Sunday, May 20, 2018

Twitter poll suggests a virtual three-way tie in the SNP depute leadership contest

Just out of curiosity, I decided to run a poll on Twitter yesterday to see how people were planning to vote in the SNP depute leadership election (or how they had already voted).  I genuinely had no idea what to expect, and the final results are pretty remarkable.  With 661 votes cast, there is virtual deadlock between the three candidates, who all have a percentage share in the 30s and are all within 6% of each other.


Now, I'll be honest and say I don't know how much should be read into this.  Obviously a social media poll is a long, long, long way from being scientifically rigorous, because participation is completely self-selecting.  On the plus side, though, Twitter does restrict people to one vote per account, which means the result should at least be properly representative of the views of those who actually took part (ie. it hasn't been significantly distorted by individuals casting multiple votes).

It may be that people who follow me on Twitter are disproportionately likely to be pro-McEleny (and maybe even pro-Hepburn), in which case the poll might be underestimating Keith Brown's true support - although bear in mind that the poll was retweeted by 70 people, which hopefully should have given it a wider reach among supporters of all candidates.  It's also conceivable that social media polls in general are likely to exclude small 'c' conservative members of the SNP, who again might be more inclined to vote for Keith Brown.  However, I still think the poll is a useful exercise, because if the actual result bears no resemblance to the poll result, at least we'll know in future that the balance of opinion on social media is not a reliable guide to the views of the wider membership.

For what it's worth, though, if the actual result is similar to the poll, it seems likely that Julie Hepburn would be declared the winner after second preferences are distributed.  I would imagine that many Chris McEleny voters have done the same thing as me and given their second preference to Hepburn.  If Keith Brown does top the first preference vote, he's going to need a much more substantial lead to be confident of holding on for the win - and that may be true regardless of whether Hepburn or McEleny is his opponent in the second count.

At the very least we can say that there is considerable uncertainty over who is going to become depute leader, and that on the basis of the very limited information that currently exists, it would be foolish to dismiss the chances of any of the three candidates.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The case for Chris McEleny

As you probably know, voting is now open in the SNP depute leadership election, and if you're part of the 2%+ of the entire population of Scotland that are members of the SNP, you have until 8th June to cast your vote.  I'm proud to have just cast my own first preference vote for Chris McEleny.  Whatever happens from here, it's reasonable to state that Mr McEleny's presence in the contest has had a positive impact - his forthright statement that an independence referendum should be held within the next eighteen months has prodded the other two candidates to go further on the referendum issue than perhaps they otherwise would have done.  Julie Hepburn has now said absolutely explicitly that the mandate for a pre-2021 referendum should be used, and while Keith Brown is still the most cautious of the three candidates, he has acknowledged at least the possibility of a referendum taking place in as little as twelve months.  So it's no longer the case that a vote for Keith Brown is specifically a vote against an early referendum - but it still troubles me greatly that Mr Brown hasn't (as far as I'm aware) completely excluded the possibility of letting the pre-2021 mandate expire.  I think it's fair to say that a vote for Chris McEleny is still by some distance the most emphatic way to vote in favour of an early referendum.  There are no ifs, buts, maybes or get-out clauses in his pitch, and the message that the membership will be sending if he wins this contest will be absolutely unmistakeable.

Apart from his distinctive stance on referendum timing, Mr McEleny has prioritised the value of local government and community politics.  But one other thing that has appealed to me is the directness of his language about the failure of the mainstream media to cover Scottish politics impartially.  There's a well-meaning but misguided tendency among some senior SNP people to say that we must never blame the media for the 2014 referendum result, because the real failure lay with ourselves for not getting the message across effectively.  In other words, victory in the future will depend only on an improvement within ourselves, not on an improvement in external players such as the media.  That always sounds like a mantra lifted straight from a self-help book, and it has the enormous shortcoming of not actually being true - or at least of not being the whole truth.  Of course the media are horrendously biased against independence, and of course that was one factor in the narrow defeat in 2014, and of course we should be demanding better - especially from the broadcast media, which is theoretically obliged by law to be impartial in its coverage.

I'll make no bones about it - if Chris McEleny doesn't win, I hope Julie Hepburn does, and I've given her my second preference vote without any hesitation.  This has the feel of a contest that could be a lot closer than was initially anticipated.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Is Sarah Smith auditioning (again) to become Scottish Tory press officer?

As you probably know by now, the Scottish Parliament voted at 5pm today to deny legislative consent for Westminster's EU Withdrawal Bill, and did so by a thumping 93 to 30 margin.  It would be an unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention for the UK government to proceed without consent, but that is apparently what they are minded to do.  So we're now into uncharted waters twice over - not only are we heading towards the first clear breach of the Sewel Convention, but we're also awaiting a date in the Supreme Court as the UK government makes its first ever attempt to have legislation of the elected Scottish Parliament struck down by judges.

It's probably fair to say that you wouldn't quite have a full appreciation of the significance of these events if you've been relying on the "analysis" of the BBC's Scotland Editor Sarah Smith, which has been embedded into the main online BBC article on the subject.  According to her, this won't actually be the first overruling of the Scottish Parliament by Westminster - it supposedly happened last year when Theresa May said no to an independence referendum, and nobody cared then, and nobody will care now.

Just a few snags with that -

1) It's a fictionalised version of what happened last year.  Nobody has a clue whether Theresa May would have got away with saying "no" to an independence referendum, because she didn't say "no" to a request that was actually pressed.  She was given respite by Nicola Sturgeon's voluntary decision to put the request on hold for a year or so.  The day of reckoning is yet to come, but perhaps isn't too far off.

2) It's an utterly bogus and irrelevant comparison anyway.  It is not within the devolved competence of Holyrood to require Westminster to pass a Section 30 order, so the "now is not the time" schtick (as outrageous and undemocratic as it was) did not represent a breach of the Sewel Convention or of the devolution settlement.  The current plans to transfer powers from Edinburgh back to London without consent most certainly do.

3) How dare a BBC editor tell her viewers what they care about and what they don't care about?  That's pure propaganda, and is exactly the sort of thing a Tory spin doctor would say - "the people of Scotland don't care about this, they want Nicola Sturgeon to get on with the day job, etc, etc".  By contrast, and not unreasonably, the SNP line is that of course the people of Scotland care about protecting the devolution settlement they voted for so emphatically in the referendum of 1997.  What business is it of a BBC editor to adjudicate for herself, on the basis of no supporting evidence that I'm aware of, that the Tory spin is factual and the SNP perspective is not?  (Especially given that any alleged public apathy has been cultivated by the BBC burying its own coverage of the power-grab wherever humanly possible.)

It's particularly ironic to recall that Sarah Smith is the daughter of the late John Smith - the man who popularised the view that devolution is the "settled will" of the Scottish people.  I wonder what he would have made of his daughter's notion that people don't actually care about their own settled will.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Have the Sunday Herald built bridges after last week's misjudgements? (Spoiler: No, they've doubled down by going Full Leask with a disgraceful front page attack on Alex Salmond.)

You might remember a while back that CommonSpace took a brief financial hit after running an attack piece about Wings Over Scotland that had a particularly ill-judged and highly provocative headline.  Robin McAlpine very deftly rescued the situation a few days later with an article that didn't really acknowledge that CommonSpace was responsible for its own mistake, but that nevertheless struck a sufficiently conciliatory tone that by all accounts a lot of cancelled subscriptions were swiftly renewed.  The Sunday Herald has found itself in a very similar pickle in recent days after a number of missteps in last week's edition that disappointed many loyal readers, and infuriated others.

Most obviously, there was the front page photo from the pro-independence march in Glasgow that gave the completely distorted impression that those on the march waving saltires and the Union Jack-wielding counter-protestors were roughly equal in numbers.  (The reality was that there were tens of thousands of the former and only a couple of dozen of the latter.)  An obvious defence is that it was simply a very striking and thus publication-worthy image, but that doesn't really wash, because it was used to complement coverage in text that was similarly distorted, ie. that gave the impression that the only real significance of the march was that it had caused 'division' and brought about an 'ugly' stand-off.

Eyebrows were also raised at an apparent new editorial line that Nicola Sturgeon should 'prioritise' a UK-wide re-run of the EU referendum (one that might well see Scotland outvoted yet again) over a second independence referendum.  From a journalistic point of view there's nothing wrong with that new stance, but when you've built up a loyal readership on the specific basis that you are a pro-independence paper, you shouldn't really be surprised that those readers feel there has been a breach of trust if you start actively undermining the campaign for independence.  If a paper's collective views on self-determination and the constitution have 'evolved', that's fine, but probably the best thing to do is be up-front and honest about it, and allow readers to decide whether the time has come to look for a new 'home'.  Claiming earnestly to still be pro-independence while simultaneously pushing a blatantly indy-sceptic news agenda is only going to lead to confusion and resentment.

You might have thought that the Sunday Herald would have reflected on the damage done last week, and would be in full-on bridge-building mode this week.  That they would have followed the wise example of Robin McAlpine by making moves to reassure disgruntled readers that nothing had changed and that we're all still on the same side.  But not a bit of it.  Instead, they've doubled down with a front page that sends an unmistakeable message that a great deal has changed.  It contains what I can only describe as a despicable attack on Alex Salmond that in none-too-subtle fashion pursues the barking mad "the Russians are everywhere!" agenda of Mr David Leask from the paper's anti-independence daily sister publication.  Leask of course always strenuously denies that his weird obsession with smearing Salmond represents in any sense a grudge against the SNP or against the pro-independence movement, but to hold that line he's had to draw a wildly implausible distinction between a so-called "real" or "mainstream" SNP that has supposedly disowned Salmond (have you noticed anyone actually doing that?) and the "Trumpist" or "Putin stooge" interlopers led by Salmond himself.  As I've noted before, it's a bit of a stretch to ask people to accept that a politician who was leader of the SNP until only three-and-a-half years ago, who indeed has been leader of the SNP for roughly one-quarter of the party's entire existence, and who led the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, is somehow not "real" SNP.  In fact, the question might reasonably be asked: if Alex Salmond of all people is not "real" SNP, then who the hell is? We haven't heard a credible answer to that question from Leask or the Herald so far.  Perhaps the Sunday Herald can come up with one now that they appear to be foolishly going down the same path.

I know that defenders of the front page story will point out that the Sunday Herald can't be expected to let its pro-independence views get in the way of reporting the news.  But the snag is that the comments of Mr Litvinenko's widow about Alex Salmond are not a news story that has just spontaneously appeared out of thin air.  She presumably didn't ring up the Sunday Herald offices and say "I've just got to get this off my chest, guys".  They sought her out and solicited a view from her about a subject that she might well not have given much thought to otherwise.  It's a piece of "news" that has been artificially generated by the Sunday Herald completely from scratch.  They knew exactly what they were doing, and all I can say is this: if for whatever reason you're out to "get" Alex Salmond, you might as well own what you're doing, because people can see straight through you anyway.

We're told that the editor of the Sunday Herald has responded to the criticisms of last week's paper in a special article.  I can't find it online yet, but judging by David Leask's excitement it looks set to be quite a belligerent response of a "the problem is the readers, not the journalism" variety.  It's precisely that kind of attitude that is killing the traditional media.  Sooner or later journalists are going to have to comes to terms with the fact that the days of a passive audience that never answers back, and that doesn't have anywhere else to go, are long over.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Eurovision 2018: Prediction for Saturday's grand final

So I got a slightly patchier 7 out of 10 qualifiers right on Thursday.  The three I didn't pick out were the Netherlands, Serbia and Slovenia.  Country music isn't really my thing (as I discovered conclusively on a hellish trip to Millport circa 1995), so that's probably why I underestimated the Netherlands' chances, but I can see why they went through.  I'm delighted to have been wrong about Serbia, which sent an uncompromising piece of ethnic music in the Serbian language and deservedly didn't pay any sort of penalty.  I must say I have absolutely no idea how Slovenia managed to get through, but I suppose there always has to be one that leaves you scratching your head.  I know some people will shrug their shoulders and say "that's the Balkan bloc vote for you", but in fact Slovenia has traditionally benefited much less from neighbourly voting than the other ex-Yugoslav nations.

On to tonight, then.  Until a few days ago, it looked like this year's contest was going to be a simple case of working out whether the overwhelming favourites (Israel) would meet expectations, or would spectacularly fail on the night as quite a few overwhelming favourites have done in the past.  But, remarkably, Israel do not even go into tonight's final as favourites, because they were dramatically overtaken by Cyprus as the rehearsal videos started to filter through.  A couple of days ago, the betting odds seemed to be pointing towards a straight fight between Cyprus and Israel with everyone else as also-rans, but then Ireland stormed out of nowhere into a decent third place.

I'm not sure I can make much sense of all that.  I agree that Cyprus is a much more plausible winner than Israel, but it's just one of several strong songs/performances that are all roughly on a par with each other, so I can't understand why it's in quite such a commanding position in the betting.  My guess is that the Irish surge is due to a couple of factors - a) the favourable position in the draw, and b) the publicity over a Chinese TV station being banned from broadcasting Eurovision because they censored two men dancing together as part of the staging of the Irish song.  In other words, people seem to be putting their money on the story behind the song, rather than the song itself.  That can sometimes be a dangerous thing to do - if a story is enough, why didn't Bosnia come close to winning in 1993?

What I've just said makes it sound like I don't rate the Irish song.  In fact, the opposite is true - it's one of my personal favourites, and it's beautifully sung.  I just fear that it's too low-key to do much damage.  Just occasionally, very gentle songs can stand out so effectively among all the identikit screeching that they win by a mile - last year's Portuguese winner is an excellent example, of course, as is Ireland's own victory in 1994 with Rock'n'Roll Kids.  But for what it's worth, my gut feeling is that it probably won't happen this time.

My suspicion is that Cyprus will be in the mix tonight, but that their main competitors will not be Israel and Ireland, but Norway and Sweden.  I struggle to separate Cyprus, Norway and Sweden, but I think Norway (in spite of having the most irritatingly catchy song of the evening) is perhaps the least likely of the three to win if only because of its place in the draw.  Probably just as well, because the mind boggles as to how insufferable Alexander Rybak would become if he has anything more to be smug about.  Cyprus v Sweden is almost a coin-toss as far as I'm concerned, but I'll cop out and go with the conventional wisdom that Cyprus will win.  I expect it to be a close one, though.

Here's my full prediction -

Winners: Cyprus (Fuego - Eleni Foureira)
2nd: Sweden (Dance You Off - Benjamin Ingrosso)
3rd: Norway (That's How You Write A Song - Alexander Rybak)
4th: Estonia (La Forza - Elina Nechayeva)
5th: France (Mercy - Madame Monsieur)

Possible dark horses: Austria, Australia

UPDATE (7.20pm): Of course, another potential explanation for the sudden Irish surge in the betting is that the full results of Tuesday's semi-final (which are supposed to be absolutely secret until the end of the contest) might have been leaked.  Unlikely, but possible.  If so, it could be Dublin next year.

Friday, May 11, 2018

How does the SNP's near-total exclusion from BBC Question Time compare to the treatment of the Liberal Democrats when they were the UK's third party?

There's an indisputable fact of political arithmetic that our broadcasters need to be urgently reacquainted with.  The SNP are not only the third largest party in the elected chamber of the UK Parliament, they're also an unusually strong third party by historical standards.  They have 35 seats at present.  Compare that to the Liberal Party, which was of course the third party for almost all of the period from the end of the Second World War until they were merged out of existence in March 1988.  During those four-and-a-bit decades, the Liberals never won more than 17 seats in a general election - less than half of the SNP's current tally.  Things didn't improve much for the new Liberal Democrat party in the immediate period after the merger with the SDP - they started with 19 seats, and only won 20 in the 1992 general election.  They didn't make a significant breakthrough until 1997, when with the help of massive anti-Tory tactical voting they won 46 seats - although even that wasn't dramatically better than what the SNP currently have.

It's true that there was a very brief spell between 1981 and 1983, when - simply because of defections from Labour to the SDP - it can be argued that the third force in British politics was slightly stronger in parliamentary terms than the SNP are now.  But in the 1983 election, the vast majority of the defectors lost their seats, and the Liberal-SDP Alliance fell back to a combined total of just 23.  That means for fifty of the fifty-two years between 1945 and 1997, the third-largest force in the Commons had fewer seats than the 35 held by the SNP at the moment.

The BBC's Question Time programme has been running since 1979, so it covered the last eighteen of those fifty-two years.  Here's the obvious question: how did the show treat the Liberals, the Liberal-SDP Alliance and the Liberal Democrats during the period between 1979 and 1997?  Answer: much, much, much, much more favourably than it currently treats the SNP.  It's true that there wasn't a Liberal representative on the panel every single week, but there was certainly one on the majority of occasions, and there were long spells where the absence of a Liberal was an exception rather than the norm.   To take a random example, let's look at the spring of 1994 - a time when the Liberal Democrats had just 22 seats in the Commons.  On 24th March, Liz Lynne was on Question Time.  In the next edition on 14th April, Shirley Williams was on.  The following week on 21st April, David Alton was on.  The week after that on 28th April, Charles Kennedy was on.  The next edition was on 12th May, and Menzies Campbell was on the panel.  And on and on it went.

By contrast, and despite their 35 seats, the SNP have been included in just TWO of the last TWENTY-TWO editions of the programme.  This is in spite of the fact that there are now five spots on the panel every week, rather than the old standard of four.  There's actually space for more plurality than there was in the 1980s and 1990s, and yet somehow we end up with less because there simply must be a comedian, journalist or "broadcaster" on the panel, instead of the UK's third-largest political party.

What the BBC are doing is so blatant, it's almost getting to the point of being funny.  Almost.  How can they possibly justify such an extreme disparity between their current treatment of the SNP, and their treatment of former third parties?  They would probably pray in aid the fact that the SNP has a smaller share of the UK popular vote than the Lib Dems did in the early-to-mid 90s.  But nevertheless we have the electoral system we do, and you can't just pick and choose when it suits you to acknowledge the result that the system has actually produced.  Broadcasters are expected to have regard for both the popular vote and a party's strength in terms of elected representatives.  That being the case, if the Lib Dems were on Question Time almost every week when they had 20-odd seats, the most natural compromise would now see the SNP appearing in roughly half of all episodes.  Not one episode in every eleven.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Eurovision 2018: Prediction for Thursday's second semi-final

So I correctly picked eight out of the ten qualifiers in the first semi.  The two I overlooked were Austria and Ireland, which is really odd, because those are genuinely two of my personal favourites.  I should have had more faith, but I thought the Irish song would suffer from being low-key, and with Austria I don't think I got a full sense from the rehearsal videos of just how effective the staging was.  The live vocal was superb as well.  I still don't think Ireland will do any damage in the grand final, but Austria just might.

As for tonight, here are the ten countries I think will make it through -

Norway
Ukraine
Sweden
Hungary
Moldova
Russia
Denmark
Malta
Australia
Poland

Russia is my 'wildcard' pick out of that lot.  Most people expect it to fall short, and it may well do...but Russia are the kings of political voting, and political voting at the Eurovision most certainly isn't dead.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Eurovision 2018: Prediction for Tuesday's first semi-final

Yes, it's that time of the year again, and with non-heartfelt apologies to the handful of people who traditionally storm off in disgust at this point, here is the eleventh (gasp!) running of the annual ritual of the Scot Goes Pop Eurovision prediction.  As David Dimbleby used to say about the BBC exit poll, it's sometimes accurate...sometimes not so accurate.  2010 was my golden year when I got almost everything right, although I've correctly picked the winner for five of the last ten years.  Sometimes that was relatively easy because there's often an overwhelming favourite, but I've noticed over the years that overwhelming favourites for the Eurovision tend to go one of two ways - they either win by a landslide as expected, or they crash and burn and don't even get close to winning.  In a sense, the latter is what happened to last year's Italian song Occidentali's Karma (although admittedly by that point it had been caught in the late betting by Portugal).

This year, as you may know, there's once again been an overwhelming favourite over the last few weeks in the shape of Israel.  I must say I have my doubts about whether it will win, although I'd better be cautious in case my own personal tastes are interfering with my judgement.  But I have a suspicion that the juries won't go for it, and that it may even be a bit too 'challenging' for a lot of televoters.  [UPDATE: And I see in an echo of last year that Israel has just been unexpectedly displaced as bookies' favourite by Cyprus.]

I don't think Israel will have any great problem qualifying from tonight's semi, though.  In no particular order, here are the ten countries I think will make it through...

Estonia
Cyprus
Lithuania
Albania
Greece
Israel
Czech Republic
Bulgaria
Finland
Azerbaijan

Of those, the one I'm least sure of is Greece - although with Cyprus in the same semi, there's a guarantee of points from at least one source!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Saturday's march in pictures

I know you've already seen hundreds of these over the last 48 hours, but just for the hell of it, here's how Saturday's march looked from my vantage-point(s).  One thing I enjoyed about it was the chance to see Glasgow with fresh eyes - although I'd been on almost all of the streets before, they somehow knit together differently when you take an unfamiliar route.  You also have more time to look around you and take it all in when you're walking right down the middle of the road very slowly.

As you can see, I was sporting some designer stubble and a hangover for the occasion.  (NB: Not really a hangover - just lack of sleep.  11.30am on a Saturday, guys?  What were you trying to do - finish us off for good?)





























Sunday, May 6, 2018

Does the Sunday Herald really think the SNP should campaign to let another country decide our constitutional future again?

Naming no names, but it's been bitterly disappointing to see a small number of people on the pro-indy side making negative comments about yesterday's historic march.  Here's what I don't understand: I can see the logic (albeit I don't necessarily agree with it) of avoiding marches during election campaign periods when there's canvassing work to be done.  I can see the logic (albeit I don't necessarily agree with it) of saying there were dangers attached to the protest outside the BBC just before the 2014 referendum.  But what exactly was the problem with yesterday?  There is no election on the immediate horizon, and the march was simply making the positive case for independence.  It created visibility, excitement (lots of passers-by stopped to take photos) and a sense of momentum.  I can't see any downside, unless you're seriously worrying about the annoyance factor of a few minutes of traffic delays on a Saturday afternoon, which is getting into the realms of the ridiculous in a country that is well-used to coping with the minor disruption caused by Orange walks.

I'd have to conclude that the negativity in some quarters boils down to a cringe factor - a feeling that the pro-independence movement, uniquely among the political movements of the world, can only succeed by apologising for its existence and getting back into its box in case anyone finds the sight of it too irritating.  Good luck in trying to win people over to a massive constitutional change in that manner.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Herald seems to think the only significance of the march is that a couple of dozen Union Jack-waving counter-protestors turned up to shout at the tens of thousands of pro-indy marchers.  You'd be tempted to conclude that anyone could sabotage a march or rally of absolutely any size by just rounding up a handful of mates - although in practice I doubt if you'd get the same publicity for your stunt if the march or rally was about any other subject.  This appears to be an indy-specific phenomenon.

Despite being a pro-independence paper, the Sunday Herald are also now taking an official editorial position that Nicola Sturgeon should change policy and campaign for a second UK-wide referendum on EU membership.  As Dr Philippa Whitford pointed out, it would be a bit odd for the SNP to do that unless there was the slightest prospect of Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreeing to a referendum in which a 'double mandate' is required - meaning departure from the EU couldn't happen unless Scotland itself voted Leave.  Without that safeguard (and it's clearly a non-starter as far as the unionist parties are concerned), the SNP would be backing a referendum that would deny this country its right to self-determination, and thus breach the party's raison d'etre.  It's completely unthinkable.  And in any case, even with the SNP's support, a second EU vote still wouldn't happen anyway because of the realities of parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster.  The SNP would effectively be sending a message to the public that "we don't really need an independence referendum, because there's another way of staying in the EU", when we all know perfectly well that isn't true, and that an independence referendum is the only available way to preserve EU membership (or indeed even single market membership).  Why on earth would we try to sabotage our own lifeboat?

I would also note that it's rather disingenuous for the Sunday Herald editorial to claim that they're not asking Ms Sturgeon to make a choice between a second indyref and a second EU referendum, given that the thrust of Paul Hutcheon's front page piece is that the latter has to be "prioritised" over the former.  This, let's face it, is a newspaper that now seems to want the push for independence to be put firmly on the backburner to make way for an utterly doomed UK-wide campaign to cancel Brexit.  I hope (and this time am reasonably confident) that the SNP leadership will give short shrift to that idea.