31 August 2012

On Gay Caledonia...

As regular readers will know, I do like a good survey, and the Scottish Household Survey is a bumper compendium, examining issues ranging from Scots' housing tenure and internet access, to rates of participation in cultural activities and people's financial circumstances.  There is plenty here to divert anyone interested in quantitative sketches of Scottish demography. I intend to dip in and out of the figures over the coming months, but for today, a quick word or two on the results of a new question introduced to the 2011 survey.  

In the chapter looking at the "Composition and Characteristics of Households and Adults in Scotland", the researchers pose a range of question. Are you married, divorced, unmarried? How ancient, what ethnicity, living in an urban or rural environment? Last year, statisticians introduced a new "core" question, on sexual orientation. 

"Developed by the Office for National Statistics, the question was designed to provide accurate statistics to underpin the equality monitoring responsibilities of public sector organisations and to assess the disadvantage or relative discrimination experience by the lesbian, gay and bisexual population."

So what did they find? Of their base of 12,893 respondents...

And disaggregated by gender, with the ladies first:

And men...

If we take the General Register Office's most recent Scottish population estimates (5,254,800 in June 2011), and crudely extrapolate out from these percentages, our lesbian, gay and bisexual population would number just 47,293 people (nationally, just slightly more than the population of Ayr or Dunfermline). Of course, there are plenty of problems with this decidedly rough and ready calculation. The Survey figures concern only adults, while the population estimates include the whole population, including children. But bracket those qualms, for the sake of discussion.  Does this seem a plausible estimate?

As Better Nation blogger Aidan Skinner pointed out on twitter, if we look at the much more extensively disaggregated and cross-referenced Office of National Statistics findings from England and Wales in 2010 (neatly summarised by the Guardian here), these Scottish figures look strikingly similar. The Scottish data poses similar questions.  What is being measured here, precisely? As a number of folk would point out, sexual orientation and sexual activity and attraction aren't the same thing.  Moreover, a number of factors seem likely to influence whether or not people are likely to self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.  Unlike the ONS statistics, the Scottish findings aren't disaggregated by age, but if we look at the English figures, 14.5% of respondents who identified as gay or lesbian were aged 16 - 24.  A further 49.9% were aged 25 - 44, with 27.3% aged 45 - 64 and 5.9% over 65. 

It seems unlikely that the British youth of today have an innately heightened predisposition to take up recreational same-sex carnality on a far greater scale than their parents', and grandparents' generations.  What seems much more probable, however, is that different segments of the Scottish population are likely to exhibit differential comfort, identifying themselves with gay, lesbian or bisexual identities.

It was only thirty two years ago, in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, that the Scots laws criminalising "homosexual acts in private" were abolished, some scandalous thirteen years after the English and Welsh Sexual Offences Act 1967, with the abiding condition that "both" parties were aged twenty one years old, or above, and consented.  Add a third body, and you'd be in trouble.  These are developments of many living people's lifetimes. A salutary reminder, you might well think, that the unreformed character in which Westminster left much of Scots law before devolution is not a legacy which one can always comfortably celebrate.  

27 August 2012

Women and Alex Salmond: An academic postscript...

Last week, I took a skeptical look at the received wisdom, echoed most recently by the Economist magazine, that women in Scotland aren't terrifically keen on Alex Salmond. Trawling through polls going back to 2009, and looking at how satisfaction with his performance broke down by gender, I argued that the data suggests something of an "enthusiasm gap" for the First Minister.  Men like him more than women, but Scottish women did not assess his activities in Bute House significantly more negatively than Scottish men.  He comfortably drubs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Davidson, Rennie and Lamont amongst both men and women.

In response, one of the authors directed my attention towards a paper very recently published in the academic journal, Political Parties. For those interested and able to access it, the precise citation is: Robert Johns, Lynn Bennie and James Mitchell (2012) ‘Gendered nationalism: The gender gap in support for the Scottish National Party’ Party Politics 18(4) 581 – 601.  The piece focusses on the Holyrood election result of 2007.  According to the Scottish Election Survey for that year, 35% of men voted for the SNP on the regional list, compared to 27% of women. As we saw in the preliminary data released from the 2011 Scottish Election Survey, the SNP managed to close this gap to just 3% in the most recent Holyrood ballot, with 43% of women and 46% of men voting for the Nationalists on the list respectively.

Bracketing these recent developments, the Political Parties article examines alternative explanations for the gap we saw in 2007. (Johns, Bennie and Mitchell's conclusion, incidentally, is that men are more likely than women to vote for the SNP because men are more likely than women to support independence, for whatever reasons).  Amongst the factors considered by the authors was Alex Salmond's leadership. Were women "not keen", or at least less "keen" on him than men?  Here's the critical section:

“Here the SES (“Scottish Election Survey”) evidence comes from a series of leadership ratings on an 11-point like-dislike scale. The mean male rating of Salmond was around half a point higher than the mean female rating, a difference which appears more substantial in the light of the general tendency for women to report more positive evaluations. Salmond was the only politician included in the survey to elicit significantly higher ratings from male respondents. The upshot is that, where leader evaluations are controlled, the net gender gap narrows by around one-third. Two points are worth noting about this. Firstly while females were less positive than males about the SNP leader, they nonetheless rated him more highly in absolute terms than any of the other politicians. The implication is that, insofar as leadership can be account for the gender gap in SNP voting, this is because Salmond won support from men rather than losing it among women. Second, leadership evaluations are likely to be causally posterior to some of the factors already considered. For example, it could be that males preferred Alex Salmond because he led a party to which they were already particularly favourably disposed, perhaps because they share the SNP’s preference for independence. In that case, differences in leadership evaluations are a by-product and not a cause of the gender gap under study here.” [Johns, Bennie and Mitchell 2012, 588]

Quite coincidentally, this tallies rather neatly with the idea of an "enthusiasm gap" captured in the Ipsos-MORI polling on Salmond we were looking at last week, and gives the lie to the Economist's rather sketchy, rather crude assessment of the political sensibilities of female Scots. What is left unanswered, however, is why the devil women remain more reticent about independence than men.  The authors admit they don't know.  Neither do I.

If Johns, Bennie and Mitchell's thesis is correct, however, and the gender gap in SNP support in the 2007 election is attributable to a gender gap in support for independence, the changes in the Nationalists' electoral fortunes between 2011 and 2007 may repay close study for YesScotland.  After all, during this period of time, the party's constitutional policies were basically unaltered.  If the female vote faltered for the SNP in 2007, and more or less caught up with men in 2011, something must have changed. It may well be, however, that the two elections were simply fought in different terms, concerned with different priorities, and women's disagreement with independence was mostly just de-emphasised rather than altered or eliminated as a factor weighing against supporting the Nationalists between their tentative first and thumping second victories.

If something along these lines is the case, and the gist of the Jones, Bennie and Mitchell thesis holds for 2011 as in 2007, the SNP managed strongly to attract women's votes despite their attitudes to independence in the last election. In 2014, YesScotland faces a far more daunting task: to attract women to independence, despite independence. No pressure.

25 August 2012

The Unpolitical: the SNP's pied Lord Advocate...

Cast your mind back through the Stygian fug of time, to the spring of 2007.  The SNP had, by the narrowest of margins, displaced the Labour Party's plurality in parliament, and Salmond was forming his first minority administration. Amongst his other selections for ministerial posts, there were the Scottish law officers to be appointed - the Lord Advocate and a Solicitor General. Salmond took the unprecedented step of keeping Jack McConnell's on, and Elish Angiolini stayed in office until the Holyrood election of 2011, to be replaced by her then Solicitor General and fellow career Crown Office prosecutor, Frank Mulholland.  All would not remain quite the same under the new, Nationalist dispensation, however. Salmond was keen that his law officers should enjoy an unprecedented "independence from the political process", establishing themselves as "independent of politics".

The upshot of this resolution was that Elish Angiolini was to be excluded from weekly cabinet meetings.  There have been no public statements, suggesting that the First Minister has altered his "depoliticisation" approach, and the appointment of Mulholland and Lesley Thomson after the 2011 Holyrood election - both career prosecutors with no notable connections to the SNP - strongly implied adherence to the 2007 resolution.

Why then, I wonder, is the Lord Advocate now such a familiar face around the cabinet table? I realise, of course, that your workaday cabinet meetings don't warrant photographs, and I've no sense whatever about the regularity with which Mr Mulholland may or may not attend these.  What we can say, however, is that the Lord Advocate (or occasionally, the Solicitor General) has been a conspicuous presence during the summer cabinet meetings held across Scotland this year and last (which are, incidentally, a splendid idea, as are the more or less unfettered public meetings which follow them). Most recently, we can spot him perched, extreme left at the meeting held in Renfrew just this week, on the 23rd August 2012:

Earlier this summer, Salmond convened the cabinet on Skye, on the 23rd July 2012. He's there too:

And the year before in Elgin on the 6th of September 2011:

And a handful of days before in Kirkcaldy on the 30th August 2011:

Ealier that month, another peregrinating meeting of the cabinet was held in Straraer. No sign of Frank Mulholland this time, but the Solicitor General, Lesley Thomson appears to have deputised in, and attended both the cabinet meeting and subsequent public event during the cabinet's sojourn on the 8th of August 2011:

Finally, a blurry but recognisable Mulholland was to be spotted again in Fort William on the 28th of July 2011, during a cabinet meeting held at the University of the Highlands and Islands:

His ubiquity during 2011 might be attributable to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill, which Mulholland enthusiastically championed for the Nationalist administration during its often rocky passage through Holyrood.  Hardly the activities of a law officer "independent of politics" in Salmond's terms, but the Lord Advocate is, after all, one of the Scottish ministers, a political appointee, and since he was content to get his hands mucky with the the politics of the reform, it seems eminently sensible to have him on hand during critical meetings. That doesn't so neatly explain his constant presence in the cabinet during the summer. Of which, lest we forget, he isn't a member, to ensure that he enjoys - and I quote - "independence from the political process".

I do sympathise with the predicament. The office of Lord Advocate is not one which any modern government, starting from first principles, would invent.  She serves both as head of the state prosecution services, of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, but also as the senior legal adviser to Scottish ministers. In England, by contrast, the Attorney-General furnishes the legal advice, while the Crown Prosecution Service is headed up by the Director of Public Prosecutions, currently Keir Starmer QC. The Attorney-General retains a curious ragbag of constitutional duties - he must, for example, give his consent for certain prosecutions under the Contempt of Court Act - but the job's primary focus these days is in the provision of legal advice to Her Majesty's government in Westminster. Proposals to split up the two aspects of the Lord Advocate's job into its prosecutorial and advisory roles have been variously mooted, but as yet, have come to nothing. It's still a mingle-mangle of a job.

Unlike the First Minister, I've no principled objection to law officers being adherents to the political party of government. Last term, Dominic Grieve - the Tory MP currently serving as Attorney-General - gave a speech in Oxford, describing what he gets up to, and the quirks and qualities of his office.  I was particularly struck by one of his observations. It was the duty of the Attorney, he said, sometimes to tell his colleagues and to tell them frankly that some cherished proposal faced considerable legal difficulty.

Being a partisan political figure himself, Grieve suggested, his colleagues understood that this advice wasn't a nefarious attempt by an scheming civil service to block reform by conjuring up spurious legal impediments.  Instead, he said, his colleagues took his advice as a practically-minded ally, conversant in the law, keen actively to identify alternative ways of realising the collective political goals of the party. I wonder if all of them really do, but you could see the force of his argument.  While a partisan law officer has a duty faithfully to observe the law, a fellow Tory may be expected to problem-solve with more enthusiasm than a politically unaligned civil service flunky.

More and more, I'm persuaded that the SNP would have and would benefit from a change of tack, recognising that the government's law officers are more just prosecutors, and might benefit from more than just experience of our criminal law.  No harm to Mr Mulholland personally, but he's not the candidate anyone would pick to fulfil a politically-aligned legal advisory role across the broad civil, criminal and public law activities of government. At the moment, however, he's not only sitting surprisingly at the cabinet table with unexpected regularity. He sits awkwardly in the twilight, betwixt and between being a political figure, understood and treated as such, and the independent public prosecutor, above the political fray.

As the SNP have discovered, this very gloss of independence makes the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General politically useful figures to embroil in political controversies. Their opponents and the media struggle to know how to treat them.  Can you set them head-to-head against opposition MSPs who disagree with them? Should the interviewing tone be one of forensic critique and suspicion, as a politician would expect, or the more solicitous, less combative approach usually directed towards expert opinion? The Advocate General for Scotland, Jim Wallace, makes a pertinent point of contrast.  The problem is Mulholland's dappledness, his couple-colour of being now inside politics and sudden out of it, promoting government objectives then retreating to Olympian independence as the unaligned Crown functionary.  The combination is counter, original, spare, strange - and I think, increasingly rather strained.

23 August 2012

Are women really not "keen" on Alex Salmond?

"Just say yes". The latest edition of the Economist magazine has committed a brief article to the nascent Women for Independence group. Overall, it's a scrappy sort of piece, with much to quibble about in it, its ideas provisionally expressed, and sketchily. That said, every conversation has to start somewhere, and the issues dealt with in the piece are both pressing, and tricky. Why is support for independence lower amongst women than men? And following hotly on the tails of that question, another, more practically-oriented one: what steps can YesScotland and pro-nationalists take to convince more women to embrace independence? 

I was particularly relieved to hear from Kate Higgins that the crudely gendered colour palette which the Economist suggests the group would be employing - bubblegum "pink literature" - is fictional too. No fuchsia mailshots and, tragically, no tupperware. One particular section of the article caught my eye.  Between quotes from Natalie McGarry, John Curtice and Margaret Curran, the author briskly assessed the First Minister's appeal to women in the following, less than glowing terms:

"Perhaps this feminine touch will help [to convince women to vote "yes"], as women appear to be put off by the muscular language in which male politicians clothe their arguments for independence. Female voters have never been too keen anyway on Alex Salmond, the brusque if charismatic leader of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and first minister of the Scottish government."

This is a familiar story, which many folk seem to find instinctively compelling. Yonks back, before the 2011 Holyrood election, the same thought speedily occurred to the Spectator's Alex Massie, who (admittedly only partially) accounted for the substantial gender gap then showing in support for the SNP in terms of female antipathies towards the Maximum Eck...

"To be fair, Salmond can do the retail side of politics. But again, I suspect there are some women put off by his Smart-Eckness and who find his chummyness mildly creepy."

I'm sure a score of pertinent anecdotes speed to mind, of unhappy meetings with the man, or disliked tics which have prompted rolled eyes and acid put downs from aunts, cousins, sisters and skeptical female friends who don't much care for how the First Minister comports himself.  But is there any evidence to back up the Economist's suggestion - presented as incontroverble - that Salmond is a liability when it comes to the distaff side of the Scottish electorate, that they're not "keen" on him? The interesting thing is, there isn't a terrifically strong body of opinion which suggests that women don't like Salmond. Indeed, if polls are to be believed, the opposite is actually the case and that the most take a generally favourable view. Scots polls include the personal ratings of our politicians on a more or less occasional basis, certainly less than Cameron, Clegg and Miliband's fortunes are tallied, so we have at best a semi-regular assessment of what respondents make of Salmond, and how this might be disaggregated in gendered terms.

Ipsos-MORI is the pollster of choice here. They reported the findings of their most recent Scottish Opinion Monitor poll in June, finding that a total of 53% of respondents declared themselves satisfied with Alex Salmond's performance as First Minister, compared to 40% who were dissatisfied, and an indecisive 7% who couldn't say whether he was up to snuff or not. Did positivity break down by gender, as the Economist would have us expect? Not exactly.  The pollster found:

As you can see, there's clearly an enthusiasm gap, with male satisfaction with Salmond running nine points higher than amongst women respondents, but that said, there's no substantial increase in female negativity about the First Minister either. Disappointment in his performance in office is separated by a much scrawnier 2% between the genders, with undecided women making up most of the difference.  This is just one poll, you might well say, and the trend's the thing. Never knowingly to be outdone in the department for political geekery, to satisfy my curiosity I've taken a wee trawl through Ipsos-MORI's archive of findingson Salmond's popularity, where the raw data could be broken down by gender.  This takes us back as far as November 2009.  After that, the data becomes more illusive and scrappy.

I've put together three charts, illustrating the pollster's findings, and how these have changed over time. The first is the combined chart, showing the percentages of men and women respectively who said they were satisfied, dissatisfied, or who didn't know what to make of Salmond's performance over the period.  Male responses are represented by the triangled lines, women's by the white-dotted circles. Satisfaction is rendered in blue, dissatisfaction in green, and don't knows in light orange.

In case that's difficult to handle, we can also pull the gendered data into two separate charts, showing how enthusiasm has gained and waned for him over time, amongst men and women respectively.

And the women:

Both forceps-shaped charts tell a similar story, with Salmond securing positive satisfied ratings from both genders in eight of nine polls going back to late 2009.  His positive ratings amongst both sexes have been on a shallow downward incline since the peak of August and December 2011, and negative ratings increasing over the same period. At the moment, he's being pinched by falling positive ratings, and increasing negative ones from men and women both. Neatly mirroring the independence polling that partly encouraged the coalition of Women for Independence to put themselves in the field, we see less enthusiasm for the First Minister from women than men across these polls.  Where dissatisfaction about his performance has grown, the findings from men and women have (for the main) tracked one another very closely (January's poll of this year being something of an exception).  In polling terms at least, there's little evidence here that women feel substantially more negative about Salmond than men, though the idea they're less keen on him is given some substance.

Cue a number of pertinent cavils. Firstly, it'd be wrong to conflate fondness for the man with the idea that the man is making a satisfactory fist of his duties in Bute House. I'm sure most of us can think of folk who are perfect bastards or contemptible toads who we'd still credit as admirable workers, their capacity and talents for graft not to be disputed, despite sustained misgivings we might nurse about their personalities, values, or fundamental character traits. This in mind, the polls aren't exactly fatal to the Economist's theory. Women may well not like the man, but applying their nosepegs, and discriminating between the alternatives, they're willing, grudgingly, to say that he's doing a satisfactory job in office. That theory certainly isn't inconsistent with this polling, but it does show that if this is what is going on - women aren't proving shy about setting aside those negative assessments, and reaching a positive view about the First Minister's performance anyway.