Category Archives: Scottish independence

Scottish Politics in Brexit Britain: is independence inevitable?

CAirney Scottish Politics Brexit Dundee CAfe 2017

This is an updated and shortened version of previous posts, designed for my talk at the Dundee Arts Café tonight. I’d like to thank First Minster Nicola Sturgeon for making me look like the best scheduler of a talk ever:

We don’t know much about the second referendum on Scottish independence, but we can be guided by three basic insights:

  1. Most people make up their mind fairly quickly and may not be swayed too much by the campaign, but there are enough undecided voters to tip the result

2. The campaign will come down to who can tell the best story (to stir the emotions, perhaps with a convincing hero and moral) rather than simply command the facts.

3. Brexit has changed the independence story dramatically, but it could support either Yes/ No campaign.

The rest is mostly gut-driven speculation: I think Yes will win, partly because it has a new way to present its case, and a better campaigner to do so, while (as ridiculous as this sounds) No may look like it is banging on about the same old arguments, and it’s less clear who will do it.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour or SNP in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps challenge the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it), or perhaps feel let down by the claim that a No vote in 2014 was to stay in the UK and EU.

Historically, the main response to 1 & 2 came from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism.

This strategy was generally received badly among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, rather, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was misleading, witnessed a reduction in the value of the pound, and seen some hard talking from likely EU negotiators that might be emulated in Scotland-UK discussions (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (see for example the sterling issue).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland:

One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. Ideally, it would wait long enough to argue that (a) Brexit is starting to ‘bite’, (b) the UK Government is stiffing Scotland in its negotiations of future devolved powers, but not so long that (c) it disrupts the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time may not arrive, and the date is not in the SNP’s gift.

On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Who will have the best story?

If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. I still think that the result itself will come down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero (Nicola Sturgeon)/villain (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Theresa May?) story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin. Who will become the face of No (I reckon it will be Davidson), and how can they repackage the same arguments (who knows)?

 

 

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Racism and Stories in Scottish Politics

Brexit boosts the case for Scottish independence because it can now be framed more easily as the cosmopolitan choice: vote Yes to get away from a ‘little England’ mentality. This possibility was perhaps in Labour’s mind when it described Scottish nationalism as anything but cosmopolitan. For example, Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism, while former Labour minister Douglas Alexander left less room for doubt.

These claims prompted a small number of commentary pieces supporting or rejecting the idea that Scottish nationalism fosters racism, bigotry, and/ or social division:

  • Claire Heuchan welcomed Khan’s intervention cautiously, highlighting a tendency of Scottish actors to assert their superiority over their English counterparts, and using the opportunity to expand the debate, to highlight important issues that we often ignore, from personal stories of racist abuse and examples of more limited education and employment opportunities for people of colour, to the role of Scotland in the British empire’s colonial past built on slavery and exploitation.
  • In contrast, Robert Somynne identified a civic Scottish nationalism far apart from a ‘western trend towards populism based on tribal and ethnic divisions’, arguing that Khan’s description ‘doesn’t bear out the experience of so many people of colour in Scotland who campaigned in the grassroots’.
  • Kevin McKenna ridiculed Khan’s argument, rejecting the idea of nationalism underpinned by anti-Englishness, identifying a more divisive UK politics of which Labour is a key part, and dismissing Khan and others as part of ‘the leftwing intelligentsia’. John McKee argued that current Scottish nationalism is more about rejecting the British state than British people, while Eric Joyce links it more to rejecting more worrying forms of nationalism pursued by parties like UKIP.

The debate rages on in twitter, but the discussion has not been driven primarily by a willingness to listen, engage constructively, or talk about issues that challenge our beliefs. I don’t suppose you need me to explain why, but it’s worth highlighting three analytically-separate explanations that will likely be present throughout all debates like this:

  1. The devil shift undermines debate

People form coalitions with the people who share their beliefs, and they compete with people who don’t. The ‘devil shift’ describes a form of ‘groupthink’; a tendency of actors in those coalitions to romanticise their own cause and demonise the cause of their opponents: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’ (Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin). They question the motives of their opponents but not their allies, subject only their opponent’s arguments to criticism, and think their opponents are more powerful than they are.

If all debates are interpreted through this lens of Scottish independence, you can predict the results: Yes groups will see Khan’s intervention as threatening to their beliefs and aims, No groups will embrace it because it supports their beliefs and aims, and there is little scope for conflict resolution. Indeed, during such debates, we’ll put up with some sketchy characters if they support our cause while denouncing their equivalents in the other coalition.

This dynamic will be apparent each time we interpret each issue. For example, imagine a semi-honest and open discussion about Scotland and the colonial empire. One side might combine two points – Scotland ‘punches above its weight’ in every endeavour, and Scotland was part of the empire – to argue that Scotland played a disproportionate role in colonialism and slavery. The other will remind us of the unequal and coerced alliance of 1707 and/ or blame an unelected elite in Scotland for the Union and empire, to argue that Scottish independence is the best way to reject the colonial past. The same history has a very different villain and moral.

  1. There are two colliding roles of storytelling

We can identify two main roles of personal storytelling: (1) to empower an individual, when they share their experiences of life and feel listened to, and (2) to take forward a political agenda, when they identify a hero/ villain and moral that suits one coalition’s beliefs and aims.

In our case, it is difficult to separate the two, and most people are not willing or able to do so. This may be understandable with Khan’s recent intervention since, although he generally has an important story to tell from his perspective, this specific speech seemed designed to bolster the position of Scottish Labour at its party conference. Heuchan’s experience is more worrying, her motives seemed far less instrumental and her personal story was worth listening to, but almost no-one has simply said ‘thank you for your story’ without adding conditions or objections. There are very few spaces in which people will listen rather than judge.

  1. Some topics are unusually personal

In part, this is because few people like to think that they are racist or bigoted. Some won’t think about the ways in which they benefit from the systematic effects of racism – in which some groups benefit disproportionately from education/ employment opportunities and face a smaller risk of personal abuse – partly because they don’t have to, and it’s generally not an enjoyable experience. Others will flinch at the idea that they are privileged because they are white, often because they have vivid memories of personal experiences of abuse or disadvantage linked to another part of their background, such as their gender, class, religion, or disability.

So, we often want to tell our stories without listing to those of others. If there is no such space in which to exchange the details of such stories, we soon end up with heated, futile debates based on the sense that you don’t understand my experience or perspective before you criticise it. We can’t solve this problem, but we should at least be aware of it, and perhaps be aware that, although the Scottish debate has some unusual features, it is one of many examples of routine divisive politics.

 

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There may never be a good time to call #indyref2, but …

This is a blog post for one of the two talks I offered to give, first at Warwick then Dundee.

I’ll start off with the same admission of hubris each time: these talks take a while to arrange, I suggested the topic in the late summer, and I assumed I’d know something about the effect of Brexit on the future of Scottish politics by now. Instead, I don’t know much more than the stuff I described in June (‘Brexit and the inevitability of Scottish Independence’). So, I’ll focus on what we know now, and speculate wildly (hand gestures at 100%) about what might happen. My gut still tells me that there will be an indyref2 and that Yes will win, but my gut is pretty crap.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour (and now SNP) in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps reframe the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it).

Traditionally, the main response to 1 & 2 has come from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism. Although Khan is reported to have backtracked a bit, former Labour minister Douglas Alexander doubled down:

This strategy has gone down like a fart in a lift among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was mince, a reduction in the value of the pound, and some hard talking from likely EU negotiators (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (the £ issue is bad for the consumer but good for the exporter).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland. One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Can there be a ‘rational’ calculation of when/if to call indyref2?

If we focus on the idea of a rational calculating Nicola Sturgeon, developing a formula to determine the right time to hold indyref2, the timing would involve: (a) waiting long enough for Brexit to ‘bite’ and prompt voters to feel its effects and shift to Yes, and (b) waiting for the UK Government to stiff Scotland in its negotiations of future Scottish devolved powers, but (c) not waiting too long to disrupt the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time has not arrived and, as John Curtice suggests, may not arrive.

Or, will it come down to passion and emotion?

Yet, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. So, why should leaders of the SNP be exempt from a bout of passion, especially if loads of their supporters are keen, see it as a last opportunity for decades, and hope that they can change some minds during the next campaign? The fact that I argue the very opposite in another post is neither here nor there!

I still think that the result itself will comes down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero/villain story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin.

See also: a gazillion posts on the last Scottish referendum (scroll)

 

 

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#indyref2

A version of this post appears in The Conversation.

Nicola Sturgeon has announced a consultation on a new Bill on Scottish Independence. Clearly, it made the audience at the SNP’s conference very happy, but what should the rest of us make of it? My gut tells me there will be a second referendum but wouldn’t yet bet my house on it, because that decision is wrapped up in three unresolved issues.

First, there won’t be a referendum unless the SNP thinks it will win, but the polls won’t tell us the answer before Sturgeon has to ask the question! It sounds simple to hold back a referendum until enough people tell you they’ll vote Yes. The complication is that many people don’t know what their choice will be until they can make sense of recent events. ‘Brexit’ might be a ‘game changer’ in a year or two, but it isn’t right now, and Sturgeon might have to choose to pursue a referendum before those polls change in her favour.

Second, the polls don’t tell us much because it is too soon to know what Brexit will look like. The idea of Brexit is still too abstract and not yet related to the arguments that might win the day for a Yes vote.

In each case, I don’t think we can expect to see the full effect of such arguments because (a) they don’t yet form part of a coherent argument linked directly to Brexit, because (b) we still don’t yet know what Brexit looks like. If you don’t really know what something is, how it relates to your life, and who you should blame for that outcome, how can you express a view on its effect on your political preferences?

Third, it is therefore too soon to know how different the second Scottish independence referendum would be. The SNP would like it to relate to the constitutional crisis caused by Brexit, basing its case on a combination of simple statements: England is pulling Scotland out of the EU against our will; the Tories caused this problem; we want to clear up the mess that they caused; it’s a bit rich for the Tories to warn us about the disastrous economic consequences of Scottish independence after the havoc they just caused; and, we want to be a cosmopolitan Scotland, not little England.

Instead, what if people see the Leave vote as a cautionary tale? It is not easy to argue that our response to the catastrophic effect of a withdrawal from a major political, economic, and social union should be to withdraw from another major political, economic, and social union! This is particularly true now that Brexit has opened up the possibility of more devolution (a possibility that had been closed off before now). A feasible alternative is to push for more autonomy in the areas that are devolved and ‘Europeanised’ – including agriculture, fishing, and environmental policies – as a way to have the UK deal with the Scottish Government as ‘as equals on a range of areas’.

So, I’d describe Sturgeon’s announcement as a short term win: why not give your most active audience something to cheer about while you wait for events to unfold? Predicting the timing of a referendum is more difficult because it relates more to a concept than a date: it will be the point at which (a) we know enough about the meaning of Brexit to judge its likely impact, and (b) we have to decide before it feels too late (in other words, in time to respond to the timetable of the UK’s exit from the EU).

Some people are worrying that the UK Government might scupper the SNP’s chances directly, by withholding consent for a second referendum. Maybe it would be better to be tricksy indirectly, by remaining vague about the impact of Brexit and having people in Scotland worry about making a choice before they know its effect.

 

 

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‘Hard Brexit’ is not yet a game changer for Scottish Independence

The Herald reports that ‘Hard Brexit is not a game changer for SNP’. Based on its latest BMG poll, it describes an even split between those who want/ don’t want a second referendum on Scottish independence, and between those who want an early or late referendum.

These results don’t seem too surprising because the idea of Brexit is still too abstract and not yet related to the arguments that might win the day for a Yes vote. I think the basic story would relate to a combination of simple statements such as:

  • England is pulling Scotland out of the EU against our will
  • The Tories caused this problem
  • We want to clear up the mess that they caused
  • It’s a bit rich for the Tories to warn us about the disastrous economic consequences of Scottish independence after the havoc they just caused
  • We want to be a cosmopolitan Scotland, not little England

In each case, I don’t think we can expect to see the widespread effect of such arguments because (a) they don’t yet form part of a coherent argument linked directly to Brexit, because (b) we still don’t yet know what Brexit looks like.

If you don’t really know what something is, how it relates to your life, and who you should blame for that outcome, how can you express a view on its effect on your political preferences?

image for POLU9SP

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Spiders

If you don’t hear from me again, it’s because spiders have begun their global takeover in some bushes near my house.

 

It’s like this picture but loads of times.

spider-web

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The Scottish Parliament would be crap in an independent Scotland and almost no-one cares

Here is a four-step plan to avoid having to talk about how powerless the Scottish Parliament tends to be, in comparison to the old idea of ‘power sharing’ with the Scottish Government:

  1. Find something the SNP Government is doing and point out how wrong it is.
  2. Have the opposition parties pile in, taking their chance to bemoan the SNP’s power hoarding.
  3. Have the SNP point out that Labour used to do this sort of thing, so it’s hypocritical to complain now.
  4. Convince the public that it’s OK as long as all of the parties would have done it, or if they have been doing it for a long time.

This pretty much sums up the reaction to the SNP’s use of Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLOs) on Scottish parliamentary committees: the MSP works closely with a minister and sits on the committee that is supposed to hold the minister to account. The practice ensures that there is no meaningful dividing line between government and parliament, and reinforces the sense that the parliament is not there to provide effective scrutiny and robust challenge to the government. Instead, plenary is there for the pantomime discussion and committees are there to have run-of-the-mill humdrum scrutiny with minimal effect on ministers.

The use of PLOs on parliamentary committees has become yet another example in which the political parties – or, at least, any party with a chance of being in government – put themselves first before the principles of the Scottish Parliament (set out in the run up to devolution). Since devolution, the party of government has gone further than you might expect to establish its influence on parliament: controlling who convenes (its share of) committees and which of its MSPs sit on committees, and moving them around if they get too good at holding ministers to account or asking too-difficult questions. An MSP on the side of government might get a name for themselves if they ask a follow-up question to a minister in a committee instead of nodding appreciatively – and you don’t want that sort of thing to develop. Better to keep it safe and ask your MSPs not to rock the boat, or move them on if they cause a ripple.

So, maybe the early founders of devolution wanted MSPs to sit on the same committees for long periods, to help them develop expertise, build up a good relationship with MSPs from other parties, and therefore work effectively to hold the government to account. Yet, no Scottish government has been willing to let go, to allow that independent role to develop. Instead, they make sure that they have at least one key MSP on each committee to help them agree the party line that all their MSPs are expected to follow. So, this development, of parliamentary aides to ministers corresponding almost exactly with committee membership, might look new, but it is really an extension of longstanding practices to curb the independent power of parliaments and their committees – and the party in government has generally resisted any reforms (including those proposed by the former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick) to challenge its position.

Maybe the only surprise is that ‘new politics’ seems worse than old Westminster. In Westminster committees, some MPs can make a career as a chair, and their independence from government is far clearer – something that it is keen to reinforce with initiatives such as MPs electing chairs in secret ballots. In comparison, the Scottish Parliament seems like a far poorer relation to its Scottish Government counterpart – partly because of complacency and a lack of continuous reform.

Almost no-one cares about this sort of thing

What is not surprising is the general reaction to the Herald piece on the 15th August – and the follow up on the 16th – which pointed out that the SNP was going further than the use of PLOs it criticised while in opposition.

So, future Scottish Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop – quite rightly – criticised this practice in 2002, arguing that it went against the government’s Scottish Ministerial Code. Note the Labour-led government’s ridiculous defense, which it got away with because (a) almost no-one cares, and (b) the governing parties dominate the parliament.

hyslop 2

Then, in 2007, the SNP government’s solution was to remove the offending section from that Code. Problem solved!

MPAs to PLOs 2003 and 2007

Now, its defence is that Labour used to do it and the SNP has been doing it for 9 years, so why complain now? It can get away with it because almost no-one cares. Of those who might care, most only care if it embarrasses one of the parties at the expense of another. When it looks like they might all be at it, it’s OK. Almost no-one pays attention to the principle that the Scottish Parliament should have a strong role independent of government, and that this role should not be subject to the whims of self-interested political parties.

So, I feel the need to provide a reason for SNP and independence supporters to care more about this, and here goes:

  1. Most people voted No in the 1st referendum on Scottish independence.
  2. There might be a 2nd referendum but it would be silly to expect a Yes vote this time without new and better arguments built more on actual plans rather than the generation of positivity and hope. For a political project to work, you really need to tell people what you will do if you win.
  3. One of those arguments needs to be about political reform. The ‘architects of devolution’ recognised this need to offer political alongside constitutional reform, producing the sense of ‘new politics’ that we now use to show that Scottish politics fell quite short of expectations. The mistake was to assume that they had cracked it in 1999 and never needed to reform again. Instead, institutions need to be changing continuously in light of experience. So, the previous SNP White Paper (p355) was rubbish on this issue because it pretty much said that it would keep things as they were because they were working OK.

p355 Scotland's Future

It is complacent nonsense, treating the Scottish political system as an afterthought, and it might just come back to bite the SNP in the bum. The implicit argument that The Scottish Parliament would be just as crap in an independent Scotland as it is now, and almost no-one cares is poor. Or, to put it in terms of the standard of partisan debate on twitter: shitey whataboutery might make you feel good on twitter, but it won’t win you any votes in the next referendum.

 

See also: Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s Patrick Harvie highlights close links between ministerial aides and parliamentary committees

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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable (version 2)?

This is an updated blog post. The original post provided notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the  Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions. I had written it before the vote in the UK to leave the EU, which provided the only realistic chance of a second referendum on Scottish independence. So, the background sections remain the same, but I update the contemporary section with reference to Brexit and its consequences.

The advertised abstract read:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

My aim is to:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.
  • Provide a brief update on the impact of the EU referendum, bearing in mind that I am no less hopeless than anyone else about predicting the future.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

Before the Brexit vote, I tried to sell the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums (2014 and 2024): a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. In the meantime, the SNP and Greens would produce some vague triggers (like a surge in opinion poll support).

Now, if a second referendum is to happen, it is because of the constitutional crisis prompted by Brexit. Overall, most UK voters chose to leave the European Union, but most voters in Scotland chose to remain. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on that basis, with reference to a ‘democratic outrage’. It possesses the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and needs some cooperation from a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change. It is difficult to see why the Conservative government would oppose a referendum under those circumstances (rather than allow it to take place and argue for the Union) even though UK government ministers have rejected the idea so far.

If a second referendum happens, it could happen before 2020. I am hesitant to say when exactly, partly because there is so much uncertainty, which too many people try to fill with needless speculation. For example, Sturgeon confirmed that it could happen as early as 2017, but only because the BBC asked her what she would do if the UK government behaved unreasonably.  In the same interview, Sturgeon also suggested that it may take a long time for the UK to invoke ‘Article 50’, which triggers a notional two-year negotiation period before the UK leaves the EU.

Before we know if a second referendum is likely, and the likely date, we need clarity on two things: (1) the extent to which the UK can (and is willing to) negotiate a deal with the EU which satisfies the SNP and Scottish voters (by becoming Brexit-lite or providing Scotland-specific provisions on key issues like free movement of people); and, (2) the timing of Brexit, since a Scottish referendum would hopefully not take place until we know what we are voting for (which might not happen until near the end of the notional two-year negotiations). Still, it is likely that the vote would be binary, as some version of: stay in the UK out of the EU, or leave the UK and stay in the EU.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

Recent events reinforce the sense that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, until recently, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, before Brexit, we had two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

Now, things are a bit more complicated, since devolution is no longer simply about Scotland’s position in the UK. Scenario two now has to be accompanied by the sense (however true) that the Scottish Government is able to negotiate a distinctive relationship with the EU while remaining in the UK.

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy (although Brexit will remove a level from many of those relationships!)
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

In the original version of this post, I signed off by speculating: ‘maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement that that we are not just killing time until the next referendum’. It already seems like an out of date hope: the constitution is back at the top of our agenda, and I can’t remember the last time I read a story about domestic policy in Scotland.

 

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Brexit and the inevitability of Scottish Independence

image for POLU9SP

My gut says that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence and that Yes will win comfortably. Yet, predicting political events and outcomes right now is like predicting the weather. The result is not inevitable, largely because the key factors prompting people to vote No have not gone away – and, in some ways, the No case is now stronger. I’ll explain this by (a) comparing the likely Yes and No stories during the next campaign, and (b) speculating wildly about the extent to which key parties will campaign as hard for No in the second referendum.

Brexit is a Godsend for the strongest Yes stories: 1. only independence can remove the democratic deficit and guarantee that we make our own decisions.

It sounds like the Brexit ‘take our country back’ story, in which a remote government in a remote city makes decisions on our behalf without us having any say (it’s ‘London’ for Scotland, whereas in England/ Wales it can be London or ‘Brussels’).

Yet, there are key differences: the SNP is pro-immigration (its nationalism is ‘civic’, not ‘ethnic’) and the ‘democratic deficit’ means something else. When applied to the EU, it means that (a) few people know how it works and who, if anyone, is accountable, and (b) that it is difficult to vote for EU policymakers in the same way as we vote for national governments.

When applied to Scotland, it means that most voters in Scotland have tended to vote Labour or SNP in Westminster elections, but they often get a UK Tory government. So, a government with no legitimacy in Scotland makes decisions on our behalf, and there is nothing the Scottish Government can do about it.

In the campaign for devolution, this story developed in opposition to the Thatcherite imposition of things like the poll tax. In the campaign for independence, the poll tax became the bedroom tax.

In the next campaign for independence, the Brexit vote will become an important symbol for this argument: we voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and we are being dragged out against our will by England (and Wales).

I think this argument will win the day, for two reasons. First, most of the 45% who voted Yes in 2014 seem like a sure bet for the next vote. Second, there are some people who voted No on the assumption of remaining in the UK in the EU. They now have to choose between (a) in the UK and out of the EU, or (b) in the EU and out of the UK.

  1. Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice

Crucially, the Brexit is a godsend for the argument that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. It was too easy for opponents to argue in 2014 that nationalism was parochialism: by focusing on Scotland, you are removing yourself from the world. The counter-argument – let’s become independent to play a more positive role in that world – was relatively difficult to make.

Now, the door is open to argue that the Brexit vote reflects a Little England mentality, and that only Scottish independence offers the chance to cooperate fully with our European partners. In Scotland, cosmopolitan voters will share a campaign with nationalist voters.

Put these parts together and you have this story: independence is the only solution to being ruled from afar by the Tories who are determined (with the help of UKIP) to turn us into a Little England state which blames immigrants or the rest of the world for its problems.

Yet, the No story remains powerful too, for two original reasons and one new reason.

The No story: 1. Economic damage, uncertainty, and the currency issue

‘Better Together’ campaigned hard on the idea that a Yes vote will be economically damaging, producing a major government deficit in the short term with no guarantee of improvement in the long term (note that the rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest trading partner, and we need their partnership). They also argued successfully that Scotland could no longer use Sterling if independent (which really meant that the Scottish Government would no longer enjoy the same crucial relationship with the Bank of England).

Most No voters will have felt good about their decision because the price of a barrel of oil plummeted after 2014, giving the impression that Scotland’s short term economic deficit would have been even higher. Further, the currency issue remains unresolved, and the main alternatives to using the pound with the UK Government/ BoE’s blessing (Sterlingisation, a Scottish pound, joining the Euro) still won’t seem like brilliant prospects to undecided voters.

The No story: 2. The Yes vote meant all things to all people.

A further No argument related to the idea that all sorts of people were making all sorts of claims about a future independent Scotland, and that they couldn’t all be right. The Scottish Government’s ‘White Paper’ was more sensible, but was still built on hope more than expectation. So, if you don’t share that optimism, it just looks like a long document designed to look professional and reassuring without really providing a blueprint for action or a measured set of expectations.

A third new part of the story: we now see what happens when you vote to leave (and it’s bad)

The biggest effect of the Brexit on the No story is that we can already see what happens when people vote to leave a political union:

(1) We immediately see that people were making all sorts of promises that they couldn’t keep, and/ or that key people backtrack very quickly (examples after the Brexit vote include the ridiculous £350m for the NHS claim, and the now more modest claims about immigration). It’s easy to say what you are leaving behind, but not what you will do instead.

(2) We immediately see some frightening economic consequences.

(3) We are about to discover how our former political partners will react, and it doesn’t look like they’ll simply hug us and wish us all the best.

So, (4) the No campaign will be about emphasising this uncertainty and the poor consequences of political divorce as they are happening in real time.

In the end, it comes down to who will tell these Yes/ No stories and how well they do it

The main problem for a new No campaign is that I don’t think it will have the same backing. In the first campaign, almost all of the main parties against independence signed up to a common project. Yet, it was damaging to Scottish Labour and I doubt they’ll sign up a second time to represent the ‘Red Tories’, particularly since many members will vote Yes next time.

It will be largely down to Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives, who campaigned in 2016 as the SNP’s main opposition and the defenders of the UK. Although they did pretty well in the Holyrood elections, pretty well means 23% of the vote.

In contrast, the SNP is a highly professional outfit, which lost a referendum but gained a huge membership, has a very popular leadership, and still enjoys an incredibly strong image of governing competence (particularly for a party in government for 9 years).

If you want to put it more simply and to personalise the next campaign, I simply say this:

Nicola Sturgeon has already perfected the look of someone pissed off with UK Government incompetence, reluctantly proposing a second referendum to deal with the mess, and able to reject most arguments about economic and political uncertainty as bloody rich coming from the people who just voted to leave the EU. Salmond might have looked too (‘I told you so’) smug to pull it off, but Sturgeon looks genuinely annoyed rather than opportunistic.

Who can perform the same function for the No side? There are almost no London-based politicians that could generate the same kind of respect that Sturgeon enjoys. Ruth Davidson is the next best thing, but she will spend a fair amount of each debate being a bit embarrassed about the situation in which she finds herself, through no fault of her own.

So, the irony may be that No has, in some ways, a stronger case in the second referendum but a far lower chance of success: it will lose because there will be no-one out there able to tell the No story.

This emphasis on telling simple stories well matters more than we would like to admit. The facts don’t speak for themselves: you turn them into a story to engage with people’s existing biases and tendency to base decisions on very little information.  So, who will tell and listen to the No story the next time around?

See also:

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

Heresthetics and referendums

I also wrote a million posts on the last Scottish referendum

 

 

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Heresthetics and referendums

Heresthetic(s) describes the importance of the order of choice on political choices. The Scottish referendum process could become a brilliant example ….

William Riker invented the term heresthetics (or heresthetic) to describe the importance of a particular kind of manipulation:

one can help produce a particular choice if one can determine the context of, or order in which people make, choices.

Put simply, if you want to make something happen, it may be better to influence the institutions in which people make decisions, or frame issues to determine which particular aspect of a problem to which people pay attention, than change their minds about their preferences.

The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence could provide a nice, simple, example of this process.

Ideally, you would want to know about people’s preferences in considerable detail. After all, life is more complicated than binary choices suggest, and people are open to compromise. Yet, we tend to produce very simple binary referendums because they would otherwise be very difficult for most of the public to understand or for policymakers to interpret.

So, the way in which we simply that choice matters (for example, in Scotland, it led to the rejection of a third option – super dee duper mega max devolution – on the ballot paper, and therefore limited the choices of people who might have that third option as their first preference).

So too does the way in which we make several simple choices in a particular order.

Imagine a group of people – crucial to the outcome – whose main preference is that Scotland stays inside the UK in the EU:

  1. In a referendum in which Scotland votes first, this group votes No to Scottish independence on the assumption that the result will best reflect their preferences (helping produce 55% No).
  2. In a referendum in which Scotland votes after the UK (and the UK votes to leave the EU), many people will change their choice even if they have not changed their preferences (they would still prefer to be in the UK and EU, but that is no longer an option). So, some will choose to be in the UK out of the EU, but others will choose out of the UK and in the EU.

So, the order of choice, and the conditions under which we make choices, matters even when people have the same basic preferences. The people who voted No in the first referendum may vote Yes in the second, but still say that their initial choice was correct under the circumstances (and quite right too). Or, there may not be a second opportunity to choose.

This dynamic of choice is true even before we get into the more emotional side (some people will feel let down by the argument that a No vote was to stay in the EU).

Further reading:

If you want the Scottish argument in a less dispassionate form, read this by Alan Massie. If you want something more concise, see this tweet:

If you want more on heresthetic, google William Riker and take it from there.

Or, have a look at my series on policymaking. In two-dozen different ways, these posts identify these issues of framing, rules, and the order of choice. Search, for example, for ‘path dependence’ which describes the often profound long term effects of events and decisions made in a particular order in the past.

Note, of course, that only some choice situations are open to direct manipulation. In our case, I don’t think anyone managed to produce a Leave vote in the EU referendum to get a second crack at Scottish independence 😉

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Brexit: What next for Scotland?

Only hours after the Brexit result, we are already talking about the future of Scotland in the UK.

The theme of almost all commentary so far is that we don’t know what will happen next. For example, Craig McAngus describes the need to weigh up a moment of opportunity with the great uncertainty about the likelihood of a Yes vote this time. I make a similar argument in the Conversation (reproduced below) about Salmond’s phrase ‘Scotland being dragged out of the European Union’:

“The truth is that we don’t know what will happen in Scotland following the Brexit referendum, even though it is tempting to say that Scottish independence now seems inevitable. And, dare I say it, this is possibly the worst time – immediately after an emotionally draining campaign and result – in which to deliberate and come to a decision.

Certainly, the UK vote provides the only plausible trigger, in the short term, to have a second referendum on Scottish independence. For some time, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has argued that, if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would prompt SNP demands for the second referendum. At the time of writing, this case couldn’t seem symbolically stronger: the vote to leave is 52% across the UK, but in Scotland 62% voted to Remain.

Yet, it is too soon to tell if today’s result will prompt a major and sustained upswing in support for independence. This is partly because it is also too soon to predict Scotland’s place in EU negotiations. The second referendum story requires a heroic and cosmopolitan Scotland fighting to leave the parochial UK to remain in the EU. So, we first need to know Scotland’s likely status in the EU before we can identify the heroes and villains of our next story”.

See also:

EU referendum result: Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland sees its future as part of the EU as Brexit confirmed

SNP Government will seek Scots EU deal

Sturgeon: Vote makes clear Scotland sees its future in EU

 

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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable?

This post provides notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions.

The advertised abstract reads:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

I’ll begin my talk by apologising passive-aggressively for not being a specialist in this field. I know some things about Scottish politics, but specialise in public policy rather than elections, referendums, social attitudes, and the future. On that basis, I’ll:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

I’ll try to sell you the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums: a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. We now have 5-yearly elections, so it would be a commitment in the 2021 Holyrood election to hold it in 2024.

However, it’s no more than an idea because nothing about this process is inevitable:

Even a second referendum is not inevitable

In the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote this month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the main obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

In the absence of this constitutional crisis, is difficult to see how the SNP could justify – and, more importantly, expect to win – another referendum within five years of the first. This problem is reflected in the SNP’s manifesto and Sturgeon’s defence of its vague position. It appears to want to keep independence on the agenda for the long term without proposing a referendum within five years. So, its idea is that, in the absence of a Brexit crisis, the only other prompt is a major and sustained upswing in support for independence:

the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people’ (Scottish National Party, 2016: 23).

Sturgeon confirmed that this measure would be from opinion polls – ‘We would have to see, in a range of polls over a period of time, that independence had become the preferred option of the majority’ – but without stating how many polls, what level of support, or how sustained (BBC News, 2016b).

The unsatisfactory nature of this position seems reinforced by the SNP’s electoral position in 2016: the last referendum was fairly recent, it lacks a strong statement of intent in its manifesto, it now relies on the Scottish Greens (2016: 35) to produce a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the Greens’ trigger for a second referendum – a petition by maybe 100,000 voters – seems equally vague and problematic.

Don’t assume that we can predict the future (revisited)

These limitations are not problematic in the longer term: the SNP can afford to wait until the time is right for a second referendum. Yet, think about some of the other conditions that need to be met before a second vote is worthwhile:

  1. There is a sustained rise in support for Scottish independence. From opinion polls, the SNP would be looking for levels of sustained support (high 50s, low 60s?) that are not present even in single surveys.
  2. The SNP sustains a Holyrood majority, or it has enough pro-independence allies in Holyrood. At the heart of our short-term discussion is the assumption that the SNP continues to do remarkably well in elections. Yet, Scottish Labour provides a cautionary tale, or the evidence of how quickly a party’s support can disappear. Further, the SNP wouldn’t even have to lose much support to give the sense that it lost ‘momentum’.
  3. The SNP can recreate 2011. Instead, it would just have to lose the sense of moral victory that it secured in 2011: the appearance of its Holyrood ‘avalanche’ election victory made a referendum difficult to oppose; its opposition lost ground, and the UK Government struggled to explain why it would not support a referendum. This feeling is difficult to recreate even if (as in 2016) it secures a similar proportion of votes.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

It is possible that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, we have two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy.
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

So, maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement, and that we are not just killing time until the next referendum.

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Let’s have another debate on Scottish independence just in case the hermits missed all the others

It did not take long for political parties and commentators to explain the Holyrood election result and state with incredible certainty what it means for the future of the Union. Yet, the election result did not really tell us anything more about the two things we already know:

First, in the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote next month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the only obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

Second, in the absence of this event and its consequences, we know that we are just killing a horrible amount of time until the next meaningful opportunity to vote on Scottish independence. In my mind, and assuming that the SNP continues to win elections in Scotland, the gap has always been about ten years: enough to give the sense that time has passed since the last vote, and see if you can produce a ‘generational’ change in attitudes; and, not too long for an independence-friendly party trying to keep it off the top of the agenda and its supporters happy.

So, if the main political parties were being completely honest, they would say that they are pretty much forced to (a) tread water until the referendum next month, then (b) wait for a very long time. Instead, we have the usual political posturing. Equal first prize must go to the Scottish Conservatives, now arguing that its ability to command 24% of Holyrood seats gives it a mandate as the protector of the Union, and the SNP which has signalled its intention to keep the debate going just in case ‘the leopard man’ has not heard about the issue. The parties know that the only other triggers of an early referendum – the SNP’s idea of checking the opinion polls, and the Scottish Greens’ mention of a petition with maybe 100,000 votes – are weak, and yet they feel they have to keep up the longest game of chicken in Scottish political history.

Similarly, it is too soon for commentators to argue that this election marks the complete transformation to identity politics in Scotland. It must be very tempting to argue simply that people vote SNP for independence and the Conservatives for the union, particularly since we all know that we are speculating just now anyway. Still, longer term, more detailed, analysis of trends in SNP support since 2007 suggests, very strongly, that the biggest factor has been ‘valence politics’. The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s belief in independence).

Similarly, the Conservatives went big on their leader (many of their promotional materials did not even mention the party) and used a proxy for governing competence – strong opposition – in the absence of the likelihood of them being in government. Labour may also have suffered because, compared to the SNP and Conservatives, its party and strategy seems shambolic. So, identity politics matters, as the factor which underpins core attitudes, but valence politics may better explain the trends in support for each party.

Still, perhaps the biggest lesson from this election is that if you are determined to make and act on this argument about identity politics you should do it well. The SNP and Conservatives did it well. In contrast, too many senior people in Scottish Labour – including Kezia Dugdale on Good Morning Scotland, and Anas Sarwar – expressed disappointment that the electorate did not think like them (a position criticised by people like John McTernan). The two biggest parties in the Scottish Parliament might be annoyingly narrow-minded, but at least they know what they are doing.

 

 

 

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The final Scottish devolution settlement is rubbish, and unionists should be worried

Imagine academics were more like a caricature of elected politicians: shouting their beliefs from the rooftops, super-selective with their interpretations of fact, unwilling to express uncertainty about anything political if it harmed their case, and willing to make wildly unsubstantiated predictions about the future.

Here is what I think many would make of the Scottish devolution settlement:

  • The new Scotland Bill represents the final devolution settlement.
  • This is the last chance to get devolution right before the next independence referendum.
  • Instead, it is a horrible mess, produced in a hurry and driven more by political negotiation than good sense (which is the usual story).
  • No-one can understand it and it will be almost impossible to hold any single government to account for many decisions (particularly since the Scottish Parliament will diminish even further in importance)
  • The fiscal framework underpinning the new settlement is a shambles and not worthy of support (David Bell and colleagues use the phrase ‘may not be workable’ when the plan contains contradictory principles).
  • The idea of a powerful Scottish Parliament overseeing incredibly high fiscal autonomy is absolute nonsense, because the Scottish Government does not have the ability to decide who should win and lose from the tax and spending regime (Bell and colleagues say ‘these taxes do not give the Scottish Government a great deal of flexibility in reality’).
  • Politicians would rather discuss their back of the envelope plans in private because they know that they would not stand up to scrutiny if they had to explain them to the general public (Nicola McEwen uses the phrase ‘After the democratic engagement of the referendum campaign, it is disappointing that debates on the Scotland Bill have largely excluded the public’).

If so, I pity the people charged with running the next No campaign, because they will be unable to say that (a) the Scottish devolution settlement is good, or (b) there will be a further settlement if you vote No (nor will they be able to make a convincing case based on British values).  Instead, what they can say is ‘we delivered on our promise for more devolution’ and, perhaps, ‘use the powers you have before you ask for more’.

The general problem with the latter argument is that it currently boils down to this kind of specific argument: if you don’t like UK Conservative cuts to benefits and tax credits, you can now raise taxes to offset them (then, presumably, the plan is to say ‘you didn’t raise taxes, so you are not as social democratic as you claim’).

What I suspect many people will hear is this: we agree that the Tory cuts are rubbish, and you have to pay more money to get back to where you started. In that context, the SNP still has the choice of saying that its hands are tied by the Tories or that it can only do so much to offset the damage. We are not yet, and perhaps never will be, at the stage where people will hold an SNP-led Scottish Government primarily accountable for the taxing and funding decisions that affect people in Scotland. Instead, for most of the run up to the next referendum, the Scottish Government (and Westminster contingent for Scotland) will be led by people, like Sturgeon and Swinney, who will remain more popular and seem more sincere and trustworthy than their UK counterparts.

Of course, the case can be made for problems with the next Yes campaign, including the argument that the SNP’s economic case is redundant and the campaign has to rely on more than emotion. The alternative argument is that the SNP has been doing very well with such limited strategies, and the final devolution settlement has just strengthened its hand further.

But academics don’t speak like that, so I’ll conclude by saying: (a) more research is required, and (b) please see the Special issue of Political Quarterly on this topic (introduced here).

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The effect of constitutional change on politics and policymaking #POLU9SP

This is one of two opportunities in the course to consider the role of further constitutional change. In this lecture, we can explore the changes associated with Scotland Bills (and their causes). In the final lecture, we can take a step back and consider how much the territorial nature of the constitution/ political system compares with ‘universal’ aspects of the policy process.

The Scotland Act 1998 set up the modern Scottish Parliament, outlining its new institutions (including the electoral system) and policy responsibilities. Although I have tried to qualify-to-death the idea that Scottish devolution changed policymaking in Scotland, this was the big one. At the heart of our discussions of the ‘Scottish policy style’ is the knowledge that the Scottish Government has significant policymaking responsibilities and it uses its powers in often-distinctive ways.

The Act also represents the initial ‘settlement’ arising from a decades-long push for political devolution in Scotland. However, it did not prove to be the final settlement. Instead, the UK Government and ‘unionist’ political parties have sought ways to extend devolution enough to maintain Scottish support for the union.

Note the role and endurance of the ‘democratic deficit’ argument

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions.

This problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). A frequent argument is that devolution (made possible by a vote in 1979) could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. In that context, the new Scottish Parliament represented the idea that Scottish devolution would cushion the blow of any future UK Conservative government.

Yet, as we saw during the independence debate, devolution was often described by Yes supporters as a poor solution to the democratic deficit because the UK Government still makes decisions – particularly on the reform of the welfare state – which have a profound effect on Scotland, with little scope for the Scottish Government to produce an alternative.

The Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016

The Scotland Act 2012 amended the Scottish Parliament’s and Scottish Government’s responsibilities. It represents the second major attempt at a devolved settlement, following the election of an SNP (minority) government in 2007 and the rise of an independence agenda. The prospect of independence has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Scotland Act 2012

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ (and a retained Barnett formula) for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

In response, the UK Government has produced a new draft Scotland Bill.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum (although it is difficult to predict how long it will take the SNP to think it will win).

What will happen until then?

In the meantime, we can discuss how further devolution might affect the discussions we have had so far. For example, some things don’t seem destined to change much, such as the lack of ‘new politics’ or participatory democracy, the pervasiveness of networks, the development of the ‘Scottish approach’, or the importance of central-local relations. Others might see some significant developments:

  • The Scottish Parliament. If you think it is peripheral to the policy process now, think what will happen when the Scottish Government gets new responsibilities but the Parliament has the same paltry resources for scrutiny (see also McEwen, Petersohn and Swan).
  • MLG and IGR. Nicola McEwen and Bettina Petersohn know more about this than me, and they go into (by drawing on relevant international comparisons) the kinds of issues that the UK and Scottish Governments will face when they develop a shared powers model. The biggest issue is that that there will be far more overlaps in policy responsibilities than before. Under the original settlement, their respective responsibilities were fairly clear. Now, they are expected to cooperate on issues such as taxation, social security, and the energy mix. There is also a weird-looking requirement for the actions of one government to have ‘no detriment’ on another, the effects of which we do not yet know.
  • The Barnett formula. David Bell knows more about this than me, and he thinks that the new arrangements will place a great strain on the formula, partly because the new taxation arrangements give the Scottish Government more power to set its own budget (at least notionally) than rely on a block grant from the Treasury.
  • It’s more difficult to work out the effect of its new responsibilities on tax and social security, but I predict that little will change (albeit in the knowledge that I am not known for my good predictions). Kirstein Rummery knows more about this subject than me. See her commentary on the Scottish Government’s budget and the longer term potential for major change.

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Two first drafts of the SNP 2016 manifesto

People have begun to speculate about how the SNP will incorporate a second referendum into its 2016 Scottish Parliament manifesto. So, I’ve had a go at drafting two different versions.

The first one is easy to write but won’t happen.

The second, more realistic one, is harder to write. In particular, it will be hard to get the wording right when the SNP (in effect) promises a referendum in the next manifesto but not this one.

So, we might expect a lot of coverage of the opposition parties trying to pin down Nicola Sturgeon on the detail. Ordinarily this might be sensible, but not while the SNP remains almost immune to that kind of criticism. Maybe it would be better to focus on what the SNP will do, instead, in the next 5 years. Who knows?

The one that won’t be written:

Nicola Sturgeon stated in 2015 that: “Something material would have to change in terms of the circumstances or public opinion before I think it would be appropriate to have a proposal for a referendum.”

Since we gubbed Labour in the 2015 UK General Election and it looks like we’ll do the same in the Scottish Parliament, we believe that material circumstances have changed and we will have a referendum as soon as possible. Loads of Yes supporters joined the SNP straight after the referendum, and they think we were robbed and that loads of people regret voting No. There was also that poll which suggests that we’re hugely popular even though people don’t think we’re doing a brilliant job, so independence is all we want to talk about.

The more likely one that is longer and trickier to write, and doesn’t quite scan:

Nicola Sturgeon stated in 2015 that: “Something material would have to change in terms of the circumstances or public opinion before I think it would be appropriate to have a proposal for a referendum.”

In the period of the next Scottish Parliament, the biggest potential change of circumstances regards Scotland’s membership of the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon has called on David Cameron to ensure that the UK leaves the EU only if all four nations agree. He has rejected this call. If the UK prepares to leave the EU, despite a majority of voters in Scotland voting to remain, it will cause a constitutional crisis. Under those circumstances, we believe that we should hold a referendum on Scottish independence as soon as practicable (this paragraph seems relatively easy to write).

We are heartened by the surge of support in our membership, to over 100,000 members, and in electoral support for the SNP, which produced 56 of 59 SNP MPs. However, this alone does not represent a change of public opinion towards Scottish independence. It does not guarantee that the majority of voters in Scotland would vote Yes in a second referendum on Scottish independence (this one is tricky to get right, and would be used by opponents).

Instead, the electorate also supports us because we present a strong vision to deal with austerity and support essential public services. They do not support the austerity agenda of the Conservative party, and nor do they find Labour to be a credible alternative (bread and butter stuff).

We believe that, in time, support for our positive vision, and a growing belief that the UK parties’ austerity agenda is damaging Scotland’s economy and widening inequalities, will help produce a clear majority in favour of Scottish independence (also bread and butter).

If that change of public opinion becomes clear over the next five years, we will include a firm commitment to a second independence referendum in our manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election (no, I can’t get that one to work!).

 

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In UK and Scottish politics, should you assume that people are stupid?

Political commentators often make fun of other political commentators when they complain that the public is stupid. Yet, maybe we all do something similar – assume that most people make quick, emotional and habitual decisions to turn a complex world into a series of simple actions. In that sense, the ‘realistic’ political campaigns (and some policies) favoured by such commentators may be based just as much on the ‘stupidity’ of the target audience.

In Scottish politics, there is a lot of fun to be had (if you like that sort of thing) while taking the piss out of Yes supporters who argue that No supporters were manipulated into their decision. For example, if only No supporters could see through media and partisan manipulation they’d come to a different conclusion. The argument here is that such Yes supporters are implying that temporary No supporters are stupid, since they are more open to manipulation than their critics. Only Yes supporters can see through the lies.

In UK politics, the same fun can be had (if you like that sort of thing) with certain Labour supporters who can’t quite believe that they lost the election, or blame it on people who support Labour values in public but vote Conservative in private. There are also some offshoot debates, often led by John Rentoul, about the idea that the ‘wrong people were voting Labour’ under Blair or that current supporters of Jeremy Corbyn deny the truth about why Labour lost the UK General Election. The debate is not quite the same, but you can detect a similar suggestion that left-wing Labour supporters blame current Conservative supporters for not seeing through the cynicism of Tory campaigns.

In both cases, the proposed solution may be a cold dose of realism about the beliefs of the British public: instead of complaining that too many people are naïve or stupid and hold the wrong beliefs (or are ‘delusional’), try to work with their beliefs to produce a campaign that works for them.

You can see why this approach would present some fairly heated debates, since the counterargument is that you should not accept public beliefs when you consider them repugnant (such as in relation to migration) or dangerously misguided (such as in relation to the causes of the financial crisis or the ways in which parties justify austerity measures, often in relation to the misleading analogy of balancing the household books, which exacerbate socio-economic inequalities).

In time, this pragmatic argument may underpin the second referendum on Scottish independence (who knows?).

In the meantime, it is at the heart of the Labour leadership, in which the heroic/left-wing/ ideologue Jeremy Corbyn is pitted against the three more cynical/ pragmatic/ realistic candidates who want to compete with the Conservatives in part by engaging with their arguments rather than dismissing them as stupid and cynical.

What should we do when people are ‘stupid’

In each case, there are two constants that we should always bear in mind:

  1. Ideas aren’t stupid. Many people focus too much on the stupidity of arguments or ideas when they should really identify the tendency for people to believe them. I don’t want to get into a big philosophical thing about this, but ideas aren’t simply good/ bad and they don’t spread on their own – they need some people to propose them and others to accept them. Your choice is a mix of (a) giving credit to the people who know how to get good ideas going; and/ or (b) assigning blame to the gullible fools that accept them.
  2. People aren’t stupid, but they are open to manipulation. People have a tendency to accept simple stories that chime with their beliefs (and other stuff – Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow sums up a lot of this kind of argument, but see here and here if you want something more free but less good).

All that remains is to decide what to do about it:

(a) do you start with the assumption that people inevitably have cognitive biases that can be manipulated (particularly when they make snap decisions), to get them to do what you want;

or

(b) do you assume that people can overcome many cognitive biases, try to educate them, or otherwise help them to think more carefully about issues to make well-considered intelligent decisions?

I don’t know the answer to that question ….

All I’ll point out is that I have (hopefully) reframed the initial premise of this post. Now, it’s the fun-makers and realists who think that people are stupid (the a people). Now, our original villains are really the heroes who have faith in the public to think harder and make the right decision next time (the b people).

except to say that sneering doesn’t help.

A final thought on the strategies of realists is that many of them sneer a lot at the people they think are naïve. This doesn’t just seem rude and annoying – it’s also counterproductive, because politics is often as much about process as outcome. If everyone enters and leaves debates in a respectful way, the losers may be content with a poor outcome. If the winners spend their time sneering at their opponents, and Lording their victories over the losers, it just exposes the very divisions they claim to want to prevent.

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Five political problems with ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy’ for Scotland

‘Full fiscal autonomy’ (FFA) is the devolution of all tax and spending decisions to Scotland. It involves the Scottish Government forming its own Treasury and Inland Revenue function, raising its own revenue, and making a contribution to the UK for shared services such as spending on defence and foreign affairs.

FFA is back on the agenda following the combination of a Conservative majority in the general election, on the back of votes in England, and its need to recognise a sweeping SNP win in Scotland. Early rumours suggest that David Cameron is ready to offer it ‘in a peace deal to save the Union’ and we might get the impression that a UK government can click its fingers and make it so. There are five important political problems with this idea.

No party in Scotland wants it – or, at least, not like this

This seems like a strange thing to say – surely, at the very least, the SNP wants it?! Yet, Sturgeon’s language throughout the election campaign (and p11 of the SNP’s manifesto) was about FFA taking a long time, based on it taking 5 years (2007-12) to introduce a modest devolved tax and spending regime. By this calculation, the groundwork for something far more ambitious would take longer than a second independence referendum to materialize.

The other main parties in Scotland have described FFA as disastrous (generally drawing on IFS analysis). It is hard to overstate just how much they are against it. Indeed, they were the parties which talked about it most because they saw it as a subject that weakened the SNP. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much that Labour used the imagery of the bombshell and the Liberal Democrats described the ‘devastating impact’ it would have on Scotland, since both parties are now out of the picture.

However, it does matter what the Scottish Conservative rhetoric has been, including the statement that, ‘The public deserve to know the full impact of what fiscal autonomy would mean for Scotland’, that FFA would produce ‘massive spending cuts, a hike in taxes or radically increased borrowing’, and that ‘Almost no major employers back the SNP’s plan for full fiscal autonomy’. Only three weeks ago, Ruth Davidson described FFA as a disastrous way to exploit Scottish taxpayers to secure independence ‘by the back door’:

Stage two comes if the SNP gets its way to impose independence by the back door. Ms Sturgeon has confirmed this week that separation remains her goal, and has refused to rule out another referendum soon. But, in the meantime, the goal is to settled for what the Nationalists call “full fiscal autonomy”. Under this plan, we’d remain in Britain, but all the financial ties we currently share with the rest of the UK would be severed. And Scotland’s system of public services would rest entirely on the shoulders of the poor, benighted Scottish taxpayer.

The people advocating it are doing it to help themselves, not Scotland

Some senior conservatives are using the right language with the SNP and describing the Scottish result as something that has to be respected – but suddenly portraying FFA as good for Scotland and the Union would be near impossible given what the David Cameron said about it less than a month ago.

allardyce 2

Others may be describing FFA as a way to stick it to the SNP, encourage centre-right politics in Scotland and satisfy an audience in England. For example, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan argues that the SNP is the Scottish equivalent of Greece’s Syriza and only able to use anti-austerity rhetoric because the Scottish Government doesn’t raise its own budget.

allardyce 1

This tactic is divisive and damaging

Playing politics with Scottish constitutional change just makes things worse. Portraying FFA as good for England and some much-needed medicine (or, perhaps confusingly, a poisoned chalice) for Scotland is divisive and goes against the idea that the Conservatives want to do what it takes to protect the Union.

Key arguments against Scottish independence apply to FFA

Remember the sorts of issues that arose during the referendum, such as: you can’t have a shared currency if your tax/ spending regimes are too different (No campaign); and independence is a way to get rid of Trident (Yes). These problems would resurface with FFA, since the UK Treasury would want assurances that Scottish Treasury decisions did not have too much of a knock-on effect, and an SNP-led Scottish Government would not want to transfer money to the UK for Trident. Effectively, the UK Conservative government would be saying: ‘you can have FFA if you pay for the shared services we choose, and you stick to our fiscal rules’ (the latter seems to be a feature of the albeit-vague ‘no detriment’ principle). Calling this ‘full fiscal autonomy’ would be rather misleading.

There would be very little to hold the Union together

The economic argument dominated the independence campaign. It was by far the biggest element of the No campaign. FFA would largely remove that argument, since almost all warnings would be about powers that have already been granted to Scotland.

In short, ‘full fiscal autonomy’ for Scotland could be seen as the ultimate cynical solution to the rise of the SNP, and could well backfire to cause the death of the Union – unless the parties are now proposing something that can be described (with fingers crossed) as FFA while being nothing of the sort.

See also: Alex Salmond saying that it’s not on offer anyway (2m30)

Then see David Cameron ruling out FFA and focusing largely on implementing Smith: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-32750461

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Scottish constitutional change always seems one step behind the national mood – but we finally have a chance to get it right

DD-and-others-SF-campaign1997-resized-image-450x270

It is 19 years since George Robertson declared famously that Scottish devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. It remains one of the most important, symbolic, phrases because it sums up one of the worst sentiments in British politics: constitutional change seems, too often, to be a stitch up by one or more political parties at the expense of the others.  Too often, we have seen unionist parties produce deals amongst themselves rather than engage meaningfully with nationalist parties like the SNP.

The main result is that Scottish constitutional change often seems out of step with the national mood. The Calman Commission, established in 2007 by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, produced the Scotland Act 2012 that seemed out of date before it was implemented. The Smith Commission was established in 2014 and, although it produced its recommendations in a ridiculously short space of time, they already seem like the starting point for discussion, not a new devolved settlement.

Yet, it was not always this way. For a brief period, from devolution in 1999, we talked more about ‘new politics’ than independence. This is partly because many of the parties involved were more inclined to do the right thing than Robertson’s comment suggests. Scottish Labour didn’t hold hands with the SNP, but it made sure that it got SNP support during the Yes to devolution campaign in 1997. The parties (including Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrats and what would become the Scottish Greens) also thought about how political reforms would go hand in hand with constitutional reform, encouraging some debate about new forms of deliberative and participatory democracy.  They engaged ‘civil society’ groups, and the campaign for devolution had a strong focus on gender and the participation of women in public life. In short, they had a Scottish Constitutional Convention. This period of reform in the 1990s should provide some lessons today.

It is too tempting to argue that the incredible rise of the SNP, and its likely dominance of Scottish seats in Westminster, will produce a constitutional crisis – a UK party only governing with the consent of the SNP will reinforce a broad sense that ‘The Scots appear fed up with the English, and the English with the Scots’. Simon Jenkins suggests, rather provocatively, that the current union is dying and that ‘Some new format is required that must embrace parliamentary disengagement, devo-max or indie-lite or whatever. The task for Cameron or Miliband is to be architect of that format’.

Yet, this conclusion is not inevitable and the solution is not quite right. In particular, we do need to rethink the plans for further constitutional change that were produced so hastily by the Smith Commission for the sake of party politics rather than sensible constitutional redesign. However, a new constitutional convention should be the architect, not the leader of one political party doing a deal with another.

If you look at the rhetoric of the main parties, a new convention in Scotland is just the ticket. It suits Labour’s ‘no deals with the SNP’ stance, since a convention is a way out: it could be portrayed as an attempt to go beyond party politics and engage Scottish civil society. It suits the SNP, looking to maximise its influence but not be stuck with the idea that all it wants is ‘devo max’ or ‘full fiscal autonomy’ as a stepping stone to independence.  It might even suit the Conservative party if it squeaks into government again with the Liberal Democrats, since a convention may be the only way to generate a sense of legitimacy in Scotland if it has few or no MPs in Scotland.

The alternative for the UK parties (apart from the UK-wide convention proposed by Labour, which seems separate from Scottish reforms) is to stick with Smith and exclude the SNP, which seems like an untenable position for parties that claim to want to reform the Union to protect it. Only the SNP benefits from the stand-off, and only a constitutional convention provides anything close to a competing story of Scottish legitimacy to the one crafted so well by the SNP.

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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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