17 February 2012

Salmond fishing

I don't often give much thought to Scottish politics, as it doesn't often give much thought to me. Even rarer is it for me to feel much sympathy for David Cameron. But both these things happened yesterday, so I thought I should write something down before I forgot to mark it on the calendar.

Despite being blessed with a Scottish name, Cameron is not blessed with many Scottish supporters. So more or less anything he says on the topic of the independence referendum north of the border will be swatted away by the native Big Beast of the SNP, Alex Salmond, with an ad hominem swipe.

Cameron came apparently bearing divisive gifts: reject independence, he cooed to the voters, and we'll see what we can do about extending devolution. This was the political equivalent of stuffing a roll of banknotes into the electorate's bra and telling them to go Up West and treat themselves to a new dress. Salmond said such breezy promises were worthless because they'd been offered something similar in 1979 that never materialised. I was promised a PlayMobil knight in 1979 that I never received, but I've rebuilt my life since then. Salmond obviously remains scarred. I'm surprised he didn't bring up the Highland Clearances.

The point Cameron had gone all the way to Scotland to make seems a fair one to me: for the referendum, the ballot should contain only the yes/no option on independence. By contrast, the SNP seems intent on building a menu of options to cover so-called 'Devo-Plus' (or 'Devo-Max') - extra powers for future Scottish administrations if the independence vote goes a bit Rangers FC on them. Would sir like fiscal separation with his devolution? How about a sprinkling of military autonomy?

I think there's good reason not to muddy the waters. Say the ballot does give multiple options: What happens if 55% of Scots choose independence but 65% choose 'Devo-Plus' (which I reckon is quite likely)? Does that mean independence trumps all, and subsequent questions are redundant? Or does it, in fact, undermine the case for full independence by saying more people prefer devolution over full separation? As anyone who's designed even a basic questionnaire will tell you, the answers to multiple related questions are dynamic: the responses to some will impact upon the outcome of others. Hypothetical questions about aspects of Devo-Plus are built upon an assumption of the failure of a full independence vote, which will build in a predisposition toward that failure. The act of answering the question will affect the result you reach. It's Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as a political instrument.

It begs the question why Salmond would want to jeopardise getting a mandate for political independence for Scotland - something that has supposedly been his lifelong political dream. Maybe now it's within touching distance, the prospect of the reality of grubby day-to-day politics for an independent, not-quite-so-rich nation in a recession is making him think twice. Maybe the prospect of a bit more power without the responsibility for underwriting it is, in fact, far more enticing for a career politician. If the people of Scotland suffer a decline in living standards as a result of independence (or even as a perceived result of it) they'll be looking for someone to blame. It's nice to have an independently wealthy Old Etonian English strawman to blame for preventing Scotland from reaching its destiny, instead of someone closer to home.


Peter A Bell said...

"I don't often give much thought to Scottish politics..."

Evidently, today was no exception.

Mike Hoffman said...

Looks like Salmond isn't the only one who does ad hominem in Scottish politics...

Peter A Bell said...

Don't be childish! The fact is that few politicians in recent times have been subject to a concerted campaign of mindless vilification as Alex Salmond. All of which campaign has been been and continues to be conducted while its perpetrators hide behind an all too transparent veil of contrived righteous indignation about supposed ad hominem attacks and the activities of so-called "Cybernats" who are, in reality, but a pale shadow of the truly rabid "Cyberbrit".

Alex Salmond manages to be quite grown-up about such things. You should try following his example.

My own little dig was aimed, not at you as individual - for all I know you might be utterly charming and loveable - but at the ill-informed nature of your comments. In particular, the suggestion in your final paragraph that Salmond is somehow backing away from the core principle of the restoration of Scotland's rightful constitutional status. A suggestion which is ridiculous on the face of it.

Mike Hoffman said...

Apologies, I didn't realise it was me being childish with the little ad hominem quip that didn't address the points I was making. I thought that was you.

You fail to address my central point: why is Salmond so keen to get Devo-plus/max onto the independence ballot? It can only harm his chances of winning the independence question. What happens if both independence and Devo-plus get +50% but the latter by a greater margin? This is a real possibility not a hypothetical angels-on-a-pinhead question. Surely it undermines the case for independence? Why would he even want to compromise the chance of independence with an ambiguous result? It seems very odd to me if his motives are that pure.

Please give me a reasonable answer as to why additional questions on the ballot that presuppose a failure of the independence question wiill be better for achieving a yes on independence and I'll gladly concede the point.

Peter A Bell said...

I didn't "fail to address" your "central point". I observed that you didn't have one. You don't have a point because the thing that you imagine to be a point is founded on a fallacy. A fallacy that is evidenced by your use of the word "keen" in relation to Salmond's attitude to a "more powers" option on the referendum ballot.

Alex Salmond has made it abundantly clear that he, and the Scottish National Party, will support and campaign for only independence.

The First Minister and the Scottish government have intimated that a "more powers" option might be considered if such an option was formulated and proposed by another party and if there was evidence of widespread support for the inclusion of such an option.

Much of the anti-independence propaganda in the unionist media has caricatured this democratic openness as enthusiasm for a "more powers" option. You appear to have been taken in by this.

I suppose such propaganda has to work on somebody. Thanks for volunteering.

Mike Hoffman said...

Believe it or not, I'd be happy for Scotland to go its own way - I certainly beat no drum for the Union, especially if those north of the border feel co-opted into it.

My belief that Salmond might favour a "more powers" option is because he is a politician. All politicians are, at heart, pragmatists, and I was trying to work out why he was trying to scupper his own referendum. I may not know much about Scottish politics, but I do know about designing questionnaires. A two-question referendum where one question presupposes a particular answer to the other is not the way I would do it if I were after a clear decision about independence.

Peter A Bell said...

How might one reconcile Salmond's pragmatism with a supposed effort to "scupper his own referendum"? Rather a glaring contradiction.

There is no doubt that Salmond has his reasons for adopting the position he has on a "more powers" option. But someone who, by their own admission, doesn't know much about Scottish politics is hardly the first person one would go to for an informed view of those reasons.

Anyone seeking an understanding of Salmond's motives for dropping this particular pebble in pond of constitutional debate could do worse than look at what effect it has had. At the very least, it has left the anti-independence campaign split and even more confused than it already was. Salmond has forced the Tory/Labour/LibDem coalition into a position where they expend most of their efforts attacking something that the SNP is not proposing and does not want rather than addressing the real issue of Scotland's secessio0n from the union.

In doing so, they inevitably make themselves look reactionary and anti-democratic - vehemently opposed to allowing the people of Scotland a democratic choice just as they were right up to 7 May 2011 when they were forced to abandon their fanatical opposition to a referendum under any circumstances.

Look at what is happening! Having been forced to admit that the status quo is untenable the unionists are now arguing against the only other alternative to independence.

And supposing this "more powers" option did find its way on to the ballot and supposing it won. Is that a defeat for the independence campaign? Far from it! About the only thing about "devo-max" that everyone agrees on is that it cannot actually work in practice. At that very worst it would postpone independence for a year or two.

As to the practicalities of including a "more powers" option on the ballot, that would be a matter for whoever proposes such an option. As Alex Salmond has not and will not make such a proposal it is not his problem.

Never make the mistake of underestimating Alex Salmond and his team. They are a truly formidable political force such as is highly unlikely to make the mistake of scuppering their own campaign.