Where it’s *really* at

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.

Construe as Mince

Craig Murray’s petition to bring in OSCE observers for the next Scottish referendum (which I hope you’ve all signed – DO IT NOW!) has resurrected the doubts about postal votes in 2014. These doubts solidify, for some people, into the claim that the 2014 referendum was rigged by the UK Government packing the postal vote with “No” ballots, as evidenced by the extraordinarily high postal turnout. This is a consoling narrative for those indy supporters who were gutted by the massive “No” wrecking-ball that crawled out of the woodwork on September 18th to steal the referendum (which many Yessers feel in their bones was in truth a clear victory for Yes) and demolish their dreams. So we need to look at that claim again now.

The claim

The detailed account of this rigging (the “Dunoon Report”) has gained some traction among the Indy community. It was authored by Andy Anderson, Education Officer of the Dunoon Unit of the Democratic Socialist foundation, and a video of Andy explaining the report to a group of activists shows him as a sober, thoughtful and concerned individual. We can summarise his report as follows:

1. Three public figures (John McTernan, political strategist and advisor to the Labour Party; Susan Dalgety, former Labour councillor and civil servant; and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives) said in public, before the count had started, that the postal ballot showed a clear lead for No. It’s illegal to count postal votes early, so these people couldn’t have acquired this information legitimately: there must have been government malpractice.

2. The reported postal-vote turnout is not believable as it stands, and broke world records in four local authority areas. To quote the Dunoon Report, “[The Electoral Management Board’s] claim that there was a spectacular world record 96.4% turnout in the PB in Argyll and similar spectacular results in the PB all over Scotland, needs to be carefully assessed, before it can be accepted as a fact.”

2. In Argyle and Bute, more people voted postally than were on the postal-ballot register. “We have a grand total of 743 people on the PB register who could not vote,” says the Report, when the count shows that only 526 people did not vote.

3. Areas with a higher proportion of postal votes returned a higher proportion of No votes; this correlation held across all 32 local authority areas. In the words of the Report, “[A]s the level of the [postal ballot] rises, so the No vote rises with it and takes a stronger and stronger lead.”

5. The fraud was committed by the UK Government replacing unused postal votes with fake votes for “No”. Clandestine government agencies will have access to local authority records, and therefore will have known how many postal ballots had been issued. They also knew, as the referendum approached, who had voted and who had not, and had copies of their signatures (which are on local government computers). So they printed postal ballot papers for electors who had not voted, and submitted them in the normal way through the mail or at local authority offices, reversing the result of the referendum. To quote the Dunoon Report, “[A] massive No vote was inserted into [the postal vote], ensuring an overall No vote majority at the Referendum.” This fraud left no trace in the counting process.

Evaluation

I found this account persuasive (and worrying!) when I read it in detail for the first time recently, so I decided to flesh it out with numbers. The data I used comes from Wikipedia, with postal ballot details from the Electoral Management Board, as quoted in the Dunoon Report. A copy of the Dunoon final report, and my extracted data-sets, are on my website here. Let’s take the Report’s five claims in order:

1. Public figures knew some postal results before the count. These politicians’ comments are consistent with there being government-sponsored fraud: they would have made the comments to soften up the public for the massive No that was about to engulf them. An alternative explanation is that some unscrupulous busybody had counted postal votes, and had primed three political idiots to talk about it in support of No.

2. The postal turnout was unbelievably high, and set world records. The postal-vote turnout was 93.7%, as against 82.5% for the in-person turnout. Postal-vote turnouts are always higher, but I could find no data that would show whether this particular turnout was unbelievably high or not. I could find no data at all on world records for postal-vote turnouts. The claims that these turnouts are unbelievably high and constitute world records are concrete and verifiable, so the absence from the Report of data to support them is worrying.

3. In Argyle and Bute, more people voted than was possible. The electoral register was a year old at the time of the referendum, and therefore included people who could not have voted. The Dunoon Report estimates their numbers as follows:

Those who had died since the register was updated: 125
Those who had moved away since the register was updated: 250
Those in prison: 6
Those with dementia: 362
TOTAL: 743

This total of 743 people who could not vote is clear evidence of fraud. 14,409 people were registered for postal votes, and 13,883 votes were received (13,926 in my data-set, due to rounding differences): so only 526 people did not vote. But 743 people could not have voted, so more people voted than was possible.

If we examine the data critically, however, more holes appear than we can be comfortable with. Firstly, “couldn’t have voted” – the form of words used consistently throughout this section of the Report – is not the same as “a ballot paper couldn’t have been sent in”, and the outstanding case of this is the group of people with dementia.

People with dementia can of course vote; in fact it is probably illegal to prevent a person from registering or voting on grounds of dementia. So care-home staff will take steps to ensure that such people are registered and vote; the care staff or a family member may even mark the ballot-paper for them (and there are statutory provisions for bypassing the signature, for persons who can’t sign their name). So it’s difficult to see the justification for including these 362 patients among those for whom a ballot paper could not have been sent in. Removing them reduces the number of impossible votes from 743 to 381, well within the count of 526 people who did not in fact vote.

Similar considerations apply to those who had died or moved away: the ballot papers were sent to their old addresses, and the current residents there could have sent in those votes, and no doubt in some cases did. This means that the Report’s third claim, that more people sent in ballot papers than was possible, doesn’t stand up.

4. A high postal vote correlated with a high No vote across all 32 local authority areas. This at least looks sound: the chart below shows the relationship between postal votes in the local authority areas (ranked by the proportion of the vote that was postal, and divided into four groups) and the No vote in each group:

dunoon-chart-1“R-squared” is a statistic that shows how closely two data-sets match: 0.0 is no relationship at all, 1.0 is a complete match. A value of 0.98 is extremely good for any human-society data, perhaps even too good to be true. So let’s look at it more closely.

I first asked myself why, and on what basis, the 32 areas had been divided into four groups, but the Report is silent on this. Then I looked at the figures for each of the 32 separate areas, and found that the postal-vote levels do not in fact fall into natural groups at all (red bars on the chart below, which show what percentage of that area’s vote was postal). Similarly, the percentage of No votes (blue bars on the chart below) shows no observable relationship to the size of the postal vote (red bars), and in Group Two and Three goes down as the postal vote goes up:

dunoon-chart-2Deeply suspicious now, I inserted the 32 data-lines for the separate local authority areas into a scatter-plot like the first chart above, plotting the full data, rather than just the four group-averages. The scatter-plot looked like this:

dunoon-chart-3A statistician’s professional verdict on this correlation (R-squared = 0.14) would be that it’s a bit below piss-poor. What the Dunoon Report has done here is to hide the detailed data of the 32 local authorities by reducing it to four averages, which give a spectacularly different result. My own qualifications in statistics are nothing to write home about, but I do know that this is elementary data-rigging, arrived at by ignoring the principle of data integrity. Data integrity says that the investigator should look at all the data, not just the bits she likes; next time you meet a statistician, ask them whether data integrity matters, and then hide under a rock until they’ve finished exploding. So no cigar for the Dunoon Report on this one: the full data shows that the level of postal votes has no correlation with the level of No votes, and blows its fourth claim right out of the water.

5. A clandestine government agency replaced unused postal votes with fake No votes, compromising the result. The clandestine tactic, it is claimed, was to hoover up unused postal votes and replace them with fake No votes. So how many votes would have been available to these purveyors of state-sponsored skulduggery? We’ll have the answer if we can estimate how many postal votes were genuine.

We know the electorate size and the votes cast for all voters, and the electorate size and the votes cast in the postal vote, so by subtracting one set from the other we can get the turnout for the in-person vote. It’s 82.5%, slightly lower than the 84.6% overall turnout, which was inflated by the high postal vote. Nobody thinks that the genuine postal-vote turnout could have been lower than the in-person turnout, so let’s take that figure of 82.5% as our baseline, our threshold for genuine postal votes. The possible number of fake votes is the difference between that number, 82.5% of the postal electorate, and the number of postal ballots received, 93.7% of the postal electorate.

A turnout of 82.5% of the postal electorate gives us 657,410 genuine postal votes; the number of postal ballots received was 746,308. The difference between the two – the window for fraud – is 88,898 votes. However, “Yes” lost the referendum by four-and-a-half times that number, 400,000 votes. These numbers are not shown in the Dunoon Report; but, presented or not, they mean that the Report’s fifth claim, that a clandestine government agency changed the result of the referendum by faking postal votes, can only be construed as mince.

Working through these calculations to verify the Dunoon Report’s claims has made me angry. Not because my comfort blanket – that the referendum was stolen from us by some malign agency – has been stripped away, but because of the egregiously dishonest presentation of data. The Dunoon Report says the postal-vote turnout was unbelievably high and broke world records, but shows no evidence for this; it claims that more people voted than was possible, but the choice of words is sloppy and the figures do not stand up; it says that a high postal vote, area by area, always gives a high No vote, but it does not, and the Report hides the data that show it does not; and the Report says that packing the postal votes “ensured an overall No majority”, when the putative packing amounted to less than one quarter of the majority, and this data is not even referred to. That this dishonest Report should have been going the rounds for five years, consoling Yessers with its unexamined data and false claims, annoys me.

Lessons

What can we learn from this? I think there are two take-aways for us. The first is fairly obvious: if a document comes your way that makes a data-based case, examine the data carefully, compare it with other data that you know or can easily acquire, and verify that it all makes sense. The second relates to how we expect to win IndyRef2. We should not console ourselves with comforting narratives, false expectations and wishful thinking. Instead we need to concentrate on clear, factual arguments, presented soberly and straightforwardly; at the end of the day, we want an IndyRef2 that has been properly thought through by the electorate and reflects the considered consent of most voters. That’s not an impossibility; all the facts are on our side, and we just need to put them over properly.