All posts by thomas

Stands Scotland where it did?

MovementsIf we take the Panelbase poll from September (which divided the Scottish electorate into four groups, Yes-Leave, Yes-Remain, No-Leave and No-Remain) and combine it with the findings from the recent YouGov poll that found that 15% of the voters who voted Yes in 2014 would now vote No and that 10% of former No voters have moved to Yes, we can draw an interesting graph.

I’m assuming that the two groups losing voters are Yes-Leave and No-Remain because they’re both desperately unhappy with what’s happening. So in the pie chart above I’ve split Yes-Leave into Yes-Leave-Yes (bluish yellow) and Yes-Leave-No (bright yellow), and No-Remain into No-Remain-No (green) and No-Remain-Yes (turquoise). Of the two groups changing their Indyref stance, Yes-Leave-No is slightly bigger than No-Remain-Yes (7% vs. 5%). This is consistent with the fact that YouGov found a tiny drop in the support for Yes.

So basically the polls are practically static because we’re losing slightly more voters to No than we’re converting to Yes.

We should be optimistic, however. We’re unlikely to lose many more Yes-Leave-Yes voters to Yes-Leave-No – surely most of the remaining ones are so strongly pro-independence that nothing can convert them to No – and the Yes-Remain voters are unlikely to go anywhere so long as the Scottish Government remains pro-EU. At the same time, 24% of voters are still to be found in the No-Remain-No camp, and one would expect more of them to drift towards a Yes when it becomes a certainty that the UK is heading for a hard and messy Brexit with no special status for Scotland.

In other words, I expect the polls will start shifting towards Yes soon.

Brexit shock therapy

Child Labour Photo Contest 2012_Third Prize
Child Labour Photo Contest 2012_Third Prize.
Ever since the Brexit referendum, I’ve kept thinking that the hard Brexit plans surely must be due to a lack of understanding of the consequences, that the Tories would eventually opt for a much softer outcome (such as the Norwegian solution) or at least apply for a decade-long transitional deal to give them time to negotiate new trade deals and all that.

I simply couldn’t see any benefit in causing utter devastation to so many people and businesses across the UK, so I kept believing the people opting for a hard Brexit must be ignorant or deluded.

Then two things happened. Firstly, the leaked memo showed that people in government do seem to realise what they doing and what the consequences will be. Secondly, I started reading Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”.

Parts of this book are now a bit dated (it’s from 2007, so from before the crash), but the bits where she explains why it’s only possible to implement radical neoliberal reforms after some sort of societal crisis are just as relevant today:

It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” […]

What [Friedman] understood was that in normal circumstances, economic decisions are made based on the push and pull of competing interests – workers want jobs and raises, owners want low taxes and relaxed regulation, and politicians have to strike a balance between these competing forces. However, if an economic crisis hits and is severe enough – a currency meltdown, a market crash, a major recession – it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency. Crises are, in a way, democracy-free zones […]. [p.140]

If this is true – which I fear it is – a hard and chaotic Brexit will be a huge opportunity for the Tories to completely abolish the welfare state. They’ll be able to get rid of the NHS, free education, unemployment benefits and whatever else they don’t like. They’ll be able to do this while looking immensely sad, saying that it’s all the EU’s fault for denying them the package they wanted (but quietly always knew wouldn’t be acceptable to the other EU member states). They’ll blame everybody else for the economic collapse, but use it to create a neoliberal wonderland where only the strong survive. Eventually people will realise what has happened, but by then it’ll be too late to reverse.

In Ian Dunt’s new book (“Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?”), the conclusion is similar:

Britain is about to experience a toxic mix of weak law and strong lobbying. It is tantamount to switching a country off and on again. Except that it will not revert to its original state. It will revert, in all likelihood, to a low-tax, low-regulation laissez faire economy, more akin to that of Singapore or Hong Kong than the countries on the Continent. [p.161]

More than three years ago, I warned that many people in England wanted to go down that Singapore-style route:

In their book Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson claim the UK needs to make a fundamental choice: Should it move in the direction of a Scandinavian welfare state (similar to the Common Weal ideas currently being discussed in Scotland), or should it become a low-tax state based on free trade (called “Freeport Ho!” and “Freeport Britain” in their book)?

They don’t really discuss Scottish independence in their book, and they seem to think that the UK must make the choice as a whole.

However, it appears to me that Scotland and London have already chosen. Scotland wants to go down the Common Weal path (and what we’re really discussing in the independence referendum campaign is whether we can convince the rUK to go down that road with us, or whether we should do so alone), and Greater London has practically decided to become a global free port (which is why so many people in the South-East want to leave the EU, dismantle the NHS, and all that).

What I didn’t foresee back then was that the Tories would be able to use the chaos created by their hard Brexit to implement this vision, which is so utterly different from the vision of an egalitarian society based of solidarity and fairness that the vast majority of people in Scotland share.

If we can’t stop the Tories from administering their neoliberal shock therapy, we need to get out before it’s too late. We’re about to witness something that’ll make Thatcher look like a cuddly socialist in comparison.

Scottish independence, Brexit and Trump: Similarities and differences

2016 is continuing to surprise and shock people, and the election of Trump is definitely going to overshadow the Brexit referendum in many people’s minds.

Some people started to comment on Twitter that the No vote in the Scottish independence referendum is starting to look like the exception in that the result was the one expected by the elites. For instance, here’s Kenny Farquharson from The Times:

Tweets like this one have upset many independence supporters, because it makes an implicit link between the Yes campaign on the one hand and Brexit and Trump on the other.

Of course, there are some similarities, but there are also several important differences. Perhaps it gets clearer if we look at some of them in a tabular format:

Yes Leave Trump
Mainly appealed to older voters? No Yes Yes
Xenophobic? No Yes Yes
Internationalist? Yes No No
Did they win? No Yes Yes
Opposed by tabloids, Fox News, etc.? Yes No No
Opposed by broadsheets, the BBC and all that? Yes Yes Yes
Strong appeal to voters ignored by the elite?

Yes Yes Yes
Strong social-media campaign? Yes Yes Yes

So the similarities are basically that all these campaigns were opposed by the elite media (the broadsheets, the BBC and so on), appealed strongly to voters ignored by the elite for years, and ran strong social-media campaigns that to a large extent broke the conventional rules about how a successful campaign should be run. In most other regards, the Leave campaign and Trump were very similar to each other, but very different from the Yes campaign.

Interestingly, if we were to add Bernie Sander’s unsuccessful campaign and the Greek party Syriza to the table, they’d tick almost exactly the same boxes as the Yes campaign.

So did we lose two years ago because of some of the differences? I’m sure we would have won if the tabloid press had supported us, but if the price had been to turn the campaign xenophobic, it simply wouldn’t have been worth it.

If we had appealed more strongly to older voters, that would have pushed us across the line, too. It was hard to do without mainstream-media support, though, and this is something that we need to get right next time.

Perhaps Kenny Farquharson is right, and the independence referendum simply happened too early. Everything else was right, but people weren’t desperate enough yet for what was perceived to be a leap into the dark.

Perhaps the time is ripe now, and things will be easier next time. However, it’s likely to be a finite window of opportunity before people tire of insurgencies, either because the elites get better at listening to voters again, or because the future disasters caused by Brexit and Trump will scare voters away from audacious experiments.

Saying the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong way

Entrance to Oxford Union
Entrance to Oxford Union.
It’s becoming abundantly clear that Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers have rather strange ideas about what the country needs to get out of Brexit (innovative biscuits, anyone?) and how to get Brussels to agree to a good deal. I’ve been somewhat puzzled by the reasons for this, but recently several article and comments have converged to create a clearer picture in my head. I’ll be quoting several of these below.

The first piece in the jigsaw was an
article in the Financial Times by Simon Kuper, who was at Oxford with many of the current Tory politicians:

[P]olitically minded public schoolboys inhabited their own Oxford bubble. […] Their favourite hang-out was the Oxford Union, a kind of children’s parliament that organises witty debates. […] It’s no coincidence that the Houses of Parliament look like a massive great Gothic public school. That building is a magnet for this set. Whereas ordinary Britons learn almost no history at school except a UK-centric take on the second world war (as evidenced in the Brexit debate), the Union hacks spent their school years imbibing British parliamentary history. Their heroes were great parliamentarians such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. I don’t think most Union hacks dreamed of making policy. Rather, Westminster was simply the sort of public-school club where they felt at home […] [When] Margaret Thatcher gave her legendary anti-European “Bruges speech”, […] this set began obsessing about Brussels. Ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in. Tory “Euroscepticism” is in part a jobs protection scheme akin to Parisian taxi drivers opposing Uber. The public schoolboys spent decades trying to get British voters angry about the EU.

This explains amongst many other things why the Brexiteers keep going on about free trade, not realising that today businesses are more interested in not getting their just-in-time supply chains interrupted by customs officials — they have spent too much time reliving the free trade debates of the 19th century.

An old-fashioned attitude to politics also applies to the EU. In a comment on this blog, commenter bjsalba helpfully pointed me towards this comment by Chris Kendall on the CER website:

Something I observed when seconded into Whitehall from the EU was how the Bubble (Westminster and Whitehall) does not ‘get’ the EU Institutions, to the point that it seems almost wilful. What do I mean by this? I mean that Whitehall — even UKREP veterans — deploy almost all of their resources in lobbying other members of the Council while ignoring the other institutions, the Commission and Parliament. London seems to think that building alliances with other capitals is the only way to get things done in Brussels. It almost felt like wishful thinking on their part — “we want it to be intergovernmental so we’re going to pretend that it’s intergovernmental”. Yes, the Council is the most powerful of the EU institutions and yes Member State positioning counts but not exclusively so. As much as Whitehall would like to pretend that Berlin and Paris will be conducting these negotiations, they won’t be. London will have to deal with the Commission. And boy it is not going to be an easy ride. The Commission are very used to tough negotiating on behalf of EU citizens and EU Member States.

This is really shocking, but it explains why David Cameron approached his renegotiation in entirely the wrong way by talking almost exclusively to the other heads of state.

Bjsalba then followed up with this insightful comment:

It seems to me that the UK reluctantly left the era of Gunboat Diplomacy for the era of lobbying other governments behind closed doors where I would suspect double-dealing, bullying and bribery are the order of the day. I don’t think that works too well in Brussels, and the old methods would be seen as what they are, a means the UK getting its way by divide and conquer tactics.

The British Government does not understand how to operate in an organization that works by co-operation. I would suggest that they are “not genetically programmed” to do so. That they are now plan to send round the Royals does indeed smack of desperation.

I think this ties in with the first article I quoted above. The Brexiteer Tories spent their school days studying Westminster debates of the 19th century, so of course they want to revert to the foreign politics of that era, too.

On a similar topic, Cath Ferguson left this comment under a post on Facebook:

I think, ironically, English political leaders have the same thing in reverse with Scotland — a kind of projection. I’m pretty sure none of the sane ones really wanted (or want) Brexit. They just want to blackmail the EU into giving them what they want with the threat of leaving. So with Scotland and the SNP, they assume Salmond, Sturgeon et al are doing the same thing, ie they don’t really want independence, just to force more concessions out of the UK. They view both as games of poker where you “don’t show your hand” to the EU, and “don’t back down” with the Jocks — just tell them what’s what. There’s a real and horrible danger for England there that they end up out the EU on their own because they’ve mis-read both situations and assumed everyone plays daft political games the way Westminster does.

So basically, they don’t just have strange and old-fashioned ideas about how politics should be done, but they assume everybody is the same.

Their lack of cultural awareness was explained well on BBC Radio 4 (transcription from Facebook):

[In Germany] when somebody offers you something to eat, and you want it, you say “Yes”, not “No.” These well-brought up [British exchange student] ladies would usually say, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat a biscuit” the first time around and wait to be persuaded before giving in with a genteel, “Oh, go on then.” In Germany, [their teacher explained], “No” actually means “No.” You won’t be offered that biscuit again.

Last year, David Cameron tried to persuade German chancellor Angela Merkel to let the UK have a special deal to opt out of free movement of people while staying in the single market. She said “No”, and she meant, well, “No.”

Not “No, but okay if you push hard enough maybe yes”, just “No.”

When she said this again before the referendum vote, she meant “No.”

And last week to Theresa May in Brussels, the answer was “No.” She’s not quite sure how to make this any clearer.

But in the UK, poiticians and journalists are asking the question, “What does Merkel really think?” The chatter in Westminster is all about how Britain can persuade Germany to give it the best bits of the single market and amidst all the talk of red lines and not revealing your hand, there is continuous speculation about how to interpret the signals coming out of Berlin.

In fact, this is all quite simple. Merkel means what she says, and German politicians are getting increasingly frustrated by London not seeming to understand this.

Interestingly, several people pointed out on Facebook that this is perhaps only a problem for the southern English middle classes — a Scot doesn’t typically have any issues with understanding what the continental politicians are saying.

It’s very worrying, though, because it means the Brexiteers will waste everybody’s time in the negotiations.

In short, they’ll speak to the wrong people, in the wrong way, asking for the wrong things, and they won’t understand the reply. Wow.

Do we know what worked and what will work?

LeafletsThe recent anti-BBC billboard brouhaha seems to me to be founded in ignorance. The ones in favour of them evidently think they’ll move voters to Yes, and the ones criticising the effort clearly think they’ll have the opposite effect. Crucially, neither group has any firm evidence they’re right, which leads to people resorting to coorse language because they don’t have hard data to back them up.

(We saw the same during the Holyrood campaign earlier this year. Both SNP supporters and their Green counterparts were utterly convinced that giving the second vote to their own party was the right thing to do for the wider Yes movement, but the electoral system is so complex that it was impossible to settle the question logically once and for all, so instead people kept getting into heated arguments with each other instead of taking the fight to the Unionists.)

The interesting thing about the first Indyref campaign was that it was so decentralised. I don’t think anybody has a clear picture of all the campaigning efforts. We simply don’t know what happened, and we thus don’t know what worked.

What had the greatest effect? Door chapping? Yes Scotland’s billboards? Wings over Scotland’s Wee Blue Book? The TV debates? The BBC Bias demonstrations? The street stalls? Project Fear? We simply don’t know.

It would be really interesting to commission an opinion poll asking people when they moved from No to Yes, and if it happened during the campaign, what had the greatest effect on them. It might already be too long ago to get an precise answer, but it would still be indicative of the truth. The poll could also ask what was pulling them in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the poll could also ask the public about their current position. If we focus on the ones that say they might change their mind in the future, what do they reckon it would take? That the alternatives have been exhausted? A new White Paper? A recommendation by the BBC? Chatting to somebody on their doorstep?

It seems to me that we need to find out more, or we’ll descend into infighting because we all believe we’re right and everybody else is wrong. In the meantime, as I’ve said before, we should focus on converting No voters to Yes, not on criticising our own side.

There’s more than one way to do it!

Perl Camel
Perl Camel.
Some of my fellow Nats seem to be going rather mental about the crowd-funded anti-BBC billboards.

I have a few observations to make in that connexion:

Firstly, I think we all have to learn to campaign and let campaign – we shouldn’t waste our time criticising other people’s campaigning efforts but instead spend our time doing what we think is right. After all, as Perl programmers are fond of saying, there’s more than one way to do it. Also, nobody can know for sure what will work till afterwards.

I tend to think that one of the main reasons why the Yes parties didn’t do better at the last Holyrood election is that people spent far too much time arguing about the merits of “both votes SNP” versus “second vote Green”, rather than taking the fight to the Unionists.

Secondly, the main reason why some activists spent some of their hard-earned money on these billboards is that they’re frustrated so little campaigning is happening. If Yes Scotland II had already been up and running (hopefully using a better name than that!), spewing out campaign materials and putting up billboards, the vast majority of people would simply back them up and send their money to them. It’s because nothing is happening that people get frustrated and start doing things on their own.

Activists aren’t employees that can be commanded to do something different by their manager. They need to see that something is happening, especially when the situation in the UK post-Brexit is so dire and so ripe for a change for the better.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that this shows that Tommy Sheppard’s idea about paid organisers in the SNP was right. I’m not so sure. I agree community organisers would be really useful, but they’d have to work with the wider Yes movement, not just with the SNP. I can’t imagine that those Yes activists who aren’t members of the SNP would take very kindly to getting told not to undertake certain campaigning activities by a paid SNP organiser.

The two last points show why we need Yes Scotland II to get up and running as matter of priority. We need somebody to produce campaign materials (and of course the SNP cannot really do that before they call the referendum), and the Yes movement community organisers need to be employed by some organisation other than a political party.

In the meantime, we should all focus on campaigning for a Yes vote in the next referendum, not on criticising each other. There’s more than one way to do it.

In EFTA while part of the UK?

Today there have been rumours on Twitter that the Scottish Government is investigating whether Scotland can join EFTA (and thus the Internal Market) while being part of the UK:

It’s a bit like the Reverse Greenland solution, but joining EFTA instead of the EU. However, as far as I can tell, the obstacles are the same:

  1. EFTA and the EU cover a lot of policy areas that aren’t currently devolved to Scotland, so Westminster will either have to devolve a lot more to Holyrood very quickly, or they’ll have to represent Scotland and EFTA/EU meetings. (See also this blog post by Kirsty Hughes on some of the potential complications.)
  2. It’s not clear at all that EFTA and/or the EU are interested in having a non-sovereign member.

As I wrote in my old blog post above Reverse Greenland, I think it’s fine Nicola Sturgeon is looking into this, but I really don’t think anything will come of it.

Scottish independence is a better and much more straightforward solution for everybody involved. I don’t see what we’d gain by jumping through ludicrous hoops simply to postpone the next Indyref. Let’s just get on with it!