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.

Where it’s at

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:-

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Voting for Dummies: Part 2

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.

Mozart on Debates

The memory-failing spouse and I attended a dementia-friendly performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, by Scottish Opera, a few days ago. It was a matinee, sparsely attended, disappointing no doubt for the singers, but for the audience it meant that there was no audience-intrusion to distract us from the top-notch performance, and the unpretentious simplicity of the occasion was overwhelming.

Readers will remember that there are three strands to this opera – the heroic couple Tamino and Pamina, who undergo ordeals, and summon up their courage by playing a magic flute; the nasty flim-flammerie of the Queen Night, whose aim is to plunge all other characters into such despair that they kill themselves; and the earthy clowns Papageno and Papagena, who just want to shack up together and have a million kids.

It’s all underpinned by a fourth strand in the person of the sorcerer Sarastro, who runs what can only be called a think-tank. This is an institution that promotes the same equality-and-brotherhood ideals as those of Robert Burns’ “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, and more broadly those of the French Revolution (the opera premiered in 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille). Sarastro’s think-tank holds everything together, brings about the happy ending, and gives us to understand that the other three strands are nothing more than a top-dressing of frivolity.

Sarastro’ aria, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” is the crunch-point in this fourth strand: the lyrics say, more or less, that in these holy halls we think clearly, and respect each other’s views, and do not turn our opponents into enemies. In this performance our Sarastro delivered the aria with no stage-business, standing more or less still. (You can see a similarly understated performance of it here.) As the melody unfolded, I found myself gasping and snuffling, unable to catch my breath, choking, with surprising tears running down my cheeks. The ideals that you believe in can be complete buggers when they catch you unawares.

Think about that.

Soldiers of the Queen

If you think this post is going to be a rant about unredeemable bigotry among those that fought under the butcher’s apron, think again. We need to be more nuanced than that.

My wife and I had an encounter with a non-indy person after the march, two Saturdays ago, as we were coming out of the Mitchell Library (ah, the arcane leisure pursuits of the Byres Road glitterati!). He’d been leaning on the balustrade by the kerb opposite the outside door, smoking, and walked across the pavement to speak to us, a bearded and tidily turned-out man in his twenties. “See this march,” he said, making eye contact. No doubt he’d noticed the SNP badge throbbing yellow on my lapel. “Ah don’t haud wi’ a’ that.”

We raised an eyebrow.

“See me, Ah’m a soldier,” he said. “Ah wiz sent by Blair and Bush to Iraq, and when I came back, there was no help of any kind for me. Naethin, not from the British Government nor from the Scottish Government. So these politicians, Ah don’t believe anything they say. That’s why I think this Home Rule is a’ mince.”

Home Rule is an endearingly old-fashioned way of describing what we campaign for (is that really what the British Army calls it?), but this wasn’t the moment to take up that point.

“They should have helped you,” I said. “Whether they’re Scottish or British, they’re the government, and they should have helped you.”

“Helped me!… Helped me!!!…..” He roasted them for their failure by producing a content-free stream of expletives, sullying the ears of my public-school-educated octogenarian partner. And with each expletive he reached out and touched her, apologetically, reassuringly, on the arm. “Sorry…sorry…” He really was contrite; they teach you manners in the British Army, and deference towards the posh elderly. “See, Ah fought for Britain. And this Union – it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.”

My answer needed some thought. This Union is broken – England has exploited Scotland for more than 300 years, sucked the lifeblood out of it, and is still sucking benefit from the husk. But being a soldier is no joke, and someone who’s shown that level of commitment is not going to react positively when told they’re talking nonsense by some toffee-nosed tosser with an Oxford accent. So I discarded, “We never get the government we voted for,” and, “They’ve stolen all our oil,” and settled for, “This is a rich country. We have renewables, oil, water, agriculture. We could be much more prosperous that we are.”

He didn’t look convinced.

“It’s England that’s holding us back,” I went on, “because we don’t have the powers to develop our potential.”

That sounded vague and unconvincing to me even while I was saying it, and not surprisingly he still looked sceptical. But he hadn’t interrupted, so I went for the jugular. “Norway has a one-trillion-dollar oil fund. We could have had that.”

There was a lot of harrumphing, and objections I didn’t quite get, and more streams of expletives – all with the obligatory apologetic touches to the arm, of course. When it subsided, out came his summing-up. “See this SNP.” he said, “If we did this, would they be a good government?”

Gobsmacked, I tried to show no emotion. “Yes, of course.”

We parted on good terms.

A Quiet Word about the Debate

Last Sunday, on the day after the AUOB march in Glasgow, the Herald gathered and published comments by three SNP politicians about the conduct of the independence debate. This was a remarkably unprincipled piece of journalism. A four-page front spread, it did two things: it crowded out any mention in that day’s Herald of the joyous and sensationally good-natured 100,000-strong march, and it manipulated the three politicans’ comments into a narrative where Yes-supporters were portrayed as vigorous abusers of their own side. It’s also thrown commentators on Wings Over Scotland (the seriously outspoken pro-independence blog, which Unionists hate and fear in equal measure) into a fury. Fantastic smack in the eye for indy! Herald’s job done!

However, under the fury with and the contempt for the various participants, there’s a serious point which indy-supporters need to consider, namely that our goal is to win the coming referendum. It’s true that our goal is independence, but, as we stand now, we’re not going to reach that goal by declaring UDI, or using the entrails of Michael Gove to strangle Boris Johnson, or by telling the UN that we really, really want it: the only way we’re going to get independence is by winning a referendum. And that means winning over to our side a proportion — a small and manageable proportion — of those who voted No last time. (Even if we went UDI, we’d still have to ratify it by a vote, so that goal would still be there – we’d still have to persuade enough people that it was the right decision.) Think about that for a moment, and think about how you would persuade someone who disagrees with you to change their view. Clearly you wouldn’t shout at them that they’re a lying fascist scum-bag, or a piece of zombiefied Unionist maggot-feed; you’d suggest to them – gently – that Scotland could be more prosperous if England had less say in its development, and you’d do this in a quiet, friendly one-to-one conversation. That’s how we’re going to win the referendum – by a million such conversations.

Wings Over Scotland would be a more effective promoter of such conversations if its comment forums were less strident. At the moment, the forums are unpersuasive – they’re talking only to the Yes side, and participants shout and holler. My guess is that the only non-Yessers who read the forums are Unionist trolls wanting to undermine them, and that Undecideds won’t bother to brave the onslaught of violent opinions. This is a pity, because the Rev Stu Campbell, who runs the site, has created a runaway success in terms of visibility – his readership is awesome, and the sheer quantity of comments on his forums is to die for. More than that, with his political acumen and his formidable research skills, he exposes on a daily basis the untruths spread about by the lying toads who oppose us. The Rev Stu is cantankerous and outspoken, and not easily deflected from his chosen path. But could he be gently nudged to move the forums in a more positive direction, so that they influence more people?

Stu already has form on this – his Wee Blue Book, published one month before the 2014 vote, looks as though it shifted opinion by about 10 percentage points, and it was (as one would expect) abuse-free. So he’ll readily understand how an abuse-free forum could positively influence the debate. The steps that he could take towards this are, shall we say, (KLAXON: PUN AHEAD!) fairly pedestrian: establish a ‘play the ball, not the person’ rule (contravening posts get bombed), ditto for foul language, ditto for posts without substance, spread the workload among a team of moderators, close comments after 24 hours, etc., etc. – and these could be implemented incrementally, so as to make the workload manageable, and to gently nudge the participants towards a more productive engagement.

This is what we need to do to win. Could you give it some thought, Stu?

Can-kicking.

It’s disappointing, for three reasons, to see that the EU has extended the Brexit deadline to October 31st. The three reasons are:

  • It’s a compromise between those EU leaders who called for an extension of a year, and those who called for no extension. What do you do when you have opposing extreme viewpoints? You agree at a half-way point. However, that doesn’t deal with the underlying issues, which are that one side thinks the UK can get its act together if given time (Donald Tusk), and that the other side thinks that EU should cut its losses and terminate the Brexit process in short order (Emmanuel Macron). The ‘half-way’ compromise doesn’t settle that point (it doesn’t even come near to acknowledging it), and the underlying issue bubbles on, underlyingly.
  • The second reason it’s disappointing is that the EU, in my view, has misjudged the UK’s ability to come to a consensus. The UK – and that means England – doesn’t do consensus: it’s the only European country, and one of only one-third of countries worldwide, to use First Past The Post in national elections. Its record of consensus-building since the EU referendum is beyond non-existent. So if we can guess at the future by looking at the past, the UK Parliament is not going to agree any deal before the October 31st deadline. (And how does the end-of-June review change that prospect? Not at all. “They’re not ready. – Oh, dear, we must tell them again.”) The EU has bottled it. The April 12th deadline was firm and final, and the October 31st deadline is equally firm and final, which means that the EU will bottle it again then.
  • The third reason it’s disappointing is that it kicks not only the Brexit can down the road, but also the IndyRef2 can. Nicola Sturgeon’s constant promise had been that she will lay out the IndyRef2 strategy “when the terms of Brexit are known”, and they won’t be known now until maybe six months hence, and possibly not even then. This leaves the SNP open the charge that it’s not really serious about independence, a charge that’s difficult to refute without revealing prematurely your strategy, and it demands from supporters more trust than many feel comfortable with. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the SNP is playing a very long hand indeed, keeping the independence démarche under wraps until most voters give it their engaged support. That (as Ian Blackford has said) is the kind of IndyRef2 we need, where we convince doubters by the merits of the argument.

We live in interesting times.