Saturday, May 23, 2015

Eurovision 2015 prediction : Saturday's grand final

I must report that I still haven't made up my mind whether I'm going to be watching the final live tonight. I'm trying to work out whether I would be slightly more annoyed with myself for missing out on Eurovision night for the first time in twenty years, or for not using a ticket I spent good money on. Whichever way I jump, I'm really going to have to get my diary in order from now on - for the last week, I somehow seem to have had it in my head that I was going to simultaneously be in two different places. That's almost as challenging a concept as Alistair Carmichael being blissfully unaware of a leak that he personally authorised.

The biggest thing I took away from Tuesday and Thursday is that if Sweden are going to be beaten, the challenge is unlikely to come from any of the other songs we saw in the semis. You could just about make a case for Russia, who I'm sure must have won Tuesday's semi by a clear margin, but I don't think they hold quite enough aces. So the chances are that either we're heading back to Stockholm/Gothenburg/Malmö next year, or that one of the seven pre-qualified countries will step up to the mark.

On that front, we can safely discount the UK, France, Austria and Germany. In theory Spain have a very strong entry, but there's a growing consensus that their live rehearsals just haven't been cutting the mustard. That only leaves Australia and Italy. I've had a couple of looks at the YouTube video of Australia's rehearsal, and I must say I'm a bit underwhelmed. I may be missing something, because of course rehearsal videos don't show what the cameras on the night will be picking up, but there doesn't seem to be anything particularly eye-catching about the staging. Is the song strong enough to win on its own merits, without gimmicks or tricks? I'm not so sure. It's very, very catchy, but unlike Sweden (or indeed Russia) it doesn't burst out of the screen at you, and it doesn't build up to a big finish. So I'm inclined to say it's probably going to fall short, and I wouldn't be totally surprised if it ends up much further down the leaderboard than anyone thinks possible at the moment.

Italy is a trickier one to judge, because it's one of the most distinctive entries, and it has a dream place at the end of the running-order. If viewers do go for it, they might just go for it big, and for that reason I'd say it's the entry with the best chance of beating Sweden. But I also think the more likely scenario is that viewers won't go for it big, in which case it might not even finish second or third.

So by a process of elimination, I just can't see past Sweden as the probable winners. Here's my wild guess as to how it might turn out -

Winners : Sweden (Heroes - Måns Zelmerlöw)
2nd : Russia (A Million Voices - Polina Gagarina)
3rd : Serbia (Beauty Never Lies - Bojana Stamenov)
4th : Italy (Grande Amore - Il Volo)
5th : Australia (Tonight Again - Guy Sebastian)

Possible dark horses : Montenegro, Cyprus, Slovenia

Although Heroes isn't really my cup of tea, I do have a soft spot for Måns Zelmerlöw, who sang one of my favourite Melodifestivalen songs of the last ten years. I'll never understand why Cara Mia didn't make it through in 2007.

Now, then.  This isn't a recommendation, because I wouldn't want to be responsible for anyone losing money, but I've just spotted that Betfair are offering 8/1 on Montenegro finishing in the top ten. That must surely be a value bet, because it implies they only have a one in nine chance of pulling it off. Remember they have a big name singer, a songwriter with an unparalleled Eurovision pedigree (four previous entries and none of them have finished lower than sixth), and they'll also have the Balkan bloc vote behind them.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Will the Spectator apologise for continuing the lies about Nicola Sturgeon?

This is absolutely extraordinary.  Even after Alistair Carmichael's grovelling apology to Nicola Sturgeon, which admits the smears made against her were totally without foundation, the Spectator are STILL idiotically trying to insist that the original story was true.  This seems to be based on a simple failure to understand plain English.

This is what they're saying -

"Interestingly, the Cabinet Office has confirmed that the memo did exist and the civil servant believes it was an accurate representation of Sturgeon’s conversation...the fact that an independent investigation has shown she did say she’d prefer Cameron to be PM makes for an interesting postscript to the election."

Nope. The independent investigation shows the complete opposite of that, and bizarrely the Spectator prove that point themselves by directly quoting the relevant segment of the findings -

"He confirmed under questioning that he believed that the memo was an accurate record of the conversation that took place between him and the French Consul General, and highlighted that the memo had stated that part of the conversation between the French Ambassador and the First Minister might well have been “lost in translation”"

How difficult is this, even for a deranged right-wing rag like the Spectator? The investigation found that the conversation between the Consul-General and the civil servant who wrote the memo was accurately recorded. The conversation between Nicola Sturgeon and the Ambassador was an entirely different conversation, involving entirely different people, and the investigation reiterates that the civil servant thought the second-hand account of that conversation was "lost in translation".

How in God's name the Spectator get from there to "the independent investigation has shown she did say she’d prefer Cameron to be PM" is anyone's guess. It's the absolute polar opposite of the truth, and I look forward to it being corrected and apologised for immediately.

Now this is rare - I actually thought Carmichael was better than this. I'm truly shocked.

Am I alone in being genuinely flabbergasted to discover that Alistair Carmichael was directly responsible for the 'Frenchgate' smearing of Nicola Sturgeon during the election campaign, and had lied through his teeth when asked for his version of events?  He says that, if he was still a minister now, he would consider this to be a matter requiring his resignation - oh, how frightfully honourable.  Well, he was a minister when he did what he did, and moreover he knew perfectly well that he had done what he did (even though the rest of us didn't), and if it's a hypothetical resignation matter now it was sure as hell a real resignation matter then.

So if he's such a man of honour, why didn't he come clean immediately and step down as Scottish Secretary?  Oh, that'll be because he would have lost his Orkney & Shetland seat (which he only barely clung on to), and the Liberal Democrats would have been left with zero Scottish seats rather than one.

The fact that he still has the letters 'MP' after his name is a direct consequence of his act of dishonour.  If he doesn't now resign from parliament (and he probably won't), nothing could better symbolise his party's thoroughly deserved demise - their only ghostly parliamentary presence is a disgraced politician who everyone knows shouldn't be there.

How I fell out of love with George Galloway

A guest post by Alex Skinner

My first clear memory of George Galloway is of him being interviewed on TV assailing the blind, anti-Scottish unionism of the Major government, which had just been re-elected, as one of the founders of the pro-devolution Scotland United group. I was eighteen and I liked his oratory and his politics: a left-winger standing up for Scotland and demanding change.

Later I came to love him, in the way some people love able political rhetoricians who seem to embody their most cherished political beliefs. The apogee came with the Iraq War of 2003, as George stood against the Bushite drive to make the world a much more dangerous place. I was one of the million who marched in London against that disaster. Later I cheered as he took Bethnal Green and Bow from a New Labourite and his performance – and that really is the right word – before the US Senate was one of the most striking pieces of political theatre I’d ever seen. I and thousands of others on the left lapped it up.

As a supporter of independence I was disappointed that George was against, but I accepted it as the one major area we disagreed on. Hell, the wonderful Tony Benn was against too. You can’t have it all.

Then came two events that changed everything.

The first was the referendum. It’s not that George campaigned against it. That was predictable. It was the strangeness and weakness of the arguments he put forward: there are too many borders already in the world, independence would trigger a race to the bottom, Sturgeon is Thatcher in a kilt.

The anti-borders stance has validity in certain contexts, no doubt. But in Scotland’s case? Surely if you are horrified by the idea of a Scottish state emerging, logically you ought to campaign – putting a difficult history behind us – for Ireland to re-join the UK. Surely you ought to bewail the fact that Norway became independent in the early 20th century, leaving a union with Sweden. The unionist logic is that the world is definitely a worse-off place because of those two countries sharing the Scandinavian peninsula. That seems, well, let’s be polite - a pretty strange idea.

The race-to-the-bottom theory seems deeply flawed as well, and has in fact been comprehensively debunked on Wings Over Scotland. It seems to me far more likely that a surging Scotland would breathe new life into these islands both economically and politically. A race to the top, if you will.

Nicola-as-Maggie is almost too stupid to comment on, and ironically I reckon she and George would agree on most things with the obvious exception of independence. There was a surreal moment during the referendum campaign when George sat next to his fellow unionist Ruth Nae-Vision, facing Nicola and Patrick Harvey. George painted a horrific picture of – get this – the financial sector fleeing Scotland in the event of independence! Astonished as I was at what my icon had become, at least it let Nicola come back with a nice slapdown.

Though I was rapidly falling out of love with George by this point, the camel’s back was finally broken by something rather more than a straw. I’d never bought the right-wing attacks on George over his critiques of the Israeli government. It seemed to me he was merely speaking the truth about, frankly, a bunch of criminals. But then he said something that sickened and stunned me: that he didn’t want Israeli tourists to come to Bradford (probably not the number one holiday hotspot that they dream about in the cafes of Tel Aviv – but that’s not the point). This was not a valid attack on the Israeli state and its disgusting policies. This was the demonisation, at least potentially, of every Israeli citizen, logically including even those who disagree with their government and campaign against it. That may not have been what he meant, but it’s what he said, and to my knowledge he’s failed to correct it. A line had been crossed.

My love affair with George is over, though I’ll always acknowledge his progressive credentials, particularly his anti-war leadership. I must admit I’m curious what he’ll say when Scotland really does emerge as a progressive beacon, ridding itself of nukes, pushing renewables, protecting the NHS and free higher education and – I dare hope – lifting a million Scots out of poverty.

Who knows, if he can admit he was wrong about independence and his grotesque comment about Israelis, maybe one day the spark of love can flicker to life again. But I’m not holding my breath.

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This is guest post no. 5 since I launched my 'appeal'.  Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

And before I leave, let me show you Tel Aviv

Disaster struck within ten minutes of me sitting down to watch the second Eurovision semi - it suddenly dawned on me that I've double-booked myself for Saturday night.  I bought a ticket for something last week without checking the dates closely enough, so now I'm going to have to make a decision about whether to miss my first Eurovision final since 1994 (and even in 1994 I managed to catch the second half, complete with Riverdance).  OK, I suppose I could just watch it on the iplayer when I get home, but that would mean having to go to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads lengths to avoid hearing the result for several hours.  I dunno what to do.  I'm so stoopid.

Anyway, to the extent that I was actually able to concentrate on tonight's proceedings after that realisation, here are my impressions -

1) Disappointed for Ireland, but not surprised in the end.  It didn't come across as well as in the national final, possibly because she was trying to project her voice to such a huge crowd.

2) Delighted for Montenegro, and not just because they qualified.  The staging was much more powerful than I expected from having watched the rehearsal videos.  This is the first Željko Joksimović entry that hasn't really been touted as a potential winner, but I now think it could potentially do some damage (maybe top eight).

3) Serbia was the obvious qualifier that I failed to pick on Tuesday night, and tonight it was Israel.  I did have them in my initial long-list, but unfortunately that included at least fourteen of the seventeen songs.

4)  I wasn't totally convinced by Sweden's status as favourites before tonight, but now I am.  It's not my cup of tea, but I can absolutely see how people are going to pick up the phone to vote for it.  My only lingering doubts are that the main challengers (with the possible exception of Russia) are all countries that haven't performed yet, so we'll still have to see how Australia and Italy come across live.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure I caught sight of a large saltire at one point.  A DIY Eurovision presence is better than nothing, I suppose.

Which Scottish electorate will turn up in 2016, and what effect will this have on the outcome?

A guest post by Hapleg

Until this year, the received wisdom was that Scotland was settling into a pattern of voting Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood. This view was predicated on the observation that Labour landslides in 2005 and 2010 alternated with SNP victories in 2007 and 2011. 2015, of course, seems to have blown that theory to bits but I will return to that later.

Turnouts for Holyrood elections have (so far) tended to be a good 10% lower than those for Westminster and those voters that have turned out have tended (until this year) to be more SNP-friendly than the Westminster electorates (and more Green-friendly too, for that matter, but it's unclear how much of this is down solely to the electoral system - my guess would be a lot). Is it the case that those who have turned out for Westminster but not for Holyrood have been people sceptical or scornful of the 'wee pretendy parliament' and therefore, for obvious reasons, much less likely to vote SNP? If so, will this continue and what are the implications?

Perhaps it is better to ask it this way: are unionists less likely to vote in Holyrood elections? I make a distinction here between those who voted No last year out of concern (fear?) over the consequences of independence and hard-bitten unionists/Brit Nats. While acknowledging that there are many sincere devolutionist Brit Nats, e.g. Adam Tomkins and most Tory MSPs, I will refer to a portion of this unionist group as 'direct-rulers', as in pining for 'direct rule' from Westminster à la pre-1999, in opposition to 'home rule'. This sub-group is vehemently opposed to independence for reasons other than economics and is opposed to Scottish self-government in any form (polling suggests somewhere between 10-20% of the population*). It would seem to follow that those who are sceptical or contemptuous of devolution per se are less likely to be motivated to vote in elections for the devolved legislature. Equally, it seems likely that those committed to independence (and therefore, it is reasonable to assume, to devolution) are correspondingly more likely to turn out for elections to 'Scotland's parliament'. My guess is that, by and large, No voters who vote SNP are, on the whole, at least pro-devolution in some form.

Those who continued to vote Labour at Holyrood and Westminster but who were initially at least open to, and then latterly committed to and voted for, the prospect of a more socially just, independent Scotland have been sheered away from Labour by its despicable shenanigans during the referendum campaign, moving en masse to the SNP (for 2015, at least – I don't discount a decent portion of them voting Green/SSP next year). Labour's remaining constituency seats in the central belt must now look very vulnerable to SNP. Indeed, there is now only one Labour Holyrood constituency the nearest Westminster equivalent for which the SNP does not hold (Dumfriesshire, whose approximate Westminster counterpart is Tory-held). Will Edinburgh Southern, a constituency with very different boundaries from its Westminster near-namesake, remain yellow, especially without (surely?!) a Cybernat scare thrown into the mix?

There is also a second group that I would posit is less likely to turn out at Holyrood than Westminster: older Labour No voters. My unscientific impression is that a large proportion of the residual 'traditional' Labour vote which still cleaves to the People's Party is composed of older folk whose parents won the Second World War and built the post-war welfare state. For many of them, George Galloway's characterisation of Holyrood as the 'White Blether Club' strikes a chord, while Westminster is still thought of as the 'real deal', the arena of giants like Attlee, Bevan and John Smith. Many of these people will vote Labour at Westminster but not see Holyrood as being worth the bother. Many who might otherwise have been included in this category, as I have experienced from canvassing, have simply given up on politics altogether and will likely never vote again, save for possibly another indyref, when scares over pensions inevitably rear their heads again. They are disgusted by Westminster but remain dismissively hostile to Holyrood, despite the enormous influence it already wields over their lives.

A big anomaly presents itself however - do Tories always vote? The Tory vote appears to have stagnated, standing at around 15-17% at every Westminster and Holyrood election since 1997. It seems that the Tory party is now only gaining supporters roughly in line with the mortality rate. Interestingly, however, there doesn't seem to much, if any, evidence to suggest that Conservative voters, arch-unionists though they generally are, are any less likely than the average voter to turn out in elections to Holyrood, despite the fact that they are the most anti-devolution of the main parties' voters. Perhaps being a Tory in Scotland requires a particular doggedness or even eccentricity?

Another counter to this point would be that, despite the low turnouts they attract, European elections record much higher levels of support for UKIP than other elections do. This may seem to fly in the face of my argument, as it would seem to follow that those who vote for a virulently anti-EU party (Eurosceptic feels far too gentle a term) are plainly not turning out to vote for an institution about which they feel enthusiastic. I would posit that the European parliament is far less well understood by its opponents than Holyrood is by the direct-rulers. Kippers view the EU as a growing but distant and obscure foreign threat against their wholesome British way of life, whereas direct-rulers are resigned to life with devolution. Since UKIP dropped their commitment to repealing the Scotland Act 1998 a few years ago, no party even remotely close to electoral success now advocates a return to direct rule and so their options are rather limited.

The 'energised electorate' trope, something anyone with eyes in their head can see is both true and an unalloyed blessing (although the smug self-back-slapping around it is close to becoming a sickening ritual), is an obscure variable. Its consequences are difficult to predict but, based on the scant and contested evidence which we can draw from the indyref and GE 2015, it seems more likely to be of benefit primarily to the SNP and probably also the Greens and SSP. The question has been posed rhetorically many times before, but how many people are likely to have broken their habit of abstention to vote No in 2014 or Labour/Tory/Lib Dem in 2015? Some, but not many. On the other side, however, the Yes movement in general, and RIC in particular, were superb in creating the engagement which has continued to flow to this day.

In short, therefore, I am speculating that there is a turnout differential that benefits the pro-indy parties. Speaking as an SNP member, this is not a call for complacency in any way. I am also not in any way celebrating the fact that our opponents' supporters may not deign to cast their votes – in my view every citizen has a responsibility to cast their vote and low turnouts harm the legitimacy of our democratic processes. I am simply positing that the electorate that turns out for Holyrood tends to be more favourable to the SNP, Greens and SSP and that, if anything, this effect will be amplified by the massive switch away from Labour witnessed since the referendum. If I am correct about this trend, is there any good reason to believe it will not continue? Well, for one, I certainly would not rule out an SNP Holyrood manifesto pledge of indyref2 prompting No voters to turn out in greater numbers than hitherto observed. For us on the Yes side, the referendum was a joyous awakening; for most on the No side, it was a deeply traumatic and risk-fraught process that they will not be keen to repeat. We will see if I am proven correct.

*The level of support recorded in opinion polls for abolishing the Scottish Parliament varies considerably, principally because the choice of options presented alongside it is not consistent. Indeed, abolition itself is rarely presented as an option at all, with most pollsters preferring to present 3 options: independence, status quo (whatever that happens to be at the time) and 'more powers'/devo-max. When this is the case, we can only presume that direct-rulers opt for a mixture of the status quo and 'don't know'/'refused'/'none of the above'. I am convinced, however, that it accounts for a steadily diminishing but still non-negligible portion of the public.

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This is guest post no. 4 since I made my 'appeal' the other day.  Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why "tactical voting on the regional list" is likely to backfire, part 2

The SNP have been criticised in past Scottish Parliament elections for saying that "the first vote chooses your MSP, the second vote chooses your government", but there's more than a grain of truth in that claim. The "second" vote, ie. the list vote, is the more important of the two, because the composition of parliament is in theory supposed to reflect how people vote on the list ballot only.

There's a common misconception that the Holyrood voting system is only "semi-proportional". I once pointed out that an eminent academic had made that mistake on a radio show, and he actually emailed me afterwards to insist that "semi-proportional" is correct! But it's not correct. A semi-proportional system would simply give 30% of the list seats in a region to a party that wins 30% of the list votes. Even if the party in question is already wildly over-represented in the region due to having won all the constituency seats, a semi-proportional system would say : "that's fine, you're still getting your list seats, and we'll just leave the imbalance of constituency seats as it is".

That's not how it works at all. Instead, the list seats are distributed in such a way as to bring the overall composition of parliament (on a regional basis) into line with the percentage of votes each party received on the list ballot. In principle, only the list vote really matters - the constituency vote shouldn't decide the final outcome at all.

The reason it's not quite as simple as that, of course, is that in some situations there aren't enough list seats available to bring the overall result into line. If Labour win 40% of the list votes in a region, but win all nine constituency seats in that region, then with the best will in the world it's not possible to distribute the seven list seats in such a way as to bring Labour down to just 40% of the total number of seats. Labour obviously won't get any of the list seats, but they'll still be significantly over-represented in the region, thanks to their performance in the constituencies.

This is the 'bug' in the system that advocates of "tactical voting on the list" claim can be exploited to vastly increase the number of pro-independence MSPs. The theory goes like this : if we know that the SNP are going to win all the constituency seats in this region, we also know that winning 40% of the list vote will do them no good, because they'll already have all the seats they are entitled to before the list seats are even allocated. Wouldn't it be better if those 40% of voters switched their list vote to another pro-independence party, like the Greens? That way, the voting system would attempt to get the Greens up to 40% of the seats - it wouldn't succeed, but because there aren't enough list seats to go around, Labour would end up with fewer seats than they are entitled to, and pro-independence parties would end up being significantly over-represented.

As we discussed on the earlier thread, this strategy could in theory work brilliantly.  In the real world, however, it is highly unlikely to work, and carries a significant risk of backfiring catastrophically.  As a voter considering going down this insane route, there are two vital questions you would really need to ask yourself first -

1) What if I make the "tactical" switch from the SNP to the Greens on the assumption that 40% of voters are doing the same - but they're not?  What will the impact of my decision be if, as is far, far, far more likely, only a tiny percentage of voters are acting in the same way?

2) What if I make the "tactical" switch on the assumption that the SNP are going to win all the constituency seats in a region - and they don't?  What will be the impact of my decision then?

Here is a fictional example to illustrate the problem.  Suppose an election prediction website was suggesting that the results in one particular region are likely to work out as follows...

Constituency seat 1 :

SNP 43%
Labour 39%
Conservatives 9%
Liberal Democrats 8%

Constituency seat 2 :

SNP 38%
Labour 37%
Conservatives 20%
Liberal Democrats 3%

Constituency seat 3 :

SNP 51%
Labour 24%
Conservatives 18%
Liberal Democrats 6%

Constituency seat 4 :

SNP 42%
Labour 38%
Liberal Democrats 10%
Conservatives 8%

Constituency seat 5 :

SNP 39%
Labour 36%
Conservatives 21%
Liberal Democrats 3%

Constituency seat 6 :

SNP 48%
Labour 28%
Conservatives 17%
Liberal Democrats 6%

Constituency seat 7 :

SNP 47%
Labour 32%
Conservatives 17%
Liberal Democrats 3%

Constituency seat 8 :

SNP 40%
Labour 39%
Conservatives 12%
Liberal Democrats 7%

Constituency seat 9 :

SNP 39%
Labour 35%
Conservatives 20%
Liberal Democrats 5%

List votes :

SNP 41%
Labour 33%
Conservatives 16%
Liberal Democrats 6%
Greens 2%
SSP 1%

Constituency seats :

Others 0

List seats : 

Labour 5
Conservatives 2

Overall seats :

Labour 5
Conservatives 2

Now, it's easy to look at that and think : SNP votes on the list are wasted.  If those votes switched to the Greens or the SSP, they wouldn't be wasted.  But in reality, only a small percentage of people will be thinking in the same way (short of a campaign of mass-hypnosis, that is).  Let's be ultra-generous and say for the sake of argument that 3% of the electorate "tactically" switch from SNP to Green on the list, and a further 1% switch from SNP to SSP.  On the face of it, no harm is done - the Greens and SSP still fall short of the threshold for winning a seat, but the SNP still have their nine constituency seats in the bag, so the unionist parties are no better off.

But what if the constituency predictions aren't quite right?  Look closely at them - the SNP are claimed to be winning all nine seats, but six of them are too close to call, with the SNP ahead by 4 points or less (well within the margin of error).  What if, thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post, the SNP don't win nine constituency seats, but only three?  Where is your masterplan then?  Suddenly the SNP need every single list vote they can lay their hands on - and those wasted "tactical" votes for the Greens and the SSP may be doing some real damage.  Here's how it would work out -

List votes :

SNP 37%
Labour 33%
Conservatives 16%
Liberal Democrats 6%
Greens 5%
SSP 2%

Constituency seats :

Labour 6

List seats : 

Conservatives 3
Liberal Democrats 1

Overall seats :

Labour 6
Conservatives 3
Liberal Democrats 1

Without any "tactical voting" (ie. if the SNP had been on 41% of the list vote), it would have been :

Labour 6
Conservatives 2
Liberal Democrats 1

So in this example, "tactical voting" has completely backfired - it has cost the SNP one seat, and gifted it to the unionist parties (more specifically to the Tories).

The best way of looking at the list vote is as your "banker" vote.  You give it to the party that you want to be in government, and you can be absolutely sure that it'll count if it's needed.  It will only be "wasted" if it's not needed - ie. if the party has already won enough constituency seats.  That's something you cannot know in advance.

In 1999, Dennis Canavan stood as an independent in both the Falkirk West constituency, and the Central Scotland regional list.  Anyone who voted for him twice knew, in a sense, that one of those votes would be "wasted".  But it wasn't an irrational choice, because it maximised the chances of him being elected by one method or the other.  Without a reliable crystal ball, that's about the best any voter can do.

Eurovision prediction : Thursday's semi-final

This is definitely the stronger of the two semi-finals - not only does it include the outright favourite to win the contest (Sweden), but it also features my own two personal favourites in Ireland and Montenegro.  I think Montenegro should be safe enough, but it's going to be touch-and-go for Ireland - they have a low-key song, and a terrible draw.  I'll go with my heart and say that the juries and some neighbourly voting from the UK will save their bacon.

Here are the ten countries that I think will make it through -


Sympathy For The Devil

A guest post by Mary Stewart from A Greater Stage

And so the endless speculation on who is or isn’t seeking the crown Jim Murphy is leaving behind has begun. Expect hours of meaningless drivel to come from the Scottish press and for the time being we should probably take Jackanory Jim’s statement at face value that he is definitely going at face value. But before he does he graciously accepts that the party that he led to such spectacular defeat needs reform.

He’s right of course, based on the raw numbers it looks like Labour lost nearly a third (32%) of their support from 2010 and gained little if any of the additional four hundred and forty-eight thousand electors who voted in 2015 but hadn’t in 2010. You don’t recapture ground like that without a long hard look at what you did wrong. His first recommendation he has already revealed, one member one vote, a long overdue update of the byzantine electoral process that still exists within Scottish Labour. Of course it could be pointed out that the SNP adopted that curious thing called democracy some time ago, but to do so would be to diminish the fact that Labour’s Scottish dominions are at long last trying to move past the days when Scotland was taken for granted and we should have sympathy for this particular devil as the battle faced is not just for Labour’s soul but potentially the Union’s as well.

What will be presented in a month’s time is anyone’s guess but it seems reasonable to conclude that in his resignation package the answer will be a further shift to the right. Murphy’s own politics and public pronouncements suggest this, that to move forward the Scottish branch has to become more Blairite; how else to translate the comment that it is “the least reformed part of the Labour party”? The message would seem clear; in his mind for Labour to win it needs to tack to the misnamed centre-ground, back even further to the right.

Within the context of those at the top of his party Jim has finally got it spot on, a quick look at those who want the poisoned chalice of next UK Labour leader shows that his calls for reform hit the right note at Westminster as all are products of the Blair years. All believers that what is needed is a return to a “message” that appeals to aspiration, no mention of the desperation of the millions Labour has left behind. And, odd as it sounds, here a degree of sympathy creeps in for Jim and whoever takes the fiery throne of Scottish leader as the early evidence is that the wider party and indeed electorate are not so convinced.

We’ve already had the dud hand grenade from Unite that it will look at its long standing links with the Labour party - it's bluster, just Len McCluskey exacting revenge for Mr Murphy’s own digs at him. But the problem remains that this is not the first time a union has indicated it might leave the Labour fold, and between members electing not to pay the political levy and increasing numbers both voting and pushing for active support of the SNP, Jim should he do a reverse-Farage or a successor may find that reform comes too late to save the flow of cash to the little red piggy bank.

Just as with the unions, the rank and file of the party is far from sure about reform, particularly if it’s Blairite in nature, most especially in Scotland where the average Labour voter is more likely to be older and the epitome of habit rather than choice. Their parents voted Labour, their grandparents voted Labour, so they too vote Labour, recalling not Labour as it is, but Labour as it was, supported by a largely pro-Labour Scottish press that colludes in hiding what the UK Labour party has become and how dysfunctional and utterly indifferent to the realities of modern Scotland the Bath Street branch office has been for years.

The problem is that people chose to vote SNP two weeks ago, the referendum certainly influenced that choice, but nevertheless it was a conscious decision, not simply the default selection. The resulting difficulty now facing Labour in Scotland is that as they know full well, and have long benefitted from, once that choice is made it can take a lot for it to be changed. Historically as a nation we are loyal to institutions we perceive as being ours, a good example being the last clan charge; it was on behalf of the Hanoverian crown during the American War of Independence as the clans remained loyal to the institution if not entirely to the family that held it. Scotland was loyal to Labour for sixty years as we believed they spoke for us, now nearly one and a half million Scots voted for the nasty Nats, history suggests it’s for the SNP to lose rather than Labour’s to gain.

But it’s not only us, there are signs that England too is crying out for an alternative that is not Blairite and certainly far from what our new Conservative overlords thinks it has a mandate for. Wings Over Scotland for example notably posted articles that evidenced the support for the centre-left message of First Minister Sturgeon. People in England, far from the Jockophobia of the right-wing press openly wished that the SNP were fielding candidates south of Carlisle. This was not some isolated incident either, social media more generally was awash with similar sentiments including the widely shared map that showed a new Anglo/Scottish border closer to the Mersey than the Solway and Tweed.

But for a blog such as this one, there is the more pertinent message of polling, most of it has been anecdotal and far from scientific and as such beyond the remit of James and his fantastic efforts to make sense of the numbers. But some of it has been closer to the norms of mainstream political polling, such as social attitudes surveys; all were rigorous and all saying the same thing: The UK overwhelmingly holds to the post-war consensus. Yes, we all want to get ahead, we all want our nice gadgets and to be comfortable, Thatcherism has reinforced that deep human need, but clear majorities all still want a social safety net. We, whether it be the UK or Scotland want growth but for a substantial number not if the cost is American levels of deprivation and where people you quite possibly know still go to bed cold and hungry even though they hold down a job and are anything but a drain on the state.

The future direction of the Labour party both in Scotland and more widely in the UK is important. Thursday 7th May was simply a warning of things to come for, in Scotland Labour was punished for getting into bed with the Tories in the referendum, but just as important was their failure to honour the devo-max pledges after it. Labour more generally suffered because it talked of combating social inequality and yet repeatedly voted for austerity. Spoke of opportunity and change and yet behaved like feudal overlords in Scotland, storming off to a friendly press like petulant children when their fiefdom was taken away from them. Claimed to still be the party that protected the vulnerable and yet joined in the right-wing witch hunt of immigrants and people on benefits, Rachel Reeves' comment about being for working people and that being the clue, perhaps the most damning indictment of how far Labour now is from the party of Keir Hardie. Labour’s failure to have a consistent message let alone one that matched actions with words was what undid them, throw in a leader who suffered from credibility issues from day one and in hindsight it is perhaps more puzzling to wonder why we thought they stood a chance in the first place.

Still not feeling any sympathy? Understandable, not least as none of the above will come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog or others of a similar pro-independence stripe. But the task facing the two people who seek to lead what remains of Labour is monumental. Across the UK they need to rebuild trust and revitalise a party shattered by a defeat the likes of which hasn’t been seen in three decades (and in 115 years of history in Scotland). On top of that they have contradictory messages on how to proceed coming their way, the whisper of past success and the boorish braying of the “British” on the right. The silence of an English electorate that is not engaged and does not trust them to keep their word let alone be an alternative to Cameron, and the sound rejection by Scotland on the left.

But even that is not all, as much as the actions of the Conservative regime will help decide if the Union survives, so too will Labour’s. If Labour tacks to the right it will almost certainly never win in Scotland again and make it difficult for the SNP to do anything but push for another referendum. If it tacks left it may yet save the union, Scotland might return to the fold. It might not, but make it easier for the SNP to stand with them as a coalition of willing progressives.

Believe it or not it also has ramifications for an independent Scotland, were Labour to go right, the Scottish party may cease to exist as it is absorbed by the others because Scotland’s last memory of the people’s party was that the people were the wealthy few not the struggling many. If it goes left it would mean that we had a credible alternative to the SNP helping keep our future a democratic one. So please, speaking as seditious separatist, have some sympathy for the devil, because although many of the problems are of its own making, some of them aren’t. Use all your well-learned politesse, show some courtesy and respect, because Labour were once a vital part of our defence against the Lucifers of Westminster and a final irrevocable fall could lay waste to not only our but the UK’s social democratic soul.

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This is guest post no.3 since I made my 'appeal' the other day.  Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Where Labour went wrong

A guest post by Denise Findlay

The SNP did wonderfully in the general election but not all of the credit can go to the SNP.  Labour played a part in the victory, by making a catalogue of errors and running an abysmal campaign. So here is a nice baker’s dozen of Labour mistakes:

1. First Past The Post Reality

45% will not win a referendum but it will win you an FPTP landslide.  Labour did not recognise this reality and made no attempt to engage with the independence movement.  Labour instead continued the Better Together tactic of demonising the SNP and supporters of independence.

2. The Tories are the Enemy Not the SNP

Labour spent far too much of their TV and press time criticising the SNP, seemingly forgetting the real enemy entirely. The SNP was able to present itself as the anti-Tory party, while Labour became the anti-SNP party.

3. Sidetracked by EVEL

In the Westminster debates immediately after the referendum Gordon Brown - the guarantor of the Vow - used his speeches to rail against EVEL instead of focusing on the new powers he promised to Scotland.  This was made worse by their next mistake:

4. Losing the mantle of the Party of Home Rule

Labour’s submission to the Smith Commission conceded the bare minimum of new powers.  Labour’s reluctance to concede powers to Scotland stripped them of their Home Rule credentials. While Labour shed the clothes of Home Rule, the SNP picked them up and dressed themselves in them. Incredibly the SNP became the party of both Home Rule and independence.

5. Electing Jim Murphy as Leader

When Lamont left claiming the Scottish Labour Party were treated as a ‘branch office’ it was a gift to the SNP, but not as much of a gift as her replacement Jim Murphy. Quite why the Labour Party members chose a Blairite and one so associated with the referendum to try to win back Yes voters is incomprehensible. It did, however, confirm to the many people that have left the Labour party, that as far as socialism is concerned, Labour are a lost cause.

6. Glasgow Man

Labour devised a tactic to win back ‘Glasgow Man’, a Labour-Yes voting Glaswegian. For some inexplicable reason, teetotaler Murphy though that offering alcohol at football would succeed. The motivation of Yes voters was to ‘build a better country’, and that dream is unlikely to be traded for a pint of beer. It was a contemptuous idea of ‘Glasgow Man’s priorities and had the side-effect of also alienating women.

7. Patriotism and the Labour Constitution

‘Scottish Labour is now a patriotic Scottish party, putting Scotland’s interests first’ begs the question what have you been these last 100 years? It confirmed many voters' suspicions that Labour had not been acting in the interests of Scotland.

8. 'SNP Bad' Overkill

A tactic of constant attacks on the SNP, Labour aided by their friends in the press drummed up a ‘A&E crises’ and nightly we were treated to the latest statistics and how bad the NHS was under the SNP.  Eventually it became background noise as there was no event to hang it on, i.e. Mid-Staffs. 'SNP Bad' became a joke when in answer to any issue the Labour response was ‘SNP to blame’.

9. Full Fiscal Autonomy Bombshell

The ‘£7.6 billion FFA bombshell’ poster which simultaneously reminded people of : the Tories (copy of ‘Labour Tax Bombshell’ Tory poster), Iraq (bombs) and Trident (Trident shaped bomb) was a work of genius. And in any case, the Yes voters they needed to win back had not been scared by full Project Fear and independence so they were hardly likely to be put off by Full Fiscal Autonomy.

10. Contradicting UK Labour

Labour in Scotland could have piggy-backed on the UK Labour campaign and defended the Austerity-Lite agenda of Miliband. Tarring the SNP as fiscally incompetent could have had traction. They decided to offer a different Austerity policy to UK Labour, with Murphy stating that there would be no cuts in Scotland. This caused issues for the UK Labour party and Murphy had to be very publicly slapped down, Chuka Umunna’s statement ‘The leader of Scottish Labour does not write the UK budget’ highlighted what we all knew; UK Labour called the shots.

11. Project Fear (the Sequel)

The Scottish debates saw the Project Fear band back together, with Labour, Tory and Lib Dem haranguing Nicola, reminding everyone of the Better Together Labour-Tory alliance.

12. Second Referendum Gambit

The tactic, again aided by Labour’s friends in the press, was to connect the general election result with a second referendum. This tactic also featured a poster with a signpost onwards to a second referendum or backwards with Labour – prescient perhaps. A second referendum was something the SNP could not talk about for fear of losing the SNP-No voters but luckily Labour was saying it for them. It was a call to arms to the independence supporters giving them an incentive to get out and vote.

13. Ed Miliband Ruling Out SNP Deal

Scottish Labour lobbied Miliband to rule out a coalition with the SNP - this was to stop the SNP being able to say ‘Vote SNP Get Labour’.  Normally Labour and Tory would stick to the mantra ‘We are going to win a majority’ and not talk about coalitions. Ed Miliband ruling out a coalition or deal with the SNP said to voters ‘I might not win’. Ed Miliband saying ‘he’d rather a Tory government than work with the SNP’ said to voters ‘I don’t want to win’.  Of course it also allowed the Tories to drum-up anti-Scots sentiment and the SNP to dominate the news cycle for weeks.  A mistake on so many levels.

So, what now for Scottish Labour with UK Labour turning rightwards? Even a Blairite such as Burnham is too left-wing for middle-England, where does Scottish Labour go?

You can follow Denise on Twitter HERE.

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This is guest post no. 2 since I made my 'appeal' the other day.  Guest posts are welcome on any topic (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.

I was frozen by the jingle of my keys at the door, as I got outside I smiled to the dog

I wasn't actually planning to do a reaction post on tonight's Eurovision semi, but just to send a very, very clear message to the person who has spent today trying to tell me what I can and can't write about on my own blog, here are a few quick thoughts -

1) Estonia had the best song, but Russia had by far the best performance.  I said last night that I didn't think we'd see the winner tonight, and that probably still holds true, but I do now think Russia have an outside chance.

2) My prediction was reasonably OK - I got 8 out of 10 right.  However, I was kicking myself for not picking Serbia, because it suddenly seemed such an obvious qualifier as I watched it.  The other qualifier I didn't pick out was Hungary, which I thought would be too low-key to make it through, but I'm delighted to be proved wrong.

3) I don't know if they ran out of time at the end, but the results segment was just about the flattest I can ever remember in a Eurovision semi.  The presenters rattled through it at breakneck speed, and didn't seem to be showing much of an interest in what was the most important part of the whole show.

Eurovision prediction : Tuesday's semi-final

Let me start by making my annual public service announcement.  This is the TWENTY-SEVENTH consecutive year in which there is no Scottish involvement in the UK Eurovision entry.  Both France and Cyprus have been represented by Scots more recently than the UK has.  The 'Union Dividend' in action, folks.

If you go back far enough, Scotland does have a bit of a Eurovision pedigree.  The 1972 contest was hosted at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.  Lulu won in 1969 as a singer, and Bill Martin won in 1967 as a songwriter (with Puppet on a String).  But in recent decades we might as well not have existed.  It's hard to see that changing until independence - the UK entry has become the de facto England and Wales entry.

So is it any wonder that I identify more with the Irish entry these days?  Until a few years ago, we were at least given some kind of 'ownership' over the UK entry by having the chance to vote in the national selection, but even that has been taken away.  Nowadays, the Irish selection is the only one that UK residents can vote in (courtesy of a technological loophole).  Although the political situation has meant that I haven't been following the national final season as closely as usual, I made sure I cleared the decks one Friday night in late February, and watched the epic Irish selection in its entirety.  I really enjoyed it - happy memories flooded back of the good old days of watching A Song for Europe.  It had a bit of everything - three very closely-matched songs, tactless comments to the competing Swedish band ("Who's the President of Ireland?  Wrong guess, it's Michael D Higgins, lovely man.  You've got to learn these things."), and an outcome that remained an enigma until the very last votes had come in.  I didn't vote for the winner, but in retrospect I wish I had done - Playing with Numbers has grown on me with every listen, as you may have noticed from a blogpost title the other day.  It's now just about my favourite song in the whole contest.  By contrast, I liked the UK entry the first time I heard it, but it's progressively got more and more on my nerves as time has gone on.

I don't think 2015 is a vintage year by any means, but it does have the immense saving grace of a song penned by Željko Joksimović, who has surely now supplanted Johnny Logan as the true "Mr Eurovision". And although I didn't really approve of the gimmick of giving Australia a one-off berth in the contest, it's actually worked out quite well, because they have one of the best songs (arguably a potential winner).

Anyway, to business. Having hurriedly caught up with the rehearsals on YouTube, here are the ten countries that I think will qualify from the first semi-final -


I doubt if there's an outright winner in there, but Estonia is probably the pick of the bunch. The studio version of the Moldovan song is a thing of brilliance, but unfortunately the singer's live performance seems a bit ropey.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why "tactical voting on the regional list" does not work, and is likely to backfire

On the last-but-one thread, the hoary old topic of "tactical voting on the regional list" came up again.  I'm almost sick to death of discussing this subject, because every time I explain my reasons for saying that attempts at "tactical voting" are likely to backfire, I just get a chorus of people telling me that I'm too stupid to understand some killer point, or that I'm putting party advantage above the pursuit of independence, or even : "But you haven't explained properly, James.  We all want to hear your proper explanation."

The reality is that some people have fallen head over heels in love with the idea of victory next year being won on a pan-Yes basis (as opposed to the SNP doing it on their own), and are demanding that the arithmetic must yield to that ideal.  Surely there must be some risk-free, cost-free way for SNP supporters to vote Green on the list, so that we get both an SNP majority government and a pro-independence opposition?  Answer : no, there isn't.  There just isn't.  But that isn't the message people want to hear, and so they question the motivations behind it, or insist that it must be wrong.  I'm not sure I can face another whole year of having this circular discussion, but I also have a horrible feeling that I've got very little choice.

When I said pretty much what I've just said on the earlier thread, the commenter "Muscleguysblog" reacted in the following extraordinary way -

"In 2011 the SNP won so many constituency contests that iirc they only got one MSP off the list. So my party vote for the Greens was in no way wasted and did not hurt the SNP. IF a party gets more constituencies than it is 'entitled' to on the list they don't get taken off them.

I respectfully suggest it is you who are out of touch and arithmetically challenged. You also mistake the campaign which is firstly to urge a constituency vote for the SNP and only then vote Green or SSP. Unless the SNP think they will lose seats en mass in 2016 this cannot hurt them."

In other words, he seriously believes that because I don't think that tactical voting on the list is possible, I must not be aware of even the most basic details of how the AMS voting system works, or what the nature of the proposed tactical voting "strategy" is.  It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when people say things like that.

On a more positive note, though, I do think it's helpful that the comparison with 2011 has been made by someone who split his ballot in that election (and he certainly wasn't alone in doing that).  Let's go through the results region by region, and see whether it's really true that "tactical voting" for the Greens in 2011 either "worked" or did no harm.  Bear in mind that list votes for the SNP can only be said to have been wasted if the party failed to take any list seats at all in a given region (due to having won too many constituency seats).  As you'll see, that was not the case in seven out of eight regions, in spite of the SNP landslide.

North-East Scotland : The SNP took one list seat (in spite of having won every single constituency) and the Greens failed to take any.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens were therefore utterly wasted, and ran the risk of reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.

Central Scotland : The SNP took three list seats, and the Greens failed to take any.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens were therefore utterly wasted, and ran the risk of reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.

Highlands and Islands : The SNP took three list seats, and the Greens failed to take any.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens were therefore utterly wasted, and ran the risk of reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.

Mid-Scotland and Fife : The SNP took one list seat, and the Greens failed to take any.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens were therefore utterly wasted, and ran the risk of reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.

South Scotland : The SNP took four list seats, and the Greens failed to take any.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens were therefore utterly wasted, and ran the risk of reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.

West Scotland : The SNP took two list seats, and the Greens failed to take any.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens were therefore utterly wasted, and ran the risk of reducing the number of pro-independence MSPs.

Glasgow : The SNP took two list seats, and the Greens took one.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens therefore did no harm, but it's debatable whether they did any real good.  You could make the technical case that Green votes were more efficient than SNP votes because of the d'Hondt calculation, but for that to make a difference you'd have to believe that the Greens were genuinely in danger of failing to hold their one seat (they were certainly nowhere near taking a second).

Lothian : The SNP failed to take a list seat, and the Greens took one.  "Tactical votes" for the Greens therefore had a beneficial effect.

Now, doubtless the true believers will point to the fact that tactical voting "only" backfired in three-quarters of the regions, and say : "You see?  It can work."  But that's not actually good enough, because you also have to consider whether SNP supporters in Lothian had any rational basis for believing that switching to the Greens on the list was a good idea.  If anything, the opposite was true - Lothian was a region where you would have put money on the SNP taking at least one list seat, because the constituencies looked so tough.  In the end, there were a number of narrow and unexpected constituency gains, which means that "tactical voters" did the equivalent of rolling the dice and getting very lucky.  Is that really our strategy for winning a second pro-independence majority in Holyrood next year?

I know some people will insist that 2016 will definitely be different to 2011, and that the Greens are a much more formidable force these days - well, if they are, recent Holyrood opinion polls have stubbornly refused to show any sign of it.  Don't forget that the polls significantly overstated Green support on the list in both 2007 and 2011, so unless they're polling a lot higher by next May, there's no reason at all to assume they'll be taking list seats in most regions.

Tactical voting can work - but only in single-member constituency elections.  For it to work reliably on the regional list, you'd need a detailed level of foreknowledge of the result not only on the list, but also in every single constituency seat in the region.  That is never going to be available.

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UPDATE : A further post on the same subject can be found HERE.

SNP are right to reconsider their stance (or non-stance) on English fox-hunting

The parliamentary arithmetic on the fox-hunting ban in England and Wales is not entirely clear, but one thing that does seem certain is that if the SNP stick to their original plan to abstain en masse, repeal is inevitable.  If, on the other hand, they break their self-denying ordinance on genuinely non-Scottish issues, and if the bulk of them vote against repeal, things will get very tight.  In theory, there are already enough declared Tory dissenters to tip the balance, but unfortunately Northern Ireland MPs are likely to break heavily for repeal, and there are also pro-hunting MPs on the Labour and Lib Dem benches (most famously Kate Hoey).

I'm relieved that the SNP are at least reconsidering their position, and to be honest I can't quite understand how they ended up where they are.  Yes, fox-hunting is a clear-cut example of an English and Welsh only issue with no direct knock-on effects for Scotland at all, but it's also a classic issue of conscience that is customarily decided on a free vote.  So why on earth should the SNP be the only party to impose a three-line whip?  Individual MPs are perfectly capable of weighing up whether the principle of not voting on non-Scottish matters is more important than the opportunity to prevent widescale animal cruelty.

Of course Tory MPs will hiss and stamp their feet about the SNP "breaking their word", but nobody who actually matters will give a monkey's - SNP voters are far more likely to feel let down if the party needlessly sits on its hands as the values of a civilised society are rolled back.  In any case, making the idiocy of the British constitution a pain-free experience for Tory MPs is no part of the SNP's mission in life.

As I understand it, the current English Votes for English Laws proposals would not affect something like the fox-hunting vote, because English MPs would only be given a veto over changes to the status quo.  The theory is that to go any further would compromise the integrity of the UK Parliament.  So if there's a clamour for something to be done after the "outrage" of the SNP voting on fox-hunting, that can only lead to the Union's integrity being undermined.  I'd say we should all be intensely relaxed about that prospect.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Scotland is a unionist country. And that is why it must become independent.

A guest post by Mark Murray

Scottish nationalism is often tritely dismissed as a narrow-minded philosophy, motivated by fear, anger and resentment. This is a lie. It is a false view of the independence movement in Scotland. The movement that wants independence for Scotland is a movement that has far greater ambition for Scotland than British nationalists can imagine. It is an outward looking movement, an internationalist movement, a movement that wants Scotland to participate in peaceful, voluntary co-operation with like-minded sovereign, democratic, independent states.

Around one hundred years ago Scotland was part of a great world project. As part of the British state it was at the centre of a great global empire, the greatest the world has ever known. For good or ill it was a power across the world that shaped the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and Scots were at its heart.

That Britain is gone. It has been replaced by a Britain which is increasingly isolationist, increasingly afraid of the world outside, increasingly seeking to withdraw, to hide away, a Britain that no longer wants to be part of the international project which is the European Union.

Why should Scots who care about shaping the world want to tie themselves to the decaying British state, declining in influence and seemingly determined to remove itself from the one organisation - the EU - that allows it to remain truly globally connected and influential?

Why would anyone who looks out into the world with hope and joy see Britain as their future? Why would anyone who doesn't want Scotland to be isolated, insular and frightened wish to stay in the British union? Why would anyone who cares about Scotland's place in the world want to remain in the British union if it puts at risk Scotland's membership of the European Union - the most successful, peaceful, voluntary coalition of independent states the world has ever seen?

Scotland's future is in the union - not the British union but the European Union.

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This is our first guest post since I made my 'appeal' the other day.  Guest posts are welcome on any subject (within reason!).  My contact details can be found at the top of the sidebar.