Young or old

I have a good deal of time for Politics Scot. Tonight he tweeted this (https://twitter.com/PoliticsScot)

In this regard, he is doing little more than repeating a widely held point of view – that it was the older generation that lost us the last referendum and could cost us the next one. In terms of relative vote, it is hard to argue with that. The issue, though is less how we lost the last one, and more how we win the next one, and what I want to argue is that focusing on the group that did most to cost us the last referendum might be quite the wrong way of setting about it.

The highlighted figures in the table, show the degree of resistance among the over 55s of practically every party (other than the SNP of course) to voting Yes next time. Therefore, the argument goes, we should be focusing on convincing the over 55s to vote for Yes.

The widely held view is that to be young is to be liberal, but old is to be conservative- or to be young to support Yes, but old to vote No. These figures support that thesis.

However, American research reported here (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/09/the-politics-of-american-generations-how-age-affects-attitudes-and-voting-behavior/) suggests that while different age groups do have different political ideas, the young=liberal, old=conservative view does not always work. For instance, they show that those aged over 65 are pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

The classic quote on age and attitude is by François Guizot, who said, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” But it has been shown by Alwin, Cohen and Newcomb in “Political Attitudes Over the Lifespan” (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3a927Jder6IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22political+attitudes+over+the+life+span%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SnO9U63AF9DLsATrtYKgDA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22political%20attitudes%20over%20the%20life%20span%22&f=false) that “through late childhood and early adolescence, attitudes are relatively malleable…with the potential for dramatic change possible in late adolescence or early adulthood. [B]ut greater stability sets in at some early point, and attitudes tend to be increasingly persistent as people age.” In other words, while Guizot may have been correct about ages between 20 and 30, the argument should not be extended further – at some point our political views become relatively fixed.

Ghitza and Gelman show in “The Great Society: Reagan’s Revolution and Generations of Presidential Voting” (http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/unpublished/cohort_voting_20140605.pdf) that there exist in the US different political generations, each shaped by political events during their formative years: New Deal Democrats, Eisenhower Republicans, Baby Boomers, Reagan Conservatives and Millennials.

Now if we apply these ideas to the next independence referendum it may give us cause to think that the widely held nostrum – well expressed by Politics Scot – that we need to get the older generation onboard – just might not be as true as we might think it to be.

First of all, if attitudes at some point during adulthood become relatively fixed – or demonstrate a greater stability – then it will be the older generations who will be harder to get to change their minds. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, while this might not be for those in the earlier stages of 55+ age group, anyone who is 70 or older grew up in a world where the United Kingdom and Great Britain actually meant something. It was a world where to say that the sun never set on the British Empire was actually true. It was a country which had stood alone against Hitler and been one of the allies that had defeated him. As Maurice Smith put it in a recent Newsnet podcast, “people who have grown up watching John Mills’ movies”. (http://newsnet.scot/archive/podcast-two-years-indyref-13-weeks-brexit-next/). This was the crucible in which their ideas were formed, and the idea of bringing that United Kingdom to an end will often be relatively more difficult than for younger age groups who have lived through a period of pretty continuous decline.

So if they are not to be targeted then who? If we go back to the figures in the table, then we can see that to secure a majority can be achieved in either (or both) of two ways.

If, as is common for opinion polls, we rule out the undecideds, then a majority could be secured by getting at minimum 29 No voters to turn to yes, nearly 6%. Where would that 6% come from? If we rule out the over 55s as ‘too difficult’ then it has to be from younger age groups. There are 239 No voters aged less than 55, so 29 of them would be 12%, from any party but less likely to be Conservatives, where the balance between Yes and No is more marked than even for SNP voters voting Yes.

Moreover, particularly among the youngest age group – 16-34 (where ideas are more malleable!) – the balance for Yes is particularly pronounced (55% Yes to 32% No). If political ideas are influenced – among this younger, more malleable group – by their peers then perhaps it is most likely that converts would be secured here rather than among the elderly as Politics Scot suggests.

But there is another group we have ignored so far – those characterised as undecided. Typically, these are either excluded from the final result, or it is assumed that they will allocate themselves in the same proportions as those who have made their mind up already. There are 73 aged less than 55 in the undecided category. For this group to push Yes to a majority. To take the Yes vote (440) above the No vote (497) would require nearly 80% of this undecided group to come across, so it is at best difficult, and probably unlikely that even persuading younger undecideds to vote Yes is going to secure a Yes vote. More likely that some combination of securing currently undecided votes and converting No votes to Yes, particularly among young voters, will be the way forward.

Therefore, if the view that our opinions do not usually change significantly with age are correct, then the more productive approach to secure a Yes majority might be, counterintuitively, not to focus on the group which relatively cost us the last referendum – older voters whose opinions were formed in a rather different United Kingdom – but to work harder to secure the votes of existing No votes among younger voters whose opinions are more receptive to new ideas, whose conversion might be relatively easier.

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Words Matter

I was going to write last night about how the draft Bill for a second referendum was being reported, but time ran out on me. This morning I noted that Wings over Scotland have written about the same thing, but rather more extensively (http://wingsoverscotland.com/and-twirling-always-twirling/).

I had been going to satisfy myself with the observation that the Herald was presenting the story in a sort of “she’s keeping the independence option open” kind of way, but giving prominence to the statements one might have expected from Ruth Davidson about focusing on the problems of Scotland, and by Kezia Dugdale that she was “shifting the goalposts” by “suggesting that securing ongoing membership of the single market, rather than retaining full benefits of EU membership, would be enough to convince her to call off a second independence referendum” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/14724618.Sturgeon_keeps_options_open_over_independence_despite_single_market_demands/).

However, that was not the way that it was reported in the Guardian, where the headline in Severin Carrell’s report told us pretty much all we needed to know about the approach. In contrast to the Herald – “options open” – in the Guardian independence was on the back burner – “Sturgeon shelves plan for quick second Scottish independence referendum” (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/06/nicola-sturgeon-shelves-quick-second-scottish-independence-referendum-bill).

The first couple of paragraphs tell their own story

“Nicola Sturgeon has shelved plans for a quick second referendum on Scottish independence after dire spending figures and a fall in public support for leaving the UK.

The first minister told Holyrood on Tuesday that her government only planned to issue a consultation on a draft referendum bill – a measure which falls short of tabling new legislation in this year’s programme for government.”

So instead of options open, according to the Guardian, Sturgeon is running away, because of the dreadful GERS figures, and – quite bafflingly – her appointment of Mike Russell (one of the most “combative figures” at Holyrood) as her Brexit minister. This remember is the same item of news – keeping the option on the table (despite encouragement to put it away) or running away.

As Wings points out, other newspapers had their own agendas, so the same item of news – remember – the independence referendum bill “has – in the space of a single 48-word sentence in a 4,600-word speech – been edged towards, backed away from, shelved, threatened, lined up, put on the back burner and consulted on”. Quite a remarkable set of interpretations for a single sentence. The problem of course is that none of them is entirely truthful, because the reality is that the next referendum is contingent on Brexit. In that sense the key decision-maker is not actually the First Minister, but the Prime Minister.

However, one would not get this impression from a reading of the UK press, as the above demonstrates quite fully. However, I want to focus on another example – David Torrance’s weekly SNP BAD article in the Herald headlined “Like Brown, Sturgeon risks letting the genie out of the bottle” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14723055.David_Torrance__Like_Brown__Sturgeon_risks_letting_the_genie_out_the_bottle/). Essentially Torrance attempts to develop an analogy with the time when Gordon Brown had just become PM, and with the polls in his favour, after some prevarication, decided against a snap election for his own personal mandate, opting instead to go the distance of that Parliament, and ending up losing to the Tory/ Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Torrance’s argument is that Sturgeon is doing much the same thing, prevaricating and by doing so may end up losing support, if the tide for independence is fully in just now.

Yet Torrance recognises that the call for a second referendum is contingent on triggering Article 50, when all the reasonable options for Scotland retaining meaningful links with the EU have been ruled out or shown not be possible. He writes “When Article 50 is triggered and it’s confirmed that Scotland isn’t going to stay in the EU (or the Single Market, the First Minister’s “red line” continues to shift) the SNP’s strategists will have to decide how they’re going to respond”, and indeed there is an argument there that needs to be respected. A response will be needed, but it wont necessarily be to trigger the next referendum.

In this regard, Torrance claims, “I don’t get the sense those in charge necessarily see Article 50 as a decision point, rather they’ll continue to busk it, waiting for something to come up. But the trouble with this is that “something” bad may emerge.”. But how likely – or unlikely – is “something” bad to emerge? It is perhaps one of those accidents of history that the day before Torrance’s piece came out, the “normally discreet Japan Gov has very publicly slapped UK for Brexit”, as Robert Peston tweeted the evening before. The Japanese PM and ambassador to London have both warned the British government that if Japanese companies – which employ between them 140,000 in the UK – cannot continue to make profits working from here, then they will leave. In short the likelihood of “something” bad emerging is by no means that farfetched.

However, the real killer for Torrance’s SNP BAD hypothesis, is that, as he recognises himself, indyref2 is contingent on Article 50 being triggered. When will that be? Immediately after the 23rd June, we might have expected it to be triggered, if not now then very shortly. Then it became the end of this year. Then early next year. Then the middle of next year. Some suggest it might not be till 2019!

And whose decision will it be? It won’t be one for the FM, as the Secretary of State made clear (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-37276167) “”Scotland is part of the United Kingdom. The UK government is responsible for Scotland’s membership of the EU and for foreign affairs so obviously the UK government is going to take the lead in the negotiations in relation to our position in the EU. Asked if Ms Sturgeon could expect a “veto” over any position that emerges, Mr Mundell went on: “There isn’t going to be a veto for anyone in relation to the EU negotiations”. The decision, therefore, will be one for the PM.

Thus all Torrance’s talk of the Scottish Govt, letting the genie out of the bottle, is quite misplaced. If indyref2 is contingent on Brexit actually happening, then the person who has the first decision to take is Theresa May, and the indecision – and indeed lack of clarity – right now, is hers and her government’s.

But more than this, we would do well to wonder why Torrance, and those who share his opinions, are arguing for a vote they don’t want – indyref2 – which may bring an outcome they certainly do not want – independence. But their demand for indyref to happen now, before the full horrors of Brexit have had time to emerge – at the moment the Japanese have been uniquely clear, and even then we are talking about 140,000 jobs – is indicative of their thinking. If there is to be another referendum lets have it now, when the chances of a Yes vote are less. As John Curtice pointed out in his most recent blog, after an increase immediately after the 23rd June, support for independence has returned to around 46% (http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2016/09/has-brexit-not-had-much-impact-on/), so let’s have it sooner rathe rather than later when Yes might win. My own view has always been that Brexit, of an by itself, no matter how much of a democratic outrage it might be, will not take us to independence. But the consequences of Brexit might very well do this.

When the possibility of another independence referendum is raised, there are two common retorts in the mainstream media. One is the Ruth Davidson approach, aping Johann Lamont during the last referendum, that there is a country to run. Remember “Scotland on pause”? Or to argue, let’s have it now. The former is a variant on the “once in a generation” argument, while the latter seeks to hurry it on, in the expectation that as time wears on, and the consequences of Brexit become more clear, the likelihood of a Yes vote increases. Both are attempts by Unionism to avoid the inevitable, or if not inevitable to hold it at a less than propitious time. We need to hold our nerve. Work remains to be done, as Robin McAlpine points out in “Determination” so that the independence offer is more convincing than last time. As Tommy Sheppard has said “every part of the that white paper [from the last referendum] is obviously going to have to be looked at and reviewed and dusted down and re-presented if and when we get to a next independence referendum” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/snp-s-tommy-sheppard-urges-review-of-independence-white-paper-1-4194104).

But more than that, the Brexit and the current political situation in the UK – in particular leaving the UK with the most reactionary and right wing Tory government for many years – causes the tide to flow in our favour. As Eric Joyce wrote recently in his blog, former No voters – and he instances in particular JK Rowling who he says may support the Union but “loathes” the Tories – “realise that what’s in their hearts has become a never-neverland they’ll never get to visit. Then they’ll re-imagine Scotland’s future and choose social democracy in an independent Scotland over Tory ascendancy.” (http://ericjoyce.co.uk/2016/09/jk-rowling-is-the-folk-who-will-move-scotland-from-no-to-yes/)