Sunday, February 25, 2018

Astonishing: London Tories double down on plans for a power-grab and send Scotland hurtling towards a constitutional crisis

Well, we can now say one thing for certain - Michael Settle's supposed exclusive in the Herald two weeks ago about how Westminster was running up the white flag on its plans for a power-grab from the Scottish Parliament, and how Nicola Sturgeon was poised to declare that she was satisfied with what's on offer, was a load of old hogwash.  It's clear from David Lidington's intervention in the Sunday Telegraph (apparently foreshadowing a key speech) that the London Tories still fully intend to take back some of the powers that were devolved to Scotland in July 1999, and more importantly that they're leaving themselves hardly any wriggle room for a dignified climbdown.  How can they declare today that a power-grab is essential for the UK's post-Brexit economic health, and then a few days or weeks later call the whole plan off?  Realistically, they can't.  And yet we already know that without some sort of substantive climbdown, the Scottish Parliament's pro-independence majority will almost certainly deny legislative consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill - and according to the Sewel Convention, the Bill should not proceed without that consent.  The convention is not legally binding (in spite of the con-trick of it being written into law in a completely unenforceable way), but if it's not honoured, "The Vow" will have been demonstrably betrayed.  In other words, the chances of a major constitutional crisis - one that would probably stiffen the resolve of the SNP to press ahead with an early indyref - have just increased markedly.

What's puzzling is the strategy behind London's latest move.  Whoever briefed Settle earlier this month was obviously guilty of a deception, but at least that person was plainly attempting to pave the way for a deal by giving the impression that Nicola Sturgeon had been given everything she wanted and that it would be totally unreasonable and irrational of her not to sign on the dotted line.  Suddenly we're hearing the complete opposite.  The new belligerent message that the success of Brexit depends on the powers of the Scottish Parliament being reduced will make it much easier for the SNP to simply say no.  Either this is simply dreadful psychology, with the Tories foolishly believing that the Scottish Government will for some reason buckle under pressure from pro-Brexit opinion south of the border, or they actually no longer even want a deal.  If it's the latter, hold onto your hats, because we could be moving into the endgame for the Union.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fresh humiliation for hapless Ruth Davidson as Tories LOSE by-election in "safe" Scottish Borders ward

The full result from Selkirkshire hasn't been published yet, but I thought you might enjoy the headline while we're waiting.  Before you get too excited, the Tories were defeated by an independent candidate rather than the SNP, but even so.

UPDATE: Here's the result, and a finer advert you could never see for why it's so important for SNP supporters to use their lower preferences in local council elections.  The Tories were leading on first preferences by a seemingly comfortable six percentage points (albeit their share of the vote was sharply down on their result in the ward last May).  But they still lost, because enough SNP, Labour, Lib Dem and Green voters gave their lower preferences to the leading independent candidate.  The beauty of preferential voting is that even if your favourite candidate or party is well off the pace, you can still help prevent your least favourite party from claiming the seat, and that's exactly what happened here.  Well done to the progressive people of Selkirkshire for using the voting system correctly.

Selkirkshire by-election result (first preference votes):

Conservatives 35.7% (-6.4)
Independent - Penman 29.7% (n/a)
SNP 19.8% (-2.4)
Independent - Gunn 6.3% (-3.5)
Labour 3.8% (+0.1)
Liberal Democrats 2.7% (-0.6)
Greens 2.0% (-1.0)

Even after five counts (ie. after four candidates were eliminated) the Tories were still narrowly ahead by 1307 votes to 1231.  But the decisive moment came when the sizeable pile of SNP votes were transferred on the sixth count - 291 went to the independent, and only 35 went to the Tories, leaving the independent victorious by a margin of 1522 votes to 1342.  If no SNP voters at all had used their lower preferences, Selkirkshire would now be stuck with another Tory councillor.

There's always the fascination of seeing how Labour votes transfer when both the SNP and Tories are still in contention.  In this case the winning independent was the biggest beneficiary of Labour transfers, but nevertheless more than twice as many Labour voters transferred to the SNP as transferred to the Tories.  Clearly the much-vaunted unionist voting bloc has its limitations, even in territory such as the Borders where you'd think the anti-Nat pitch would have some purchase.

The slight fall in the Liberal Democrat vote from 3.3% to 2.7% may not look terribly significant - but when you realise this was a ward in which the Lib Dems took 19.7% of the vote as recently as 2012, it puts things in a completely different perspective.  In Westminster terms, this is part of a constituency that was a Lib Dem heartland until very recently.  So much for the "fightback".

Although the SNP vote fell a little, the fact that the Tory vote fell significantly more means there was technically a swing from Tory to SNP of approximately 2%.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Behold that legendary Smithsonian expertise

I was intrigued to spot the following observation on UKIP's prospects from Mike Smithson, known and loved by thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as an 'impartial election expert' and avid letter-writer...

"If all goes to plan UKIP will lose all its MEPs on March 29th next year and its only elected politicians will be a few remaining local councillors and members of the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies, elected by the regional list, whose terms end in 2021."

Hmmm.  Well, of course there's no such thing as the "Scottish Assembly".  He may be referring to the Scottish Parliament by the wrong name, but if so, there's another snag - UKIP do not have a member of the Scottish Parliament and never have had.

But let's face it - these are minor, minor quibbles about a typically incisive piece of Smithson analysis, as the great man "cuts through the spin to see what the data really says".  As we all know, that data "forms the basis of all his predictions", so it'll be fascinating to see whether Mike predicts that UKIP will manage to hold onto their seats in the Scottish Parliament...you know, the ones that they don't actually have.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The BBC's bizarre attempt to eradicate the word 'Scotland' from the Olympics

If you haven't been astounded enough lately, try watching the video in this tweet, because it's extraordinary.  It's from the BBC coverage of the Winter Olympics, and features 2002 curling gold medallist Rhona Howie (formerly Rhona Martin) accidentally using the word 'Scotland' in relation to the Great Britain men's curling team.  The host Clare Balding's reaction is staggering - instead of just correcting the slip, she puts the whole programme on hold for several seconds to deliver the kind of patronising admonishment that a parent might give to a three-year-old girl who keeps chucking jam at her grandfather's pet gerbil.  Rhona Howie visibly shrinks into herself and mutters "sorry".  Balding wraps the whole tragic episode up with the words "that's OK" in a tone of voice that menacingly implies: "It's not OK.  Don't EVER do that again."

For the uninitiated, there are two basic points that will help to make sense of all this -

1) Clare Balding was technically correct - all Scottish athletes at the Olympics represent Great Britain, and Great Britain only, whether they like it or not.

2) Rhona Howie's slip was entirely innocent and understandable.  Every single person who has ever represented Great Britain at the Olympics in curling has been Scottish.  In every four-year cycle, there are nine major international curling events - four World Championships, four European Championships and one Olympic Games.  In eight of those nine, Scottish curlers represent Scotland.  It's only in the other one of the nine - the Olympics - that they represent Great Britain.  All of the GB curlers in the current Olympics represented Scotland at the European Championships just a few short weeks ago, and as it happens they all won medals for Scotland - the women took the gold, and the men took the silver.

All of that being true, the natural thing for Balding to do would have been to casually say "Great Britain, you mean?", in which case Howie would have said "Great Britain, sorry", and there would have been no great fuss.  But it's pretty obvious that either Balding or the person delivering instructions in her earpiece was 'triggered' by Howie's slip.  They felt that mistakenly referring to Great Britain as Scotland was something that had happened far too often, and they were sick of it, and it needed to be made an example of, and stamped out once and for all.  All of which raised a few eyebrows in Scotland, because in our whole lifetimes you could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times a BBC presenter, commentator or summariser has ever referred to a Great Britain team as 'Scotland', whereas the BBC referring to Great Britain as 'England' happens as a matter of routine.  For example, last year, BBC Sport's official Twitter account tweeted about the "England" team in the Davis Cup - a truly jaw-dropping blunder given that Scottish players (including the not-exactly-obscure Andy Murray) have been the backbone of the Great Britain team in the Davis Cup for several years.  The tweet was eventually deleted, but I don't recall the person responsible for it being hauled onto our TV screens and forced to issue a humiliating apology.  There have been countless occasions when presenters such as Balding herself or John Inverdale have been guilty of the 'England' slip without making any sort of acknowledgement, apology or correction.

And yet we're expected to accept that the word Scotland being used too often is THE major problem that simply MUST be tackled by the BBC and be SEEN to be tackled?  I almost wonder if there is something rather sinister and political going on here.

I've been watching quite a bit of the BBC's Olympic curling coverage, and even before the Balding incident I had the distinct impression that some sort of edict had gone out strongly discouraging the commentators from using the words 'Scotland' and 'Scottish', in spite of the unavoidable Scottishness on prominent display before their eyes.  What made it obvious was Steve Cram's tortuous explanation of why Great Britain were absent from the new mixed doubles competition, which somehow managed to avoid making any mention of the fact that it was the Scotland team's responsibility to try to qualify Great Britain for the Games, and that they had narrowly failed.  But I suppose if you acknowledge Scotland's official role in the Olympic qualification process, you must also acknowledge that any medals won would effectively be a Scottish as well as a British effort...and that would never do, would it?  The only time I can recall hearing the existence of a Scotland curling team being mentioned in commentary was when Logan Gray launched into a prolonged anecdote about the use of corn brooms in the famous Canada v Scotland final at the 1991 World Championships.  "Really?" said Steve Cram in a disinterested tone, as he apparently tried to shut Gray down.

The double standard is simply breathtaking.  In a couple of months' time, the 2018 Commonwealth Games will take place in Australia.  There will be no Team GB at the event.  Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey will all compete as entirely separate teams.  And yet, on past form, the BBC presenters including Balding herself will try to downplay that division as a meaningless technicality, and will routinely refer to Scottish medals as "more success for the Home Nations".  You might remember that at Glasgow 2014, Matthew Pinsent (I think it was him, anyway) fronted a package that considered how "British" athletes' form at the Games might translate into success for Team GB once the temporary segregation was over - and remarkably didn't once acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely that Scotland was only a few weeks away from a referendum on independence that could have meant Scottish athletes would no longer compete for Team GB.  A "No" vote was, it seems, simply being taken as a given by BBC Sport.

But who knows, eh?  Perhaps Clare Balding has turned over a new leaf, and will sternly knock that sort of nonsense on the head in future.  Without fear or favour, Clare, without fear or favour.  Perish the thought that there is any sort of agenda here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Buoyant SNP bag belter of a by-election win in bloomin' Bonnybridge

The SNP have had a frustrating run of local by-elections since the UK general election last year - they've had one or two creditable results in wards they were never going to win, but in wards where they should have been competitive they've fallen short of expectations.  At last tonight we can celebrate both a substantial increase in the SNP vote and an outright victory.

Bonnybridge & Larbert by-election result (15th February 2018):

SNP 38.6% (+4.9)
Conservatives 32.4% (+8.1)
Labour 24.2% (+8.5)
Greens 3.7% (-0.1)
UKIP 1.0% (n/a)

The SNP candidate was eventually declared the winner on the fifth count, and was presumably helped by the fact that the Tories were the main challengers.  Labour voters are less likely to transfer to the Tories than vice versa.

Obviously the fly in the ointment here is that both the Labour and Tory vote increased more than the SNP vote did, meaning there was technically a swing from SNP to both Labour and Tory.  However, the reason for the increases across the board is that the independent councillor Billy Buchanan wasn't on the ballot paper this time, leaving his 20% of the vote up for grabs.  I gather that Buchanan is more associated with the unionist parties, so it may well be that his votes are predominantly unionist in character, and that you would have fully expected them to switch mostly to Labour and the Tories.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Why Pete Wishart is asking the wrong question about an independence referendum

As you may have seen, Pete Wishart has an opinion piece in today's issue of The National which effectively functions as his preliminary manifesto for the SNP depute leadership election.  The central thrust is a thinly-coded call for the party to allow its hard-won mandate for a second independence referendum to expire, and to instead try its luck at some unspecified point after 2021.  You won't be surprised to hear that I disagree with that entirely, which means that in spite of my huge regard for Pete Wishart, I'm almost certainly going to end up voting for someone else in the depute election.  Time will tell whether that'll be James Dornan or someone who has yet to throw his or her hat into the ring.

In fairness, Pete does half-heartedly leave open the possibility of supporting a referendum before 2021, but only if victory is "certain", which is an absurd threshold that is quite simply not going to be met.  Perhaps more pertinently, it's not going to be met after 2021 either.  We could wait twenty, thirty, forty years, but the fundamental point will not change - independence would be a rupture to the status quo, which means there will always be a considerable percentage of the population who fear it and instinctively oppose it.  The idea that gradual demographic changes or the long-term failures of Brexit are going to deliver us victory before we even fire the starting-gun is in the realms of fantasy.  Whenever the referendum happens, we'll go into the campaign uncertain of the outcome, and requiring a massive effort to emerge victorious.

Pete is correct in one limited respect - there is no guarantee that the big net swing to Yes during the 2014 campaign will be repeated next time.  The first independence referendum in Quebec in 1980 saw a substantial swing to No over the course of the campaign, while the second in 1995 saw a substantial swing to Yes.  It could very easily go either way, which means that all that can be said about the mid-40s showings for Yes in Scottish polls at the moment is that it leaves us within plausible striking distance of victory.  But the actual winning and losing will be done during the campaign, and that will be the case regardless of timing.  If we wait for certainty, we wait forever.  I'm not a big football fan, but I've heard it said of some football teams that they try to score the perfect goal and never actually shoot.  That's the first huge danger of Pete's strategy.

The second huge danger is that excessive patience may mean that we won't even be able to shoot for goal if we ever finally decide the timing is somehow 'optimal'.  It shouldn't be forgotten just how difficult it is to win a pro-independence majority in a Holyrood election fought under the Additional Member voting system.  Can you imagine the frustration if the SNP poll strongly in successive elections, but repeatedly fall just one, two or three seats short of a pro-indy majority, and consequently a referendum remains tantalisingly just out of reach for a couple of decades or more?  After the narrow defeat for Yes in the 1995 Quebec referendum, it was assumed it was only a matter of time before a third referendum would be called.  The sovereigntists duly won an overall majority in the 1998 election, but backed off from using that mandate - and as a result a referendum simply hasn't been possible for the last twenty years, because they haven't won a majority since.  They've been in power as a minority for a while during that period, but have never had the arithmetic to call a referendum.  I don't want the same fate to befall us.

Pete says the only question that matters is whether we win the next indyref.  But there's an even more important question that has to be placed before that - namely, "will we have the capacity to actually call an indyref?"  We know one thing for virtually certain - we'll have the arithmetic to call a referendum until May 2021.  We don't have a clue whether that will still be true at any point after May 2021.  Our window of opportunity is in this current parliament, and it would be a historic error to turn away from it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

James Today, Jam Tomorrow?

The dilemma thrown up by this year's SNP depute leadership contest is the same one we faced in 2014 - do we simply vote for the candidate with the strongest personal qualities, or do we base our vote on the candidates' views on the constitution and strategy, even though such matters are ultimately for the leader and not the depute leader to decide upon?  I suppose the logic for doing the latter is that the leader may regard this contest as a de facto consultation exercise, and will perhaps factor the outcome into her thinking.

I must say I've found the clarity of James Dornan's comments quite refreshing - ie. an independence referendum before the next Scottish election, possibly as early as next year, and a flat dismissal of the notion that the SNP's comfortable election win last June was somehow a rejection of a referendum.  That's bang in line with my own thoughts, and I'd find it very hard to vote against such a prospectus. 

By contrast, Pete Wishart's pitch is centred on the need to do something radical to court the minority of pro-indy and indy-curious voters who want to leave the European Union.  Specifically that means an independent Scotland would not seek full EU membership straight away.  I wouldn't dismiss that idea out of hand, because the problem of Leave voters jumping ship from Yes is a genuine one (if perhaps a little overstated).  But I do worry about the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Independence as a life-raft to save our place in Europe is an incredibly powerful argument, and my gut feeling is that we undermine it at our peril.

So in the trivial battle for my own vote, I think it's fair to say it's currently Dornan 1, Wishart 0.  But I'm going to keep my mind firmly open as more ideas and candidates emerge.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The weasel-worded power grab

I suspect I'm not alone in finding Michael Settle's gossip-fuelled reporting for the Herald over the last 24 hours deeply unsatisfactory from a reader's point of view.  The first of the two articles claims that Westminster is about to reverse its plans for a power-grab that would undermine the existing devolution settlement, seemingly on the basis of a single anonymous source who is "close to the process".  Given that this source praises the UK government for supposedly doing everything that could possibly be wished of it, and criticises the Scottish government for daring to have a different interpretation of what is on offer, it can be reasonably inferred that the source is on the UK side of the fence.  So why does Settle not tell us that?  Why does he not explain his reasons for apparently believing this source can be regarded as authoritative despite not being an objective witness?  When this biased source paints the Scottish government's stated frustration with the process as being somehow disingenuous, why are we being implicitly asked to accept that an anonymous and self-interested briefing from one side is more credible than an on-the-record briefing from the other side?  And why are the Scottish government not given an opportunity to respond to the source's assertions?

When the source said that powers that should be returning automatically to Holyrood will now be "put...more directly into the hands of the devolved administrations", was he or she challenged on the obvious point that 'more directly' are weasel words implying that the powers will not 'entirely directly' be controlled by Holyrood?  When the source chucked in the enormous caveat that the UK Government will be empowered "to put in appropriate safeguards to protect the internal market as and when they are required", was he or she challenged on the sinister implication that this will be an enforced principle, not one agreed on an equal and voluntary basis by Holyrood and Westminster? Was it put to him or her that all of the above may be a pretty straightforward explanation for why the Scottish goverment genuinely feel that any concessions so far are inadequate?  And if the source was challenged, as he or she surely should have been, why were we not provided with the response?

Even more mysteriously, Settle's second article does a complete about-face on the "Scottish government rejecting the concessions unreasonably" stuff, and instead claims that Nicola Sturgeon is now totally cool with what's on offer and will shortly be declaring victory.  For all I know that could be true, but where's the evidence?  As far as I can see no source is cited at all this time, whether anonymous or on-the-record.  Did the information come to Settle in a dream?  Did he consult a psychic?  Does he just feel it in his bones?

None of this strikes me as being remotely good enough.  It's hard not to feel that there's a puppet-master behind the scenes who wants to frame this story in a particular way, and that Settle is happy enough being the puppet.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The birthplace of valour, the country of worth

Just a quick (and belated) note to let you know that I have an article in the February issue of iScot magazine, which also features contributions from Alyn Smith MEP, Derek Bateman, Paul Kavanagh and many others.  If you're not a subscriber to the print edition, a digital copy can be inexpensively purchased HERE

The front cover features a verse by Robert Burns - "my heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here" - which oddly enough I'm fairly sure I first encountered in uber-mournful form in the Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).  But here's a much less gloomy version performed by Fara at the Orkney Folk Festival.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

It's now thirty years and counting since a Scot last represented the UK at Eurovision

I was half-thinking of foregoing the Eurovision posts altogether this year, because some people seem to get weirdly irate when I do them.  But as Bill Palmer of the US went out of his way the other night to ask for some Eurovision blogging, consider this a 'request post'.  To answer his specific question: no, Scotland does not take part in the contest and has always been nominally represented by the UK entry, which is selected by the BBC (or by a process devised and overseen by the BBC).  The corporation would probably argue that the rules make it impossible for there to be a Scottish entry for as long as Scotland is part of the UK, because each entry is put forward by a national broadcaster that is a paid-up member of the European Broadcasting Union.  However, a special exception is made for Australia, and given that the BBC are one of the contest's biggest financial backers, I'm not totally convinced that they would fail if they were to vigorously push the suggestion that the four Home Nations should be separately represented.  The obvious compromise would be for the UK to give up its automatic place in the grand final in return for four places in the semi-finals.  But it's the BBC we're talking about here, and with the upholding of British nationalism effectively written into the BBC Charter, it's highly unlikely they would ever make that case.  So the dream words "Écosse, douze points" will almost certainly have to wait until after independence.

What you'd think the BBC might do, though, is make sure individual Scots are at least given a fair crack of the whip at representing the UK in the contest.  But not a bit of it.  The last Scot to sing for the UK was Scott Fitzgerald exactly thirty years ago, when he famously lost to Celine Dion by just one point after the final national jury failed to award him any points at all.  As I always point out, and incredible though it may seem, both France and Cyprus have been represented by Scots more recently than the UK has.  (Karen Matheson of Capercaillie sang for France in the Breton language in 1996.)  What's truly shocking, though, is that in all of the UK national selection finals since 1988, there seem to have only been two Scottish acts - Do Re Mi featuring the late Kerry McGregor in 1997, and City Chix in 2006.  I don't know whether such an obscene under-representation says more about the southern-centricity of the BBC or of the British music industry, but it's certainly not happening by random chance.

To turn to tonight's national selection for 2018, I wasn't totally unhappy with it - I voted for the winning song for the second year in a row, and the overall standard seemed a little higher than in past years.  It's heartening to see the selection being given a prime-time slot on a mainstream channel (albeit BBC2 rather than BBC1) - gone are the dark days at the turn of the century when it had a graveyard slot early on Sunday afternoon.  What I couldn't understand is why the announcement of the winner was once again so truncated - with the use of a 50/50 jury/public vote system, there was obvious scope to crank up the tension with a gradual reveal of points.  (And given that the eventual winner started the night as a rank outsider, that might have worked particularly well.)  The voting segment is one of the things people love about the Eurovision itself, and with a full ninety minutes to play with, it's hard to see why it was excluded.

Overall verdict: the UK have ended up with a decent entry, but barring miraculously effective staging or a very weak field, it's unlikely to be an outright winner.  It's the sort of song you could maybe imagine finishing a creditable sixth or seventh on a good night.