ONE of the pleasures of political science is the way it stubbornly refuses to be an actual science.
Of course, there are psephologists and statisticians who pore over boundary changes, and canvas returns and polling data in a rational attempt to identify key groups of voters and predict outcomes. Data is king, according to the new orthodoxy in politics and commerce – a trend that has made global superstars out of gifted number-crunchers such as Nate Silver. But again and again, human beings prove themselves obdurately unwilling to be reduced to a calculation. They prove themselves gloriously contrary, complex and contradictory. They prove themselves wonderfully human.
Today, in the independence referendum campaign, is one such occasion. The No campaign could not have hoped for a better opinion poll finding than the answer given to ICM on whether voters are convinced or unconvinced by the Scottish Government’s plans for currency in an independent Scotland. By an impressive margin of two-to-one, voters are unconvinced. Also, they have become more sceptical about Alex Salmond’s chances of establishing a formal currency union with the rest of the UK, to share the pound after independence. Surely, therefore, this damning verdict on the touchstone issue of the moment in the referendum campaign would mean a reverse for Yes in the polls? Apparently not. Both sides in the campaign have improved their standing as the number of Don’t Knows diminishes, but the Yes campaign improvement (+4 percentage points) is twice the size of the No campaign improvement (+2).
Although they are putting a brave face on it this weekend, strategists in the No camp must be dismayed. Their man Alistair Darling bested Salmond in the televised debate, and they have pressed home their advantage on what everyone was treating as the core issue of the campaign. If that doesn’t halt the Yes campaign in its tracks, they may well be asking, what will?
The answer to that question is that the No camp is misreading the campaign, and misreading the way the Scottish public is engaging with it. The truth is that people’s views on independence are not an aggregate of what they think about currency, Trident, austerity and pensions. These are, of course, important influences. But people don’t work like that. This vote was always going to be decided by less empirical factors. It was always going to come down to a gut instinct when the voter picks up the pencil in the voting booth and ask himself or herself how they feel. Policy detail is the evidence called, as in a court. But ultimately the jurors are free to make up their own minds, applying their instinct, their temperament, their prejudices and their outlook as much as their intellectual assessment of the facts of the matter.
So too in Scotland’s independence referendum. Questions of identity and belonging will be more important come 18 September than whether the use of the pound after independence is with or without a lender of last resort, important as that undoubtedly may turn out be. A gut feeling will guide the pencil to the appropriate box. Instinct will be informed by conflicting feelings of hope, fear, contentedness, boldness, thrawnness, gallusness and caution. It will depend too on where people think they belong – Scotland, yes, but do they also feel part of a wider British people, or are they prepared to think of themselves as Scottish alone? The reality is that the Yes campaign is better at this stuff than the No campaign. Better Together is still finding hard to communicate a compelling narrative about being Scottish first and British a poor second – the position of the vast majority of Scots – and still wanting to stay in the UK. In a month’s time we will know whether they were capable of honing this message into something that strikes a chord with the voters.
Victims of child abuse deserve answers
THE official inquiries ordered by Whitehall ministers in England and Wales to look at historical cases of paedophile rings and institutional child abuse are a great step forward for the many victims of this vile and distressing crime. The inquiries set up by the Home Secretary will address head-on the accusations that powerful figures within the criminal justice system and the political establishment, over successive decades, colluded to protect abusers from within their midst, and deny victims justice. Particular attention will be paid to exactly how allegations were treated by the police and prosecutors. This is all to be welcomed.
Except, what about similar cases in Scotland? Scottish Government ministers seem more reluctant than their Westminster counterparts to endorse the same openness, the same rigour, the same determination to get to the bottom of what happened, no matter how murky and difficult the process may be and who comes under scrutiny. In the light of accusations this past week about former Scottish MP and solicitor-general Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, QC Robert Henderson and other as yet unnamed members of the Scottish legal establishment, this is unacceptable.
In this newspaper today, the opposition spokesman at Holyrood calls for a public inquiry – similar to the one in England and Wales – to be set up in Scotland. The case for this is unanswerable. The same issues pertain – the same accusations that powerful figures within the world of politics and the law were guilty of child abuse with a sexual motive, and conspired with their friends in high places to ensure they were protected when police were alerted.
In the early 1990s this newspaper played an active role in shedding light on what would become known as the Magic Circle saga. An inquiry at that time rejected accusations of a conspiracy, suggesting that it was unthinkable that senior members of the criminal justice establishment might collude in the despicable way suggested. We live now in less trusting times, where the unthinkable has frequently been shown to be all too real. Scottish ministers must be equal to the challenge, and not be afraid . They must take a leaf out of Westminster’s book and approach this subject with rigour and without fear or favour. They owe it to the victims of abuse not to shirk from this responsibility.