All posts by thomas

The nightmare on Sauchiehall Street

Joe Pike’s “Project Fear” is a really interesting book about Better Together and Labour’s subsequent electoral collapse, which must be considered essential reading as we prepare for the next independence campaign.

Joe Pike is the husband of Better Together’s Director of Policy, Gordon Aikman, so he’s been able to speak directly to practically everybody involved in the No campaign:

The majority of the content is based on over fifty interviews with key players, almost all conducted in person, with many speaking for the first time. Every interview — from junior staff to leading politicians — was conducted on the same off-the-record basis. Only a handful of people refused to be involved. […] Many interviewees have kindly provided emails, internal documents, polling information, contemporaneous notes and the content of text messages.

It contains a lot of wonderful wee anecdotes full of inside information, such as the following, which means the book is a fun and informative read:

If [the patronising BT lady] advert had elicited a critical mauling, another — which never saw the light of day — would have been far more controversial. This was scare tactics on steroids: a negative, dark, moody and threatening broadcast. ‘Girders were breaking, oil was spurting out. It was awful,’ said one campaigner. ‘There were kids walking up to the edge of a cliff looking over as the UK was being ripped apart,’ said another. ‘It was an “in emergency, break glass and let’s roll this bad boy out” option.’ The advert was made at a cost of £50,000, but was never deployed.

[…] Yet it was Maggie Darling who ensured voters never saw it. ‘It’s like Nightmare on Sauchiehall Street,’ she told her husband.

The lasting impression is of a campaign that was under-resourced for a long time (because everybody assumed at first they’d win easily) and completely chaotic towards the end as everybody tried to impose their own ideas on the campaign. Also, they spent a lot of money on polling but not very much on actually doing anything.

Will Better Together II be very different from this? I’m sure it will. Firstly, it will get proper funding from the outset; secondly, nobody will think of it as an easy way to get the Nationalists back into their box; thirdly, Labour won’t have an army of MPs and Westminster insiders to rely on; fourthly, the campaign itself might be organised in a way that suits the No side better (a shorter campaign, for instance); and finally, I’m sure a lot of lessons will have been learnt from the way the two campaigns were run.

I just wish somebody would write a similar book about the Yes campaign. In many ways it’d be more difficult, because the campaign was much less centralised — Yes Scotland was just a small part of it. However, it was also a hugely successful campaign that achieved much more than many people imagined was possible at the outset, so there are a lot of lessons to be learnt about what worked and what didn’t.

This is a bit different from Project Fear, which at times comes across as a series of lessons in how not to run a referendum campaign. However, there are also important lessons for the Yes campaign in it. For instance, it’s clear Better Together had expected the Scottish Government’s White Paper to be much more like a budget, and they had spent a lot of time preparing their response, so they were almost disappointed when it was published. Would it have been better if the White Paper had been more like what the No campaign expected?

I must say this is probably the best book about the independence campaign so far — and it’s all the better for including the Westminster election rather than finishing the day after the referendum.

Predicting May 2016

Light trails
Light trails.
As one of the few people who actually predicted the SNP could win 56 Westminster seats six months before it happened, I feel under a moderate amount of pressure to say something clever about the upcoming Holyrood elections.

It’s not easy, however. What really happened in May 2015 was the SNP won all the Westminster seats apart from three local “accidents” — the non-SNP seats could just as easily have been some other ones if different candidates had been elected, or if different events had happened.

Given that the opinion polls haven’t really moved since then (and given that Scots now seem to be voting in roughly the same way for Westminster and Holyrood), the best prediction for the constituency seats is exactly the same — namely that the SNP wins all the seats apart from a few local hiccoughs. However, trying to put a name on these exceptions would be impossible and futile at this time, even though the SNP candidates have now been selected.

What about the list seats, then? Well, it all depends.

If all the people voting SNP for the constituency repeat this for their second vote (i.e., a successful “both votes SNP” strategy), the North East demonstrated in 2011 that it’s possible to win all the constituencies and still get a list seat, so it’s possible the SNP will win about 80 out of the 129 seats (the constituency seats plus seven list seats — if there are a few “accidents”, this number wouldn’t change as the list allocation algorithm would step in to compensate for them).

On the other hand, if the smaller pro-independence parties (the Greens, the SSP and Solidarity) manage to convince enough Yes voters to split their votes (i.e., a “second vote Green/SSP” strategy), it’s entirely possible the SNP won’t pick up any list seats at all (except perhaps in regions where one or maybe even two “accidents” happen), and the real question then is whether these smaller parties will get enough votes to get any seats at all. Realistically they will manage to do this in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but in the more rural regions it’ll be a lot harder).

As I’ve shown before, the way to get as many pro-independence MSPs is that the voters adopt the same tactics: “The best solution is that nobody votes Green, or that more than 25% of Yes voters do so. The worst possible scenario is that about 8% of Yes voters vote Green on the list.” Is this likely? I’m not sure. I’d be very surprised if the Greens and perhaps the SSP (RISE) didn’t do well in the largest cities, but will they manage to convince SNP voters there to vote tactically for them? Also, will the SNP manage to convince Yes voters outwith Glasgow and Edinburgh that voting anything other than SNP on the list is likely to help the Unionist parties?

It’s a strange election because the key to predicting the outcome is to anticipate tactical voting rather than reading opinion polls.

However, if I was marched down to a bookie at gunpoint and forced to put my life savings on a specific outcome, I think I’d go for this: SNP 73, Tory 23, Labour 22, Green 8, SSP 2, LD 1, Solidarity 0. There’s no science to this, only intuition. (I realise the LD figure is ridiculously low, but nobody has lost money underestimating the support for my old party for a very long time.)

What we really need is precise polls for each region. The constituencies don’t matter that much (the outcome is unlikely to change the number of seats won by each party), but we really need to know the level of support for the smaller parties in each region. Lord Ashcroft, are you reading this?

Norwegian language lessons for Scots

(Reblogged from my personal blog.)

Norway is in some regards at least 150 years ahead of Scotland: Until the mid-19th century Norwegians wrote standard Danish, although they spoke Norwegian dialects or at the very least Danish with a strong Norwegian accent; however, for political reasons they decided to recreate a language of their own (they ended up with two separate written languages for good measure, but that’s a different story). In Scotland, there is still no standard way to write Scots, and many people have negative feelings towards the language.

Here I’ll discuss two lessons Scots language standardisers can learn from Norwegian.

Speak yer dialeck, write staundart Scots!

"Speak dialect – write Nynorsk".
“Speak dialect – write Nynorsk”.
I sense that many Scots speakers feel that a written standard would be harmful to the Scots dialects.

However, Nynorsk (the form of Norwegian that is closest to the dialects) proves this isn’t the case. For years, a common slogan was “snakk dialekt – skriv nynorsk” (“speak dialect – write Nynorsk”), and my impression is that it’s been very successful. Norwegian television is certainly full of people speaking various dialects, and I’ve seen school books teaching how to understand them.

There’s no reason whatsoever why the Scots language community couldn’t go down the same route. That is, it should be feasible to tell people to write standardised Scots while encouraging them to speak their local dialect.

Main forms and side forms

main forms and side forms
Main forms (lysbiletapparat and ljosbiletapparat) and side forms (lysbildeapparat and ljosbildeapparat).
For many years, Norwegian dictionaries have been full of so-called “main forms” (hovedformer) and “side forms” (sideformer). (The proportion tends to go up and down over time, but that’s not important here.) Both types are correct, but in official contexts (such as in school books) only the main forms can be used.

I think this is a great way to encourage some spellings without discouraging people who aren’t aware of them (for instance because the norm has changed or because their dialect uses a divergent form). Here are some examples of how a Scots dictionary using main and side forms could look:

If a word has two forms that are both considered main forms, they are shown in the same typeface:

daurk or derk adj dark.

This means that everybody has a free choice between writing daurk or derk.

If the word has a main form and a side form with no regional differences (for instance where one word has almost been replaced by the English equivalent), square brackets and a different colour are employed, and a cross-reference is created from the side form to the main one:

Dens [or Danish] adj Danish.
[Danish] see Dens.

This means that nobody would get a red mark for writing Danish instead of Dens (and spell-checkers would allow both), but school books and other official documents would always use Dens.

The same applies where the side form is regional:

bairn [or wean (W)] n child.
[wean (W)] see bairn.

I don’t see any reason why one couldn’t also add disallowed form in a separate typeface as a help for learners, e.g.:

ane num one.

Some word with main, side and disallowed forms would admittedly produce quite a lot of entries, but this shouldn’t be a problem, especially at a time when more and more people use dictionaries in electronic format:

[far (N)] see whaur.
[whair (S)] see whaur.
whaur [or far (N) or whair (S)] adv where.

If we learn these lessons from Norwegian, we can encourage both standard Scots and the Scots dialects while improving literacy in Scots and raising the status of the language.

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?