All posts by thomas

What does it mean to be Scandinavian?

skandinavien!, a photo by phhin on Flickr.
Scandinavia is often mentioned by people campaigning for Scottish independence (more frequently than Ireland, which really is a bit odd).

However, most Scots don’t actually know that much about Scandinavia, so let me try to describe what it means to be Scandinavian.

Let me first point out that Scandinavia is really just Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The wider group of countries that also includes Finland, the Faeroe Islands and Iceland (and sometimes also Greenland) is called the Nordic Countries.

The main bond uniting Scandinavia is the fact that the languages — Danish, Norwegian (Bokmål & Nynorsk) and Swedish — are mutually intelligible after a bit of exposure. Danish and Swedish are probably about as different as English and Scots (and to stretch the analogy a bit further, Norwegian is then like English spoken with a Scottish accent). There’s obviously also quite a lot of shared history, but a lot of it involves wars between Denmark and Sweden.

All Danes, Norwegians and Swedes will agree that they are indeed Scandinavians, but it’s not an identity that can be separated from the actual nationality. If you’re Danish, you’re by definition also Scandinavian, and you can’t be Scandinavian without also being Danish, Norwegian or Swedish.

The Nordic Countries (not just Scandinavia) have operated a passport union (which allows all Nordic citizens to travel freely without a passport) since 1954. It’s quite similar to the Common Travel Area uniting the UK and Ireland. The Nordic countries have not traditionally allowed dual citizenship, but instead it’s somewhat easier to become a citizen in one of the countries if you were born in another Nordic country than if you were born elsewhere.

There used to be a currency union, but it broke up in 1914. This is the reason all the countries call their currencies the crown (krone/krona), although they aren’t pegged to each other any more.

Otherwise, there aren’t many tangible benefits to being Scandinavian. There have been several attempts at creating some kind of political union in the past, but these have typically failed because the individual countries don’t actually agree on very much. Also, Denmark typically is keen to include Iceland in everything, and Sweden doesn’t want to exclude Finland, which means that all Scandinavian projects end up involving all the Nordic countries.

However, something still unites Scandinavians. It’s very clear if you go to an international meeting (such as an academic conference): The Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians will typically end up as one group in the evening because they share so many linguistic and cultural bonds. It’s just something you don’t think much about until you leave Scandinavia.

Brace yourself for the next Ipsos MORI poll!

Opinion polls by pollster.
Opinion polls by pollster.
Ten days ago when Ipsos MORI had Yes on 31% and No on 59%, lots of Yes campaigners were a bit disheartened, while Better Together were celebrating. Today the roles are reversed because Panelbase have published a poll where the split is 36% vs. 44%.

What’s going on here? Surely 15% of the Scottish public didn’t get convinced by the Yes campaign in just ten days?!?

To find out, I plotted the recent opinion polls, divided by pollster (see the graph above). Ipsos MORI’s polls are displayed in blue, and Panelbase’s are in red.

It’s clear that Ipsos MORI are consistently finding many more No voters than any other polling company. Interestingly, they find the same amount of Yes voters as everybody else, so they must somehow get more undecided voters to come out as No voters than the the other pollsters.

Panelbase are also clearly finding more Yes voters than anybody else.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that we don’t know who’s right. We can’t assume the average is correct — for all we know, even Panelbase might be underestimating the number of Yes voters. Because there has never been a referendum on Scottish independence before, we just have no empirical way to rate the different methodologies employed by the polling companies. After the actual referendum has taken place, we’ll be able to rate the different polls, but at the moment it’s a bit of guesswork.

Anyway, the real point here is that we shouldn’t compare the last opinion poll (from Panelbase) with the one before that (from Ipsos MORI), because the systematic difference between the pollsters is far greater than the actual poll movements.

It’s a much better idea to look at each polling company separately. For instance, the last three Panelbase polls had Yes on 34% — 36% — 36%, and No on 47% — 46% — 44%, so there’s been a slow movement from No towards Yes.

So when Ipsos MORI publish their next poll, we’ll have to compare it against their previous one, not against Panelbase’s very different figures.


Closed Sign in Yellowstone
Closed Sign in Yellowstone, a photo by bmills on Flickr.
On 19th September 2014, a very large group of Scots will have to come to terms with the fact that their side lost.

If it’s a Yes, I expect most people from the No campaign to start fighting Scotland’s corner relatively quickly. This is because I don’t know of many countries that after independence have had a large group of people trying to undo the divorce. As far as I know, nobody is campaigning for reunification with the UK in the Republic of Ireland, the Slovaks don’t pine for the good old Czechoslovakian days, the Norwegians like their independence and have no desire to reunify with either Sweden or Denmark, etc., etc. I think there might be some people in Belarus who want to reunify with Russia, but that’s the only exception I can think of, and I do think Scotland is more like Ireland, Slovakia and Norway than Belarus.

One of the results of a Yes will be a complete realignment of Scotland’s political system: The SNP will most likely break up (or at least lose many members to other parties), and the unionist parties will shed their links to the mother parties in London and reposition themselves to respond to the political views of the Scottish voters without any need to appeal to English swing voters. This realignment will mean that soon after independence, Scotland’s political parties will be as different from the rUK’s as Ireland’s currently are.

If the referendum ends in a No, I’m not so sure. Of course we’ll all accept the result and try to make the best of it at first, but having talked about how much Scotland will be able to achieve as an independent country, it will be very difficult to abandon the dream completely. The SNP might lose a few disillusioned voters, but on the whole I expect the party to survive and keep the flame alive. Also, given likely subsequent developments in the UK, such as leaving the EU and getting a Tory government supported by UKIP, I wouldn’t be surprised if large groups of Scots would soon bitterly regret their No vote in the referendum.

In other words, a Yes vote will bring closure to the independence questions and allow the nation to move forward together. I fear that a No vote will just lead to stagnation, confusion and regret.

Two options

NYC: National Debt Clock
NYC: National Debt Clock, a photo by wallyg on Flickr.
Better Together politicians have frequently argued that the rUK will be the successor state, inheriting the EU membership terms and the permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council as well as numerous other tangible and intangible assets, while Scotland will be a new state that will inherit very little apart from its population share of the national debt.

Now Matt Qvortrup has made a very interesting intervention in the debate:

Dr Qvortrup’s explosive findings are published in a report that looks at national divorces dating from 1830, when Belgium left the Netherlands, until the break-up of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the Nineties.

His research found countries that split equally have historically shared the debts built up during their union. But if one partner continues as before as the ‘successor state’ — keeping its position on international bodies such as the United Nations — it shoulders the debts.


He said: “If Alex Salmond doesn’t want to share the debt and is happy to reapply to Europe, the default position in international law is that Scotland would not have to pick up the debt.


“If you want to be the EU successor state and be in the UN Security Council, you can. You take all the spoils — but you also take the baggage.”

This seems perfectly clear and straightforward to me. Although I have recently argued that there are very few questions that need answered at this stage, Westminster really need to tell the voters before the referendum which of these two options they will be opting for.

Don’t answer the questions!

Questions, a photo by elycefeliz on Flickr.
Better Together’s 500/507 questions (PDF) are interesting because of the irrelevance of most of them.

What I mean by this is not that they should never be answered, but that they really aren’t the make-or-break issues that will make people vote Yes or No to independence. Take this question, for instance:

277. What will replace the Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board?

Of course some civil servants or a Scottish Government minister will have to consider this during the independence negotiations after a Yes vote, but apart from the current Scottish members of the UK’s Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board (if there are any), I really can’t see anybody changing their vote from Yes to No or vice versa based on the Yes Campaign’s response to this question. Who would seriously say “They want to create a board with seven members? No way! A maximum of five members, or I’ll be voting No!”?!?

I’m not saying there aren’t any questions that the Yes side should be answering, for instance regarding the independence negotiation team (will it consists only of members of the Yes campaign, or will the opposition be invited to join?) or the creation of a constitution for Scotland (will there be a constitutional convention?). However, the detailed questions are for later, once Scotland is an independent country once more.

I think everybody — the public, the media and the Yes campaign — need to get their heads round the fact that the future is unknown and that we’re choosing a new path for the next two hundred years, not a government for the next four. At the end of the day, it all boils down to who we want to make the decisions that affect our lives — Westminster or Holyrood. Once that question has been decided, the chosen parliament can then proceed to answer all the other questions.

Furthermore, lots of Better Together’s questions are absurd because they wouldn’t be able to answer them for the UK, either, such as this one:

350. How much would a first class stamp cost in a separate Scotland?

Given that Westminster are planning to privatise the Royal Mail soon, I’d be surprised if they actually could tell us what a first class stamp will cost in England in 2016.

A No campaigner might at this point argue that the SNP should at least tell us what their intention is, even if they can’t predict the future with complete certainty. However, this is not a general election, and there’s no guarantee that the SNP will be in power after 2016. It’s quite possible the SNP will disintegrate once their raison d’être has been achieved, so Labour (or at least, a Labour-led coalition) could quite feasibly win the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, and what happens then? Because of this, any question that doesn’t need to be answered before 2016 really should just not be considered yet.

It’s hard not to get the impression that Better Together are asking lots of questions in the hope that Yes Scotland might not have thought of an answer, which will make them look unprepared and stupid, and it’s quite a clever strategy (although asking 507 questions at one time almost gave the game away — it would have been a much better idea to ask one or two a day).

Answering Better Together’s questions means fighting the referendum on their terms. The Yes campaign will therefore have to stop answering most questions and instead hammer home the message that this referendum is not about the exact policies that an independent Scotland will implement on day 1, but about whether Holyrood or Westminster will be in charge of Scotland.

500 days to go

500, a photo by alternatePhotography on Flickr.
I’m posting this on the 6th of May 2013 at 7am, and in exactly 500 days the polling stations will open their doors to the voters in the most important decision Scotland has faced for centuries.

Although the Yes side is still behind in the opinion polls, I’m very optimistic that we’ll achieve a resounding Yes. Firstly, the trend in the opinion polls is definitely showing that voters are moving from No towards Yes, and secondly, the response on the doorsteps is incredibly positive — so many people really want to vote Yes, but they feel a wee bit frightened and need reassured that it’ll be OK. We can provide that reassurance over the next 500 days.

Lessons on the rise of UKIP from Denmark for Scotland

Dansk Folkeparti's Pia Kjærsgaard
Dansk Folkeparti’s Pia Kjærsgaard, a photo by Radikale Venstre on Flickr.
It’s clear that UKIP did extremely well in yesterday’s local elections in England.

Some people like to compare UKIP to the BNP or to proper fascist parties, but I actually think the closest parallel is to Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti (“Danish People’s Party”).

Dansk Folkeparti was founded in 1995 by former members of Fremskridtspartiet (the “Progress Party”), which had been troubled by large numbers of loonies and a prison sentence for its founder and chairman. Because of this, they have always been quick to chuck out all extremists and weirdos so that they can’t be easily dismissed as a loony party.

Dansk Folkeparti has never been a great success in electoral terms, typically gaining between 10% and 15% of the votes in national elections (which is approximately the level UKIP is polling at currently).

However, ever since its foundation it has had a tremendous effect on the policies of the other Danish political parties.

The typical pattern has been like this: Dansk Folkeparti make a suggestion (e.g., to limit the number of immigrants, or to put some restrictions on Denmark’s EU membership); the other parties at first dismiss it, but the media give it plenty of coverage (because it’s always a good story from a journalistic point of view), and some dissenters within the other parties are quickly found that agree with it, and eventually the other parties implement at least 50% of the original proposal. As soon as this has happened, Dansk Folkeparti start demanding even more, and the whole process starts again, with the result that after 10-20 years, the mainstream parties have adopted policies that are more extreme than those originally advocated by Dansk Folkeparti.

The reason the other parties adopt Dansk Folkeparti’s policies is because they fear the voters will otherwise start voting for them. In other words, it’s not because Dansk Folkeparti has actually won any elections, but because the opinion polls make the mainstream parties worried they’ll lose lots of seats in the next election if they don’t do something. We can see this in England at the moment, where many Tory MPs (and some Labour ones, too) fear they’ll lose their seat at the next general election if they don’t win back the voters who appear to be shifting to UKIP.

I left Denmark in 2002, and looking at Denmark from the outside it became abundantly clear to me that the whole society was shifting to the right every single year. The effect is that while I used to define myself politically as slightly right of centre, the only party that appeals to me now in Denmark is Enhedslisten (the “Unity List”), which is the left-most party (I used to compare it to the Scottish Socialist Party).

We’re already seeing how the English parties are starting to adopt UKIP’s policies. I don’t believe the Tories would have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership if he hadn’t felt threatened by UKIP’s rise in the opinion polls, and I also think Ed Miliband’s hardening stance on immigration is largely caused by UKIP.

Unless they suddenly self-destruct, I’m therefore extremely worried that the presence of UKIP will cause a gradual adoption of their policies by Labour and the Tories in England. The way to defeat them is relatively simple — their policies need to be opposed rather than appeased. However, I don’t see any signs of that happening.

There’s not much Scotland can do if England decides to make UKIP its lodestar.

UKIP isn’t even on the political horizon in Scotland, so we will probably see the political divide between England and Scotland widening drastically over the next ten or twenty years.

Independence doesn’t prevent this political change in England, but at least it means we won’t be ruled by a government that has stolen UKIP’s clothes. I’m extremely worried that England will pull us out of the EU and start making life intolerable for all immigrants. Scotland has to get off this train before it’s too late!