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We are the 99%, and the 51%

Posted on January 16, 2012 by

While this blog commends the Guardian's continuing commitment to quantity of Scottish coverage, its quality is too often dismaying. Today it runs with the tired, feeble line introduced by Willie Rennie into the independence-referendum debate a few weeks ago, and laughingly dismissed by most grown-up commentators minutes later – what happens if there's a referendum with a devo-max option and 99% vote for devo-max but 51% vote for independence?

(To be fair, the Guardian impressively increases the precision of the question tenfold by adding a somewhat gratuitous decimal point into the equation, but to keep things nice and tidy we'll stick with the whole numbers.)

Rennie's question is so feeble because the answer is so obvious. If a majority votes for independence, Scotland should become independent. Devo-max is a wholly-contained subset of independence (despite some very silly recent assertions to the contrary by new Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who has suddenly decided that "some powers – more powers – all powers" isn't a linear progression), and we can say so without fear of contradiction because in Rennie's hypothetical example the number of votes totals 151%, which you clearly can't have in a vote between opposing options.

You can self-evidently ONLY have a vote adding up to more than 100% if people are allowed to vote for two (or more) things at once, and you can't do that if those two things are in conflict with each other. In an election, we'd call that a spoiled ballot.

Rennie's complaint is irrational and illogical whether taken on face value or examined more closely. Either devo-max and independence are exclusive concepts – in which case you can't let people vote for both of them – or one is a subset of the other, in which case supporters of devo-max are getting everything they wanted if Scotland becomes independent (plus more on top) and there's no problem. But for the sake of argument, let's indulge him for a moment and see where it leads.

If we let Rennie have his cake and eat it, and the result comes out as absurdly extreme as his example, what does that actually tell us? It tells us the Scottish people have the following order of preference for their governance:

The Union: 1%
Devo max: 48%
Independence: 51%

…because of the 99% who approved of devo max, more than half of them also approved of independence. There is no sane way of spinning a poll in which most Scots have voted for independence, but the country doesn't end up independent.

We know Unionists do like to rig a referendum in exactly that way, because the last time 51% of Scots voted for something in a referendum (51.6%, in fact) they didn't get that either. You can bet your last Royal Wedding teatowel that the SNP will not allow Scotland to be stitched up the same way twice.

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10 to “We are the 99%, and the 51%”

  1. Morag says:

    Small point of order.  99 + 51 = 150.

  2. Morag says:

    They were wittering about this in the autumn too, and I couldn't get my head round why nobody seemed to understand what you've just said.  Not just the Labour MSPs, who're as thick as mince anyway most of them, but BBC interviewers.
    Part of it seems to be down to the SNP's own 2010 consultation document on a referendum, which suggested two questions, but didn't make the conditional nature clear.  Reading it, I thought the person drafting it probably thought it was bloody obvious, but hadn't actually said so.  It's not two separate questions, these questions are linked by either "if not, then…." or "if so, then…."
    The question that exercises me is, if we're going to have a two-stage question, which order should the questions be posed in?  There are two quite different ways of asking what is essentially the same thing.  Roughly paraphrasing, they look like this.
    1.  Do you want more powers for the Scottish parliament (insert here whatever committments can be tortured out of the Westminster parties)
    2.  If Scotland gest more powers, do you want these powers extended so that it becomes an independent country
    In that version, over 50% for 1 gets you devo-whatever-is-on-the-table, but if you then get over 50% for 2 you get independence.  And of course it doesn't matter if question 1 got a higher yes vote than question 2, so long as question 2 gets its 50%.  These 50% can be safely assumed also to have voted yes in question 1.  (It would be a bit daft to be forced to vote no in question 1 so as not to nullify your yes vote in question 2!)
    Or alternatively,
    1.  Are you in favour of Scotland becoming an independent country?
    2.  If independence fails to gain a majority, do you favour the Scottish parliament gaining additional powers within the union?
    In that version, over 50% for 1 gets independence, end of story.  But if it doesn't, and 2 then gets over 50%, you get whatever the unionist parties have agreed to concede.  And again, it doesn't matter if question 2 gets a bigger yes vote than question 1, if question 1 gets over 50% question 2 is moot.
    Either of these versions should be perfectly simple to explain to anyone with an IQ higher than that of a begonia, given that the person doing the explaining is acting in good faith and not trying to stir up trouble.  This is what Professor Q tried to explain in November, but nobody was listening.
    Except, having said that, and remebering the mince being talked about the AV system last year, am I wrong that this is easy to explain?  Would we be inundated with irrational tripe misrepresenting the arithmetic, which people would then fall for?
    My question is, which way round should the questions be asked?  This is our independence referendum, and my instinct is very much to favour the second version.  The independence one first and in the headline, the one which is the big decision.  The extended devolution one an afterthought, just in case.
    On the other hand many people seem to be assuming the first version.  The "logical progression" as it were, from some more autonomy to full autonomy.
    Anyone have any opinions?

  3. John Böttcher says:

    After returning from the SNP conference last October, I thought of something along these lines:
    Referendum On The Future Of Scotland
    Q1 – Do you want more powers for the Scottish Parliament?
    Yes (  )
    No  (  )
    Q2 – If you selected Yes in the above question, do you want
    Full Fiscal Autonomy/Devolution Max? (  )
    Full Independence (  )
    I thought that was a reasonably concise way to formulate all three options. I also think Q1 would be answered overmelmingly in the positive, leaving the parties and other groups to argue their cases for what sort of range of powers.

  4. RevStu says:

    "Small point of order.  99 + 51 = 150."

    Yes, but if 99% voted for devo max that means 1% voted against it, so the total vote is (99+51+1) = 151.

  5. Morag says:

    Well, presumably 49% also voted against independence in the second question, making a total vote of 200%.  Which sounds a bit right if every individual has two votes.
    You can twist this quite a few ways, mostly silly, and you've got my head in a spin now.  But of course the point is that if 50% + 1 vote for independence, that's it.  If all these people plus a few more ALSO support FFA, that's neither here nor there.
    It's pretty much axiomatic that everyone who supports independence would also support FFA over the status quo.  Plus of course some more people will also prefer FFA over the status quo, even though they don't favour independence.  So the FFA option is ALWAYS going to score more than independence, looked at in that way.  Are the people touting their twisted logic suggesting that everyone who supports independence should vote against FFA, or something?
    It's nuts.

  6. Morag says:

    John Böttcher, that's a re-worded equivalent of my version 1.  Maybe it's OK.  But what about the essential difference between that and asking the yes/no question on independence first?  Would people be inclined to vote differently depending on which way round it's worded?
    For what it's worth, the mood music coming out of the SNP suggests they're looking at the second option.  If any sort of enhanced devolution gets on the ballot paper, I think this may be what the basic argument boils down to.  Well, that and whether the language includes words like separation, ripping apart and barbed wire at Coldstream I suppose.
    My own view is that we've got all the devolution Westminster is minded to give us.  The response to the Calman commission demonstrates that.  Indeed, I think we should be very wary of attempts to repatriate some powers to Westminster unilaterally.
    Some people seem to think that all Scots have to do is vote for FFA with a convincing majority, and Westminster will have to grant that.  I think they're suffering from dangerous naivety.  We can't claim self-determination, when we don't have self-determination.  We can vote for sun in July all we want, but who is going to give it to us.
    That's the rock the FFA lobby are going to founder on.

  7. RevStu says:

    "Well, presumably 49% also voted against independence in the second question, making a total vote of 200%."

    We're not counting votes AGAINST anything, though. We're counting votes FOR the three available options – status quo, devo max, independence – and counting them via Rennie's idiotic system whereby you vote as if devo max was a subset of independence, but then count as if it was a completely separate choice.

  8. RevStu says:

    "My own view is that we've got all the devolution Westminster is minded to give us.  The response to the Calman commission demonstrates that.  Indeed, I think we should be very wary of attempts to repatriate some powers to Westminster unilaterally.
    Some people seem to think that all Scots have to do is vote for FFA with a convincing majority, and Westminster will have to grant that.  I think they're suffering from dangerous naivety."

    I agree on both counts. At the end of the day a devo-max option is extremely unlikely to happen, because the only credible way to have it is for the government of the day to define and agree it in advance, and I see VERY little prospect of the coalition doing that.

    (We also need to consider that the referendum is likely to predate a UK general election by only a few months. There's no way negotiations will be completed by then in the event of a Yes vote, so what happens if a completely new government is voted in, which isn't bound by the promises of the previous one with regard to accepting the referendum result?)

  9. Morag says:

    "Rennie's idiotic system".  That's the problem, I think.  The whole concept is nuts, so any playing with the figures in the way that he does is going to remain nuts.
    In the example you give, the only sane way to approach it is to say that 51% voted for independence.  Of the 99% who voted for FFA, 51% would be the same people as voted for independence.  Leaving 48% voting for FFA as their first choice.
    So FFA loses.

  10. Morag says:

    The first two letters in today's Herald make exactly this point.  Both lay out the ballot as per my second alternative above, that is, with the independence question first, followed by, IF independence doesn't gain a majority, do you want….
    I think this is the way to do it, IF a party with the power and the will to delive FFA was prepared to go that route.  Hell will freeze over first.

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