It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, this note apart, the HelpGov blog hasn’t been updated since July 2015. The reasons are set out, obscurely, on the About page. I’m not likely to write many more, if any, new posts but will leave the blog on WordPress as long as they’re willing to tolerate it. Let’s say it’s a sort-of archive of the work issues that interested me for many years.

On the basis that popularity = interest, I include a list below of the ten most viewed posts/pages on the blog. Some were at the fringes of what HelpGov was originally meant to be about. The list is in order of popularity: the first post on the list had more views than the other nine combined, which may tell you something about my readers and the state of the UK civil service at the time the post was written.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.


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.


For anyone who hasn’t seen it Bella Caledonia is a web site that says it’s ‘an online magazine (launched in 2007) exploring ideas of independence, self-determination and autonomy.’ Whatever it was in 2007 it’s gone beyond exploration to being a sort of up-market intellectual cheer leader for the Scottish independence ‘Yes’ campaign.

They make great play of the high quality of debate about Independence, although they claim in a recent article (Doubt? by their editor Mike Small) that ‘the No campaign has a track record of constant disengagement.’ So, the high quality of debate is on their side only. Still, as they say,

just about everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about the same thing: the referendum, our collective future.

Or trying to. I tried to comment on this article when it appeared. My comment was held ‘awaiting moderation’ for a few hours while other, later comments were published. When I checked about ten hours after submitting it, my comment had disappeared. It has to be said that ALL the comments they published supported their point of view. But if one attempt to comment that didn’t fit their world view has disappeared, perhaps others have too.

Here is my unpublished comment in full:

Bella Caledonia consistently praises the quality of the independence debate from the ‘Yes’ side and consistently denigrates the quality from the ‘No’ side. The one thing I’d agree with about this post is the challenge of conducting a ‘nuanced complex argument’ on Twitter. So perhaps in this less-constrained space Bella could hitch her skirts up and answer a question I asked a couple of weeks ago on Twitter.

In a response to someone else on or before 23 April (I don’t have access to that discussion now) @bellacaledonia used the phrase ‘hate apologist.’ I asked:

‘Perhaps you could clarify what a “Hate Apologist” is? Or is it just a new term of abuse?’

You did not answer and when you posted a flattering reference the next day to an article in The Scotsman about Noam Chomsky’s view on Scottish independence as an example of the quality of debate I asked:

Hello, is that the @bellacaledonia who didn’t answer my query the other day about what they meant by “Hate apologist”? #qualityofdebate’.

The Twitter incarnation of the lovely Bella then replied:

@rogerlwhite zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’

And I couldn’t resist commenting:

@bellacaledonia Exactly my point #qualityofdebate So what *is* a hate apologist? If you use unexplained terms you really should explain them’ [perhaps not the most elegant way to express my point but I’m sure you see what I mean].

So, third time lucky from me to Bella – what is a ‘hate apologist’? I genuinely don’t know and would love it if you could maintain what you perceive to be the high quality of debate by telling me. Otherwise I’m afraid it will be zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from me.

Is that negative or, heaven forefend, abusive? I was merely trying to get Bella Caledonia to say what they meant by ‘Hate apologist,’ because I didn’t have a clue, and still don’t.

You see, it’s not good enough to say how high the quality of debate on a subject is then go around calling people ‘hate apologists’ and not explain what you mean.

Meantime, here is the language used in some of the comments they have published on their ‘Doubt?’ article

  • the tame jock journalists and the lamentable bbc…
  • the amoral, policy free, running on empty machine, that is Scottish Labour
  • the feartie mongers of Better Together
  • pure mischief making [an article by composer James MacMillan referred to in discussion]
  • [David] Torrance [a ‘No’ supporter] is an agitator … a devious manipulating bar steward.

High quality debate? You decide.


Anyone reading this blog over the last few months will detect a trend – I’ve been writing more and more about this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

I swithered before I started doing this in a blog I describe as ‘…trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff.’ My personal views on the subject are a tad removed from many of the subjects I’ve posted over the last few years about improving public services.

Maybe I could justify my ‘#indyref’ posts as ‘other stuff.’ But what could be more closely related to the subject of ‘government’ than how a people chooses to govern itself?

It won’t take anyone long to realise that I’m a ‘No,’ or perhaps a ‘Better Together’, person and I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write coherently on where I stand about Scottish independence. My reasons for being against independence are, I believe, positive but I’ve struggled to articulate them without getting bogged down in detail.

Tom Morton

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Shetland Library

So I was grateful to Tom Morton for writing Nationalism: a dangerous delusion on his ‘Tom Morton’s beatcroft’ blog. For anyone furth of Scotland, Tom is a journalist and broadcasts on BBC Radio Scotland, currently on Morton through Midnight. You can catch him, of course, on i-Player. I don’t always agree with his choice of music and I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he says about the Labour party. But I do like the main thrust of what he says about independence and how he says it. And I do agree with his final conclusion

it’s a thoroughly Scottish ‘no’ from me. No to separatism. No to division. And an end to this monumental and corrupting distraction from the central moral and political issues we face.

I thank him for putting into words what I haven’t been able to and urge you to look at what else he says.


Bad language warning

What standards should we expect in public debate about an important issue, and what constitutes public debate?

The questions have been prompted in my mind by online discussion of the Scottish independence referendum and the Collaborative Scotland web site. They urge ‘respectful dialogue’ and this seems to me a pretty good principle for discussion of such an important issue. These are their guidelines:

  • Show respect and courtesy towards all those who are engaged in these discussions, whatever views they hold
  • Acknowledge that there are many differing, deeply held and valid points of view
  • Use language carefully and avoid personal or other remarks which might cause unnecessary offence
  • Listen carefully to all points of view and seek fully to understand what concerns and motivates those with differing views from our own
  • Ask questions for clarification and when we may not understand what others are saying or proposing
  • Express our own views clearly and honestly with transparency about our motives and our interests
  • Respond to questions asked of us with clarity and openness and, whenever we can, with credible information.

They strike me as sensible and when I across public comments that I think are abusive I try to gently let the person concerned know about these guidelines and leave them to draw their own conclusions. Most of the material of this sort I come across is on Twitter, but I see a fair scattering of it on Facebook and individual web sites. Some of my exchanges end in what I regard as a redirection of abuse (and, occasionally, implied threats) from the original target to me. At this stage I just stop. Some people are so unbalanced and blinkered that no comment they disagree with will do anything other than convince them of the rectitude of their own point of view.

Some however are different and should, in my view, know better.

Yesterday I saw a tweet that read

“@[name] Aw, sad for poor Jose-Manuel Barroso tonight.” Maybe he’ll turn on Cameron and say In ye come Scotland fuck the Tory bastard

I don’t know what action or remark by Barroso prompted this comment but I know what the words (excuse me) ‘fuck the Tory bastard’ mean.

I remonstrated – gently I’d say – with

Not sure ‘F the Tory B’ helps #indyref debate – a suggestion: [link to Collaborative Scotland web site as above]

Our exchange then went:

Him – no but it’s on Twitter, it’s heavy with irony and guess what? People laugh. That’s because it touches how they feel. New media

Me – Still, I find it sad you reduce the high aspiration of national self-determination to ‘Fuck the Tory bastard’, ironic or not

Him – sorry roger. That sounds like sanctimony. This is Twitter not Thought for the Day.

At which point I gave up.

Funny my correspondent should mention Thought for the Day because ‘he’ is not some anonymous internet troll. He’s an ex-BBC journalist who presented a BBC Radio Scotland current affairs programme, amongst other things, for a number of years.

Is it unreasonable of me to expect ‘respectful dialogue’ on Twitter about the independence referendum, especially from public figures? Am I sanctimonious or just a wimp who needs to man up? Should we accept standards on some media we wouldn’t on others? What do you think?


The Scottish independence referendum is bringing to prominence a whole new area of special use of language. Here are some words I’m getting fed up with.

Afraid – see ‘Feart’

Bias – allegation made, usually without any firm evidence, about the news coverage of the BBC in the belief that ‘No’ campaigners are given an easy ride and ‘Yes’ campaigners are unfairly given a hard time. The allegation often means no more than the views of a favoured politician are subjected to legitimate challenge. The same accusation is also made about Scottish TV and (sometimes with more justification) about the printed media, Scottish and English.

Bullying – any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence by UK politicians, even if backed up by evidence and even if the politicians concerned are Scottish.

Feart – Scots for ‘afraid.’ Glib characterisation by many who want independence about those who don’t, whatever their reasons.

Negative – any reason given against independence.

Project Fear – ‘Yes’ code for ‘No’ campaign, whatever arguments it advances.

Scaremongering – another code word for any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence even if backed up by evidence, although not confined to statements by UK politicians.

Unionist – literally, a definition of anyone who wants to maintain the union (any sort of union) of the UK. Often used to imply a right wing or reactionary viewpoint because of its association with the ‘Conservative and Unionist’ party, much less so by any association with Ulster Unionism.

Westminster – as in ‘parties’ or ‘government.’  Shorthand for United Kingdom parties or government. Used to imply a whole range of characteristics – indifference, irrelevance, hostility, distance, separation and otherness – although ‘Westminster’ government is also UK and therefore Scottish government.  Sometimes shortened to ‘WM.’

Other contributions by sharp-eyed readers to the lexicon are welcome and will be added with due acknowledgement. Comments that do no  more than point out that I have a particular point of view are likely to remain unpublished, especially if abusive.