Thursday 11 September 2014

Scotland and identity.

Some of you may remember the 1992 general election. I do. I missed being old enough to vote in it by six days, so was annoyed. What was interesting about it was the stark difference between the predicted result and the actual result. I mean, yeah, sure, predictions are often a bit wrong. But in 1992, they were staggeringly wrong.

Every opinion poll said Labour would win. Labour were so confident — in fact, not even just confident, but sure — of victory that they openly celebrated, producing footage that looked a bit embarrassing a few days later. The media were sure of a Labour win too. On election night, every time a Tory lost their seat, they would be interviewed not only about the loss of their seat but about the loss of their government. If you went to bed about ten or eleven, you were fully expecting to wake up to a Labour government.

And then the Tories won the largest number of popular votes in British history.

Sure, the vagaries of the electoral system meant that they only had a narrow majority in Parliament, which is fair enough, but MORE VOTES THAN ANYONE ELSE EVER! is exactly the sort of thing that opinion polls should be able to detect, and they didn't. They didn't come close. So there was much discussion at the time about what the hell was wrong with the bloody opinion polls, and how they might be fixed. There was proper academic research done too. And the academics discovered something quite interesting, and something quite obvious. The interesting thing was that pollsters were asking the wrong question.

What they ask is: "If the election were tomorrow, how would you vote?" Turns out, the problem with this is that it registers vain protests. And this is the obvious thing that the academics discovered: A lifelong Labour voter whose parents voted Labour and whose grandparents voted Labour might well tell a pollster they're going to vote Conservative because they're a bit pissed off with Ed Milliband this week (who isn't?), but, once in a polling booth, will never ever do such a thing.

The question polls should ask is: "Which party do you identify with?" People who feel like they're a part of the Conservative Party, who feel that a Tory is who they are, will vote Conservative. Some polling organisations now try to take account of this by asking people how they voted in the last election.

The important finding here is that, for the most part, people vote based on identity, on tribalism. It's which group you feel you belong to that influences how you vote.

So, the moment the Scottish Referendum was announced, I said, "That's it: Scotland's leaving the UK." There has never for one moment been any doubt in my mind that Scotland will vote to leave. I have been frankly surprised that so many professional politicians — who, whatever you may think of their policies, should at least know a bit about politics and elections — have been convinced that the No campaign would win and are apparently genuinely surprised now that it looks like they won't. I never trusted the opinion polls that showed that No would win, and I don't trust the latest polls that show that Yes will win, despite their happening to be right by sheer luck. Obviously Scotland will vote to be an independent country. Because there is simply no way to separate a referendum like this from the question of identity, and Scots' primary identity is always Scottish. Yes, plenty of Scots are proud to be British — but they're Scottish first.

Thing is, unlike in a general election, this is actually a good thing: this Referendum should be about identity. The campaigning on both sides has been some of the stupidest I've ever seen (and I saw Labour try to persuade the country that Michael Foot would be a great Prime Minister), as it has all been about policy, or about the next five to ten years, or about whether Scotland is viable as a nation. Utter bollocks, the lot of it.

The decision to secede will last for centuries. No-one knows what'll happen over that time. Trying to claim that it's a good or a bad idea on the basis of some current concern is much like basing your opinion of the Union on Whig policy. This Referendum has nothing to do with policy, for how on Earth can it? It is, simply, about what Scotland is, about what being Scottish means — not about what any Scottish government might do. Gut feeling about identity is probably the best way to vote. It's certainly better than taking Alex Salmond or the God-awful Nicola Sturgeon seriously.

Scotland will do very well by itself, eventually. It might even do very well immediately, though I think that's less likely. But good luck regardless. The Union was bloody great (and bloody, and great) and demonstrated that the English can achieve great things with help from the Scots and that the Scots can achieve great things with help from the English. But this is a democracy, and it doesn't look like the Union is really wanted anymore.

Course, if I'm wrong, this post is going to look as embarrassing as that celebratory Labour footage. Nearly.

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