All posts by thomas

The Scots language in an independent Scotland

Attenshun, mind yer step
Attenshun, mind yer step, a photo by x_goMad on Flickr.
I’ve met many people on either side of the independence debate who seem to regard Gaelic as one of the biggest casualties of the Union.

However, I think it’s likely that Gaelic would have declined at a similar pace even if Scotland has remained an independent country forever — a large reason for the lingering death of Scotland’s Celtic language is the depopulation of the countryside, and most Western countries have seen this development, at least to some extent.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any doubt the Scots language wouldn’t have been suppressed and dismissed as a mere dialect of English if the Kingdom of Great Britain had never been created. Scots, not Gaelic, would have been the majority language of Scotland today if Edinburgh had remained the capital of an independent country.

After a Yes vote we’ll be in a situation similar to the one Norway found itself in after the ties to Denmark were cut as a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars: Lots of people still speak the original national tongue, but they write in the dominant language of the union. In the case of Norway, the written language was Danish, and the remnants of Norwegian were seen as uncultured dialects.

However, in a surprisingly short amount of time, Norway got rid of Danish and created not just one, but two varieties of Norwegian: Bokmål, which is a Norwegianised form of Danish, and Nynorsk, which is based more strongly on Old Norwegian and on the dialects. The two varieties have converged a lot, so even standard Bokmål these days can be pretty different from Danish.

I wonder whether the same could happen in an independent Scotland. Will Scots gradually gain higher status? Will it become more acceptable to write in Scots, or at least to use Scots words when writing in English?

It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a hundred years from now, 2014 will be seen as the year when the decline of Scots was reversed.

The victory forecast

Nostradamus statue
Nostradamus statue, a photo by farrokhi on Flickr.
Keen readers of this blog might recall that I wrote the following back in March:

The effect is that according to current trends, Yes will overtake No on the 1st of September 2013, and by the time of the referendum, there will be more than twice as many Yes voters as No voters.

Last Sunday, which was the day I had predicted the tables would turn, the only new opinion poll was one from YouGov that found a huge lead to the No side (but at the same time virtually unchanged compared to their previous polls); however, I must admit to feeling a bit anxious that my prophetic skills weren’t quite as sharp as I had hoped,

However, Monday morning I woke up to this press release from the SNP:

The most recently sampled independence referendum opinion poll puts support for Yes a point ahead of No — at 44 per cent to 43 per cent, with Don’t Know at 13 per cent — as we enter the month of a year to go until next September’s vote.

It’s somewhat frustrating being off by a day, but I still think it was a pretty decent prediction.

Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to update my prediction. Are we still on track for a 2-to-1 Yes victory?

The trends lines and the newest polls.
The trends lines and the newest polls.
If we do the same as in April, drawing a trend line through all the recent opinion polls, things aren’t looking too good at the moment; however this is heavily influenced by Sunday’s YouGov poll and Tuesday’s TNS one.

If we ignore the YouGov poll (there were multiple problems with it, as described here and here), and if we adjust the TNS poll to take the 2011 Holyrood votes in account (see this post by Calum Cashley), we’re still on track for a big Yes victory, although it probably won’t quite reach 2-to-1 territory.

I would have liked the polls to be converging at this point, but they clearly aren’t, so instead of producing a plot with new trend lines, I’ve added the newest polls to the old graph with the old trend lines. (I’ve added both the original and the adjusted versions of the TNS poll.)

It’s clear that the No vote share isn’t declining quite as fast as I predicted back in April, no matter which polls we look at. However, the Yes vote share is potentially rising faster than predicted (if we look only at the most optimistic polls).

Until we get to a point where the opinion polls start converging again, I think this is the best we can do. It’s definitely looking like a decisive Yes victory, but perhaps not quite as big a landslide as I thought in April.

For A’ That 33

Mobile Podcast Recording Studio
Mobile Podcast Recording Studio, a photo by theunabonger on Flickr.
I spent some time today recording episode 33 of the For A’ That podcast together with Michael Greenwell and the Lallands Peat Worrier.

I very much enjoyed taking part, and if my dear wife is to be believed, it’s worth listening to, too. Do let me know what you think!

This is the direct download link (right click and save as).

You can listen to the show online at its web page.

Or you can subscribe with itunes.

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!”