Monthly Archives: April 2015

An #indyref2 on the back of a big SNP election win is inconceivable

Jim Murphy has warned that, if the SNP wins the vast majority of Scottish seats in this election, Scotland will be ‘turbo-charged towards a second referendum’. The poll evidence suggests that one part of this statement is true: the SNP is on course to win the vast majority of Scottish seats. The evidence that there will be another referendum so quickly is thin on the ground, which makes Jim Murphy’s warning seem like a last desperate attempt to convince No voters that their new support for the SNP will have dire consequences. Here is why a quickfire second referendum will almost certainly not happen.

First, the SNP leadership has not asked for it. Its manifesto includes no reference whatsoever to a second referendum. Instead, it promises to use its position of strength to make the most of the first referendum: to hold the UK government to the promise, made by the three main UK parties, to devolve extensive new powers for Scotland.

Second, the SNP leadership does not want a referendum right now. It will take a lot more than an excellent showing in one election to convince it to try again. Instead, it will seek evidence that there has been a so-called ‘material change’ in circumstances. In the short term, the only change would be caused by events: if the Conservatives form a government, hold an EU referendum, and the UK votes to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay in, prompting a constitutional crisis. Even then, a new referendum is not inevitable. In the longer term, a material change involves either remarkably high opinion poll support (say, over 60%), or clear majority support for a long time (say, over a year) or some combination of the two. No one in the more sensible side of the SNP would want to hold a new referendum on a whim. The people who want to use the result to declare independence without a vote, or hold a new referendum immediately, do not control the party.

Third, it takes more than moral authority or a political shock to hold a referendum. Remember what it took to secure the first referendum: the SNP made it a key plank of its 2011 Scottish Parliament election manifesto; it won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament; and, it negotiated the wording and timing of the referendum with the UK Government. All three steps were necessary to ensure that a vote took place. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a UK Government would follow up this vote with a second referendum on a whim, particularly since there has been no request from the SNP and we have witnessed general refusal by the other parties during the election debates.

More importantly, I would argue strongly that a second referendum is not the story of this election. The story is that the SNP is about to remove the last remnant of Labour dominance in Scotland. It is difficult to overstate just how much Scottish Labour used to dominate all forms of elections in Scotland, and how much the SNP has replaced it as Scotland’s main party. Let’s not skim over this remarkable fact to focus on idle speculation.


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The SNP general election manifesto (part 2): What can the SNP hope to negotiate?

See also The SNP general election manifesto (part 1): don’t forget how quickly it all got weird

The SNP is thinking meaningfully, and perhaps for the first time in its history, about what it can hope to get from negotiations from a Labour government. We can put these demands into four categories.

  1. Assurances that have already been made, plus a bit more. When the Scottish parties talk about protecting Scottish public services, such as education and the NHS, they are taking part in an artificial debate. Similarly, when parties make reference to maintaining Scotland’s financial position or delivering the Smith Commission agenda on further devolution they are trying to take credit for something agreed by all the main parties. The SNP is no exception. However, there is some scope for more devolution, driven by SNP pressure and Labour’s desire to look like it delivered ‘home rule’ – particularly in areas, such as social security, where the main obstacle for additional reforms seemed to come from ministers, such as Iain Duncan Smith, that would no longer be in post.
  2. A little push in the right direction. You would expect most SNP success to come from pushing Labour to do things it already wants to do. For example, both want to maintain a ‘triple lock’ on the state pension and abolish the ‘bedroom tax’, there is little ground between the SNP’s call for a minimum wage of £8.70 by 2020 and Labour’s ‘more than £8’ by 2019, and they both make similar noises about abolishing an unelected House of Lords and increasing the representation of women in public life (while the SNP specifically says ‘We will push for 50:50 representation on public and private boards’). Both parties want to find the right form of words to claim that they are cutting the budget deficit without cutting important public services, while investing for the future and avoiding austerity. So, it could be in their common interest to come to a vague agreement on a plan to boost the economy and jobs.

Most remarkably, the SNP has published (on page 5) a list of Labour policies that it is happy to vote for: ‘the reintroduction of the 50 pence top tax rate, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance, the abolition of ‘non-dom’ status and reversal of the married couple’s tax allowance’. In other areas, the wording of each party commitment leaves the door open for agreement, including: the SNP’s opposition to a child benefit cut and Labour’s proposal for a temporary cap; and, the SNP’s opposition to an EU referendum and Labour not planning to hold one.

  1. Likely Scottish influence on English policies (or reference to devolved areas). In some cases, party agreement extends to policies that refer primarily to England but with some knock-on effect for devolved budgets. For example, both want to boost NHS spending and limit NHS ‘privatisation’ (Labour to fund English hospitals and the SNP to get the ‘Barnett consequentials’) and reduce tuition fees in England (which would boost Scottish Government funding if the shortfall comes directly from UK Government spending).

In other cases, things get confusing because the SNP: effectively supports Labour’s commitment to 25 free hours of pre-school childcare in England while reminding people about its existing commitment to 30 hours in Scotland; wants to boost Labour’s UK house building target (from 40000 to 100000 per year) while maintaining a more limited aim in Scotland; and, will ‘continue to support a moratorium on fracking’ (there is one in Scotland, not England).

  1. Less influence, more red lines? The biggest bone of contention in the manifestos is Trident: the SNP wants to abolish it (the Conservatives want to renew it) and Labour wants to talk about it as little as possible (its manifesto describes a ‘minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability’ but not renewal). Much depends on how the renewal policy is pursued: if primarily through the budget, it will be tricky to secure SNP support for the overall budget; if via legislation, Labour could rely on Conservative support. Much also depends on Labour’s ability to put the issue off, to reflect the fact that many of its MPs would rather not renew.

Other issues may also need to play out before we know what will happen: the SNP has called for a return to an entitlement for non-EU students to work in the UK temporarily after graduation (Labour’s emphasis is more on curbing bogus student visas); and, there is a common desire to tackle the big energy companies, but with a separate SNP aim to challenge the UK rules on transmission charging.

Finally, I don’t think full fiscal ‘autonomy’ or ‘responsibility’ is the red line that Labour makes it out to be. Before the SNP published its manifesto, the debate resembled two childish tactics playing out simultaneously: the SNP relying on the ‘but you said’ argument, to criticise the main UK parties for not delivering devo max (which they did not promise); and, the other parties daring the SNP to keep asking for the fiscal autonomy it was not being offered (Scottish Labour in particular sees it as the thorn in the SNP’s side).

Now, the SNP is talking about fiscal autonomy in the long term, highlighting how long it has taken to deliver far less ambitious further-devolution plans so far (the Calman review process began in 2007, to produce a Scotland Act in 2012), and pretty much saying that it is prepared to see it delivered over more than one parliamentary term. As such, it has removed the most important red line.

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The SNP general election manifesto (part 1): don’t forget how quickly it all got weird

If you read the SNP’s manifesto, don’t just conclude that it looks as dull as the rest: remember how quickly British politics got weird in the run up to its publication. Context is everything, and there are three pieces of remarkable context to consider.

First, it has been a long time since the SNP had to worry this much about a UK general election manifesto. In Scotland, Labour has dominated the number of seats for decades, and the last and only time that the SNP reached double figures was in October 1974. Even after the SNP became the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, it secured only 6 (20%) MPs in 2010. Now, suddenly, we are expecting the SNP to follow up its landslide Scottish Parliament victory in 2011 with a large majority of Scottish seats in 2015 – and the leaders of the UK parties (not just their Scottish leaders) have to respond in a meaningful way.

Second, this will happen even though the SNP lost the referendum on Scottish independence and is not pushing for a second. For the casual observer, equating the SNP with little more than a single aim, it will be difficult to work out why the SNP’s membership surged after the referendum and why it has not reinforced the SNP’s determination to try again quickly.

Third, it is possible that the SNP will form some kind of non-trivial relationship with a UK Labour party of government. For observers of Scottish politics, this is almost like a Labour-Conservative agreement in the UK. Even though Scottish devolution in 1999 came with the promise of new, less partisan, politics, the SNP-Labour relationship has generally been adversarial.

One reason why this outcome doesn’t seem quite so weird is that the SNP has proved to be a professional party which has thought about its short term message and long term strategy. Its aim is independence in the long term, but it won’t push for a referendum unless it knows it can win. Nor will it push for further devolution at all costs. Rather, it is looking for way to balance its long term aims with a way to make its policies relevant to every possible election. In 2015, this means occupying ground to the left of UK Labour while doing what most parties have done in Scottish politics for decades: opposing ‘the Tories’.

See also: The SNP general election manifesto (part 2): What can the SNP hope to negotiate?

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The party manifestos are an anti-climax and the biggest is yet to come

The policy and spending commitments of the major parties seem much more dramatic when described by their competitors. Now that most of the manifestos are out, it seems like such an anti-climax, since the parties themselves have covered so many of their commitments in fudge. As a whole, it is not clear what any of the major parties would really do differently if they formed part of a government.

In the UK debates, when described by their competitors, the commitments of each party seemed refreshingly clear and starkly different: the Conservatives would massively reduce welfare and continue to punish the poorest in society, Labour would trash the budget, and the Liberal Democrats would do whatever was in the middle of those two positions. Now, I’m not so sure. The Conservatives and Labour don’t seem too far apart on welfare cuts: both signal a cap on the maximum people can claim, place a limit on the time that young people can remain out of work and on benefits, and signal new rules to limit the benefits claimed by immigrants. Both are committed to the minimum wage, argue that the lowest paid should pay less tax, and both promise to address the worst excesses of zero-hours contracts while leaving plenty of wiggle room in the implementation (since any effective new regulation is easier said than done).

Both parties also promise to reduce the budget deficit each year while maintaining the living standards of the working and middle classes and asking those with the ‘broadest shoulders’ to pay a little more (without checking the manifestos, can you tell which party describes its plan in that way?). The Conservatives have also gone a bit Labour by promising major funding increases in areas like health without exactly saying where the money would come from (and their promise would work well with the Liberal Democrat commitment to better fund mental health).

The biggest anti-climax is yet to come with the launch of the SNP’s manifesto. So far, we know two things that we pretty much knew already. First, the UK parties will maintain a commitment to key spending areas in England, such as health and education, which will produce budget ‘consequentials’ for Scotland. Second, they aim to keep their ‘vow’ to implement the recommendations of the Smith Commission to give ‘extensive new powers’ to Scotland, including some taxation powers, while maintaining the Barnett formula (again, can you tell which party used which phrase?). Only Labour hints at going a little bit further to deliver ‘home rule’. We also now know that all three parties want to address the ‘English question’, albeit with the Conservatives using the strongest language (referring specifically to Scottish MPs).

What we don’t know is how the SNP will frame the issue of ‘full fiscal autonomy’ (FFA), but you can expect it to make less of a commitment than Scottish Labour suggests (as I write, Scottish Labour’s web page is dominated by 5 blog posts on the dangers of FFA). To all intents and purposes, this is a policy that no party wants – the UK parties oppose it fundamentally, and the SNP really wants fiscal autonomy via independence – and won’t happen. The fact that we are talking about it so much reflects the current nature of our debate: the commitments of the major parties are much more dramatic when described by their competitors

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We are recruiting a lecturer in international politics at the University of Stirling – emphasis on human rights and gender

The details are here

I am the pre-interview contact point and these are my personal thoughts on that process, which blend background information and some helpful advice.

The lectureship is in International Politics, with a particular emphasis on human rights and gender. We see it as a way to connect the research of Politics staff with colleagues in human rights law and the Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies. The appointee would be asked to deliver undergraduate modules in International Politics (including the 1st year course Political Concepts and Ideas), and to develop Masters level modules for our MSc in International Conflict & Cooperation (as well as, perhaps, my MPP).

Our department currently has 7.3 permanent lecturers, and most of us are fairly new, so you will have the chance to play an important part of a group which is small enough to act collectively – to, for example, influence its research direction (as a group, we hold 6-8 90 minute research workshops per year).

6.3 of those lecturers are men and I would be happy if the best candidate proved to be a woman. However, I have not set up the advert to make this inevitable. Rather, we are doing our best to make sure that the current set up does not put off women from applying. By this, I mean that the profession is still dominated by men, and the supply of candidates will likely reflect that imbalance – particularly since there is a very good chance that we will appoint at ‘grade 8’ (an established lecturer post) rather 7 (straight from a PhD or post-doc post). There are also parts of the profession with more men than the average (perhaps including international politics), which has already led, in my short experience, to at least one all-male short-list. So I have worded the ‘further particulars’ to make sure that people know we won’t be simply reinforcing that imbalance; that we have realistic hopes of producing a gender-balanced short list. I hope that, although there is less emphasis in the formal advert, its welcoming tone will have the same effect on applications from people of colour or ethnic minorities. We are not interested in simply reinforcing the imbalances that are already there.

Here is some generic advice, to give you the chance to focus on specific follow-up questions:

  • At this stage, the main documents are the CV and the cover letter.
  • I think you should keep the cover letter short (1 or 2 pages), if only to show an ability for concise writing. Also remember that we are likely to read over 100 applications.
  • Shortlisted candidates will almost certainly have a PhD and a promising publication record. ‘Promising’ is hard to define at this early stage of your career, but things like publication in recognisable journals (perhaps with a mix between single and co-authored) may stand out.
  • My preference is to focus on what people have already done, rather than what they promise to do over the next five years. I find those plans more realistic if there is already some sort of track record.
  • Although research has a tendency to dominate University life, we take teaching very seriously. We plan an overall curriculum together, discuss regularly if it is working, and come to agreements about how to teach and assess work. We pride ourselves on being a small and friendly bunch of people, open to regular student contact and, for example, committed to meaningful and regular feedback. You might think about how you would contribute in that context. In particular, you should think about how you would deliver Political Concepts and Ideas. This does not have to be your specialism, since we might expect all staff to be able to teach most courses the ‘sub-honours’ level (make sure you know what ‘sub-honours’ means!), and you might want to start off by keeping the course ticking over until you learn how it works, but you should still be able to show that you can do what is required of you (it would also be legitimate for you to say that you’d like to balance some ‘traditional’ discussions of power and ideology with, for example, modern discussions of theories on feminism, race and/or sexuality). Then, you should think about which UG and PG specialist options (closest to your research) you would offer.
  • The presentation to divisional staff (likely the morning) and interview (afternoon) will be on the same date – May 18th. I’m almost certain that if you can’t make the date, you can’t get the job.
  • Again, I recommend keeping the presentation compact, to show that you can present complex information in a concise and clear way. Presentations are usually a mix of what you do in research and what you will contribute in a wider sense to the University.
  • The interview panel will likely be five people: me, the Head of School of Arts and Humanities, a senior manager of the University (in the chair), a senior academic in another Division, and a senior academic in another School (again, have a look and see what these terms mean at Stirling). It sounds daunting, but we are a friendly bunch and want you to do well. You might struggle to retain all of our names (nerves), so focus on the types of question we ask – for example, the general question to get you started will be from the senior manager, and the research question from someone like me. There will be 3 men (the senior manager, the Head of School, and me) and 2 women (one academic from our school, but not in politics, and one Professor from a completely different school) on the panel.
  • ‘Why Stirling?’ or ‘Why this division?’ is usually the first question in an interview, so you should have a think about it in advance. I recommend doing some research on Stirling and the division/ school, to show in some detail that you have a considered reply (beyond ‘it is a beautiful campus’). We will see through a generic response in a heartbeat and, since it is the first question, will give you the stink eye for the rest of the interview. You might check, for example, who you might share interests with in the Division, and how you might  develop links beyond the division (in particular, the new Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies in our school) or school (such as the School of Applied Social Science) – since this is likely to be a featured question too. Then you might think about what you would bring to the University in a wider sense, such as through well-established (domestic and international) links with other scholars in academic networks. Further, since ‘impact’ is of rising importance, you might discuss your links with people and organisations outside of the University, and how you have pursued meaningful engagement with the public or practitioners to maximise the wider contribution of your research.

I am happy to answer your questions. We can try email first – – and then phone or skype if you prefer. If appropriate, I can also use those questions to update this page.

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Good democratic arguments are hidden in phrases that look like Scottish bigotry – so do it right or not at all

“Journalists ‘abused over nationality’ at SNP rally”

Some people are bigots or racists. Some people are advocates of new forms of democracy. Somewhere in between are people who use phrases that they think refer to democracy but just come across as bitter, bigoted or racist.

This is a roundabout way to describe people who complain that too much of Scottish politics is dominated by non-Scots or by London. Nationality is a red-herring and anyone who suggests that non-Scots are inferior to Scots is a fool. A lazy reference to the ‘London elite’ is also a problem, since it is too close to arguments (perhaps more pronounced in the US) which use such phrases as euphemisms for Jewish.

Yet, for some people, struggling to get out of these phrases are two worthwhile arguments.

First, people may be trying to argue that reporters, mainly based in London, don’t spend enough time paying attention to Scottish politics to know what is going on. They see Scottish politics through a particular lens, built on examining the ‘high politics’ of the UK’s capital city and political centre. Only more local journalists, who have done their time in Scotland, will understand its nuances. This is not just a Scottish/ English point: you will find many of the same arguments about regions in England not covered well by politicians and journalists who make whistle stop tours without getting a sense of the place they are in.

Second, people may be trying to argue that ‘London’ politicians do not represent them because they exist in a ‘Westminster bubble’. Again, a lot of this argument resonates across the UK, summed up in broad ‘political class’ arguments that politicians are corrupt, in politics for themselves, and have no experience of the real world. In Scotland, you might build on that argument by talking about the need for political reform when you pursue constitutional change.

The problem is, unless you make this argument carefully and get it right, without just saying ‘you’re not Scottish’ or ‘fuck off London’, people won’t be able to tell if you are a righteous democratic reformer or a shameful bigot.  It’s best to do it right or not at all.

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The SNP won’t hold #indyref2 until it knows it can win

The SNP won’t hold a second independence referendum until it knows it can win. That is an obvious statement, but it seems to have been missed by the SNP’s opponents. They should be pushing Sturgeon to admit that, for the first time in its history, it could go into two successive elections without prioritising independence or pushing for a referendum. Instead, they are looking for a way to say that the SNP will jump at the first opportunity. What nonsense.

Sturgeon’s line is that it would take a material change for the SNP to push for a referendum in the near future. One change is obvious: if there is a referendum on the EU, and the UK votes to leave but Scotland votes to stay, it will prompt a constitutional crisis and a likely second Scottish vote.

The other is not obvious: if there is a surge in support for the SNP or for a Yes vote in the opinion polls. The surge in SNP membership, to over 100000, is significant for them but not the vote: it was likely caused by disaffected Yes voters able to join easily (online, for a small fee) and does not signal a shift in public mood. A rise in opinion poll support will be viewed by the SNP as positive but not a clincher, since the ultimate opinion poll took place 6 months ago, producing a decisive ‘No’. One or two post-indy polls are not enough to suggest that the result would change next time.

Instead, the SNP has to continue to do what it is remarkably good at: biding its time and remaining popular until a longer term opportunity arises. For me, the magic figure is at least 10 years between referendums, for several reasons: to ward off the idea of a ‘neverendum’; to give people time to become enthused again about a lengthy debate; to find out what people think of the final Scottish devolution ‘settlement’, which won’t bed in for a few years; and, to put it rather euphemistically, to produce a new cohort of voters (to address the fact that older people were far more likely to vote No).

In the meantime, the SNP will try to do two things. First, it needs to demonstrate its relevance on the UK stage, to show for example that it can influence UK decisions regularly, and that only a vote for the SNP will ensure UK Government concessions on further devolution in key areas such as social security (although ‘fiscal autonomy’ and ‘devo max’ is a non-starter). Second, it needs to keep winning Scottish Parliament elections on the back of its strong image of governing competence. Don’t forget that its image, rather than a surge of support for independence, explains its landslide victory in 2011.

The same goes for 2015 and beyond. The SNP won’t win enough votes if it looks like the independence party and nothing more, and it has dealt with that problem well. Its long term referendum chances hinge on it remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the UK.

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Sturgeon’s Ferrero Rocher moment: dodgy allegations followed by dodgier analysis

The Telegraph ran a story alleging that Nicola Sturgeon would prefer a Conservative government. It is based on the allegation that she made this confession to a French diplomat, unaware that it would get back to UK Government civil servants and/ or leaked to the press. Since then, Sturgeon has denied saying it and representatives of the French embassy have denied ever hearing it. Yet, the story rumbles on in the usual ‘she would say that, wouldn’t she?’ style.

The story is dodgy, and seems to have been knocked up in a hurry without following the usual journalistic rules (such as calling up the people involved to see if the story is true). Yet, even dodgier is the subsequent analysis of what is going on. I’m not talking so much about the Clouseau-esque discussion of who had the greatest motive to plant, and benefit from, the story. I’m talking more about the conclusion by many that, even if the story is completely false, it has merit because Sturgeon does indeed want a Conservative government.

The problem with the latter is that, for me, it is simplistic and out of date. People are talking as if the referendum didn’t just happen. The flawed logic is this: the SNP wants another referendum; if the Tories are elected, the SNP will either get one soon as part of a minority government deal (unlikely), or people in Scotland will get so pissed off at Tory government that they’ll want to vote Yes next time (and soon).

The problem with this argument is that many people were already pissed off with Tory government but  55% still voted No. It seems unlikely to me that enough people will change their beliefs so fundamentally in such a short space of time.

It also seems unlikely that the SNP leadership, which has shown such competence for such a long time, would seek a referendum so quickly unless it thought it would win this time (also unlikely). Another loss, so quickly, would hurt the SNP far more than the first, and would push the issue into the long grass, potentially for decades.

Instead, the SNP will want to maintain its electoral strength until a longer term opportunity arises. For me, that suggests at least a 10-year, not a 5-year, plan. In Scotland, it involves maintaining majority government in the Scottish Parliament and demonstrating the high level of governing competence that got it a majority in the first place. In the UK, it involves ‘standing up for Scotland’, and showing the immediate pay-off from electing SNP MPs. For me, that payoff is just as likely (if not more) to come from being Labour’s conscience, and securing high profile concessions, than spending another 5 years declaring that the Tories are ruining the country.


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