Scotland

I was asked if I had any suggestions for reading in Scottish politics. I thought I’d share the following non-exhaustive list of good articles from the last few months.  Read more

At the seven-way leaders debate last week, Nicola Sturgeon took full advantage of a simple fact: she knows much more about UK politics and policies than her opponents know about Scotland’s. A skilled and experienced politician, the Scottish National party leader took advantage of these information asymmetries. She made the most of her perceived underdog status; many commentators said that she “won”.

On Tuesday night, as the overdog rather than the underdog, and debating other Scottish party leaders in a mere four-way TV showdown, Ms Sturgeon was always going to be challenged more — on her government’s record and her policies for 2015. She was criticised for Scotland’s rising NHS waiting lists, its unequal access to higher education, her dubious pledge to increase spending while reducing public debts and for her government’s centralising reforms to policing and cuts to further education. And when she refused to rule out another independence referendum in the near future – a wholly sensible and legitimate choice – the audience had a wee heckle.  Read more

The Scottish National party could, after all, wield power in an independent state. It just happens to be the state from which it wants to secede. Less than a year after the referendum in which Scots voted against independence, the SNP is projected to win more than 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats at the British general election. Such a bloc would make it the most formidable nationalist group since Charles Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary party of the 1880s. And since neither the Conservative nor the Labour party is forecast to win an overall majority at the polls on May 7, the new SNP MPs could be the most troublesome Westminster Scots since the Lords who took the then nascent union to within four votes of dissolution in 1713. Read more

Some supporters of Scottish independence believe in the conspiracy theory that MI5 was working against a Yes vote. Others have so much optimism bias about the economics of independence that I worry there is dopamine* in their Irn-Bru.

And let’s not mention the secret oil fields.

In the aftermath of the referendum Scotland feels beset by an asymmetric tribalism. Crudely, No voters, almost by definition, do not want the general election to be about independence. Yes voters, almost by definition, believe it’s still the defining issue.

The coverage of the SNP’s high poll ratings and what the party might do if it held the balance of power in Westminster often gives the impression that a madness has taken over Scotland and kilted Jacobites are set to invade from north of the border.

But in a very important sense, Scottish voters are behaving entirely rationally.  Read more

Given the Scottish National Party’s imperious poll ratings it easy to conclude that, despite the Yes side’s defeat in last year’s referendum, independence is inevitable.

But the release on Wednesday of annual fiscal figures from the Scottish Government suggest that, at least when it comes to the economic case for independence, 2014 was an unusually good year for nationalists, one that may not repeat itself anytime soon.


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The independence referendum is still being fought in Scotland, but this time the nationalists are winning. This is one implication from 16 constituency polls commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft and released on Wednesday.

They support what has been increasingly obvious ever since Scots voted No on September 18: there is a new landscape in Scottish politics. The Scottish Nationalist party is projected to replace Labour as the dominant force north of the border.

Here are the headline results of Lord Ashcroft’s polls (click to expand):

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The general election in May is one of the most difficult to predict in British history. The result will undermine old certitudes. An incumbent’s share of the vote typically dwindles from one election to the next. An opposition has never won with Milibandite ratings on both the economy and the strength of its leader. Two-party politics, injured in 2010, could be confirmed dead in 2015. Six parties could have a critical role in deciding the allocation of seats. The 650 constituency races each have their own dynamic; it doesn’t make much sense to think of this as a single election.

Scotland is a case in point. Since the independence referendum on September 18, the Scottish National party has taken a big opinion poll lead over the Labour party:

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Since Scots voted against independence on September 18 the Scottish National party has surged in opinion polls and appointed a new, popular leader; pro-independence journalists have launched a newspaper, The National; and the Scottish government is preparing to wield more power than any other devolved parliament in Europe.

“No” voters could be forgiven for considering theirs a pyrrhic victory. After all, 55 per cent of Scottish voters opted against independence. Nevertheless, this was not a vote for the status quo. A majority of Scots want more devolution. The leaders of three biggest (for now) UK political parties belatedly then rashly promised as much on the eve of the independence referendum. On Thursday, the Smith Commission, charged with working out the details of further devolution, will issue its recommendations.

Although the comparison is imperfect, the recommendations will mark the point when Scotland becomes, in fiscal terms, the Basque Country of the United Kingdom.


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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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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

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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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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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

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

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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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