A newspaper editor was sitting at his desk, when a bullet crashed through the window and buried itself in the upholstery of the chair just beside his left ear. “Ah,” he said unruffledly, “I knew that new personal column was going to be a success.”
Or, to put it another way, if you’re writing stuff and publishing it, and somebody, somewhere isn’t wishing that you weren’t, you’re not doing it properly.
I’m able to report that this blog has now succeeded on that front.
Readers may be aware that there is a big stooshie going on in indy blogland between those who think that the SNP will deliver indy, and those who think that it won’t. The two sides are represented by Wee Ginger Dug and Wings Over Scotland – both extremely good blogs, well written, and with vigorous comments after each article. Let’s call them the Dugs and the Wingsters.
The feud worries me, because there is a real issue here, demanding thought: do we vote for the SNP in the May 2021 election on the grounds that they’ll deliver indy, or not vote for them on the grounds that they won’t? But with the two sides in entrenched positions there is no thinking going on.
Reading the Dugs blog a day or so ago, however, I noticed that there were a number of Wingsters posting comments. They weren’t getting angry replies, but they weren’t getting any answers either. So I decided to probe a little, to try to open up a substantive debate. I used the shortest and most neutral wording possible to present the Wingsters’ core proposition:
“I don’t think the SNP is committed to independence. In fact, I think they’re actually against independence. It’s very worrying.”
That was the whole comment – just 20 words. It got a response from Wee Ginger Dug himself:
“You are doing Michael Gove’s job for him. You’ve already given up and the only winners are the Conservatives, and they haven’t had to lift a finger – you’ve done it all for them…[It’s] the worst kind of conspiracy theory nonsense. The problem isn’t the SNP – it’s you.”
The blog is run by Paul Kavanagh, a likeable guy and committed fighter for independence, but his put-down makes no point of substance. However, he did post a longer comment later, and we did engage in a sort of substantive debate, part of which surfaced in my post a few days ago, “Why Indy is going nowhere”, on this present site. But it was piecemeal, and his tactic was to pick at the detail of every separate item, whereas the strength of the Wingsters’ case is the overall track record of the SNP over the last five years. Then other commenters piled into me with:
“What a tube you are, seriously is that the best you’ve got LOL Yah divvy.” [What’s a “divvy”? Wish I spoke better Scots.]
“The only problem we have is concern trolls like you desperately trying to demotivate.”
“Where is your evidence of that. There isnt any. There is a far bigger chance that the moon is made of cheese than that being the case. Oh look just another escapee from that other blog talking mince as usual” [“That other blog” is WingsOver Scotland.]
So, no substantive debate. Lost this battle. Give up. Go to bed and console yourself with the thought that the morning will at least bring eggs and coffee.
But no! Our desultory debate seems to have fired up Wee Ginger Dug, because in the morning he’s posted an 1,800-word article roasting Wingsters as an imminent danger to the whole independence movement. And it was written, he says, “because of a comment on this blog yesterday which claimed that the SNP don’t really want independence”, and it’s a glorious piece of excoriating invective, getting 350-odd comments, as against the usual 150 or so.
So thank you, Paul, for opening up this debate. I have no problems with your integrity, your commitment to the cause of independence, or your skills as a public speaker and writer, but I do doubt the accuracy of your analysis of what is the best way forward. And if I used any immoderate language or deflective rhetoric in my postings on your blog, I apologise.
Here is a copy of my last post on Wee Ginger Dug, a concise summary of the Wingsters’ position:
“I do think that the upcoming election, as a number of posters here have said, poses a nasty headache for committed indy supporters. The SNP is a busted flush: its membership has halved since 2014, it’s done nothing in the last six years to shift opinion towards indy (the recent uplift is due entirely to Johnson) or to rebut MSM propaganda, it has no money, its allegedly ring-fenced indy fund has vanished, its leaders unforgivably stitched up Salmond, it’s blocked the Keating court case and the Salmond enquiry, and the 2020 conference is all but cancelled. To ask us to vote for them on the grounds that they will deliver indy is a joke.
“To ask us to vote for them to demonstrate support for independence sounds a lot better, but I don’t get the logic behind it. An electoral mandate is a necessary first step, we’re told – but it’s not a step down the right road. If elected, the SNP will cuckold the electorate for the next five years just as they’ve done for the last five. Ah, but we get them to change after the election, it’s said – but how? Our electoral system gives us a vote every five years. Between elections, all we can do is make a fuss at SNP branch meetings and piddle about with local councillors. How much effect do you think that’s going to have?
“I proposed earlier that the price of an SNP vote should be a manifesto statement that commits them to performing, on a named date, a concrete and verifable act that would challenge the UK – such as holding an indy ref. (The Referendum Bill doesn’t cut it, because it only commits them to passing an enabling bill.) I hold to that proposal. And it doesn’t lose anything, either. If we vote in the SNP at this election, we have another five years of shilly-shallying crap, but if we cut their support we have five years in which to build a properly led movement.”
I posted on Wee Ginger Dug yesterday that I would set out my reasons for thinking that SNP opposes independence. Here they are:
- There will not be a Section 30 order. Scotland has one-third of the UK’s land mass, three-quarters of its sea area, nine-tenths of its oil, most of its renewable energy, a noticeable chunk of its fish, animal produce, soft fruit and whisky, intellectual capital in the shape of four world-class universities, and the base for the UK’s nuclear deterrent (from which follows its seat at the UN Security Council). The UK will never consent to a referendum that puts that at risk. This is standard British UK thinking, and the SNP leadership must know that.
- The UK government has no motive for granting a Section 30 order anyway. It has a cast-iron majority, overwhelming media support, and no identifiable benefit from allowing an indy ref. The SNP leadership must know that too.
- The SNP won elections, and gained mandates, in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019, and in every one of those elections its manifesto said it would look for an indy ref. None of these commitments has been followed up. Until Covid the polls barely moved, and the SPN error-rebuttal unit was non-existent.
- The SNP leadership stitched up Salmond: all the complainants were from the inner Scottish Government circle, they conspired, and none of them told the truth in the witness box. The SNP leadership did this in order to remove Salmond from the independence debate.
- The SNP leadership actively opposed Martin Keating’s court case to clarify Scotland’s right to a referendum without consent.
- As things are, the SNP gets £1.5m Short money for being an opposition party at Westminster, and only trivial discussion of its governmental policies. Independence would change that: it would lose the funding, and it would have to negotiate its legislation with an informed local Scottish opposition.
- The SNP leadership’s position is coherent: Nicola Sturgeon’s plan, surely, was to sit tight until 2021, put in place the GRA (which will give her high international brownie points), and then move out into international politics. The failure to convict Salmond has made that plan more difficult, but still not impossible.
Update, 26/09/2020: The joke at the foot of this post, the pseudo-graph from pseudo Kevin Hague, has been picked up and republished by Munguin’s Republic, a lovely site with stunning nature pics, a strong but unencumbering commitment to Scottish independence, and jokes. Thanks, Tris, and best wishes in the ongoing struggle.
IT’S TIME for a brief look at GERS, the “Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland” report. The usual narrative is:
• Scotland has a deficit, because it spends more on public services than it raises in taxes.
• The UK funds that deficit by giving money to the Scottish Government (the “fiscal transfer”). This means that Scotland sponges on the UK.
• An independent Scotland couldn’t fund that difference.
All nice and clear, then – and all nice and falsely spun. Let’s look at those falsehoods.
Firstly, deficits are normal: all countries in the world have deficits, bar a handful of tax havens. What matters is whether a country’s deficit is “sustainable”. Having a deficit means that a country has to borrow money to spend on public services, and that means paying loan-interest. So it needs to generate enough revenue to cover the loan-interest. If it can do that, its deficit is “sustainable”. If it can’t, it isn’t.
The UK deficit goes up and down on a ten-year cycle, becoming a surplus in one or two years in each ten. Its economy generates enough revenue to meet its interest payments, so its deficit is sustainable. Virtually every country in the developed world has a sustainable deficit, unless its government is very silly. Scotland’s deficit too will be sustainable.
Secondly, it says above, the UK funds Scotland’s deficit by giving money to the Scottish Government, in a fiscal transfer. No, it doesn’t. There is no “fiscal transfer”, and no money changes hands. Scotland gets a block grant. But that “block grant” isn’t a grant at all: it’s simply the amount of Scottish Government spending that the UK will underwrite. The Scottish Government doesn’t have to spend it all, and in past years it hasn’t always; but if it spends more than the laid-down amount, Scottish ministers go to jail. The UK calls it a grant, but in fact it’s a cap.
Thirdly, Scotland covers its deficit by notionally borrowing money from the UK, and pays interest on that loan. Here is the line from GERS that tells us it’s a loan:
“Public sector debt interest” is the interest on the UK’s national debt, which is all the money that it’s borrowed since ever, less whatever it’s paid back up till now; this line shows Scotland’s share of that interest. Wrapped inside it is the interest Scotland is paying to fund its deficit (i.e. its shortfall for the current year). So the UK borrows money to fund Scottish public spending, and charges Scotland interest on the loan that the UK has taken out. This is normal and fair, and it means that the UK doesn’t pay for Scotland’s deficit. If the UK did pay for Scotland’s deficit, Scotland would be getting a free lunch, and free lunches don’t exist.
Scotland has no money of its own: all its tax revenues go directly to the UK, and the UK underwrites all its expenditure. Further, it has no borrowing powers: it “borrows” only from the UK. The Scottish economy, in short, is wholly controlled by the UK. Which leads us to:
Fourthly, why, after 300 years of economic integration, is Scotland so poor? Maybe it’s because its people are ineducable blockheads, whose only contribution to cultural life has been the work of Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, James Watt, John Logie Baird and Alexander Broadie and the creation of four world-class universities. Or maybe it’s because the ineducable blockheads have recklessly wasted their natural resources, leaving Scotland, per head of population, with only one-and-a-half times as many farm animals as the rest of the UK, two-and-a-half times as much timber, twice as much cereal, six times the renewable energy (wind, wave and solar), and nine times as much hydroelectic energy. (Who could make a living out of that?) Or there again, it may just be 300 years of exploitation, under-investment and false accounting.
Let’s wrap this up with a graphic, so that it can be understood by even a prolix and repetitive blogger who nobody takes seriously any more:
A – Amount of Scottish deficit.
B – Amount that Scotland “borrows” from the UK, standing on a scaffold with both hands tied behind its back and its head in a noose.
C – Amount that an independent Scotland could borrow on the open market, so that it could elect the government of its choice, run its economy how it thought fit, and prosper like a normal country.
No, not that Alex. Alex Prentice, of course, the prosecutor in the Craig Murray contempt-of-court case.
Craig is proposing to bring forward individual witnesses who say they couldn’t identify any anonymised witnesses from reading Craig’s blog. The prosecutor wants to rule this evidence inadmissible, on the grounds that the individuals are too few to make a difference: “…the state of knowledge of a limited number of individuals cannot assist in the central issue [of ‘likelihood’]…”. This is an unfortunate argument for the prosecutor to have used, because it concedes the point that likelihood is measurable: if these individuals are too few, there must be a number that is not too few.
Further, Alex Prentice has to decide what that number is, because he’s going to need it. He’s going to need it to deal with the second implication of his argument, which is his presumption of guilt: these numbers are too few, he implies, to show Craig’s innocence. But Craig doesn’t have to show his innocence; the prosecution has to show his guilt, and by their own argument they can only do that by presenting numerical evidence of individuals to whom Craig’s blog has revealed the secret identities. Arguing that such numerical evidence is inadmissible doesn’t seem to be the brightest step to have taken. (If they’d had numerical evidence that lots of people had learned identities from Craig’s blog, they’d have tried to rule that out, too, wouldn’t they? Surely? WOULDN’T THEY?)
The prosecution’s only way out of this mish-mash is to argue that ‘likelihood’ is not measurable, is not statistically based, and exists only in the mind of the beholder. Like hell it does.
Craig Murray is facing trial for publishing information “likely to disclose the identity” of persons involved in the Alex Salmond trial (they have statutory anonymity for life). What a can of worms that word “likely” is! Longman’s dictionary defines it as “can reasonably be expected [to happen]”. Reasonably, that’s the word.
Craig wants to bring in two pieces of evidence: first, evidence from people who read the mainstream-media accounts of the trial, and were able to tell from those accounts who the anonymised persons were; and second, parallel evidence from people who read Craig’s blog and were not able to tell who the anonymised persons were. The prosecutor has asked the Court to disallow these two sets of evidence, but the reasons he gives don’t meet the point. Moreover it seems clear that he’s intentionally missed the point, so that he can muddy the waters. He can’t be so thick as to have merely got it wrong.
Likelihood – as Longman’s dictionary tells us – depends on ‘reasonable expectations’, and that depends on knowledge. I believe that I’ll get lung cancer if I smoke like a chimney, because the data says so. I can express a hunch that I won’t get lung cancer – “I think I’ll be OK. I’ve got good lungs” – but the data says that that belief is mince. Likelihood is like that: it’s the same as probability, and probability is based on evidence. Craig’s two sets of evidence show that mainstream media leaked the identities, and that his blog didn’t. That means that his blog was not likely to have leaked the identities.
The prosecutor fudges the issue here. He pretends that Craig is bringing this evidence to show that other media have committed the same offence as he’s charged with, and that he’s therefore innocent, and that won’t do: “The question of whether other commentators have breached the order cannot be a defence to the Respondent,” he rightly says. But Craig isn’t bringing this evidence to show that others have committed the same offence. He’s bringing it to show that, since the identities had already been leaked, his blog couldn’t have aided identification. The prosecutor is intentionally misrepresenting Craig’s point here, in order to muddy the waters and get Craig’s evidence ruled inadmissible.
On Craig’s second set of evidence – that people who had read his blog had not been able to identify the anonymised persons – the prosecutor says that there aren’t enough of them to be useful: “Evidence based on the state of knowledge of a limited number of individuals cannot assist in the central issue [of ‘likelihood’],” he says. No, prosecutor, you’re categorically wrong there: “likelihood” is measurable, and an assessment of likelihood that doesn’t take account of available measurements can’t be said to be “reasonable”. Since Craig’s witnesses constitute the only measurable evidence that has surfaced so far in this affair, they matter. Let’s run a thought-experiment:
You contract a rare disease, and are “likely” to die unless they cut your arm off. “How likely?” you ask.
• “We don’t know. We believe that many people have had this disease, but we only have records of five cases.”
• “Ok,” you say. “What happened to them?”
• “Oh, don’t worry about them,” they say. “There are too few of them to be relevant.”
• “There may not be many of them, but they’re the only evidence we have. What happened to them?”
• “No, really. That information isn’t useful. Evidence based on the outcome for a limited number of individuals cannot assist in the central issue of whether to cut your arm off or not.”
• “But they’re the only thing we can base a decision on! Without these five cases we’re just waving our fingers in the air! Tell me what happened to them!”
• “Oh, they all died.”
You probably want them to cut your arm off now.
I do hope the judges give proper weight to the fact that “likelihood” is measurable, and that without that dimension any judgement is mere prejudice. If they go for muddle-headed intuitions like “His blog must have probably enabled a lot of people to work it out,” or “If it happened even once, then it must have been likely“, that will be perverse.
As immediate fall-out from the Alex Salmond trial stitch-up, the commentator Craig Murray is being prosecuted for saying that the Alex Salmond trial was a stitch-up. The grounds for the prosecution are that, by saying that the Alex Salmond trial was a stitch-up, he committed contempt of court. Contempt-of-court cases are heard not by a jury, but only by judges, and carry a possible sentence of two years in prison.
The first step is a procedural hearing, scheduled for Wednesday 10th June at 10:00 a.m. This hearing will be on line, and therefore open to anybody with an internet connection. But you need to apply for access. Please do so – it’s important that as many people as possible know what was actually said in court, because the mainstream media and the judiciary will try to stamp on anything they see as threatening, and what Craig Murray has to say undoubtedly fits that bill.
You can apply for access by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. And please circulate this to friends, and post it on any internet forum you have access to, so that there’s more public observation of these proceedings.
POSTTHOUGHT: The amount of effort that the authorities are putting in to suppress allegations that the Salmond trial was a fit-up does suggest that it was.
My last post has been met with incredulous hostility by some commentators, hostile incredulity by others (all in personal communications), so I need to flesh it out a bit. To provide continuity with the previous post, I thought of heading this one “Where it’s really at, asshole”, but since the skeptics were my friends I’ve forborne to do this.
The first point in my previous post – that Nicola Sturgeon would either commit or not commit to an indyref this year – was not controversial (how could it be? – it covered all possibilities). In the event, NS’s response contained many fine words and high aspirations, but you should always listen to the small print. What she actually said was, “it is still my hope [that we can get an indyref in 2020]”. That doesn’t sound like commitment to me.
My second point – that SNP policy is based on the belief that indyref without a Section 30 order would create too much hatred and division to be sustainable – attracted no adverse comment. Looking at it again now, I’m not sure that it’s true, but that question needs a separate post.
My third point – that the SNP doesn’t want independence, it just wants to stay in power for ever – is the one where my skeptical friends thought I’d lost my grip on reality. However, there are plenty of pointers in the SNP’s conduct over the last six years:
– The only actions the SNP have taken to further independence is Ian Blackford saying repeatedly and untruthfully that Scotland won’t be taken out of the EU against its will (it has been), and Nicola Sturgeon saying repeatedly that Scotland’s right to a referendum will be recognised (it won’t);
– They’ve mounted no legal challenge to the need for a Section 30 order, their refutation of mainstream media lies is non-existent, and they have not moved the opinion polls by any noticeable amount;
– The Scottish political scene is glacial, with the SNP running a straightforward social-democratic programme, and the opposition ineffective beyond belief. But with independence, that will change. After the honeymoon period, the growth of better-formulated dissenting views on how run a country will mean that they’ll have to work for their living;
– Their record in government has seen some ill-prepared legislation put forward – the Offensive Behaviour (Football) Act, the Named Persons Scheme, the Gender Recognition Act. They’re good at managing money, but poor at managing public opinion. So the return of normal politics is a threat to them;
– Their finances won’t cover a second indyref. They have £400,000 cash-in-hand, membership has halved since 2014, and indy will mean losing their £1.5m per annum share of the ‘Short money’ gifted by the UK Government to opposition parties.
More on the SNP’s true policy below.
On my fourth point – that the Salmond trial is a stitch-up and Sturgeon helped bring it about – the skeptics really had a field-day; “About as realistic as eating fish and chips on Mars,” was one comment. But my analysis is not unrealistic: my information comes from Craig Murray, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan who was hounded out of office for showing that Britain relied on intelligence obtained from torture. You can read what he has to say here, and it’s very disturbing. By “at the heart of Holyrood” Craig means, of course, in the heads of Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell, Chief Executive of the SNP. And as a coda to this, let’s note that the name of Alex Salmond is not now to be found anywhere on the SNP’s website. Here is everything the SNP has to say on the 2014 referendum:
The 2014 independence referendum was Scotland’s greatest ever democratic event. In the months building up to the vote, the Yes campaign – spearheaded by the SNP and its then depute leader Nicola Sturgeon – engaged with every community in Scotland. Support for independence reached record highs[,] and levels of political participation blossomed across the country.
While the result delivered in the wee small hours of September 19th fell short…
I know that memory plays us tricks, but I think I remember Alex Salmond being around at that time. Wikipedia supports me on this: in its article on the 2014 referendum, it mentions Alex Salmond by name 89 times. The SNP names him, um, zero times.
Putting my third and fourth points together – the SNP’s inactivity and the Salmond stitch-up – we can derive a coherent account of the SNP’s policy over the last six years:
a. The UK will never let Scotland go if it can avoid it, because Scotland is too valuable. (For a summary of this, read Craig Murray’s opening paragraph here.) This makes independence is virtually unachievable, except by UDI and the risk of bloodshed (which the UK is perfectly capable of fostering). Sturgeon understood this early on, and decided not go go for it;
b. Her career plan is therefore to leave the SNP after five to ten years, and move on to an international career;
c. The modus operandi will be to talk up independence, but do nothing, just as the Brexiteers have talked up a “free” Britain, but will balk (we hope) at actually making much of a difference with Brexit;
d. Salmond is a threat to this, because he’s a cunning political animal and is committed to independence. He must therefore be neutralised;
d. The Gender Recognition Act – which gets you lots of brownie points internationally – is the jumping-off point for her international career. This is why she’s packed the party with transgender activists. The GRA is her passport out, and needs to be more or less in place if possible before the Salmond trial, which could see her forced to resign, and in any case before the 2021 Holyrood election, which could be the high point at which she departs.
That may all sound out-to-lunch, but in my view it adds up. So that’s all I’ll say for the moment, except for one final point. One of my skeptical friends describes BoJo as “a fatuous prick”, meaning (I assume) that he needn’t be taken seriously. I disagree. BoJo’s fatuous prickery is a stance, an act, designed to endear him to the voting public; underneath it, he’s a shrewd performer with a steely grasp of all the things he needs to do to further his career. He’s ruthless and skilled and uncontrollable, and that adds up to dangerous.
The Salmond trial opens on Monday. We live in interesting times.
That title reminds me of a linguistic joke, so let’s get that over with:
New student at Harvard, seeing a clearly established student whom he can ask for information: “Say, is this where the library’s at?
Established student (snootily): “This is Harvard. We don’t end sentences with a preposition.”
New student: “Oh, I’ll rephrase my question. Is this where the library’s at, asshole?”
To the point, now. It’s been a long time since the Scottish independence movement has been anything other than murky, unpredictable, unbelievably baffling or just plain hopeless. However, things are beginning to turn the corner, with some upcoming dramatic events:-
- This coming Wednesday, it is said, Nicola Sturgeon will set out her response to BJ’s refusal of the request for a Section 30 order. This either will or will not contain a commitment to an indy referendum this year. It’s difficult to see how it will plausibly do that. But if it doesn’t, the SNP’s credibility will slide down by another notch.
- The background to this, and the basis of all SNP policy on independence since 2015, is their belief that independence can only be securely won with the consent of the British government; anything else will create too much division in Scotland, and too much risk of non-recognition abroad.
- An alternative explanation of the SNP’s conduct since 2015 is that they don’t in fact want independence – they want to stay in power and keep their jobs and perks for ever. Political life after independence will become much more difficult for the SNP, with their primary aim accomplished and the rise (let us hope) of a proper Scottish opposition.
- The Alex Salmond trial opens soon, and there’s open discussion among commentators that this will destroy the SNP. It will destroy the SNP because the accusations against Salmond are (commentators say) a stitch-up, and Sturgeon (they say) played a large part in setting that stitch-up up. She did this (they claim) to demolish a rival who wanted to take the party in a direction she didn’t favour. (The thought of the honest, open, red-headed wee wifie whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt in being revealed as a corrupt and self-seeking political turd is an unsettling one, until you remember Blair’s metamorphosis in just a few years from left-wing poster-boy to financial scammer and international war criminal.)
- A line of argument that might mitigate the SNP’s dishonesty is that their proposed direction – indy with consent – is truly the only viable one, but that this will take ten to twenty years. Their only dishonesty is that they haven’t admitted to that timescale.
- If the SNP is eviscerated by the Salmond trial, a new party will head the independence movement (let’s just assume it’ll call itself the Scottish Independence Party, for heaven’s sake!). It’ll be much more aggressive in calling out the lies of the mass media on Scotland’s economic and cultural strengths, and in challenging Westminster’s machinations to erode devolution. If the movement is eventually forced to go for UDI, it will be a UDI which Scottish voters are in favour of because they’ll have listened to all the arguments, and one for which international recognition has been prepared through diplomatic initiatives.
- This might not be far off. After January 31st, an EU that wanted Scotland to join it (because of its economic potential and cultural compatibility) would be able to twist the arm of the UK, because the UK will no longer be an EU member and the UK will want a trade deal.
The Scotsman doesn’t believe this last point: it reports that the EU has stated categorically that it will not readmit a Scotland that has separated from the UK without consent. What The Scotsman doesn’t say, however, is that the EU will twist the British government’s arm to give consent, and that will be the price of the trade deal. So there’ll be consent, and therefore indy. And the Northern Ireland settlement shows that BoJo does actually back down when he has no cards.
I left a few points hanging in my previous post. One was that AMS, being a proportional system, makes tactical voting impossible. Tactical voting, under a first-past-the-post system, is where your preferred party is polling third, with the two despised enemies neck-and-neck at the top: you vote for the enemy you despise less, because at least it will keep out the other scum. But under AMS, where parties with even 4% of the vote get seats, voting for the less-despised enemy simply gives them a better chance of a seat, and reduces your own party’s chances of winning one.
Another complication is how we should properly refer to the two votes that you have under the AMS system, and I sidestepped this issue by calling one the ‘constituency’ vote (which is not controversial) and the other the ‘second vote’. However, even ‘second vote’ won’t do, because the ballot paper could well ask for your constituency vote in its right-hand column, and what I’ve called your ‘second vote’ in its left-hand column. This would make my terminology disastrously counter-intuitive. So a better term for the second vote is the ‘list vote’, because you cast your vote not for an individual member but for a party list.
But even ‘list vote’ isn’t the term used in official descriptions, and that’s because of a complication that I haven’t told you about. The complication is that list votes aren’t totalled and seats allocated for the country as a whole; instead the country is divided into 8 regions of 7 list seats each, and those 7 seats are allocated in proportion to the list-vote shares for that region only. Each constituency is also within a region, and it is the constituency seats for that region that are topped up. So the more widely used (but less informative) term for the list vote is the ‘regional vote’. The regional basis of the top-up also makes the election result hard to predict: you can’t just say, “X party has Y percent of the votes, so they’ll get Z seats,” because different parties can be stronger in different regions.
The third and almost last complication is both interesting and infuriating, and arises from two inherent constraints in the seat-allocation process. One is that to allocate seats in exact proportions, you would have to allow fractions – one-third each of 10 seats is 3.3333 seats per party – and that won’t do. The other is that if you avoid the fractional problem by not allocating all the seats – give the three parties 3 seats each and leave the 10th seat unallocated – that won’t do either.
The formula used to get round these problems is the d’Hondt formula, which operates like a bidding system, but with the bids rigged by the formula. In the first round, each party bids its full number of list-votes, and the party with the most list-votes wins the first seat; but for the next round, that party’s list-votes are divided by the number of seats it now has plus 1 – i.e. it’s now divided by 2 – so that party can only bid half its list-votes for the second seat, which will therefore go to a party whose list-votes are more than half those of the leader. And so it proceeds: at each round, what you can bid are your list-votes divided by the number of seats you now have plus one; algebraically
Q = V / (S + 1)
where Q is what you’re allowed to bid, V is your list-votes and S is the number of seats you currently have.
To take a simple example, if you’re the Big Party and I’m the Tiny Party, and there are 7 seats to be allocated, your bids round by round will be all of your list-votes, then 1/2 your list-votes, then 1/3 of your list-votes, then 1/4 of your list-votes, and so on, and as long as that fraction of your list-votes is more than the whole of my list-votes you’ll be allocated that seat. If my list-votes are more than 1/7 of yours, but not more than 1/6, I’ll get the last seat.
The immediate importance of d’Hondt is that you can’t convert votes into seats by simple arithmetic: if you want to know how many seats a party would get if it won a given percentage of the vote, you have to specify an assumed vote-share for each party and then run d’Hondt: anything else is mere guesswork. For a Holyrood election you have to do this for each of the 8 regions separately. You also have to specify, for each party, the number of constituency seats – d’Hondt sets the value of S in the first round to each party’s constituency seats. Running a d’Hondt calculation is an easy and mechanical task, but not all commentators do it. There’ll be a d’Hondt calculator on my website soon, and when it’s ready I’ll post the link here.
It’s the last complication of all, however, that’s the most interesting. The aim of the system is to arrive at a proportional parliament by adding to the constituency seats a top-dressing of list seats. But what if a party’s constituency seats already exceed its list-vote share? Supposing, for example, in a 100-seat parliament with 60 contituency seats and 40 list seats, the party vote-shares and constituency seats are as follows:
VOTE-SHARES: SLOBS 40%, TOADS 50%, EARWIGS 10%
CONSTITUENCY SEATS: SLOBS 50, TOADS 10, EARWIGS 0
The Slobs are due 40 parliamentary seats, but they already have 50, and you can’t take those away; the Toads deserve 50 parliamentary seats, which are available, but then the Earwigs would get none, and they deserve 10 parliamentary seats. The problem is of course logically insoluble, because the terms of the system don’t allow it: AMS assumes that each party’s share of constituency seats will fall short of its list-vote share, giving room for a top-up.
I’ll deal in a later post with how d’Hondt resolves this conundrum – it’s a fair result in fact, but it has unexpected effects. And it will lead us, as some readers will already have guessed from the way my argument here is going, directly on to the Wings Over Scotland Devastating Electoral Initiative, which is looking as though it will play a crucial role in the 2021 election.