Nate Silver, Scottish independence, and the tactical nous of the SNP

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.

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7 Responses to Nate Silver, Scottish independence, and the tactical nous of the SNP

  1. Peter A Bell says:

    A remarkably comprehensive catalogue of British nationalist prejudice and ignorance of Scotland’s politics. I don’t intend to devote time to an equally comprehensive dismantling of this drivel, so I’ll deal with only what might arguably be the most glaring fallacy.

    At no time did the SNP seek a “two-question referendum”. In fact, the SNP could hardly have been more explicit in expressing their preference for a single question. And not only is there no promise of a “referendum on devo max” there isn’t even the possibility of such a thing.


  2. Thanks for commenting.

    You’re in error if you think I’m a British nationalist. Neither am I am hostile to the cause for Scottish independence – it seems to me both unavoidable and desirable.

    I would draw your attention to the fact that I never said the SNP sought a two-question referendum, merely that they proposed it. Which they did.

    The unionist parties absolutely have promised a referendum on the proposals resulting from the Calman Commission. They may not honour that promise, but the promise was made, and recapitulated in the discussion about resisting the two-question referendum proposed by the SNP.

    So much for my being ‘dismissed’.

  3. Peter A Bell says:

    More ill-informed drivel.

    At no time did the SNP either seek or propose a second question. The Scottish Government left it open for one are more of the British parties to propose such a question. They declined to do so. The SNP ALWAYS favoured a single question.

    The proposals resulting from the rigged Calman Commission have already been enacted in the Scotland Act (2012) which received Royal Assent on 1 May 2013. No referendum on the proposals was ever so much as suggested by anyone. It would not be possible to have such a referendum now.

    No proposals for further devolution are on the table. Nor will there be in the event of a No vote. So there is nothing to have a referendum about.

    You very clearly know nothing about Scottish politics. It might be a good idea to stop making a fool of yourself.

  4. Peter A Bell says:

    CORRECTION: Scotland Act (2012) received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012.

  5. Curious that you should devote time to attacking an ally – one who, like you, supports Scottish independence. Is this your strategy for winning in 2014: intensive and hostile interaction with people who agree with you? I would gently suggest that your opponents and the undecided might be a more useful focus of your efforts – but, of course, the choice is yours. If you were wondering, the handful of people who read this blog have already read this post, so you pretty much are just talking to me here.

    Proactively raising the possibility of a two-question referendum – which the SNP did – cannot possibly be construed by a reasonable person as anything other than proposing it.

    Thanks for the extra information regarding the Scotland Act – I’m always grateful for correction when I make a mistake.

    While I hold my hands up to the silly error of mentioning Calman specifically in a tossed off comment without doing the necessary research, I should stress none of this alters the fact that the point made in the OP – that the unionist parties have promised a referendum on further devolution should the independence vote fail – still stands. There can of course be a referendum at any time on any subject. All it requires is an Act of Parliament. And unless you are in possession of a time machine you cannot possibly know whether the promise of a referendum on devo max will be honoured, although I do appreciate you have reasons to be sceptical.

    I note that you’ve had three bites of the cherry now, and are yet to engage with the central points raised in the OP: that the polls clearly suggest that the independence referendum next year is lost, and that the SNP are displaying great tactical nous in pursuit of their de facto gradualist strategy for achieving independence.

    If you do fancy a fourth bite, I should let you know that I will be offline for the next several days, and your comment will not appear until I am back online. I’m letting you know now so as to ensure you don’t take this as a personal slight.

  6. Peter A Bell says:

    I am “attacking” only the nonsense you insist on spouting.

    At no time did the SNP or the Scottish Government propose a second question in the referendum. That is a matter of record. Although it pleases unionists to pretend that Cameron thwarted Salmond’s plans for a second question, the reality is that he duped them into rejecting something that he didn’t want anyway. Salmond did no more than mention that the government would consider a second question IF SOMEONE ELSE PROPOSED IT

  7. Peter A Bell says:

    [CONTINUED AFTER ACCIDENTALLY HITTING THE POST BUTTON] and the unionists obligingly painted themselves into a corner where they are trying to sell the least popular constitutional option of all – the status quo.

    The British parties HAVE NOT promised a referendum on further devolution. They do not even have any plans for further devolution in the event of a No vote. There is nothing on the table in the event of a No vote. And unionists are openly talking about stripping the Scottish Parliament of powers and even abolishing it altogether. Nothing even remotely like a promise of a referendum.

    If you are so ill-informed about other important matters why should I imagine you have anything sensible to say about polls?

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