During an appearance at the Edinburgh book festival–
–which is like the Edinburgh fringe, only with fewer puppet-based “re-imaginings” of the Chartist Movement, and more books–
–Nate Silver was asked about the likely result of the referendum on Scottish independence. Being the kind of nice, well-meaning chap he is (and even though he must have been sorely tempted to answer “Whaddaya think, idiot?”) he gave a polite answer:
There’s virtually no chance that the ‘yes’ side will win. If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definitive really where the no side is at 60-55% and the yes side is about 40 or so. […] it looks like it’s a question of how much the ‘no’ side will win by, not what the outcome might be.
While it’s obviously nice to find anyone on the same side as me when it comes to predicting the result of the referendum, this really is a no-brainer (hence the reason even I can predict it, and also the reason why it’s embarrassing to ask Silver to comment). It’s been obvious ever since the referendum was announced that, barring unforeseen events, the nationalists would be unlikely to win it. This has been obvious to everyone, including the SNP, and they’ve factored it into their campaign.
That’s why, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the version of “independence” they’re proposing looks nothing like actual independence. They’re proposing that Scotland, even when it is “independent”, should retain the pound – which of course means retaining English control over monetary policy, too. Their position on defence is currently…vague, but they seem to be proposing an “independent” defence force which is nonetheless integrated into the armed forces of the rump UK – and this of course implies English control over defence and foreign policy.
So, what does that all sound like? A situation in which decisions on monetary, foreign, and defence policy are made in Westminster, and decisions on financial policy (tax collection and spending) join with decisions on law, education, health etc., and are made in Edinburgh? Yes, that’s right, it sounds like… devo max (an enhanced form of devolution in which Scotland remains within the UK, but even more powers are transferred to Scotland). Specifically, it sounds exactly like the precise version of devo max endorsed as their preferred option by the majority of the Scottish population.
The Scottish media have been aware of this for a long time now – the way that, in the words of a former member of the SNP quoted over a year ago in the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, ‘devo max is the fall-back position in case an insufficient number of people vote for independence’. But the UK (i.e., English-based) media are yet to latch on to the fact that the SNP are pursuing a gradualist strategy, the next step in which is an enhanced form of devolution. That’s why during their “independence” campaign they’re spending so much time talking about policies that fit within devo max – so that, when and if the debate moves on to that possibility (as all the unionist parties have promised it will, in the event of independence being voted down), the SNP will have set the frame of reference before it begins.
The trouble with English reporting on the SNP is that the party are, in the context of UK politics, an extremely unusual outfit. For a start they’re a party who direct their efforts towards a specific ideological goal, rather than simply trying to achieve and retain power, which already makes them radically unlike any of the three major parties in England. Then, too, they don’t suffer from the chronic short-termism of most UK parties. Because they have a long-term vision which they appreciate may take decades to achieve by gradualist means, they’re not purely driven by the current news cycle – they’ll happily soak up criticism for something now if it will tend to their advantage in the future. They also have the tactical nous to understand how to manipulate their opponents into accepting their terms of debate, even if that means they have to appear to “lose” in the process.
Here’s a good case in point: the SNP proposed that the question asked of voters in the referendum should be “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Cue outrage from their opponents, all predictably aggrieved that this was a leading question which would tend to encourage a yes vote – as it certainly was. Precisely because it was so egregious, all the attention focussed on the first four words of the question, and the SNP were eventually forced into a “climbdown” where they agreed to delete them. Their opponents were so busy crowing over their “victory” they didn’t spot that the agreed version of the question – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – still frames the proposed action in positive terms: becoming an independent country, instead of leaving the UK. Yes, for a news cycle or two it looked like they lost, but the prize was ensuring that independence would be framed in positive terms when it really mattered – when voters are standing in the booth, pencil in hand.
The SNP don’t extend this kind of brilliance to everything they do. In the day-to-day governing of Scotland they stagger from crisis to crisis as much as any government, but in pursuit of their main goal – independence for Scotland, achieved by gradual means – they do it surprisingly often. For example, they went into the negotiations for the referendum with the Westminster government insisting that a brand new body reporting directly to Scottish ministers should organise the referendum – but only so that, when they agreed to “compromise” on that, they could insist that the Westminster government conceded on things that were actually important to the SNP, like the timing of the referendum and the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. And they proposed a two-question referendum with both independence and devo max on offer – but only so as to manipulate their opponents into promising a referendum on devo max if the independence vote is lost.
The upshot of all of this is that English instincts are off kilter when it comes to reporting on the SNP. It’s not so much a matter of ignorance as it is of naivete. They take the SNP at face value, and assume that they are always trying to do what they appear to be trying to do, when in fact the nationalists are thinking several moves – and sometimes several decades – ahead. Whatever you think of their politics, the SNP are by a huge margin the most interesting political party to watch in the UK at the moment. They just play the game of politics so much better than anyone else.
As an aside, I do find it depressing when Nate Silver is reported on like he’s some sort of mystical guru. That’s absolutely implicit in The Guardian‘s report about his comments in Edinburgh, when the reporter presumes that he must know what’s going to happen in the independence referendum because he is ‘the polling expert who accurately called the outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections.’ He called those elections correctly because he didn’t try and directly forecast the national result (which was too close to call with certainty), but instead forecast the result in each state, and from that inferred which candidate would win in the electoral college, and so be sworn-in as president.
That methodology isn’t available in a national referendum, as Silver explained himself – ‘the best you can do is take an average [of the various national polls]‘ – and he isn’t a wizard. He doesn’t automatically have access to some rarefied level of advanced knowledge which means his forecasts are always better than anyone else’s. He’s just a statistician who has developed a robust model for forecasting the outcome of some elections in the USA.
It’s his model that’s insightful, not him, and in circumstances in which his model doesn’t apply his understanding of poll data is no more sophisticated than anyone else’s. I don’t mean that as a criticism, or to in any way demean his achievements. I just wish he was praised for those achievements, instead of being treated like a psephological guru whose authority can be appealed to in all circumstances.