with July's:

And TNS-BMRB's previous effort:


And there we have it. A Scottish population, most of whom remains to be persuaded, cynicism still widely distributed, but concentrated more strongly amongst Scottish women, the elderly, and the Scottish bourgeoisie. Seen as there now looks like a snowball's chance in hell of devo-something appearing on the ballot, I'll leave you to take a look at the devolution responses for yourselves. Those full tables here (TNS-BMRB, October 2012) and here (TNS-BMRB, July 2012)