I got myself in a debate on Twitter last night about this question. Someone made the following statement about people in Scotland

the majority wants Trident out.

I responded

Scot Soc Att Survey – 59% either in favour of nuclear weapons or no view

To ‘fess up straight away I was wrong about 59%, the true figure is 53%, but that’s still a majority. I gave a link to the correct data online (it’s set out in detail below) and the full source is the excellent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.

What happened next is worthy of some examination because there is a view around the independence referendum that people don’t have enough information available to decide. This particular exercise in correcting one small misapprehension led to the following exchange

HIM: nice manipulation of the data. Kudos

ME: Since I gave rational answer to yr prev point I assume ‘nice manip’n of the data’ isn’t directed at me

HIM: no you attempted to manipulate data to substantiate your opinion.

HIM: it isn’t a factual error…Out of those that have an opinion, the majority want it out

ME: Have to agree to differ then because I think ‘neither in favour or against’ *is* an opinion

HIM: not when you’re claiming majority by manipulating stats. Majority of those of opinion want it out

HIM: is that correct? yes or no?

ME: I can’t explain further but I do have a reasonable understanding of statistics. Good night.

So without the constraints of 140 characters per message of Twitter who’s right, ‘him’ or ‘me’?

Here are the statistics I was referring to, courtesy of ScotCen Social Research:

Trident table

Click to enlarge

Source: Table in Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013

The first thing to say is the question asks whether Britain should have nuclear weapons, not Trident specifically. But since Trident missiles are the only nuclear weapons Britain possesses it’s a reasonable approximation. It should also be noted that the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is a reputable, reliable and statistically valid source of opinion on the subject matter it covers. I know of no other up to date neutral source that addresses the same issue.

The nub of the difference between my interlocutor and me is whether people who answered ‘neither in favour or against’ should be included in the calculation of the percentage of people ‘against Trident.’ I say yes because to be neither for nor against is to express a view. Moreover, even a survey of this high quality is a relatively blunt instrument at catching the full subtlety of people’s opinions. So I could easily imagine a whole range of views underlying an opinion that someone is neither in favour nor against Britain having its own nuclear weapons. For example

  • You know, I couldn’t care less. I’ve got more important things to worry about
  • Well, I can see things for and against. It’s a fine balance
  • It’s not really relevant to defence these days but if the experts want it…
  • and so on.

In any event, the statement originally made was that ‘the majority wants Trident out’, not ‘the majority excluding “don’t knows” and those “neither in favour nor against” want Trident out’ – as the other person concerned amended his claim to when challenged. These are two quite different things.

To put it another way, if you lined up 100 Scots and said ‘Will everyone who is somewhat or strongly against Britain having nuclear weapons please step forward?’ 46 would. That’s a minority.

This sort of detail is important because it’s the only way to tease out the claims and counter-claims that accompany the independence referendum debate.

Incidentally, the question of Scotland being different from the rest of the UK features prominently in ‘Yes’ claims about the independence referendum. It is interesting to compare the results of the same question asked in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s sister survey south of the border (the small percentages of ‘Don’t know’s have been excluded from this table).

Trident UK

As the authors of this comparison say

The differences in the level of support are not that large, and both parts of the UK could reasonably be described as being divided on the subject (the full report can be downloaded here).

To go back to the original issue, I maintain that there is not a proven majority of people in Scotland who ‘want Trident out.’ But I’m open to reasoned arguments that prove the opposite.


Aficionados of the Scottish independence referendum debate will know how new words and new meanings for words are being created all the time. Some are apposite, some amusing, some offensive, some just plain daft – recently had a discussion online with a nationalist who writes his tweets as if he were Yoda, I have. A weird experience.

But there are words which, while not offensive in themselves, seek to create a misleading impression to the extent that they are actually lies.

One such word is colony, the accusation that Scotland is a colony of England. This canard surfaces frequently online and was used over the last weekend by former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, if I heard the news correctly.

Here I have the advantage over Mr Wilson. As far as I can see he has never lived outside Scotland except for some schooling on the Isle of Man. I have, and I am also old enough to have lived in a British colony (Singapore) and visited others either when they were still colonies or shortly after they became independent.

There was no single constitutional model for a British colony (the Brits pragmatists as ever) but most shared a number of features until very near their end. I would invite Mr Wilson and other perpetrators of the ‘Scotland is a colony of England’ lie to consider which apply to Scotland.

  • In a British colony, formal authority was vested in a governor as representative of the monarch and appointed by the British government.
  • There were often no democratic structures, certainly no elected national government. If there were elected representatives, they were usually confined to local councils and/or an advisory body.
  • Specific political parties, especially those that argued for independence, were often banned. Bans were often supported by imprisonment of party leaders, sometimes by detention without trial.
  • Even if there were some democratic structures, the people had no representation in the UK parliament.
  • The legal status of residents varied but they were not citizens of the United Kingdom and had no right of travel to the UK.
  • The authority of the governor was often backed up by British army units that were used if necessary to quell dissent.
  • In quelling dissent, protesters were dispersed in ways that would not be acceptable nowadays in the UK and people were sometimes killed. Widespread rebellion in some colonies like Kenya and Malaya led to the use of camps where local populations were relocated from their homes.
  • The judiciary was appointed solely by the UK government or the British colonial administration.

I can hear nationalist objections to my list – ‘Ah but there’s another sort of colonisation, of our cultural institutions and of our very minds themselves.’

Well, yes … but language is used in this way not as a form of subtle cultural metaphor but as a blunt instrument to give a false impression that through repetition might become a perceived truth.

There are plenty of arguments for and against independence for Scotland. The lie that Scotland is a colony of England is not one of them.

Carney speechThe Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, met First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday and spoke at a Scottish Council Development and Industry meeting about the economics of currency unions. He stressed he was talking ‘technically’ but what he said has led to much discussion in the media. The risks and challenges of a shared currency if Scotland votes for independence have been at the forefront of comment.

One conclusion widely drawn is that the Yes campaign and/or the Scottish National Party need a ‘Plan B’ if a currency union with the rest of the UK proves impossible to negotiate. Politicians are naturally reluctant to consider Plan Bs as it casts doubt on their Plan As. There was a good example on a recent BBC Question Time programme when John Swinney refused to answer a ‘what if’ question – ‘What if you don’t win the referendum?’

Those wanting to retain the Union in one form or another should also be thinking about some Plan Bs. In their case it’s the answer to the question ‘What further devolution would you propose if you win the referendum?’ It seems clear that many people in Scotland want more powers for the Scottish Parliament if there’s a ‘No’ vote – see for example the analysis by What Scotland Thinks.

Who should be doing this thinking and setting out their Plan Bs? I think not the Yes and Better Together (No) campaigns. They are both alliances of political and other groups who have different views on many subjects. The SNP and Scottish Greens for, example, don’t agree on the currency question. It’s the main political parties – the SNP on the one side, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems on the other, in some combination – who should be developing some options.

And if I were to add a special plea for those who want to keep the Union it would be not to make your response a pragmatic one just to satisfy the Scots. Go back to some first principles about what sort of United Kingdom you want, and apply your prescription to all four countries. That sort of reform is much needed … assuming the UK stays as one.

If you were to choose a day for Scotland to become independent, what would it be?

How about 1st January of the earliest year possible after the referendum, say 2016?

What better day could there be? Hogmanay has become the Scottish annual celebration par excellence, known throughout the world. In the depths of winter it is heavy with symbolism. Traditionally, the back door is opened to let out the old year, the front door to usher in the new. The first visitor over the threshold brings gifts bestowing good fortune on the household for the new year – coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky.

Down the road in Stonehaven from where I live there’s even a spectacular Hogmanay fireball ceremony to help drive winter away and encourage the life-giving sun to come again, that and the chance to sink a dram or two.

Balls! Fireballs, that is.

It’s wonderful.

So, new year, new nation. What could be better?

Er, no.

Not if the SNP has its way. Press leaks over the weekend suggest that their forthcoming independence referendum white paper will propose a different date.

24th March 2016.

This date, famed throughout the world like Hogmanay (not), is the day our forward-looking government has chosen for a symbolic new start that will reap all the promises of the future, if we only vote Yes in the referendum.

Why 24th March? Well, Scots may (may) know. No-one else will. It’s the date the Crowns of Scotland and England were united. In 1603.

That’s right. 1603.

So trapped in the past is this political party that they choose a date that looks backward 413 years.

But never mind. On current SNP plans Scotland will still keep the English pound sterling. And the English monarch.

Confused? I am. That’s why I put independence in inverted commas in the title to this post.

Perhaps next week’s Scottish government white paper will allay my concerns. It’s apparently 670 pages long. Now that’s what I call an easy read.


I’ve kept mostly quiet about my views on next year’s Scottish independence referendum. But this tendentious picture cropped up in my Twitter stream today and I couldn’t restrain myself.

The image seems to have been tweeted originally  in mid-August by someone posing (not very successfully) as Nicola Sturgeon. SNP politician and deputy first minister of Scotland.

Why is it tendentious?

First, it transforms the forthcoming referendum question of ‘Yes/No to independence’ into ‘Yes for Scotland’ and ‘No to Scotland.’

So if you’re thinking of voting No to independence you’re actually thinking of voting No to Scotland.

Hmm, I don’t think so. They’re entirely different things.  In any recent poll, far more Scots are inclined to vote No in the referendum than Yes. If most of them were told they’d be saying No to Scotland they’d be outraged, and quite right too.

The second and more important reason the image is tendentious is the way those political organisations for and against independence are listed, not by size but alphabetically.

Surprise, surprise. This means the list of those For is headed by something called Labour for Independence. So there you are, ‘real’ (my word) Labour members are for independence. Except, hang on. Is this the same group that the media have said may be ‘an SNP front’ (see the Herald of 4 August, for example)? Sadly, it is.

Worse than this, the alphabetical arrangement places the British National Party at the top of the No list. If there’s a political party that has no significance in Scotland it’s this extreme right-wing group. And of course, whoever has drawn this up has ensured that their logo is prominent in the grouping of party logos’ underneath the No list.

A more honest statement of the political groups for and against independence (or separation – yes, some call it that) might be

  • FOR – the SNP and some political minnows
  • AGAINST – the other three main political parties in Scotland and some others.

I don’t expect any of this will alter the views of people whose minds are already made up. But it sure ain’t going to get me more sympathetic to the Yes campaign.

Watch out for more of this tedious stuff over the next twelve months.

Footnote – for a few hours this post said the offending image was tweeted by Nicola Sturgeon. In fact it seems to have been tweeted by one of those anonymous (in this case not very funny) Twitter account holders who pose as someone else. But it’s still a taste of some of the unsavoury stuff about the subject floating around the web. Come back Larry the Cat, all is forgiven.