“Scotland will vote to remain in the United Kingdom, and by a decisive enough margin to settle the matter for many years to come”, wrote Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, at the beginning of July. But after reading the results of his new poll, released on Tuesday, the pollster is less confident. The pro-independence side in the Scottish referendum is “in touching distance of victory”, he writes in the Sun.

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Many people make irrational, uninformed and potentially devastating decisions about what they do with their money. They can be bamboozled or defrauded by those with better information or cruel intentions. The financial crisis was only the most acute reminder of how pervasive poor decision-making can be when it comes to money.

From today, pupils aged 14-16 in the UK will be taught “financial literacy” as part of the national curriculum. They will be taught about credit and debt, savings and pensions, and public finance. (It is like the FT graduate scheme on a massive scale.) The hope is that this will better equip youngsters to make smart decisions about what to do – and what not to do – with their money as they go through their lives.

Will it work?  Read more

In his opening remarks, Alistair Darling tried to ensure the second televised debate on Scottish independence would be all about Alex Salmond. “A good line is not always a good answer”, the leader of the pro-union side said, referring to his opponent’s brand of chutzpah. Encouraged by his strong performance in the first debate two weeks ago, Mr Darling sensed weakness, implying that Scots should ask themselves whether they can rely on someone as opportunistic as the first minister. The problem with this approach: a very different Alex Salmond turned up this time.  Read more

I watched as much of the televised/streamed debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling as possible given the STV Player’s own independence struggles.

Here are some impressions I took from the evening:

1. The format of the debate did not serve to enlighten the public. Candidates were allowed to “cross-examine” each other but as Mr Darling, a lawywer, would have been well aware, this is impossible to do forensically in such a short time. He shouted a bit, which looked bad, while Mr Salmond asked about aliens, which was odd. It reminded me at times of a fervent night in an Edinburgh pub. The questions from the audience were smart (see below) but there were too many of them. The candidates were not able to answer them in full, through no fault of their own. Read more

On Tuesday morning George Osborne was asked by the BBC’s Evan Davis whether he’d rather fund Crossrail 2 or trans-Pennine rail, assuming that both projects had a positive benefit to cost ratio. Politicians tend to shun hypothetical questions but the Chancellor of the Exchequer used this one to make the following argument:

‘I hope we don’t have to make a choice between the two. I think the real choice in our country is actually spending money on this big economic infrastructure, transpennine rail links, Crossrail 2 in London and the like, and spending money on, for example, welfare payments which are not generating either a real economic return and at the same time, are trapping people in poverty.’

Whenever someone mentions what the “real” this or that is, be careful. There are many choices involved in how the British state should spends its tax revenues and indeed what size the state should be in the first place. To reduce them to one “real” choice representing a fraction of overall spend is like saying that the real choice I face is between a Heart of Midlothian season ticket and feeding myself. (Essentials, both.)  Read more

An independent Scotland would not have to join the EU. But most Scots want Scotland to be an EU member and it is a central plank of SNP policy. There is no precedent, however, for what happens if part of a member state becomes independent and wishes to remain part of the EU. (Greenland, Germany and Czechoslovakia are all relevant but different cases.) This is one reason why both sides have been vigorously engaging in claim and counter-claim over EU law.

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On September 11, 1997, Scots voted for a devolved parliament with tax-raising powers. If that seems like a long time ago consider that there are tens of thousands of Scots born after the devolution vote who are eligible to vote on independence. These teenagers were also born after Braveheart was released – and how it shows: they seem to be far from the ardent Yes voters that many nationalists hoped for.

When it was announced that 16- and 17-year-olds would be eligible to vote in the referendum on independence, I instinctively thought that this would give a wee boost to the Yes side. Here are voters who have grown up under a devolved parliament. They are another generation removed from those with powerful experiences of British institutions and events such as the second world war. And why would Alex Salmond want them to vote if they were not more likely to be in the Yes camp?

Nevertheless, research by Dr Jan Eichhorn and his colleagues from the University of Edinburgh suggests that young Scottish voters are sceptical of independence. If accurate, these surveys will have negative implications for the Yes campaign. Young Scots may turn out to be yet another example of the ungrateful enfranchised; both Disraeli and Wilson were turfed out by the electorate they expanded. Read more

According to the old saw, the past is a different country. But different countries are keener on their pasts than others, as this chart from IpsosMori suggests:

This is one of many fascinating findings in the pollster’s Global Trends Survey, an annual report produced from samples from 20 countries. One theme that emerges is the divergence between the US and China on issues such as how keen people are to embrace new technology, new brands, and how optimistic they are for the next generation. In general, China is looking forward while the US is looking back. Read more

Well, this is awkward for someone who has written a magazine article entitled the New Baby Boom. On Wednesday the Office for National Statistics published new data showing that the birth rate in England and Wales dropped from 2012 to 2013. I was more interested in the qualitative aspects of the boom – its diversity, how legal and scientific changes have allowed more people to become parents, and advances in knowledge about child development – than whether its size would be maintained. All of those trends look set to continue – the baby boom will still change Britain. I also used the latest data available, which showed that the increase in the number of births that began at the start of the 21st century was still apparent in 2012.

And yet, and yet, and yet ….

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I don’t want to get carried away – it is all too easy to admire someone’s goal and their tenacity while forgetting to evaluate them based on their results and in their historical context. At this point, it takes Govian willpower to say that his structural reforms to the education system have been a success – for three reasons.

Firstly, and rather obviously, we hardly know anything about the performance of children that have attended free schools, or those who have been taught under the Gove era. Ofsted reviews of free school suggest they are no better than others. What we know about the features of the best performing schools across the world (mostly teacher quality but also data-driven classrooms, high aspirations, longer hours, etc.) are only sporadically apparent in the first waves of free schools.

Secondly, the National Audit Office and others have raised serious concerns over the transparency of the selection process, free schools’ availability where they are most needed, and the looming trouble in the department’s capital budget. Collateral damage from a battle against an incalcitrant bureaucracy? Perhaps. When you blast a blob goo comes out. But one can not read these reports and celebrate success.

Thirdly, Mr Gove may have been the most radical reformer in the coalition but his changes should be seen in their proper context. Checking them against Thatcher’s legacy is important. So too is realising that they are a turbocharged version of the reforms began under the Blair government – free schools are academies. (Literally – they are academies under law.) I sense a tendency among some Conservatives to confuse how Mr Gove revolutionised the party’s views on education with him being the first and only person in the country to want to shake up the schools system.  Read more

Today’s young people are less likely to booze, take drugs or commit crimes than previous generations. They are sober, serious and staid. Socially, their maturity belies their years. But as a new report makes clear, the Great Recession has made them economically juvenile: in receipt of more support from the state and from their parents. Young people are growing up faster and slower than their forebears.

In their annual survey on living standards in Britain, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggest that the fastest growing type of inequality over the past five years has been between the young and the old, rather than between the rich and the poor or London and the rest of the country. (There is of course overlap here, and the IFS says the rich-poor divide will soon widen.) This rupture promises to affect the future of Britain’s economy for generations to come.
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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