2014 In Books

In the first part of my 2014 in review series which may or may not continue after this post, I’m going to briefly analyse the books I’ve read this year.  Unfortunately I only managed to read 31 books, down from 41 in 2013 and failing to reach my target of 43 by quite a wide margin.  My main reason for this is that I more or less stopped reading outside of my university courses between January and May due to coursework and life related things going on, so hopefully this downward movement is only a blip!  Anyhow, here’s the list:

  1. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  2. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  3. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  4. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  5. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  6. Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
  7. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  8. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  9. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  10. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  11. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  12. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  13. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce
  14. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  15. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  16. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  17. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  18. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922)– F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  20. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  21. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  22. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  23. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  24. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  25. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  26. The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison
  27. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  28. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  29. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  30. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  31. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin

And to put them in order of preference:

  1. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  2. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  3. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  4. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  5. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  6. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  7. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  8. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  11. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  12. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin
  13. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  14. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  15. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  16. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  17. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  18. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  19. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  20. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  21. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  22. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  23. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  24. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  25. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  26. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  27. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  28. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  29. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

Unrated:
Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison

—–

And here I’ve [broadly] charted on a map where each book is set or about.  Obviously fictions which aren’t set in our world, like A Song of Ice and Fire, aren’t included, and for non-fiction books I’ve had to take some liberties:

Settings 2014

Almost every book here written before 1900 is due to my English Literature course, hence why they’re so clustered together.  It’s a good mix, I think, although as the map shows there is a very strong northern European, British-American bias in the books I’ve read.  Every author, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, is either European or American – I’ll definitely try to widen the writers I read next year.  I think I’ve managed a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction; I’ve neither lived wholly in bleak reality nor untempered fantasy.  In terms of preference, I’m not surprised to see George R. R. Martin consistently quite high given I tend to rate quality of storytelling in fiction above quality of prose (I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about that in a future post!).  Otherwise there’s no clear pattern.  I need to make a caveat for Ulysses however; while it was the most excruciatingly painful novel I’ve forced myself to read, while I considered the whole thing a project to ridicule critics, upon finishing I just couldn’t get it out of my head and having looked back at it I do find a lot of worth in there.  So this does betray one potential problem with my ratings, in that I rate purely in enjoyment while reading rather than any other means, which brings me back to the discussion of value best saved for another day.

Looking forward to the great reads 2015 brings!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the books’ gender ratio.  Only 23% of the books I read were written by women, which is pretty shocking to consider.  Some of this might be down to the amount of ‘classics’ I’ve read this year, although considering these gave me Aphra Benn, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, who I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s possibly this actually buffed the number up.  Unless I’ve subconsciously given greater preference to male authors (could be similar to this phenomenon) it’s clear women still face a harder task getting represented in the most high-profile and bestselling books.

Why I’m Voting Yes to Scottish Independence

This has been a long campaign.  Three years ago, when plans for an independence referendum for Scotland were first being drawn up, my instinctual response was hostility.  I viewed myself as being British and didn’t see the point in becoming independent.  As the campaigns properly began I found myself veering away from a clear ‘No’ position to becoming much more undecided until, about a year ago, I realised I had ended up broadly supporting the idea of independence, though still not feeling that strongly about it.  In the last couple of months – like most people in Scotland, I would imagine – my feelings have strengthened, and I have few doubts at all that I intend to vote ‘Yes’ on September 18th.  Yet I do sometimes still ask myself: why exactly do I plan to do this?  It isn’t a question I can have a simple answer to as there are many reasons, which I hope to detail here.  But first, just to clear up any confusion, I think it’s helpful if I list the reasons that aren’t drawing me towards a ‘Yes’ vote:

  • Nationalism.  A few times when I’ve told someone I plan to vote ‘Yes’, they’ve responded along the lines of “Oh no, you’re a nationalist!”  To which I’ve had to reply “But I’m not a nationalist!”  I mean, I love Scotland and I’m very proud of it – it’s my home – and I have no plans to emigrate elsewhere, but I don’t see it as being superior to any other country.  The things I love most about Scotland – its tolerance, democratic institutions, culture and beauty – aren’t unique to this one country, and can be said to be largely circumstantial; in fact, much of our democratic institutions in particular came from the Union.  If anything, I’m an internationalist; I believe in creating international bonds and cooperation with the rest of the world.  As I’ll explain a bit later, this isn’t incompatible with support for independence, but actually can go hand-in-hand with it.
  • Anglophobia.  This hopefully goes without saying.  If we’re looking at ethnicity I’m three-quarters English, having had three English grandparents, while my mother herself is English.  The other quarter comes from Shetland, which probably has the least ‘Scottish’ background in the whole country.  Wanting to end a political union with England (alongside Wales and Northern Ireland) doesn’t mean I want to break the cultural and economic unions which benefit us all; on the contrary, I hope these can be strengthened following independence.
  • Alex Salmond.  Hopefully also goes without saying.  I’m not a member of the SNP and, although I like him more than many of our political leaders (not difficult to achieve) I wouldn’t want to see him continue as First Minister following independence.  I think it’s regrettable that we’re not seeing any prominent debates featuring other voices for independence, instead of simply Alex Salmond’s party-political SNP view.

Now that’s all cleared up, I’ll launch into the main reasons that are causing me to support a ‘Yes’ vote:

  • Democracy.  This is the standard one you hear, but it’s so important.  Essentially, I want Scotland to both get the government it votes for and have a national parliament that represents its views.  During the last fifty years Scotland has consistently voted Labour at the ballot box, yet has been encumbered with Conservative governments for over half this time, forcing disastrous decisions upon Scotland which our population have rejected.  The most recent examples are the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and privatising the Royal Mail, both of which Scottish MPs voted against but we’ve had to endure anyway.  We’re powerless to change the government if we disagree with its policies; the only time our vote made a difference was in 2010, and that merely caused what would have been a Conservative majority to require a coalition partner that would essentially rubber-stamp many of its policies anyway.  There’s been an undeniable political shift between Scotland and the rest of the UK during the last few decades.  Current polling suggests that the Conservatives and UKIP combined could get close to receiving over 50% of the vote nationally, yet linger at 25% in Scotland, where centre-left parties tend to dominate.  Why should we have to put up with governments making decisions for us we didn’t vote for?

    -I’ll admit, there are decent counterarguments to this.  The first is that in a democracy we should accept the will of the electorate and not ‘throw out toys out of the pram’ when we lose an election.  I think this argument comes down to a fundamental difference of opinion towards Scotland’s position in the Union.  As I see it, Scotland’s participation in the Union has only ever been voluntary from the beginning, and we’ve never had any reason to remain within it other than the fact we benefit from it.  And make no mistake, Scotland has benefited from the Union immensely.  But it’s my belief that, as a result of this divergence in political viewpoints, since around the 1970s the Union has no longer been of benefit to Scotland, instead holding it back from taking the more social-democratic path its electorate have been clamouring for.The other argument goes that, with a strong Scottish Parliament within the UK, we can have the ‘best of both worlds’ that helps fix the democratic deficit Scotland faces.  This is also a good case, but I’m not convinced this vision could truly become reality.Almost 70% of Scots want more powers for the Parliament, and I’m certainly one of them, but I have my doubts that we’ll see any significant powers devolved in the event of a No vote.  None of the major parties’ promises would go as far as fully devolving tax and welfare to the Scottish Parliament, and they’re not even bound to the promises they’ve already made (though I expect there’ll be at least some limited further devolution – it would be utter stupidity to renege on these promises altogether).  Another factor is that Scotland never gets the opportunity to vote for these different visions of devolution, since only the Westminster government can devolve these powers and, as we’ve already established, the Scottish vote makes little difference to which party gets to form a government.  Only a ‘Yes’ vote can guarantee Scotland gets the powers that its population desires.
  • Scotland’s Electoral System.  This may seem like a minor point, so it’s possibly surprising that this is one of my main reasons for voting ‘Yes’.  I’ve become so irritated by the two-party politics that have emerged in Westminster as a result of its First-Past-The-Post electoral system, where two increasingly identical parties seek to claim the centre ground and genuine opposition parties on both the left and right have no chance to win many seats.  Polls show 30% of the electorate will reject both the Conservatives and Labour, yet these other parties are unlikely to win more than around 7% of the seats.  This system stifles true political debate.  Scotland, in contrast, has a semi-proportional system which allows smaller parties to gain the representation they deserve.  Currently only the Scottish Green Party are represented, but in the past we’ve seen MSPs from the Scottish Socialist Party and even the Scottish Senior Citizen’s Party.  To be clear, this isn’t because Scotland is more progressive than the rest of the UK – we rejected electoral reform of Westminster alongside the rest of the country in 2011 – but the fact is, Westminster is unlikely to change anytime soon, whereas Scotland, for whatever the reason, has a working system now that will carry over into independence.  Simply put, I want my national parliament to represent all views, not just those of the two very similar parties.
  • Europe. As someone who is generally in favour of the European Union, I believe independence is the best route of safeguarding our membership.  The ‘No’ campaign have argued that independence may require years of delay as we have to seek membership all over again and, although I doubt it will truly be this difficult, I can’t deny that is a possibility.  But the point is, this would only ever be a short-term difficulty.  The political will exists in both Scotland and the EU for us to become a member – no fewer than 86% of MSPs are from a party with pro-EU policies, while even against the UKIP surge 70% of Scots voted for pro-EU parties in the European Parliament election.  With this political will, whatever the procedure, Scotland will end up joining the EU eventually.  The real, long-term threat to Scottish membership comes from a Westminster that more and more is pandering to the UKIP agenda, where an in-out referendum in 2017 is a very real prospect.  This is another instance of Scotland’s priorities diverging from the rest of the country; only 40% of the rest of the UK voted for pro-EU parties, and UKIP came first place in the last election compared to only fourth in Scotland.  This is backed by polls – only 29% of Scots support leaving the EU (with undecideds removed), compared to anywhere between 45% and 55% in the rest of the country.  What if, in a potential referendum, Scotland votes to stay in the EU but is dragged out by voters in the rest of the country?  This is why I believe independence is essential to safeguarding our place in Europe.
  • Immigration.  This is another issue where I believe Westminster’s policies shame us all.  A further part of this pandering to the UKIP agenda I mentioned earlier is an almost unanimous agreement that immigration is a Bad Thing.  The major parties are tripping over one another in announcing ever more harsh and discriminatory policies against immigrants; only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens advocate treating migrants with respect and protecting their human rights, but we’ve already established that the UK’s electoral system pushes these voices to the sidelines.  In Scotland, however, we have a government that appreciates the benefits immigrants bring to a country – not only through the incalculable cultural benefit of multiculturalism, but also in simple economic terms, even creating jobs in the long term.  Granted, Scotland’s greater ageing population and sparse population gives it a greater need for immigrants than the rest of the UK, but even so there is little ground to oppose immigration in principle – and thankfully we have a government that recognises this.  It’s my hope that an independent Scotland would introduce much more humane immigration policies.
  • Welfare.  People on benefits are perhaps the only group of people demonised more by the British press and politicians than immigrants.  Sure,there are problems with Britain’s current welfare system – anyone can see that.  It’s needlessly complicated and bureaucratic, for the large part.  Unfortunately, the current British government’s reform policies are doing little to help the problems.  Backed by the right-wing press, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s policies seem intent upon labelling people in need of welfare as ‘benefit scroungers’, tarring everyone with the same brush and cracking down on everyone’s benefits to target the minority who abuse the system.  The government propagates the myth than people on benefits could support themselves if they just found work and became less ‘feckless’, when in some parts of the country there just aren’t enough jobs to be found, while also failing to recognise that structural poverty is much more complex than simply being unable to find a job.  We need a system that does recognise this and makes real efforts to lift people out of poverty.  Sure, there is no guarantee that Scotland would establish such a system, but from reading the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence this seems to be the direction they have in mind.  A small point, but I was heartened to hear Alex Salmond refer to the issue as ‘social security’ in a recent debate – a phrase I doubt Iain Duncan Smith has uttered in his life.
  • Nuclear Weapons.  A fairly simple reason: Scotland is encumbered with Europe’s largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, a matter of miles from its most populated city, against the wishes of its people.  Polls show a clear majority of Scots oppose Trident nuclear missiles, while our democratically-elected Parliament has consistently voted against Trident.  Yet we continue to have these weapons we don’t want forced on our territory by successive British governments.  Even if you’re in favour of nuclear weapons, you ought to recognise that given this strength of opinion they should not be based within Scotland.  Only a ‘Yes’ vote can rid Scotland of these weapons – even the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament recognises this, and is actively campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote because of this.
  • Republicanism.  Okay, this is a very minor point, but worth mentioning anyway.  For those of us who would prefer to see a democratically-elected head of state rather than one born into the job, Scottish independence provides an opportunity to see this reform happen later down the line.  The Scottish government’s plans would keep the Queen as head of state, but I believe there is more likely to be a referendum in an independent Scotland than as part of the UK.  True, 60% of Scots support the monarchy (with undecideds removed), but this could easily shift in favour of republicanism, particularly if we end up with an unpopular monarch further down the line.  This is much lower support than in the rest of the country, where only 15% believe Britain should become a republic when the Queen dies or abdicates.  That said, if you do support the monarchy this isn’t a reason to vote No; there are no immediate plans for Scotland to transition to a republic – this would require a further referendum where arguments from both sides can be given due consideration.  The point is, this is another instance where Scotland can become more democratic if independent, being able to decide for ourselves whether we wish to keep a monarchical head of state or not.

There are other smaller reasons I’m planning to vote ‘Yes’, but these are the main ones. Are you able to vote in the referendum?  Let me know which reasons are causing you to lean one way or the other!  Or if you live outside of Scotland, what do you think about the whole debate?

Also, here’s a poll, just for funsies.

The BBC’s Impartiality (Rant)

It pains me to write this, as a long supporter of the BBC and defender against claims of impartiality – generally when it states a fact a certain group disagrees with – but I’m becoming more and more unable to take this position.

My latest reason why: this morning I sought out the Scottish First Minister’s Questions to watch on BBC Iplayer, just as something to have on while my hair dries, but couldn’t find it.  Okay, I thought, perhaps there hasn’t been any recently – I think parliament might be on some October break right now.  So I decided to go for another one.  Salmond accused of being ‘Simply Dishonest’ about oil fund looked like a relevant, perhaps entertaining clip, so I put that on.  Then Tricia Marwick, the Presiding Officer, appeared and said, “thank you, we now move to First Minister’s Questions…”

So basically, the BBC has covered up the First Minister’s Questions and entirely slanted it against Alex Salmond over one question.  I find this to be absolutely appalling.  After Prime Minister’s Questions down in Westminster, does the BBC call the recording “David Cameron attacked over cost of living crisis?” or “Cameron accused of unnecessary badger slaughter?”  No, of course not, it’s simply Prime Minister’s Questions each and every time.

Despite the fact I’m slightly biased in favour of the Scottish Parliament over Westminster, I really don’t think this can be considered a rant against the BBC simply because I disagree with facts.  Can anyone defend this?  It’s becoming more and more common with the independence debate; I recall they interviewed Blair McDougal after the SNP’s recent party conference, giving him virtually more airtime than the conference itself.  Do they interview the Yes Scotland campaign each time one of the pro-union party has a conference – or, really, has any noteworthy story in general?  I highly doubt it.

Please, BBC, I want to like you, but you really do need to start living up to your reputation of impartiality.  This isn’t my first issue with the BBC – the amount of coverage they gave UKIP earlier this year was ridiculous.  I don’t want this blog to become a mouthpiece of the independence movement but if this impartiality in the British and Scottish media continues I’ll feel compelled to say something, if only to even out the playing field.

A Brush with Nationalism

flying flag

As I mark two weeks of living in Edinburgh I finally have something to  post!  I’m planning to write a summary of my ever-growing experiences at some point, but as I walked through the bustling crowd of today’s independence march I knew this post would have to take priority.  Also, I apologise for the quality of the pictures – I only had my phone with me and I later realised that I left my USB connector back at Shetland, so I had to take second photos with my other camera.  Not the most efficient method…

activityI was only able to briefly witness the initial gathering before the march to Calton Hill, which seems to have become a focal point for Scottish nationalism, as I was due to attend an ‘activism training day’ (I love Edinburgh).  Even so, with the march in a semi-formed state, this was still the most significant political event I have ever witnessed.  Flags were waved, some in frantic excitement, others rippling gently in the wind; whistles blew all round, often by children too young to understand the politics but clearly enjoying the carnival atmosphere; and bagpipes filled the air.  I once wrote about a fictional demonstration – which is, admittedly, a completely different context to here – and I’m glad I at least got the tone right.  Such joy, hope; visions and dreams were palpable through the crowd.  Whether these are justified is a different matter, yet almost didn’t seem important at that moment.  This march created an idyllic vision; cold reality can come later.

greensI was also struck by the vast variety of groups coalescing into this unlikely alliance.  I was most excited to see the Scottish Green Party who had a section in the crowd, though I was too shy to say hello.  In addition I came across the Scottish National Party, the ‘Radical Independence’ group, the Socialist Worker newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Party and even a ‘Christians for socialists independence group’.  Some single-issue organisations were there too, including anti-Trident pressure groups.  I think I even saw some Catalan flags, perhaps as a bid for pan-European solidarity.  Yes, a quick Google search tells me this was the Estelada, a flag used by Catalan nationalists.  I wonder if Saltires have even flown in Barcelona, then?

policeWhat is most impressive about my experience of the march is how peaceful and ordered it was.  This feels that it should go without saying, yet my studies of history indicate time and time again this isn’t the case.  For a movement so at odds with the interests of the ruling elite to be granted such freedom must be virtually unprecedented in the majority of human history.  There was a notable police presence* but even this seemed relatively relaxed, their prime concern being to prevent overcrowding.  There wasn’t even a hint of violent tension, which again would have been unimaginable for most comparable political movements in history.

I continue to be impressed by the optimistic vision advocated by the pro-independence cause.  Whether there’s reason to be optimistic is up for debate, but I can’t imagine anywhere near a similar atmosphere at a unionist march (do these even occur?).  I wouldn’t say this brief brush has changed my view of the debate but it has made it seem all the more real and, certainly, all the more exciting.  I am thrilled to be spending the next year here at a time of such debate and political activity.

speaker

“What do we want?”
“INDEPENDENCE!”
“When do we want it?”
“NOW!”

lonely jack

A lonely union flag despairs.

Related articles:

*I’m aware of section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which brings into doubt the legality of photographing police officers.  Since I’m neither directly or indirectly helping terrorists by the publication of these photographs I know I’m acting perfectly within the law, but it’s unfortunate we must worry about such things in the first place.

The Referendum is Unpredictable

Yesterday, Yougov published a poll which put the ‘No’ vote at 59% and the ‘Yes’ vote at 29%.  This gave the No vote a lead of 30% – as far as I’m aware, the highest lead it’s ever had since the campaigns began.  So is this a sign of Scotland increasingly rejecting independence.  Should Alex Salmond be worried?  Well, it appears not.  Today, Panelbase published a poll which, for the first time in two years, actually showed the Yes vote ahead at 44% with the No vote at 43%.  It’s worth bearing in mind that this poll was commissioned by the SNP* but it doesn’t appear to be biased any particular way**.  This is only a lead of 1% and could easily be an outlier, but there’s no way a difference of 31% between polls can merely be statistical.  I’m not suggesting either poll is biased; I think the referendum is just that hard to predict.

I’m still not convinced that the Yes campaign will achieve a shock rise in the polls in time for September 2014, but this poll has shown that the referendum isn’t entirely a foregone conclusion nonetheless.  In some ways, the proportion of people who vote ‘Yes’ might be just as significant as an actual Yes victory.  If 30% or less were to vote Yes to independence, it would be easy for Westminster to consider it supported by a minority, but if the result were to be much closer it would certainly be a worry for whoever’s Prime Minister.  If 46% of Scots want to leave the country, that could easily tilt over 50% in the coming years if he or she is not careful.

Perhaps a close vote may inspire Labour, the party most likely to gain power at Westminster in 2015, to repeat their actions of 1997 and grant more powers to the Scottish parliament in an attempt to reduce support for independence.  On one hand, these potential future Labour ministers might believe that this clearly didn’t work last time, yet they might also point to the fact that the Scottish people have consistently shown in polls that we would prefer full fiscal autonomy to independence.

Well, this is going into too many what-ifs.  The point I’m trying to make is that I think that the referendum is too unpredictable for either campaign to be assured of a victory.  If we can accept this, perhaps both campaigns can move on from their ugly scare-tactics and foul-play, and maybe even respect the other’s viewpoints.  Then we can begin a fair debate on the real issues.

*No doubt this will overwhelmingly discredit the poll for those people who seem to think Alex Salmond and the SNP are fascist wannabes, but for those of us who prefer to take a more balanced look at Scottish politics this shouldn’t necessarily be an issue.

**Since posting, that article has been updated with a potential explanation for the result.  Two questions were asked beforehand which, it’s claimed, could have boosted those voting ‘Yes’ in the survey.  While surveys ought to be as simple as possible and I agree this could be a reason for the unusual result, I personally struggle to understand how structuring this survey in such a way would convince people to vote differently.  Are people’s views when taking a survey really that subject to change?  Nevertheless, considering the wide range of results we’ve seen in other polls, I believe my point still stands.

Please vote here in my Through The Fringe opinion polls!

Scottish Polling Update (August 2013)

By Barryob (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Opinion polls for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood aren’t published as often as I would like; generally they appear on a quarterly basis produced by either the Ipsos MORI or Panelbase polling companies.  Here’s a reminder of how the 2011 Scottish Parliament election went:

Scottish National Party – 69 seats
Scottish Labour Party – 37 seats
Scottish Conservative Party – 15 seats
Scottish Liberal Democrat Party – 5 seats
Scottish Green Party – 2 seats
Other – 1 seat
(65 seats needed for a majority)

This result allowed the SNP to form a majority government – a remarkable feat, considering the Scottish Parliament was given a proportional electoral system with the clear intention of avoiding majorities, so to reduce the chance of nationalists gaining power and seeking to achieve independence for Scotland.  Uh…  That went well.  Since then the SNP has lost three of its MSPs; Bill Walker was expelled after allegations emerged implicating him of domestic violence – he currently sits as an independent – while Jean Urquhart and John Finnie resigned after the party’s decision to support NATO membership – they too sit as independents.

The question everyone has been asking is whether the SNP’s popularity would decrease after such a stunning victory.  Surely the only way now is down?  Well, not according to the opinion polls.  Of those I have been able to find, all have shown the SNP continuing a lead over the other parties in both the constituency vote and the regional vote*.  Using this handy tool, we can figure out what kind of seat allocation each poll would result in.  Very roughly, half the polls indicate an SNP majority government could be formed while the other half show an SNP minority government.  A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition is a possibility, but not a very likely one at this stage.

I would take an average of all the polls published recently, but Ipsos MORI don’t appear to ask for voting intention in the regional vote, which largely invalidates any predictions for seat allocations.  Instead, I’ll simply have to describe the most recent Panelbase poll, which would give a result for 2016 resembling:

Scottish National Party – 71 seats (+2)
Scottish Labour Party – 34 seats (-3)
Scottish Conservative Party – 16 seats (+1)
Scottish Green Party – 5 seats (+3)
Scottish Liberal Democrat Party – 3 seats (-2)

This would indicate merely a small reshuffle consolidating the SNP’s majority, whilst the opposition becomes more fragmented.  Because of the irregular and complex nature of opinion polling in Scotland, it’s difficult to say whether this indicates an upturn in the SNP’s fortune or whether it’s just a quirk of data sampling.  What we can say with certainty is that there is still plenty of wind in the SNP’s sails, and that if current trends continue we are more than likely to see the SNP somewhere in government in 2016.  Considering the SNP has now been in power for six years, their continuing popularity is quite incredible – though we mustn’t forget the importance of national politics in Westminster.  I suspect the continuing unpopularity of every major party from Westminster is playing its fair share in producing these results.

Interestingly, despite that latest poll suggesting that pro-independence parties would control 59% of the seats in parliament, we really aren’t seeing any particular movement in polling towards favouring independence itself.  Every single poll since the referendum was announced has shown a ‘No’ vote has a very large lead, ranging from 8% to 28% just in the last few months.  I think as we get closer to the referendum in September next year the polls will become increasingly volatile, though I have a hard time imagining a scenario where the ‘Yes’ vote would actually win.

*Scotland uses the Additional Member System, allowing voters to vote twice: once for a candidate to represent their constituency and again to vote for candidates on a party list.  This second vote distributes seats to parties in a way which creates a roughly proportional result.

 

The Scottish Summer Cabinet 2013

Two days ago I attended a public session with the Scottish cabinet as part of their scheduled visit to the more far-flung locations across Scotland – the “Summer Cabinet”.  Having lived in Shetland all my life I’m always in awe of events like this, I suppose because I’ve been brought up unused to being involved with anything of national importance.  Therefore, it was a really interesting experience.  After an unexplained delay of about 15 minutes, First Minister Alex Salmond came onto stage and made a short speech to introduce the event (which you can listen to here, if you’re interested).

I was surprised by how suddenly and heavily he pushed his case for Scottish independence, which I suppose must be a daily activity for him, though I struggled to find much in his words I disagreed with.  He spoke about the many unions Scotland shares with the UK – social, political, economic and military, largely – and argued that to achieve political independence need not sacrifice the others.  He put particular emphasis on the common-sense defence policy Scotland could adopt, abandoning wasteful endeavours such as Trident and finding a policy which suits our needs.  He also criticised the Better Together campaign, describing their work as this ‘Project Fear’.  He might have a point but I do think that continued rhetoric like this from both sides of the debate threatens to drown out the real issues.  I’m also not sure whether I agree that the islands – or, Shetland at least – should achieve more autonomy under a principle he dubbed ‘The Lerwick Declaration’.  Candidates here tend to stand as independents and we currently have a council comprised entirely down non-party lines.  The problem I see with this is that the candidates can all promise the same, vague ideals without giving any details of their political positions.  This is why we’ve ended up with what appears to be quite a right-wing council, despite the people of Shetland being overwhelmingly Liberal in their outlook.

But that’s digressing.  I found the question and answer session very fascinating.  Some of it focused around local issues, like youth employment, housing debt and high school closures (a very contentious issue; my own school of four years is under threat), and others were about issues on a more national scale.  I was pleased to hear about the Scottish government’s reservations over fracking and their policies towards lowering youth employment sounded encouraging.  My favourite response was to a question asking the government to put the Equal Marriage bill to a referendum, apparently because the majority are not in favour of it.  Salmond politely dismissed the idea but reiterated that any vote on the bill will be one of conscience for MSPs, and explained his own reasons for supporting it.  This was met, I was pleased to see, by wide applause.  Equal marriage is clearly more popular than some would like to admit!   I was too shy to ask any questions myself but I found it fascinating just to absorb everything being said.  I didn’t recognise many of the ministers besides Salmond and Education Secretary Mike Russell, who I’ve met before, though I learned some few new faces.

Afterwards there was this weird period in the lobby which can only be described as ‘mingling’.  The cabinet ministers mingled with the public, taking cups of tea, open to questions – and, in some cases, quite fierce debate.  Despite the unnecessarily large number of suits on display I was impressed by how informal it seemed.  Though they have relative power and influence they really are just plain people who occupy a room in the same way as anyone else.  Salmond actually walked right past me as I sat on a couch at one point, where I could have leaped out and asked him anything.  I didn’t, of course.

I think it’s very important for the government of any country to make its citizens feel involved and acknowledged by the political process, which I certainly think was achieved with this visit.  Granted, their jurisdiction is much vaster, but I can’t imagine the UK cabinet coming up to Shetland anytime soon – or even coming up to Scotland.  Perhaps just as well, considering I expect more people here oppose their government than support it.

The event also reinforced my joy to be living in a democracy.  Could you imagine leading politicians being so open and available in North Korea, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia?  Long may this tradition continue.