Or to victory!

I haven’t discussed the independence referendum opinion polls for a long time, mainly because they haven’t shown a clear picture.

Indyref opinion polls.
Indyref opinion polls.
However, the polls are starting to converge. To see why, let’s first look at the raw Yes/No results reported since the beginning of 2012 (see the graph on the right — click on it for a larger version; all data from Wikipedia).

At a first glance, the picture isn’t very clear. Some pollsters are showing a strong movement — for instance, TNS BMRB is showing an enormous fall in the number of No voters since early 2013 — but it’s hard to spot a uniform pattern.

Indyref opinion polls, DKs excluded.
Indyref opinion polls, DKs excluded.
To make the results more comparable, many experienced psephologists recommend excluding the undecided voters (see for instance this blog post by John Curtice from last September). If we do that, Ipsos MORI, TNS BMRB and YouGov move closer together, but there are still huge differences (see the graph on the right).

Very broadly speaking, it does look like Ipsos MORI, TNS BMRB and YouGov are in agreement, just as Angus Reid and ICM seem to concur, and Panelbase appears to be on its own. There’s no way to conclude at this stage who’s right and who’s wrong (we won’t know until the day after the referendum), but the gap between the first group and the second one is about six percentage points, and the gap between the second one and the third one is about three points.

Indyref opinion polls, DKs excluded, adjusted.
Indyref opinion polls, DKs excluded, adjusted.
If we adjust the opinion polls by this amount, it becomes much easier to spot common trends. Of course, nobody knows for sure which pollster to use as the target, so I’ve done this exercise three times, once for each pollster group. However, to save space I’ve only included the graph where Angus Reid and ICM were to chosen to be the target that the other pollsters were brought into line with (see the graph on the right).

When displayed like this, it becomes very clear that the support for the No side seems to have peaked around the summer of 2013, and that Yes has been rising ever since.

If we were to draw a trend line through the results since August 2013, these adjusted figures would lead us to expect a very respectable Yes victory (55% to 45%), and Yes should overtake No in polls adjusted this way around mid May (the trend line isn’t shown on the graph).

On the other hand, if we adjust Panelbase, Angus Reid and ICM to force them into line with Ipsos MORI, TNS BMRB and YouGov, the trend line leads to the conclusion that Yes will lose by a bawhair (49% to 51%).

And finally, if we adjust all the other polls to bring them into line with Panelbase, it looks like Yes will win by a landslide (58% to 42%) and that Yes will overtake No as early as late February.

To summarise, if Ipsos MORI, TNS BMRB and YouGov are right about the proportion of Yes voters, we should expect a very close referendum result if the current trends continue; if ICM and Angus Reid are right, we’ll see a solid Yes victory; and if Panelbase are right, we’ll get a Yes landslide.

There’s a lot of work still to be done for the Yes side, but it’s very clear why the No campaign is starting to panic.

Taking the long view

How will Scottish independence be seen by future generations?
How will Scottish independence be seen by future generations?
I get really annoyed at the way the No side constantly try to make people think that voting Yes is the equivalent of making Alex Salmond dictator for life. They also moan that it’ll cost a lot of money to buy a navy and duplicate certain shared institutions.

I just wish they would take the long view more often. How many people today are able to remember the names of England’s and Scotland’s leading politicians at the time the Act of Union was signed, more than three hundred years ago? And more to the point, do they actually care? Should people in 1707 have decided on the merits of creating the Union on the basis of whether they liked the political leaders of the day or not?

I’m not saying the Yes side never uses short-term arguments, but I do think the No side are the worst sinners in this regard. Focusing so much on Salmond is ridiculous — for all we know, he might decide to step down shortly after the independence referendum, and even if he doesn’t, it’s quite likely a revitalised Scottish Labour will win the 2020 Scottish General Election (or even the one in 2016).

It’s also silly to talk so much about the one-off costs associated with setting up an independent country. After a few years nobody will evaluate the decision to become independent based on these transitional costs; instead, they’ll look at how Scottish GDP developed over time after the referendum.

Whereas short-termism permeates the No campaign (probably because they know they have a very weak case when it comes to the longer view), it’s relatively sporadic on the Yes side. Of course we do get a lot of stories about how an independent Scotland will abolish the Bedroom Tax and such things, but that’s because they provide both a tangible benefit of independence and an example of how Scotland will do things differently, not because the short-term case is more compelling.

Next time I’m talking to a youngish undecided voter who says they’ll probably vote No because they don’t like Alex Salmond, I think I’ll ask them what they think their grandchildren will think of that in fifty years’ time.

You cannot step into the same river twice

River Crossing
River Crossing, a photo by Tom Olliver on Flickr.

There was a rather downbeat article by Iain Macwhirter in The Herald today:

Scots voted for the SNP by a landslide, not because they wanted independence but because they were sick of Labour and wanted better devolution. […] [P]artly as a result of that 2011 vote and the referendum it triggered the status quo may no longer be an option. As this column has argued before, the new arrangements for funding the Scottish Parliament under the 2012 Scotland Act will end the fixed formula era and turn every budget round into a struggle. Like the residents of Benefits Street, Scots are going to be forced to get by on less, one way or another.
But, if the Social Attitudes Survey is any guide, it is going to be a grumpy campaign with a disenchanted electorate facing a choice of unacceptable alternatives and wishing that the referendum would just go away. Unfortunately, it won’t.

I don’t agree with the tone here — I think the referendum is a great opportunity for Scotland, and it’s clear that the campaign is energising and inspiring lots of people who weren’t engaged in politics before.

However, I do think Iain Macwhirter has a point. Many voters would probably just like to retain the status quo in spite of all its shortcomings.

What they need to understand is that the independence campaign is changing Scottish and UK politics forever. As Heraclitus said, “you cannot step into the same river twice”. There will be no returning to the exact devolution settlement that existed before if Scotland votes No in September, even if the legislation doesn’t get changed.

From a UK point of view, the Scottish lion will have been declawed, because the threat of independence will have gone for a while. Until now, there’s always been a fear that the Scots would leave the Union if we got too bad a deal. After a No vote, there will be a unique opportunity to get rid of the Barnett formula and such things. I wouldn’t be surprised if Westminster also acted to make it much harder to hold another independence referendum in the future.

From a Scottish point of view, many voters will now for the first time be aware that Scotland is subsidising England rather than the other way round. There will also be a lot of anger if Devo-Max never materialises (and I expect it won’t because of the declawing of the lion, as discussed above).

I can sympathise with those voters who just wish the sleeping lion had never been woken up from its 300-year sleep. However, it’s now awake again, and on 18 September it will either break out of its cage or pull back, whimpering with fear, waiting for the declawing to happen.

Everything flows, nothing will ever be the same again, and we need to decide on the lion’s future. Brave or feart?

Giving up on mainstream media

BBC Scotland
BBC Scotland, a photo by Kasia!! on Flickr.
All independence campaigners have been aware of a varying degree of bias in mainstream media (MSM) for a long time.

I think many have thought that this was a temporary situation, that things would change once the Yes campaign had assembled enough facts to feed to the waiting journalists.

However, there’s no sign that things are changing. Just in the past few days, there have been three stories that showed the bias:

  1. An academic at the University of the West of Scotland published research that demonstrated bias in how the BBC and STV deal with independence stories. (Newsnet Scotland has the full story.)
  2. Another academic at the University of Stirling demonstrated that a Scandinavian-style welfare state can’t be constructed purely through the tax system. In other words, extended devolution is not enough — only independence will make it possible for Scotland to achieve this laudable aim. This research article wasn’t ignored, but the MSM tried to describe it as a blow for the Yes side. (See Wings over Scotland for details.)
  3. The Daily Mail has launched a campaign against cybernats, completely ignoring the vile abuse that No campaigners write every day. (Lallands Peat Worrier has written an excellent blog post about this.)

To make matters even worse, it now turns out that the BBC have not been ignoring the first story at all. They have instead been trying to undermine the researcher who created it. Derek Bateman has the full story.

What this means is that Yes campaigners can’t wait for the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media to drop their bias. Their recent aggressive reactions make me think it’s quite likely the bias will get stronger, not weaker, as the referendum gets closer.

Many voters are getting the vast majority of their information from MSM, so it’s an almost impossible struggle to convince them of the merits of voting Yes if they don’t get information from other sources, too.

I know there have been numerous small-scale attempts to make people aware of some of the pro-independence blogs (such as Newsnet Scotland, Wings over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, National Collective, Business for Scotland, etc.); however, I think this has to become a focus in the next six months.

Whenever we speak to undecided voters, we should give them a list of URLs, and somebody should seriously consider raising money to advertise these websites on buses and in Glasgow’s subway.

We know for a fact that informed voters tend to become Yes voters. We just need to ensure they get enough information to enable them to make up their own minds.

Voting No for change doesn’t work

So I put a '1' against my first choice and a '2' against my second choice, right?
So I put a ‘1’ against my first choice and a ‘2’ against my second choice, right?, a photo by hugovk on Flickr.
The Alternative Vote was defeated because almost nobody really liked this voting system. The LibDems preferred the Single Transferable Vote, and other campaigners preferred proper proportional representation.

The Alternative Vote (AV) had been chosen as some sort of compromise during the Conservative-LibDem coalition negotiations, but the Tories campaigned against it regardless, and the LibDems were then forced to try and persuade the electorate to support a voting system they didn’t really like themselves.

So it’s likely many people voted No because they weren’t convinced by the merits of AV, not because they were against a reform per se.

However, the No victory buried all hope of another voting system for a generation, because it was interpreted as support for FPTP.

If the Yes side had won, it would have been possible to change AV into something better a few years later, but the No vote was effectively a vote for the status quo.

The lesson for the Scottish independence campaign is obvious.

Many No campaigners argue that all sorts of wonderful reforms will happen after a No vote, but in reality it’s very likely it will be interpreted as a vote to keep things as they are.

A Yes vote, on the other hand, will make it possible to discuss many other reforms in Scotland — such as abolishing the monarchy — that just aren’t on the agenda at the moment.

I actually feel sorry for the Devo-Max supporters out there. It’s a very popular vision for the future of Scotland, but by keeping it off the ballot paper the Westminster government has ensured that it will never happen. We’ll either get full independence or nothing at all.

All Devo-Max supporters must therefore face up to the reality that their preferred option won’t suddenly be resurrected after a No vote. They have to decide whether their favourite outcome is closer to the current devolution settlement or to independence.

How to keep Scottish universities free after independence

Foam Fight_3946
Foam Fight_3946, a photo by Sarah Ross photography on Flickr.
The following is a reworked and updated version of this old blog post:

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

This is an area where the Scottish Government’s White Paper is a bit vague, and many unionists have now started claiming that Scotland will have no choice but to introduce tuition fees after independence (see this article by Severin Carrell for details).

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia, where the closely related languages in theory make it easy for students to study in the other Nordic countries, and EU rules mean these foreign students can’t be discriminated against based on citizenship.

Denmark used to have great problems in this area. For instance, large numbers of Swedes used to study medicine in Copenhagen and then go home straight after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefited Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who were living in Denmark prior to starting university. (Denmark used to require students to have lived there for at least five years in order to qualify, but this is an area that the EU is currently clamping down on.)

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence.

There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers, so it would be easy to tweak the entry requirements to make it harder for rUK students to get into Scottish universities. Scotland could also introduce a new grading system different from the one used in the rUK, which would then need to be converted. The very best rUK students would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway. (The rUK might retaliate and make it harder for Scottish students to get into their universities, but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.)

Scotland could also introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and residents. However, as I wrote above, the EU is not too happy about creating too many restrictions in this area.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Finally, England is the odd man out in the EU when it comes to tuition fees. Most EU countries have either no fees or very low ones. Scotland might be able to convince the other countries that England’s sky-high fees are distorting the free movement of students and that restrictions have to be placed on English students until England lowers its fees. This would be an ideal solution.

The most realistic answer

L'Assemblée Nationale Européenne
L’Assemblée Nationale Européenne, a photo by CedEm photographies on Flickr.
A short while ago, Yves Gounin (who is a high-ranking government official in France) wrote a very interesting article in the journal Politique étrangère.

The Catalan website VilaWeb has provided a useful summary, as has Wee Ginger Dug, and the article itself is here in PDF format.

It’s an excellent article, and I highly recommend reading it if you have any French (Google Translate will help you to a certain extent, but it will get confused in some places).

I decided to provide a summary of my own, maintaining the author’s section headings, and focusing on the bits that are most directly relevant for Scotland.

However, I very much hope somebody will soon provide a full translation into English — it’s an essential document in the Scottish independence debate.

Anyway, let’s get started! After a short introduction the article is divided into the following sections:

Longing for independence and European integration [p. 12]
The independence movements in at least Scotland and Catalonia are united by their desire to remain in the EU, not least because doing so reassures the voters that the countries won’t be internationally isolated after independence.

It’s therefore important to explore whether these new states will become EU member states automatically, or whether they will be placed in the same situation as the applicant countries of Eastern Europe, obliged to follow the long and risky process of accession negotiations.

A political gamble [p. 12f]
The independence supporters are therefore keen to assert that continued membership of the EU is practically automatic, while opponents claim that independence would lead to applying for EU membership from scratch.
The answers from public international law: succession of states [p. 13ff]
The author briefly explains how states can succeed states. It’s likely the remaning parts of the UK and Spain will try to claim continuing state status, whereas it’s unlikely either Flanders or Wallonia could do this if Belgium is dissolved.
Succession of states and international treaties [p. 15f]
After looking at how the succession of states affects international treaties, the author concludes one has to look at the rules of each international organisation separately — one cannot conclude anything about EU accession by looking solely at international law.
An unprecedented situation [p. 17]
Looking at the EU itself, it quickly becomes clear that there aren’t any clear precedents.
A brief detour via the UN [p.17f]
While there are no precedents within the EU, that’s not the case in the UN. Here the rules are clear: The new state has to apply for membership from scratch.
The EU hostile to the splitting of states [p. 18ff]
There are good reasons why the EU is against member states splitting up.

On the one hand, the EU promotes its own regional agenda but does not want to be accused of getting involved in the internal affairs of member states at the same time.

On the other hand, many member states are worried about their own independence movements and believe they can hold back these by obstructing the accession to the EU of new states forming from other EU member states.

Common sense arguments in support of automatic membership [p. 20f]
However, is it reasonable and realistic to expel parts of existing member states from the EU? Can one imagine border posts on the Catalan border? The reintroduction of a national currency in Flanders? Scots deprived of their rights derived from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights?

Also, a legal argument can be taken from Article 50 of the TEU, which outlines the procedure by which a member state can leave the EU. It could be argued that expelling these states and refusing to readmit them would be in breach of this explicit procedure.

Another argument stems from the EU’s founding principles: freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. It would be ironic if the Union denied the populations of Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders the right to self-determination, and this would undoubtedly constitute a democratic regression.

Europe of the citizens [p. 21]
An even more powerful argument can be drawn from the link established over time between the European Union and its citizens. The EU constitutes “a new legal order of international law whose subjects are not only States but also their nationals”. That means that unlike other international organisations, the EU is not only composed of states but also of citizens.

The question here is whether by losing their British, Spanish and Belgian nationality, the Scots, Catalans and Flemings will ipso facto also lose their EU citizenship.

A negotiation in good faith would be in everybody’s interest [p. 22]
It’s fair play for opponents of independence to raise obstacles to continued EU membership, but one might ask whether it’s in the EU’s own interest to complicate the (re-)admission of these states. Once the Rubicon of independence has been crossed, Europe would have everything to lose by putting these states into quarantine: its businesspeople couldn’t invest there any more, nor could its young people study there, its travellers move there freely, its fishermen sail there, etc.

A practical solution must be found.

The most reasonable solution would be to negotiate independence and EU membership simultaneously. It would thus be neither automatic membership nor going through the full procedures of Article 49. The absence of relevant precedents, legal uncertainty and the magnitude of the challenge will require the parties to negotiate. This is not the most illuminating answer to the question, but without a doubt it is the most realistic.