The foreignness scale

In a recent blog posting, Herald journalist David Leask wrote: ‘[T]here are many places […] where the concept of “foreign” comes with a sliding scale rather than a simple binary yes/no switch.’

However, is this only the case in some places? When we ask ourselves whether somebody is a foreigner (in the sense of “an outsider or interloper”, not in the simpler sense of “a person from a foreign country”), don’t we always arrange people and places on a sliding scale? For a person from Glasgow, I presume the scale might look a bit like this:

Family Glasgow Scotland England Ireland Norway Poland Algeria Japan Amazon jungle
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Everybody will have their own scale, depending on how familiar you are with other places. If you’ve got family in Norway and have spent most of your holidays in Poland, these places will feel less foreign to you than to those of your compatriots that aren’t familiar with them.

Anyway, from a Scottish independence point of view, what’s important here is that England won’t suddenly jump from 1 to 10 on this scale after a Yes vote. If England is currently located around 4 and Ireland around 5, it would make sense for England gradually to shift towards 5, too, but it will most likely be a slow process, caused by an increasing unfamiliarity with the finer details of the other country’s politics, TV, education, etc.

When Better Together warn that family members in England will become foreigners overnight after a Yes vote, it’s clearly only true in the simplistic sense that they’ll be citizens of another country; they won’t feel more foreign at all.

Do Better Together deep down want an independent Scotland?

yes? no? maybe.
yes? no? maybe. by Visionello, on Flickr.
Linguists have established various rules for how people interact with each another, the so-called Gricean Maxims. These rules can be broken, but they still underpin the way people interpret what they hear.

One of these rules is the Maxim of Relation, which is often described as “Be relevant!”

The consequence of this is that when Better Together ask questions of the Yes campaign, such as their lenghty 500 questions, there is an assumption that they are relevant, that they aren’t just scaremongering by asking pointless questions.

In other words, Better Together are saying between the lines that they would support a Yes vote if somebody would just answer all their questions satisfactorily.

I don’t believe for a second that any prominent No campaigners will change side if they get enough answers, but my point is that people interpret their questions as if they would.

Better Together are basically saying that they’d love to see an independent Scotland, but that they are concerned whether it’s feasible and need some reassurances in order to recommend a Yes.

This is possibly an excellent strategy, given that this is probably quite representative of how many Scots currently feel.

It strikes me as somewhat odd, however, that Better Together don’t tell us that Scottish independence is a fundamentally bad idea. If even they don’t believe in the Union deep down, why do they bother?

A No campaign fundamentally opposed to Scottish independence would presumably run a completely different campaign. They would say things like “Who would make a better job at running the country — Westminster or Holyrood?” “Would you rather your pension was in the hands of Salmond or Cameron?” “Why give real powers to a mere region?” “Don’t risk losing the protection of British nuclear weapons!” “The House of Lords is a superior way to curtail the powers of a democratically elected parliament!” “Vote with your heart, vote for Britain!”

In short, Better Together have decided to run a negative “Yes, but ….” campaign instead of a positive “No” campaign. I wonder whether this was a conscious decision, or whether they just are fearties who deep down want to see an independent Scotland as much as the rest of us?

The positive case for the Union in 1707

Imperial Wine Gallon, 1707
Imperial Wine Gallon, 1707, a photo by east_lothian_museums on Flickr.
When Better Together and other unionists are asked to present the positive case for the Union, they tend to struggle.

Most of the time, they simply mention some past achievement, such as winning the two World Wars, but if pressed, they either come up with something that isn’t of great benefit to most Scots (e.g., the UK has more embassies than an independent Scotland is likely to have, for instance in South Sudan), or they make a thinly veiled threat and say that it’s positive because it won’t happen if we vote No (e.g., there are currently no border posts on the English-Scottish border — forgetting that manned border posts are rapidly disappearing all over Europe).

However, if you go back to 1707 when the Union was formed, it would have been relatively easy to present a positive case, such as:

  • Sharing the colonies — given that Scotland had practically none, this was of great benefit to Scotland.
  • Getting protected by the Royal Navy instead of being hassled by it.
  • Access to sell products in England — at this time there were lots of trade barriers between countries.
  • A guarantee that Scotland wouldn’t get invaded by the English — again, a real possibility at the time.

I’m not saying that creating a political union with England in 1707 was necessarily the right choice, but you could at least put up a positive case for it. However, the modern international set-up (including organisations like the EU, NATO, WTO and the CoE) means that these arguments have lost their potency.

Of course nobody knows the future, but there aren’t many signs that all the current international organisations will be abolished any time soon, and unless that happens, it’s unlikely there will be a positive case for small countries to attach themselves to their largest neighbour.

Fisking Nate Silver

Nate Silver Gesturing Wildly. Actually, Just a Slow Shutter Speed.
Nate Silver Gesturing Wildly. Actually, Just a Slow Shutter Speed., a photo by handcoding on Flickr.
The Scotsman today published an interesting interview with the American psephologist Nate Silver. Let’s have a look at the interview part of the article:

Nate Silver, the award-winning statistician who shot to fame when he correctly predicted the outcome of all 50 states in the 2012 US presidential elections, says all the indicators point towards Scots voting to stay in the UK on 18 September next year.

True, although some recent polls have been very close (37% Yes vs. 46% No in the Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times in July, and 34% Yes vs. 36% No in the indirect question asked by Panelbase for Wings over Scotland), and although the gap has been closing slowly.

Only a “major crisis” south of the Border could turn the situation in favour of independence, despite it being more than a year until polling day, he added.

If the Panelbase polls are correct, only 0.5% of Scots need to shift from No to Yes every month for the Yes side to win. That’s clearly possible without any major crisis (we’ve seen much bigger shifts than that in electoral campaigns lasting less than a month).

In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Silver said polling data was “pretty definitive”. “There’s virtually no chance that the Yes side will win”, he said. “If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definitive really where the No side is at 60-55 per cent and Yes side is about 40 or so.

Now this is odd. To put Yes at 40% and No at 60% means he’s excluding the Don’t Knows — which is fine — but if you look at the most recent polls in that way, we get this:

Poll Yes No
Panelbase, WoS, August (indirect) 49% 51%
Panelbase, Sunday Times, July 45% 55%
Panelbase, Sunday Times, May 45% 55%
Ipsos MORI, Times, May 34% 66%
TNS BMRB, April 37% 63%
Panelbase, Sunday Times, March 44% 56%

I don’t know about you, but it looks to me like Nate Silver is for some reason completely ignoring the Panelbase polls in order to reach his conclusion here.

“Historically, in any Yes or No vote in a referendum, it’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time, people tend not to default to changing the status quo.

Really? Let me quote from the Wikipedia article about Quebec’s 1995 referendum: Early polls indicated that 67% of Quebecers would vote “No”, and for the first few weeks, the sovereigntist campaign led by Parizeau made little headway. […] Under Bouchard, the numbers continued to change; new polls eventually showed a majority of Quebecers intending to vote “Yes”. […] Days before the referendum, it appeared as if the sovereigntists would win.

As noted on SCOT goes POP!, there are several examples of independence referendum campaigns developing like this. He offers this explanation: My guess is that, paradoxically, the more important a referendum is, the less likely voters are to swing to No by default. The supposed tendency that Silver talks about is largely a side-effect of electorates so often being faced with relatively trivial matters in plebiscites.

“The No side is even more dominant with the younger voters, so there’s not going to be any generational thing going on.”

Really? Panelbase’s July poll had 48% Yes vs. 52% No for 18–34 year olds (after excluding the Don’t Knows), 50% Yes vs. 50% No for 35–54 year olds, and 36% Yes vs. 64% No for 55– year olds.

Most polls I’ve seen have confirmed this: The youngest voters are slightly more sceptical than those in their 30s and 40s, but the oldest voters are the ones most likely to vote No.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Silver said, however, that the Yes campaign could benefit if there is some kind of dramatic economic collapse south of the Border.

“If there was a major crisis in England – if the Eurozone split apart and there were ramifications economically (for the UK) – the maybe things would reconsidered a little bit.

Perhaps. There’s also a strand of thought that people are more likely to vote for independence if they feel positive and optimistic about the future.

But he added: “For the most part it looks like it’s a question of how much the No side will win by, not what the outcome might be.”

This is a rather bold conclusion, given the figures I quoted above.

The French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada has previously rejected a vote on independence, despite sharp “cultural differences and genuine hostility” with the wider Canadian state, Mr Silver added.

I’m not sure what he’s trying to conclude here. Surely he doesn’t believe you can only win an independence referendum if there’s sufficient “cultural differences and genuine hostility”?

“That is a case where a smaller country reads more about the economic consequences and it becomes harder to change the status quo.

As far as I’m aware, the Quebec referendums failed because they didn’t manage to convince the Anglophones they wouldn’t be discriminated against in a French-speaking country, not because they read about the economic consequences.

“That was one where the Yes vote had been ahead, then faded down the stretch and lost.

The Yes vote was well ahead until two weeks before polling day, and in the end the result was 50.58% No vs. 49.42% “Yes”. I don’t think that’s called “fading down the stretch”, it’s called “losing the final sprint”.

“So on general principle, even if you took all the undecided votes, they are more likely to end up being No votes than Yes votes.”

“On general principle”? Where did that come from? My experience from canvassing tells me that most of the undecided voters would like to vote Yes but are looking for reassurance. As a young man told me on the doorstep, after placing himself at 5 on a scale where 1 is No and 10 is Yes: “An independent Scotland could be so good!”

Spreading the word

Catch Up
Catch Up, a photo by sheilaz413 on Flickr.
Wings over Scotland recently commissioned a Panelbase poll and today published the results for the media questions. Here’s what the poll found with regard to knowledge of some of the main websites dedicated to Scottish politics:

Which of these Scottish political websites have you heard of? Tick as many as apply.

  • ThinkScotland: 19%
  • Labour For Independence: 10%
  • The Jimmy Reid Foundation: 10%
  • Newsnet Scotland: 9%
  • Wings Over Scotland: 7%
  • Bella Caledonia: 6%
  • National Collective: 6%
  • Labour Hame: 4%
  • Five Million Questions: 2%
  • Open Unionism: <1%
  • None of the above: 68%

This is a massive problem. It means 68% of the population are likely to get their knowledge mainly from newspapers and TV (and the associated websites) and don’t know any independent websites that are likely to write about Scottish independence.

My guess is that the 68% includes the vast majority of those voters who haven’t made up their mind yet, so the implication is that most waverers get their news exclusively from mainstream media. (It would be good to get this confirmed from the crosstabs once they’re published.)

However, I’m sure the status quo can be changed.

Perhaps Yes Scotland (or the local groups) could select a small number of articles from a few blogs (Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland, Wings over Scotland, National Collective etc.) and with the websites’ permissions print them in a small leaflet and hand it out to all households in Scotland. Each article would also list the URL of the blog it’s from, and the leaflet would of course have to state that Yes Scotland didn’t endorse the blogs but that those particular articles seemed to be of interest to many people.

I lots of people would actually sit down and read the articles and start thinking, and then go and explore the websites themselves. If it would make waverers more likely to read the leaflet, it could even include articles from neutral and anti-independence blogs — the main aim would be to get people to start accessing more news sources.

I’m sure a greater awareness of political websites would lead to an increase in support for Scottish independence.

The Three Hundred Year Night

Holberg, a photo by JsonLind on Flickr.
If you read Norwegian texts from the period when Norway was ruled from Copenhagen (1397–1814), you don’t get the impression that Norwegians were terribly unhappy about their plight. In fact, they didn’t take any steps towards independence until Denmark had to hand Norway over to Sweden after the Napoleonic wars. It’s quite possible Norway would have remained part of Denmark if Denmark-Norway hadn’t been on the losing side in those wars.

However, after Norway became independent again in 1905, it became popular to refer to the years of Danish rule as firehundreårsnatten “the four hundred year night”. With hindsight, they suddenly realised that Norway could have done so much better if it had been run by Norwegians for Norwegians in Norway all along, and they were kicking themselves for having put up with Danish rule for so long, even though at the time it seemed like a reasonable set-up.

Will Scots in the same way talk about the period from 1707 to 2016 as the “three hundred year night” in a generation’s time? Will people be shaking their heads in disbelief at what their forebears thought was an acceptable state of affairs?

PS: The photo shows a statue of Ludvig Holberg, who lived from 1684 to 1754 and is often considered the father of Danish literature. He wrote in Danish because Norwegian had ceased to exist as a written language, in the same was as Scots is now often seen as an English dialect. Although he was born in Norway, he studied in Denmark, worked in Denmark and lived in Denmark because Denmark didn’t see any need to build a university in Norway. It’s quite lucky the Scottish universities were founded before 1707.

Is Fife a kingdom, and is Scotland a country?

Scotland ~ Fife
Scotland ~ Fife, a photo by e r j k p r u n c z y k on Flickr.
Fife is a bonnie part of Scotland, but obviously when it’s called the Kingdom of Fife it’s just a way to commemorate the fact that it was a Pictish kingdom many centuries ago. The word “kingdom” thus has a ceremonial meaning in the collocation “Kingdom of Fife”, but a real, current meaning when we say “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

The reason for this brief introduction to the meanings of the word “kingdom” is that I wonder whether something similar is true with regard to Scotland’s status as a country.

Most Scots — and definitely everybody on the Yes side — see Scotland as a real country, which just happens to have formed a political union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

However, I wonder whether some people on the No side mean something completely different when they say that Scotland is their country, for instance when they insist that they love their country just as much as the Yes campaigners. Do they interpret “country” in a ceremonial fashion, just like the meaning “kingdom” has in the “Kingdom of Fife”? So do they actually mean that they love their region (Scotland), presumably as part of a real country (i.e., the UK)?

This is important because it relates to the representation Scotland gets in Westminster.

As Wings over Scotland put it recently:

If you’re claiming “my country” as being Scotland, then it’s a country [that] only gets the government its people vote for around 40% of the time. The argument from the No camp is that Scots have a vote in electing UK governments like everyone else does, and should just shut up and accept it if their wishes get over-ruled by the much larger population of England, because that’s democracy and people in Newcastle get Tory governments they didn’t vote for either.

But that only works if you’re saying that your “country” is the UK. The minute you identify Scotland as being a country in its own right, that argument disintegrates. Regions of a country have to accept the overall will. Countries should get the governments they vote for.

In other words, if Scotland is a country, then the UK is a union and Scotland should get many more seats in the House of Commons. It’s also logical that Scotland has a parliament, a separate legal system and even its own football team.

However, if Scotland is just a region which is ceremonially called a country, then the current representation in the House of Commons is completely fair, but it’s then a bit strange why Scotland needs a parliament when other regions don’t (in this world view, four regions have parliaments — Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London — but eight don’t: NE England, NW England, Yorkshire and The Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands, East of England, SE England and SW England), and there’s absolutely no justification for Scotland having a separate legal system and its own football team.

I’d like people from the No campaign to tell me what kind of country they consider Scotland to be.