On Thursday, Scots will vote on whether Scotland should be an independent state. Such a referendum seemed unlikely 10 years ago. A Yes vote would have seemed even more surprising. This is an attempt to explain why the vote is happening – and why it is happening now – for interested and befuddled people from all over the world. In other words, it is a history of 1,000 years of Scottish nationalism. Read more

The defining characteristic of recent polling on the independence referendum has been convergence, not volatility. Six new polls were released over the weekend. They affirm patterns evident since August: a narrow (and narrowing) No lead based on voting patterns among different genders, ages and social classes. If Yes were to win on Thursday it would be cause for serious reflection for all of the pollsters.

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After the shock of its poll last week showing the Yes side ahead in the Scottish independence referendum, YouGov’s latest is a return to relative calm. Based on an online survey carried out between Tuesday and Thursday of this week, the pollster puts the Yes side on 48 per cent and No on 52 per cent, excluding undecideds.


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If the poll released by Survation on Wednesday evening were the only poll about the independence referendum published in the past two weeks there would be no panic. No all-party devolution plans. No saltire on Downing Street. No last minute visits.

Before this poll, the three previous surveys (two from YouGov and one from TNS) had each undermined the established story about the vote on September 18. They suggested that Yes was gaining support, including among women and young people, leaving the No side relying on Scots in their dotage to carry them to the finish line.

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In 2003, Carol Craig published The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence, a book that led to a lot of debate in Scotland. A mix of overgeneralisation and insight, it argued that Scots were mentally ill-equipped for the 21st century. Craig wrote that this was not down to an inhibited Scottish identity but rather from too much Scottishness. An inheritance of Calvinism, socialism and patriotism had bestowed on Scots a narrow perspective on the world and their own potential to shape it. She also criticised an overly masculine culture soaked in whisky, football and that dandy Robert Burns.

As one might expect this provoked quite the reaction, which in many instances supported the points Craig was making. Either way, her aim was a good one: to try to encourage a more vibrant, entrepreneurial, pluralistic and open Scottish society. Read more

Now we know: the YouGov poll that on Saturday ended complacency about the outcome of the independence referendum was not an outlier. On Tuesday, TNS BMRB, another pollster, published results from its final survey. These show No on 39 per cent of possible voters, Yes on 38 per cent, with 23 per cent undecided.

Summarising the results, Tom Costley, TNS Group Director, told me it’s “almost all good news for the Yes campaign” and the race is “neck and neck; too close to call”. His poll is further evidence that the momentum has swung towards the Yes side.

The charts below show the running TNS tallies, first for all likely voters, and second for voters who say they are certain to vote in the referendum. When it comes to certain voters, the two sides are both on 41 per cent. (TNS likes the certain voter measure. Mr Costley says it is very highly correlated with actual turnout.)


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On September 18, Scotland will vote to leave the UK. That is the conclusion being drawn from the latest YouGov poll on the independence referendum. Published Saturday, it has Yes on 51 per cent and No on 49 per cent, once don’t know votes are excluded. The sides are within the margin of error but the momentum is with Yes.

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“It is not about nationalism, it is about socialism.” That is the argument for Scottish independence made not only by many Scots but also by some on the English left. In Scotland, the Jimmy Reid foundation, Common Weal, the Scottish Socialist party, the Scottish Greens and some of the SNP have called for “radical independence”. This idea has attracted left-wing supporters from south of the border: Billy Bragg, John Harris, George Monbiot, Tariq Ali and other writers often found in the Guardian. They hope that Scottish independence will serve as a catalyst for England’s left. A No vote, Monbiot argues, would be an act of “self-harm” and “system justification”.

Although the formal Yes campaign has not gone as far as some of the fringe groups, its underlying argument in the final months of the campaign has been that Scotland is politically and morally different from the rest of the UK – it is crying out to be a social democracy, while the Conservative-led government in London drifts to the right. Read more

This chart is via Ed Conway:

The coloured lines denote the voting intentions of different age groups in the independence referendum. Voters aged 60 and over (green line) remain firm No voters, according to data from YouGov, a pollster, but in its latest poll, a majority of Scots in the other age groups now say they will vote Yes.

These data are from only one polling company and when you break samples of about 1,000 (roughly the average number of people per poll) then the numbers per age group become small quickly. Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that if Scotland is to vote No on September 18, it will be older voters who preserve the union. Read more

“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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