Without North Sea oil and gas it is unlikely that there would even be a referendum on Scottish independence. Its discovery is the first chapter in the foundation story for nationalists who believe that Margaret Thatcher was in effect Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. But oil is about more than the past; it is critical to the Yes campaign’s arguments about the present and the future, too. It anchors the (somewhat spurious) argument that Scotland would be richer than the rest of the UK, and allows Alex Salmond to promise the creation of a sovereign wealth fund.

Scots’ perceptions of the economic consequences of independence will be vital to the outcome of the vote on September 18. But unfortunately for Scots there is a big discrepancy between the forecasts of direct tax revenues from the North Sea made by the Scottish government and those made by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s fiscal watchdog. In this post I want to try to explain why these forecasts differ and why I believe the Scottish government’s optimism is misleading.

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The grey tower blocks that wrap around the Gascoigne Children’s Centre in Barking, east London, are in various forms of disrepair. Demolition jobs stand unfinished; cross sections of smashed homes reveal pastel wallpaper flapping in the wind. Families from more than 80 countries live in the remaining houses. Gascoigne is the last stop for many people who have been shunted around the UK’s social housing stock. It is also the epicentre of a demographic earthquake transforming Britain.

There are more babies per person in Barking and Dagenham than in any other local authority in Britain. One in 10 people in the area is under five and the local pre-school is thrice oversubscribed. Lunch “hour” at the packed primary school runs from 11am to 1.30pm. Inside the children’s centre, high-pitched wails ricochet off the walls. After 20 years working on the estate, Rahat Ismail, the centre’s manager, is used to the noise. Showing me into a quieter room, she sits down on a carpet beside nine mothers and nine babies. It is time for Babbling Babes, a singing session designed to help infants with their cognitive skills.

A 15-month-old boy with a wispy afro is asked to pick from two plastic figures, each representing a song. Handling objects improves motor development and, at this boy’s age, a baby begins to see that others’ experiences are different from his own. Glancing at his peers, the boy rejects a farmer by the name of MacDonald and opts for a black sheep. We sing, inquiring as to its wool. Read more

Buried in a folder somewhere in my flat is a piece of paper certifying that I am not a sex offender. During university holidays I worked for a charity that tries to help young people with learning disabilities. Before I could start I had to be approved by Disclosure Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish government that maintains lists of people banned from working with children and disabled people, and advises organisations so they can “make safer and more informed recruitment decisions”.

I worked with children who had, inter alia, Down’s syndrome, autism and Asperger’s syndrome. As well as helping to run a summer school, I worked one-on-one with children in an effort to improve their confidence, learning and health. Giving parents a break was part of the job, as was taking advantage of Edinburgh’s cultural and sporting highlights. My work took me all over the capital. Physical contact was unavoidable – for example, when crossing busy roads. Some of the children I worked with liked to go swimming and some would need help getting changed. Parents needed to trust me to take care of their vulnerable children in vulnerable situations. Read more

For some voters in September’s referendum, independence offers the prospect of Scotland “becoming the European social democracy we are politically inclined to be”, as Irvine Welsh puts it. Welsh, like many Scots (and many Scottish artists), sees the vote as a chance for Scots to “assert democratic socialist values over neo-liberalism”. It is a common argument made by those who aren’t necessarily staunch supporters of the ruling Scottish National party and yet still intend to vote Yes on September 18.

Now contrast that with the views of Ewan Morrison, another brilliant and sweary novelist. In a post on BellaCaledonia, a popular left- and Yes-leaning website, the author of Close Your Eyes explains why he will be voting Yes in the referendum:

“Not because I buy into any of the retro leftist idealism that seems to please the majority of Yes voters I know, but because I think its [sic] important that Scotland stops blaming the UK for its woes and tries to survive as an entrepreneurial capitalist country. I vote Yes to force a change in the Scottish psyche away from Nay saying, resentment, and ‘prolier than thou’ righteousness. I vote Yes to begin the cull of turn of the century unreformed and uncritical socialist ideals that have been holding this country back and scaring away investment.” Read more

In the comments to an earlier post on whether the Yes vote in the independence referendum is being exaggerated, JeanJacques writes:

“Everyone of these ‘institutional’ polling agencies predicted a Labour victory in Holyrood 2011. They have zero credibility.”

This is a notion whose ubiquity is inversely related to its accuracy. It is not true.

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Another thing one hears from Scottish opinion poll watchers is that there may be a version of the Shy Tory effect happening ahead of the independence referendum. This is another reason they give for why the Yes vote may lower than polls suggest.

Behind these results lies a theory: the “spiral of silence”. This is where an individual is reluctant to give his opinion because of what he perceives to be the views of a vocal majority, and where this reticence has a knock-on effect on others’ silence. (Hence the spiral.)

One paper on the subject lists three criteria for the spiral: (1) The issue must have a moral component to it; (2) There is a time factor or dynamic aspect of public opinion; (3) There is ubiquitous and consonant mass media coverage

Sound like any referendum you have heard about? Read more

“Why do opinion polls in Scotland vary so much?” asks Peter Kellner. It is an important question. An answer would give us a clue as to what will happen in the independence referendum. The president of YouGov is puzzled by the results from his and other polling companies. He produces this table by way of argument:

Mr Kellner has taken the past five or six polls from five of the main pollsters and calculated the average for the Yes vote. Next to that column he shows the range in the Yes vote across the five or six polls. Aside from ICM, these ranges are narrow.

He wants us to take two things from this table. First, that there has been very little movement in any of the individual polls since Christmas 2013. Second, that there is a curious difference between the results of YouGov and TNS, which place the Yes vote between 39-42, and Panelbase and Survation, which report higher totals. Read more

Not a single track has been laid for High Speed 2 and yet George Osborne is already talking about “High Speed 3″, an extension of the project to link Manchester and Leeds. In a speech on Monday in Manchester, the chancellor spoke of his support for a “Northern powerhouse”: a conurbation to rival London, connected by transport links such as HS3, and governed by independent mayors. It is an excellent idea.

Although there will be a temptation to see Mr Osborne’s speech as simply another part of the HS2 debate, that would be simplistic. It represents the coming together of different conceptions of the future for British cities – and as ever political necessities.


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One of the authors of this pair of books is a dyspeptic Scottish socialist prone to exaggeration. The other is Gordon Brown. He and Alasdair Gray have written works that argue for opposing sides in the debate on Scottish independence. The pro-union former prime minister and the secessionist novelist have different styles as well as arguments. Gray’s masterpiece Lanark (1981) won him comparisons with Dante and Joyce, whereas Brown’s prose is somewhat more straightforward. His new book begins: “I love my country. Simple as that.” Read more

Are we applying tougher criteria for what it means to be British? Data released on Tuesday by the British Social Attitudes Survey and NatCen suggest this is the case. It points to an increase in the number of people saying that others must speak English to be considered truly British. An article on the BSAS in the Times says that attitudes show a “hardening towards multiculturalism”. The BBC’s interpretation is similar. But before we decry the rise of little Englandism, let’s look closely at the data. This is particularly important given the ongoing, heated debate on “Britishness”.  Read more