The reliably-wise Stephen Bush of The New Statesman said something perceptive yesterday on the subject of an EU referendum, although it applies much more widely.
It’s a view we’ve held for many years, most often in relation to UK governments ruling with huge majorities won on pretty tiddly pluralities of the vote (often in the mid-30%s), where the bulk of the electorate has no defence against a party it didn’t vote for.
Despite an electoral system that makes such events far rarer, the phenomenon crops up a lot in Scotland too, and both sides are guilty, often on the same subject. Scottish employment figures, for example, alternate with almost metronomic regularity between being higher/lower than those in the rest of the UK, and whichever it is in any given month one side or the other will trumpet it as conclusive and permanent proof that Scotland’s governance is better/worse than that of London.
(Even though Holyrood in fact has almost no power over the economy, so deserves little of either the blame or credit, whichever applies that month.)
The most common case, though, is Trident.
Both sides (and backing for the UK’s nuclear weapons correlates closely, though by no means completely, with views on the constitution) are fond of spinning the stats to their advantage by using the trick of viewing the situation from different perspectives.
Opponents will tweet striking maps showing Scotland uniformly opposed based on the votes of MPs, knowingly misrepresenting the reality of split public opinion. Supporters will loudly trumpet polls returning a statistical tie as proof that the whole country is in favour. And of course, Scottish Labour will try to occupy all positions simultaneously, to everyone else’s great merriment.
(The graphic above is correct as far as we know, but goodness knows which parts of it might have changed since the last time we checked.)
And the voters? Well, we’re fairly sure the voters are just messing with us now.
Our latest Panelbase poll shows the biggest majority in favour of retaining the UK’s nuclear weapons that we can recall seeing in a Scottish poll – a still pretty tight 9%. But there’s a twist.
Because a far bigger majority (19%) oppose them being kept in Scotland.
Since there’s currently no other viable location in the UK (or indeed elsewhere) for Trident to be based, in practice taking Trident out of Scotland means giving it up altogether. Voters, then, have in effect voted both for and (more strongly) against it at the same time. Nearly half of Scots say they want to keep the “deterrent”, but barely a quarter back it if it means having it on their own doorstep, which it does.
(The only demographic groups who opposed the UK’s nukes overall were young women, SNP voters, Yes voters and people born in Europe. But the only groups who backed Trident being located in Scotland were No voters, Tory voters and Lib Dems. The only scores over 50% were SNP and Yes voters in the first category, and Tories in the second category.)
None of these findings, of course, will change the behaviour of either the pros or the antis for a moment. Trident fans will loudly and brashly proclaim the results of the first question while pretending the second one never happened. Trident haters will spin the figures – not untruthfully – as proving that Scots want Trident removed from Scotland.
The truth, as so often, is more nuanced than either side wants you to believe. And on this site, the truth is always what we want to get to.