Where was the SNP?

Freedom Square in Glasgow today, one year and a day after the independence referendum.
Freedom Square in Glasgow today, one year and a day after the independence referendum.
I’m just back from the Hope over Fear rally in Glasgow that was held to commemorate the independence referendum.

It was great — a fun family outing like the ones we used to attend all the time during the referendum campaign. The kids know the routine — going to the face-painting stall and wearing huge Saltires — and they love it.

I met a lot of friends from the Yes campaign there. Most of them are SNP members today, but of course there were people from all pro-Yes parties and none.

However, the SNP wasn’t officially involved in the event, and as far as I could tell, there weren’t any MPs or MSPs there. It was almost as if they’d been told not to attend.

I can understand if people in SNP HQ are worried about sharing a platform with Tommy Sheridan and about helping the Greens and the SSP in the fight for the crucial Holyrood list votes, but boycotting the post-No Yes events is a monumental error.

At least 95% of the people at the rally today were there because they saw it as a Yes event, and they couldn’t care less who the organiser was. Yes supporters have a huge need for Yes marches and rallies to keep the flame alive, and Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity party is simply filling the void left behind by the SNP.

As a result, the ordinary punter can easily get the impression that Tommy Sheridan cares much more about independence than the SNP, which is obviously completely and utterly wrong.

If Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon had been there today, they would of course have got a much bigger cheer than Tommy Sheridan, and it would have given them a great platform to explain why a list vote for the SNP is the best way to get independence soon, and probably more effective than giving the second vote to one of the smaller pro-Yes parties.

I’m not saying the SNP needs to share a platform with Solidarity if they don’t want to. They could create great Yes events together with the Greens, the SSP and the surviving Yes groups such as Women for Independence and Business for Scotland, and of course the vast majority of SNP members would choose to attend the events organised by their own party. Also, the turn-out was excellent today, but if the SNP organised and publicised an event (such as a march and rally in Edinburgh on the independence anniversary), it should be quite feasible to get at least 100,000 people to attend, and that would really get Westminster’s attention.

As I’ve argued before, we need to campaign for independence now in order to get the support up to a level where a new referendum is inevitable. We can’t simply focus on party politics and hope that support for independence suddenly increases on its own.

Two percent of Scots have joined the SNP over the past year because they think it’s the best way to get independence soon. However, my gut feeling is their support is dependent on a strong commitment to independence, and that means the SNP has to be seen to be leading the continuing Yes campaign. The SNP should have had a strong official presence on Freedom Square today.

Still dreaming

Blair Jenkins
Blair Jenkins.
My subconscious mind must have been busy dealing with the anniversary of the independence referendum: Last night I dreamt that I was in a pub with Blair Jenkins, telling him we had to start campaigning for independence again; he agreed with me, and suddenly he stood up, press photographers appeared out of nowhere, and he announced his successor as leader of Yes Scotland (it was somebody famous, but I had forgotten who it was by the time I woke up).

Like other Yes campaigners, today I’m flying a Saltire from the house and wearing my good old Yes badges. Of course, like many other people I never removed by Yes and Bu Chòir stickers from my car, so it’ll look the same as always.

The UK hasn’t been fixed (in fact it’s even worse now that the Tories have an absolute majority), and although it’s looking like Scotland will get slightly more new powers than I had expected, it’s still nowhere near home rule. And of course, once you’ve set your sight on independence, nothing else will ever be good enough.

Like many other people, in the past year I’ve thought about various things that we could have done better: We should have tailored our messages better in Edinburgh and the North-East, Yes Scotland made many errors, the Yes campaign to a large extent ignored EU citizens, and we should have tried to make postal voting less vulnerable to fraud.

But more than anything, we need to start campaigning for independence again. We don’t need to wait for the next referendum to be called — that’s a technicality that can be dealt with once we’ve got 60% support in the polls. At the moment, we’ve got the people, we’ve got the ideas, and we’ve got the momentum.

The dream will never die, and we can make it come true soon!

Home rule if we let the dream die

Driving into Scotland after 2014
Driving into Scotland after 2014.

Alun Evans, the former director of the Scotland Office, has used the upcoming anniversary of the referendum to issue a call for home rule:

The time has come for the United Kingdom to make a big, bold, generous and mature offer to the people of Scotland. That offer needs to be – whatever people choose to call it, full fiscal autonomy or devo max plus – “home rule within the United Kingdom”, to use the language of Charles Parnell and William Gladstone.

What would that look like? It could be: full devolution of tax and spending to the Scottish parliament and government, except for reserved areas; full responsibility for domestic policy and spending; full responsibility for energy policy and activity on and offshore; agreement on certain shared responsibilities within the UK; a framework of the continuance of the UK as a constitutional monarchy; a shared economic area with monetary policy set by the UK central bank’s monetary policy committee on which Scotland’s views should be represented; defence and the overall conduct of foreign policy to be run by the UK but with full consultation.

Well, that’s cool — exactly what the SNP has asked for every day since the No vote. However, Mr. Evans has three conditions:

But there would need to be three broad conditions. First: economic. This arrangement would, by definition, spell the end of the Barnett formula for public spending as it is applied to Scotland – needing a new and fairer formula to apply to Wales and Northern Ireland.

That’s fine, so long as the price agreed for shared UK services (such as the military) is fair.

Second: political. Giving a far greater degree of independence within the UK to Scotland – home rule – should have a quid pro quo in terms of reduced political power for Scotland within the Westminster parliament. The best, and fairest, answer to the West Lothian question is that home rule should coincide with a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs in return for home rule. That would imply a cut of perhaps 50% in the number of Scottish MPs.

That, on the other hand, is ridiculous. I’d be very happy for Westminster to split into two parliaments — an English one and a federal one — and of course Scotland should only have seats in the latter. However, in the federal parliament Scotland should count for more, not less. As I’ve argued before, the Penrose formula should be used, which would give Scotland roughly 1/6 of the seats in the UK Parliament, rather than the 1/20 that Alun Evans seems to be advocating. Otherwise Scotland simply wouldn’t have as much influence on the international stage as it would as an independent country.

Third: constitutional. This issue has to be put to bed for a generation, not for a year or for five years. There may be something to be learned from the experience of Canada with Quebec. After its second referendum in 1995 – when the separatist movement failed to gain independence by only 1% – the government reached out to Quebec and sold the benefits of remaining within Canada much more strongly and passionately, to the extent that the pressure for separatism has subsided.

Those who believe in Scotland remaining a part of the UK now need to do the same to ensure that agreement on home rule is not immediately unpicked. And so a long-term agreement must stipulate that it is for the long term – even if that needs to be enshrined in a new treaty of union.

It might be a good idea for the SNP to agree to a decade-long referendum moratorium in return for home rule, but I don’t like the sound of Mr. Evans’s last sentence at all. It sounds a lot like he would make it illegal to call another referendum, and that simply wouldn’t be acceptable. Some people might have swallowed this on 19th September last year when everything was dreich and thrawn, but now that most people feel that another referendum is just a few years away, I don’t see why anybody would accept these terms and conditions.

Home rule is fine, but only if it’s a stepping-stone towards full independence for Scotland.

My thoughts are my own — how to break up social network monopolies

3D Social Networking
3D Social Networking.
A few hours ago I came home from a meeting at Maklab entitled Blether about open source, Scotland and Paul Mason’s “PostCapitalism”, and my head has been buzzing ever since.

At some point during the meeting, Alistair Davidson said something about Web 2.0 essentially being about moving all software functionality to servers instead of focusing on selling programs (compare Gmail with old-fashioned email clients). A general discussion followed, and suddenly it all clicked into place for me: In an Open Source and social media context, we need to talk less about programs and more about data.

The reason no email client could ever become a monopoly was because the email protocol is quite simple, and any decent programmer can easily write an email client.

The reason it’s so hard to compete with Facebook (even Google+ couldn’t do it although Google threw lots of resources after it, and many other efforts such as Diaspora and Ello never really stood a chance) is because it’s the social network you’ve built up inside it that’s important, not the software itself. Lots of people would leave Facebook tomorrow if they could take their network with them, but they can’t, so they don’t.

Now imagine if your social network data — your connexions, your photos, your posts, your likes and retweets — were all held on a independent server (this could be run by the UN, by a charity financed by Google, by a network of volunteers or even by a private company owned by Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn in conjunction). This server wouldn’t provide a nice interface — you definitely wouldn’t want to use it for your social networking — but it would hold all your data and interact with all the social media websites.

So if you clicked “like” on a story in Facebook, the like would get stored on this server instead of Facebook’s, and if you later decided to move to Google+ instead, your like would still be there (even if would potentially look rather different). Importantly, you wouldn’t need to know which client your friend whose update you liked was using. Effectively, all the social networks would become one from a data point-of-view. Effectively, your thoughts would again be your own and you would simply allow social media clients to interact with them.

Some people would then use one social network client for everything, while others would still use Facebook for family and friends, LinkedIn for business, Twitter for thinking aloud, Flickr for DSLR photos, Instagram for smartphone photos, Spotify for music, etc., etc. It wouldn’t matter, and you could change your clients at any time.

In order to survive, Facebook and the other websites would need to start competing on providing the best user experience rather than trying to help you build up a huge network and then make it difficult to leave. And if somebody decided to create an Open Source social media client, they would immediately have access to people’s social networks and wouldn’t need to spend time and money on building them up afresh on huge and expensive servers.

Of course Facebook and its competitors won’t like this idea, but it’s the kind of thing that antitrust legislation could force through. It would definitely be much more useful than breaking Facebook into two parts (because only the half that retained the network would survive).

Any objections?

Did universal bilingualism give Scots an advantage in the past?

There’s more and more evidence that being bilingual makes you smarter and keeps your brain functioning for longer. Here’s a summary from the New York Times (but there’s a huge amount of material on this topic out there, as a quick Google search will demonstrate):

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.


Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. […] Individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

It’s also a well-known fact that Scotland punched well above its weight inside the United Kingdom. It appears to me that this started some decades after the 1707 Acts of Union and slowly started to fade out in the 20th century.

Interestingly, most successful Scots must have been bilingual (or even trilingual) during this time — you needed to know English well to succeed, but in Scotland everybody spoke only Scots and/or Gaelic (depending on where they lived). I’m not sure when Standard Scottish English started replacing Scots and Gaelic as the primary language of large numbers of Scots, but it must have been a relatively recent event. For instance, when Norn was dying out around the time of the Acts of Union, it got replaced by Scots, not by English. On the other hand, the vast areas of the Highlands where Gaelic died out after the Clearances ended up speaking English, not Scots.

It’s tempting to think that one of the factors that allowed Scotland to punch above it weight was the near-universal bilingualism. If this theory is correct, making all Scots bilingual again by supporting and promoting both Gaelic and Scots will make Scotland a more successful country in the future.

Travel-to-work council areas

Scottish Travel to Work areas.
Scottish mainland Travel to Work areas.
Many people have been pointing out that Scottish councils are very large compared to their counterparts in other countries. For instance, here’s Lesley Riddoch’s take on it:

The average population of our 32 councils today is roughly 170,000 people. The European average is closer to 14,000. The highly devolved Germans have municipal councils of just 7,000 people. And lest anyone think our dispersed rural populations constitute an argument for larger councils, neighbouring Norway has 428 powerful local councils and 19 county councils for a smaller population than Scotland.

It’s of course hard to create perfect council areas in a country where half the population lives in a very small area while half the country is barely inhabited at all — the councils simply can’t have both a similar physical size and a similar population.

Something has to be done, however, but I haven’t seen any good proposals for new administrative boundaries.

I therefore found it interesting to discover that the ONS have worked out the current commuting (travel-to-work) areas based on information in the 2011 census (see the map above). If I’ve counted them correctly, it divides Scotland into 44 areas.

The areas are similar in size, but as a result, some of them have huge populations — for instance their Glasgow area includes not just Glasgow but also East Renfrewshire, East Dumbartonshire and other council areas. I therefore have my doubts it would be a good idea simply to turn these travel-to-work areas into new councils, but the map might provide a useful starting point.