Saturday, November 08, 2014

Victory in Europe

Scene 1

OSBORNE: Hello, Europe.

EUROPE: Hello, Mr Osborne.

OSBORNE: You know that recalculation of the national contributions that you do every year?

EUROPE: The one that takes into account changes to each country’s economy?

OSBORNE: Yes, that’s the one. This year, we’d like you to recalculate it going back to 1995.

EUROPE: 1995? That’s a long –

OSBORNE: Yes, we’ve just had our economic growth revised going back to 1995, and it turns out our economy has grown more quickly than we thought. We’re very happy!

EUROPE: You do realise that this will probably mean –

OSBORNE: Look, I’m a busy man. Just get it done and don’t trouble me with details.

EUROPE: Of course.


Scene 2

EUROPE: Hello, Mr Cameron. We’ve recalculated your EU contributions and you owe an extra £1.7 billion.

CAMERON: What? This is madness!

EUROPE: But we’re just applying the formula that you –

CAMERON: Don’t give me your weaselly excuses! This will not stand!
[to audience] We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall
EUROPE: But this is just
CAMERON: Shut up! I’m doing leader stuff!
[to audience] We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!

Scene 3

OSBORNE: So, this payment.


OSBORNE: Does our rebate apply to it?

EUROPE: You mean the rebate that applies to all your payment?



OSBORNE: [to audience] Damn, I’m good.

And could we get an advance on the following year’s rebate?

EUROPE: That will mean that the following year’s rebate is smaller.

OSBORNE: Do I look like a man who cares about the following year?

EUROPE: Fair enough.

OSBORNE: [to audience] People of Britain! I have secured a famous victory and halved the bill!

EUROPE: But that’s not –

OSBORNE: Shut up! I’m being triumphant!

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Excuse me, why is government borrowing £50bn higher this year than you said it would be?

OSBORNE: Shut up, nobody cares! Anyway, it’s Labour’s fault. And Europe’s. And Labour’s. The real story here is that I have secured an unimaginably vast £0.85bn reduction to our bill! So let us –

EUROPE: It really isn’t a –

OSBORNE: Be quiet, man, I’m trying bask in my own peroration here! So let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British membership of the EU lasts for a thousand more days, men will still say: this was their finest hour.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Do leadership ratings matter more in the run-up to an election?

If the public find Ed Miliband so unimpressive, why is his party ahead in the polls? This question, pondered by Anthony Wells among others, is tricky. He calls it the “Ed Miliband paradox”, and says:

Given Labour are ahead now, I think the question is whether perceptions of the opposition and the choice of Prime Minister increase in importance as the election approaches and voting intention becomes less of a way of people indicating their opinion of the government, and more a choice between two alternatives.

I don’t know what will happen over the next seven months. But I can look at the past and see what happened to other leaders.

If perceptions of party leaders become more important in the run-up to an election. we would expect to see a swing to the party with the more popular leader. We can test this theory by looking at Ipsos MORI’s archive of decades of voting intention and leadership rating polls.

In the charts below, the solid lines are how many people said they would vote Labour or Conservative, and the dotted lines are how many people said they were satisfied with each party leader. Note that the final pre-election polls didn’t ask about leader ratings, so the dotted lines stop a bit short.

1979 election

Jim Callaghan’s lead over Margaret Thatcher held pretty constant for about a year and a half, while the Tory lead over Labour bobbed about with no real pattern. The theory would have predicted a Labour recovery, but instead we got the Winter of Discontent, which hit Callaghan’s ratings as well as Labour’s. After that, nothing much changed.

The theory gets no support from 1979, but arguably events got in the way.

1983 election

The Falklands war gave Thatcher and the Tories a big boost. In the year between then and the election, the lines move around a bit but nothing really changed.

The theory gets no support from 1983, although conceivably the war made voters care more about leadership a year early.

1987 election

For about a year, Neil Kinnock’s ratings were better than Thatcher’s, and his party tended to have a modest lead. But both of these things changed. The Tory vote recovery looks to have started a bit before Thatcher’s personal recovery, while Kinnock and Labour fell in tandem. There are no grounds for inferring that the change in leader ratings caused the change in voting intention.

The theory gets no support from 1987.

1992 election

This chart is a bit shorter, because John Major only became Prime Minister at the end of 1990. After his honeymoon – aided by the Gulf war – his personal ratings drifted down, but the parties’ positions didn’t change significantly. The polls before this election were badly wrong, of course, but I’m assuming the wrongness was consistent across this period.

The theory gets no support from 1992.

1997 election

Here we have Tony Blair consistently miles ahead of Major, but voting intention actually shifts a bit from Labour to Tory.

The theory gets no support from 1997.

2001 election

Here, Blair remains well ahead of William Hague, apart from during the fuel protests, after which he and his party recover their previous standing There is a slight trend from Labour to Tory, although this has pretty much stopped before the last year of the parliament.

The theory gets no support from 2001.

2005 election

Another shorter chart, as Michael Howard became Tory leader in late 2003. This is a closer contest, but there is little discernible trend in voting intention, despite Blair pulling ahead of Howard in satisfaction ratings.

The theory gets no support from 2005.

2010 election

This chart is also a bit shorter, because Ipsos MORI changed its methodology in June 2008. David Cameron is consistently ahead of Gordon Brown (although the gap narrows during the financial crisis). Despite this, in the final year there is a decent swing from Tory to Labour. As in 1987 and 1979, this movement in voting intention accompanies movement in leader ratings, but from this we can conclude nothing about causation.

The theory gets no support from 2010.

And that’s that. Eight elections, no support for the theory that perceptions of party leaders become more important for voting intention in the run-up to an election.

You can make various excuses and add caveats and say that many of these elections didn’t provide circumstances that made a good test of the theory. Fair enough; I’m not claiming to have disproved the theory, just to have shown that no evidence supports it. But if you want to hang onto some version of this theory, all you have to base it on is a hunch.

Recent history

All I note from this is that when Miliband’s ratings were better, so were Labour’s. In the last year and a half, both have fallen: it could be that one is driving the other, or it could be that other things are driving both.

I share the view that Miliband is painfully unimpressive. I share the view that leader ratings matter. But other things matter too, and maybe Labour has other strengths – or the Tories other weaknesses – to outweigh this. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Dear Scotland

I’m mostly English but part Welsh and part Scottish, and I don’t want my country to die. If you leave, that will cost me part of my soul.

Well OK, that’s a bit melodramatic. Not very British, eh? Either way, we’ll all survive – but I truly think separation would diminish us all.

Do you really find it so unbearable to be British as well as Scottish? If you do, then I won’t stand in your way. But if you don’t – if there are things about the rest of the UK that you’re glad to call your own – then you don’t have to give them up.

You don’t have to accept the line that self-determination requires independence. Self-determination is you making the choice of what kind of Scotland you want: a part of the UK family, or just apart.

You can stay with the rest of us and still be Scots. Three centuries of being British and you’re still Scots, and you always will be. The question is: are the other parts of this country so bad, so alien, that you need to get rid of them?

Looking at Downing Street, I can see the appeal. If I could flee from this government without moving an inch, I’d be tempted. But I’d rather stand and fight, because I want my whole country to thrive. I want social justice in London, and I want it in Liverpool and Cornwall and Merthyr and Scarborough and Omagh and Inverness.

While I don’t always get the government I want, I would not give up on part of my country for the sake of being able to win easier, smaller victories. So I’m with you – millions of us are – for as long as you want us.

True, Scottish and English politics have their differences, but I think it’s a strength of our union that we can be together without needing to be the same. And we have a hell of a lot in common too. Two episodes from our recent history come to mind.

In 1989, the Thatcher government ignored public protests and inflicted the Poll Tax on Scotland. A mean, unjust tax, its introduction was unforgivably arrogant. But do you know what was even worse? A year later, having seen the undeniable harm the Poll Tax was doing in Scotland, they went ahead and unleashed it on the rest of Britain too.

They screwed us all. A British government, hurting England and Wales as much as Scotland. We were in that same mess together, and eventually we got out of it together.

Sure, democracy’s a wonderful thing and all that, but sometimes an elected government just sticks its fingers in its ears and decides that it knows best. That’s true in the UK, it’s true the world over, and it’d be true in an independent Scotland.

You’d have a sovereign government in Holyrood, run by… politicians. Some of them would be decent people doing their best, but others would be incompetents, cowards, liars, rogues and ideologues. And if you founded that government as a symbol of Scottish pride, they’d have the power to disappoint you more bitterly than anyone at Westminster.

On the other hand, sometimes the Westminster government gets it right.

The G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 still shines like a beacon. It was a time when government policy was in tune with the public mood, shown by a huge popular movement all around the UK.

Some international agreements are warm words that quickly cool and vanish, but this one got results. A big increase in aid to Africa, debt written off, and a longer-term shift in political culture towards fighting poverty. Even the Tories were reluctantly pushed to accept the need for more aid.

This wasn’t the result of Tony Blair’s diplomatic charm or Gordon Brown’s economic arguments. It happened because they were speaking with the whole weight of the UK behind them. We did it, together, and almost a decade on I’m still proud.

For all Scotland’s strengths, you would not have hosted and led a summit of the world’s major economies on your own.

And if Blair and Brown could put their rivalry aside and work to make something good, there’s really no excuse for the rest of us.

I don’t want us to become foreigners to each other. I don’t want to create a new class of immigrants who have done nothing more than move from one part of their island to another. And I don’t believe the problems we all face are going to be solved by creating a new border.

The UK is yours as much as mine. Scots have done so much to make our country what it is, and Britishness is your birthright as much as Scottishness.

I’m glad to share this country with you, and I hope we can manage to keep sharing it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Politeness and the invention of time travel

It’s a curious fact that the invention of the time machine was a feat not just of science but of good British manners.

For many years, physicists and philosophers alike had scorned the idea of time travel, citing the paradoxes that it would create: if you went back in time and killed your grandfather when he was a boy, you would never be born, so you wouldn’t be able to go back in time to kill him, so you would have been born and then would have gone back in time… and so on.

However, one Saturday afternoon, in a discreet and highly exclusive club in Mayfair, frequented by ageing grandees who preferred to avoid the company of the wrong sort, everything changed.

Sir Reginald Burr, who had inherited his father’s air-conditioning fortune and then trebled it by selling the family firm to an internet company in 1999, felt the call of nature and rose from a chair that cost more than your house. He made his stately way across the reading room.

As he reached the doorway that led to the bathroom, he suddenly found himself side-by-side with Sir Mortimer Frowse, whose estates encompassed half the land in one of the less fashionable English counties, and whose imperious bladder was also calling for relief.

They could not both fit through the doorway at once. One of them had to go first.

These two fine gentlemen did, of course, loathe each other for being if not quite the wrong sort then certainly not the right sort. And, of course, they were utterly determined to treat each other with unimpeachable propriety.

Thus began one of the greatest British stand-offs in history.

“After you,” said Sir Reginald.
“No, no, after you,” said Sir Mortimer.
“Not at all. Do go ahead, dear fellow.”
“Why really, I insist, old boy.”

This bout of competitive politeness raged calmly for over two hours, with increasingly vicious exchanges of deference and implacable self-deprecation. But neither could gain the upper hand, and their need was becoming ever more desperate.

It is not known which of them hit upon the idea first, but what is certain is that both of them muttered instructions to passing stewards (they had, naturally, bought each other drinks during the impasse, both to assert their own goodwill and to exacerbate the other chap’s problem). These instructions were identical.

The stewards conveyed to Sir Reginald’s people, and to Sir Mortimer’s, that they were to commit all necessary resources to the construction of a time-travel machine, so that their master could send his rival a few seconds back in time and thereby trick him into going through the doorway first.

Sir Reginald’s people called the physics department at Cambridge, offering generous funding for the work. Sir Mortimer’s people made the same offer to Oxford. The scientists protested that this was a preposterous idea, and that even if it were possible it might take centuries. They were told that this would be fine; once built, the time machine could simply be sent back in time for use in the present.

The universities took the money and set up research teams.

Work was indeed slow, but progress was aided by the Oxbridge merger of 2087, allowing the teams to combine their efforts on the understanding that they would send two copies of their eventual invention back to Sir Reginald and Sir Mortimer.

Breakthrough after breakthrough followed, along with a string of Nobel Prizes, and finally, in 2231, the notorious grandfather paradox was solved, when a work experience student suggested that it would probably be best not to give the time machine to any deranged smartarses.

The two copies were dispatched back to the club on that distant Saturday afternoon, not long before Sir Reginald’s and Sir Mortimer’s critically overfull bladders were due to rupture. Each man set his device to send the other ten seconds into the past. They pressed their buttons simultaneously.

There was a flash of light and, ten seconds earlier, they appeared in the same place, facing each other as they had shortly been.

Assuming that the damned thing hadn’t worked, they tried again.

And again. And again.

Their fate is unknown, I’m sorry to say. But some historians have noted in passing that that area of Mayfair had been agricultural land until the 1680s, on account of the rich nitrogen content of the soil.

(With thanks to Left Outside for nudging me toward the idea.)