Scientists sometimes talk of the tyranny of the dominant theory, or in another manifestation, the complacent invulnerability of the established system. Theory - scientific, economic, medical, social or political - often plays a key role in decision making, and decision making affects lives.
In religion, theory becomes dogma and as history shows, the tyranny of religious dogma can be oppressive, stultifying and at its worse, murderous. Political theory can manifest all the characteristics of religious dogma, with equally appalling results, as the history of the 20th century demonstrates, and we are well on our way to repeating the horrors with a lethal mix of old religious dogma and new political dogma in the 21st.
But let’s leave religion and look briefly at economic theory, since it intimately affects the geopolitical climate, and appears to have failed humanity in a spectacular fashion in the very recent past. Since I am neither political scientist nor economist and certainly not a mathematician or statistician, bear with in my layman’s analysis as I struggle to understand ideas that perhaps a new PPE graduate could easily expound on …
For most of the last century, the dominant economic theory has been the theory of utility. As best I can express it, utility theory makes the base assumption that all decisions are made rationally, and analyses – and attempts to predict – all decisions based on the value (utility) that the decision maker places on the elements in the decision.
The problem is that this is not how people actually behave when they make real decisions, as the the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – and many others – has conclusively demonstrated. The work of the games theorists took this further in the 1950s and 1960s, and anyone who enjoyed the Russell Crowe portrayal of John Nash in the film A Beautiful Mind might want to try the dense, complex book on which the film was based about the work of John Von Neumann and John Nash at Princeton and the RAND Corporation (CIA)
Suffice to say that the utility theory didn’t roll over easily and give up when confronted with the incontrovertible new evidence and new theory, any more than the financial traders of Wall Street shut up shop when they were confronted by equally incontrovertible evidence (from their own trading records, rigorously statistically analysed) that stock trading has a success rate over time slightly less successful than random picks, and that, as Daniel Kahneman has observed, a blind monkey throwing darts at a board would have had a better hit rate. Similar reactions came from clinicians when confronted with disturbing analysis of diagnostic and treatment success, and from experts in a wide variety of disciplines who got into deep doo-doo when they ignored the numbers and trusted their experience, gut feel and ‘expert’ judgement alone.
What has all this got to do with a pound of mince and Scotland’s politics? Well …
DEMOCRATIC POLITICS AND POLITICAL DECISIONS
A thought before I continue … The fate of the world may soon be in the hands of a US President, Commander in Chief of awesome nuclear destructive forces, of the CIA, of the American military and effectively of NATO, who believes that a young American had an angel appear to him in the early 1820s in upstate New York and lead him to a place where he dug up gold tablets with a holy book inscribed on them, which amongst other things, said that one of the lost tribes of Israel found its way to America.
The gold tablets mysteriously vanished, there is not a shred of historical evidence of any kind for the claims, and all that is left is The Book of Mormon, translated from the mysterious tablets. The rest of Mitt Romney’s beliefs about the world, current affairs, social matters, economics, etc. are now a matter of embarrassing - and often hilarious – record, but the people who will vote for him appear unbothered by all this.
Perhaps we should bear all this in mind when we remember the SNP’s recent vote to join NATO, and when we are tempted to hope that democratic politics is even half way rational. But I do live in hope …
NUTS AND BOLTS
I have long experience, covering decades, of the political and organisational behaviour of trades unions, including some brief but intense experiences as union member, a union representative and a committee member, including the formative experience of being on strike.
But my experience of political party membership and of party democracy is very much briefer, superficial , and in itself, one from which no deep conclusion could be drawn about wider political behaviour.
My experience of politics and the behaviour of political parties as a citizen and voter, however, crosses eight decades, from the 1940s to the ‘teens of the 21st century, and throughout all of that time I have maintained an active interest in current affairs and politics, both as a voter and a citizen, and in my professional life because of the high relevance of politics to my work. You must judge the relative value of what I say in that context against that of commentators who have much deeper inside knowledge of politics, including activists, politicians and specialist academics.
In making that judgement however, try to bear in mind my opening preamble on the tyranny of the dominant theory – and therefore the dominant theorists and practitioners – and the complacent invulnerability of the established system.
Democratic politics are imperfect, but the alternatives have been consistently shown to be much, much worse by the lessons of history - and democratic processes can be improved. Scotland has a long, honourable record of contribution to democracy, in fact can be seen as a cradle of democracy, and there is no reason why the contribution should stop in the new age that we are entering.
Recent events have forced me to focus, as a voter, on some aspects of that democracy and, since I am a nuts and bolts man by background and instinct, I’ll leave the endless theorising about neo-liberalism and macro-economic theory to the think tanks, academics, assorted lefties, righties, gandy dancers and railroad men who revel in that kind of arcane discourse. But there is a kind of dominant theory of how political parties operate in a democracy, about their role in elections and in government, and a feeling of complacency about the way the party and branch systems operate, especially in relation to policy formation when a party is in government.
Perhaps that dominant set of assumptions should be challenged.
Consider the role of parties in an elective democracy. The Founding Fathers of American democracy didn’t want them, because party is faction – groups with a core common political agenda who act in concert when they can. The Founding Fathers did their best to avoid them, by separation of powers between the judicial, legislative and executive functions, by federalism, and by having a President elected indirectly by an electoral college.
Despite all this, political parties are what they wound up with.
In the UK, a constitutional monarchy, at least the fiction of being without faction, i.e. party, could be maintained, and while first-past-the-post still operates at UK level as the system of election to Westminster, the pretence can be maintained that voters elect the person, not the party. In the case of someone standing as an independent, this is still true. The ballot paper asks the voter to choose between named candidates, not political parties.
But with the advent of proportional representation in its various forms, this ceased to be true, and party now has an overt role. Indeed for many years there have been electoral rules governing party election expenditure and other matters in the UK.
PARTY AND SCOTLAND
The method adopted for proportional representation in the Scottish Parliament is the d’Hondt method. Candidates stand either for an individual constituency seat or are placed on a list by their parties. After the initial results are in, the parties are ranked on by the number of votes cast, the votes in each region are divided by 1 + number of seats won, and each party is ranked and re-ranked on a ranking list by an iterative process
One example should suffice to demonstrate how the d’Hondt method works. Party gets 100,00 votes and wins one seat - 100,000 divided by 1+1 = 2. Party’s vote is now 50,000, and it is re-ranked on the list, and so on until process complete and list seats allocated.
If you don’t understand this, don’t worry – all you need to know is that some MSPs are elected as individuals (73 in total) by voters for a specific constituency, and some are allocated a seat by the outcome of a list computation (56 in total), and are known as list MSPs. Each voter therefore has two votes – the constituency vote and the regional vote – and one constituency MSP but seven regional list MSPs for each of the eight regions.
Under the d’Hondt system, the fiction cannot be maintained that party has no role in the electoral process – it clearly has, and a crucial on at that.
Do you get to choose the person you vote for?
Answer: No, you get to choose among the people chosen by the political parties, and if you always vote for one party, only the person chosen for you by that party.
Of course, if there is a candidate standing as an independent, a choice of the individual can be made. Among Scotland’s famous independents we may number Margo Macdonald and Dennis Canavan, both of whom are about as individual as one can get …
Or you can stand for election yourself – all you need is a deposit, and the willingness to lose if too few vote for you!
So in most cases, a voter is voting for the party and its policies and programme as outlined in its manifesto when they vote for an individual, although dependent on how deep party loyalties run, the character and record of the individual may also influence voters, especially floating voters.
To be able to stand under the banner of a political party as a candidate for a constituency, a prospective candidate must first persuade a party selection board to adopt them as candidate. To do this, they obviously must be a member of the party in good standing and agree to ‘take the party whip’ if elected, which means voting the way they are told, except on the rare free votes on matters of conscience.
(In theory, this process is controlled not by the national party but the constituency party and branch structure: in practice, party HQ often has a significant and sometimes dominant input. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw – The Strange Death of Labour Scotland – give the following insight on page 119 into the 2006 by-election in Dunfermline and West Fife -
Labour was not aided by allegations of attempts to get the candidate the leadership wanted, with evidence of ‘a high-level “fix” to select the [Labour] candidate. This had transpired because party bosses sent out a leaflet on behalf of Catherine Stihler’s campaign hours before she was selected to fight the seat. (Sunday Herald 29 January 2005 ?)
Gerry and Eric seemed to have slipped a year here on the 2005 date of the Sunday Herald story – it must have been 2006. Catherine Stihler lost that election, but she is now an MEP, elected on a list by the d’Hondt system. When the Party wants you elected, the Party gets you elected – the voters are incidental to the process. Catherine is, of course, much in the news over the FOI request and allegations against Alex Salmond.)
Similar requirement exist for ‘getting on the list’ for possible election as a regional list MSP, with the key difference that the electorate play no role directly on electing a list MSP except by their choice of party for the regional vote. On the constituency vote, the voter may feel they have some kind of choice influence over the individual elected, but on the list appointee they have none – it is entirely in the gift of the party.
POLITICAL STRUCTURES AND MECHANISMS
Members of political parties understandably feel they have some rights over policy in the party of their choice, rights not shared by supporters who are not party members, and certainly not rights shared by the wider electorate. The world of politics belongs to the active, the committed, the involved. Even within a political party, the active branch members and officers and the active campaigners - who give up so much of their time and energy – feel that they may reasonably claim rights not shared by the wider, passive branch membership.
This is the way our democracy works – it is the way all democracies work – and one may draw close parallels with the trades unions, who operate with similar structures and who share a set of similar assumptions.
Now the true democrats in political parties and in trades unions are prepared to face squarely the sometimes unpalatable truth that democratic principles enshrine absolute power in the individual voter - the vote, and its collective expression when exercised in elections. This principle requires that the wider, passive, less participative membership of a political party or a trade union must be given clear information of choices to be made, encouraged to become involved in those choices, and to cast their vote when they are entitled to.
But observance of this principle requires an almost heroic selflessness from activists who have sacrificed time, energy - and perhaps money - to the cause, often at the expenses of their personal lives and objectives. So it is understandable that the involvement of a wider membership in vital matters that the activists understand deeply is sometimes given no more than token recognition at best, and at worst, is marginalised or deliberately ignored.
Examples of deliberate entryism in politics and trades unions abound, and simple levers and mechanisms are there to be pushed and utilised by individuals or groups who want to exercise an influence that is essentially undemocratic over nominations to office, to proposing and adopting of resolutions, to the selection of delegates or members of key committees and ultimately to the nomination of candidates.
A danger has always existed in politics and trades unionism that democratic politics shade imperceptibly into Tammany Hall and machine politics. At a time when corruption in UK political and financial institutions has brought trust in these institutions, in politicians and in democratic government itself to an all-time, highly dangerous low, it is vital that the danger signs are recognised and dangerous trends nipped in the bud before we slide towards something ugly in our national life and our democracy.
SNP POLICY FORMATION AND THE NATO VOTE
In my view, the SNP is the most truly democratic party in UK politics, with the possible exception of the Greens. Until now, they have managed to contain certain centre right (that’s being kind!) views within what is broadly an anti-nuclear, social democratic party of the left, under the over-arching objective of independence for Scotland.
But under pressure of the opinion polls, which despite the enthusiastic, optimistic and infinitely creative interpretations of supporters and the party spin machine, remain stubbornly intractable, they have begun to slip inexorably down the Blairite route of placing electability before core belief, albeit with rather more justification than Blair. The monarchy, Britishness, sterling, the social union – all defensible as policies individually– have come to seem to many as, collectively, a dangerous blurring of the line of what an independent Scotland is all about.
The wider core support, uneasy but loyal, have resorted to what I call the magic wand solution – all criticism, all differences must be subordinated, the leadership must be credited with infinite wisdom and have blind trust placed in them until 2014 and the referendum, because everything can be magically undone, modified or changed once independence comes.
In the even wider, non-SNP support for YES and independence, this manifests itself as the variant that in 2016, somehow the SNP may be magically dumped in an election which may be – if negotiations are concluded with rUK - for an independent Scottish Parliament, and similar miraculous transformations of policy can be accomplished by a government of a different political complexion. This is a two-pronged magic wand, which not only ignores the complex nature of the commitments given and the long-term, binding agreements that will be entered into to achieve that independent Scotland, but additionally conjures up a magical realignment of the parties who have up to this point constituted Better Together, the bitter opponents to independence.
A new party of the democratic left – or right - is going to spring fully formed from the head of - who or what? Henry McLeish? Jim Sillars? The Jimmy Reid Foundation? Reform Scotland? Civic Scotland? The CBI? The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations?
I won’t go over all of the lead-up to the NATO vote – my analysis and the reactions to it are well-documented in my back blogs, which I can confidently assert are revisited by a negligible amount of SNP supporters, many of whom (not all!) have a marked distaste for having their shining certainties being blurred by anything resembling facts or detailed analysis, an approach that they share with the media they hate so much.
What can be plainly seen by anyone who examines the timeline objectively is that the SNP leadership driving the NATO U-turn did not expect the reaction they got, and in fact they planned a quick, low-key debate and a conclusive endorsement of the NATO proposal. They got something rather different …
My concern here is to examine the events and the party structures that led to the voting patterns that resulted at Perth on 19th October.
Having launched their superficial little paper on NATO in July - having spent the earlier part of the year trying to pretend that no U-turn was planned - Angus Robertson and Angus MacNeill were stunned by the broad-based coalition against it that sprang up almost instantly. But they still appeared to retain their confidence in recent polls they quoted, but principally in the outdated Mitchell Report, (questionnaires sent out between 16th and 19th November 2007, when the SNP memberships stood at 13,203, with two other mailings up to March 2008.) which appeared to give them a 3:1 majority for their viewpoint. They appeared unconcerned by the fact that the membership had grown from 13,203 to 24,000 or so, and a number of major events had occurred since the original poll.
The point that neither they nor their support in the party seemed able to grasp - then or now - was that as the party of government, the one that would be charged with negotiating the terms of Scotland’s independence after a YES vote in 2014, they could not and should not treat such a fundamental policy shift as though it was in the gift of a few hundred party delegate to an SNP Conference, to be quietly railroaded through without consulting at least the full SNP membership, the key members of the YES Coalition and ideally the electorate.
The branches, from my anecdotal evidence gleaned from correspondents and on Twitter, were slow to react, more than a little uncertain about the significance of the NATO proposal, and substantially under-informed. This was hardly surprising, since some leading SNP figures (e.g. Alyn Smith) were boasting of their lack of knowledge – and patently of interest - in defence matters. This was not helped by the commentariat and the media, who by and large, with a tiny number of honourable exceptions, showed the same lack of interest and knowledge.
In marked contrast, the NO to NATO campaign, especially CND, were highly informed and produced detailed fact sheet after fact sheet, which appeared to remain entirely unread by at least half of the SNP membership and perhaps a significant majority, judging by the Perth debate and vote.
In among all this was a wriggling, radioactive worm in the SNP/NATO rosy apple – the question of safe havens for nuclear submarines of other NATO countries, including those armed with nuclear weapons. Put at its starkest – as it was by the sole media commentators to appreciate its significance, Gary Robertson on BBC Radio Scotland and Isabel Fraser of the Sunday Politics Scotland and Newsnicht to the First Minister – this meant that an independent and notionally nuclear-free Scotland would allow such WMD-laden vessels to come and go freely on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis.
Not only did the press and media fail to pick up or follow up on this, the NO to NATO campaign and the SNP conference speakers against the NATO proposal also missed it, or failed to see its vital significance.
And so the lead-up to the Perth conference and the debate.
An increasingly nervous leadership group steeled themselves for a harder time than they had planned, as the word came back that at least some of the branches were awakening from their Mitchellite trance of being ‘relaxed’ about NATO membership, Bill Ramsay of the SNP CND group was devastatingly articulate on the media, a disparate range of groups under the NO to NATO Coalition were omnipresent, a group of dissident MSPs had more and more to say, and the best efforts of SNP proxies such as George Kerevan weren’t cutting the mustard on media.
Having tried to slide the NATO U-turn paper through low key, after initially pretending it didn’t exist, Robertson and MacNeil were now trumpeting the debating and democratic party virtues of the SNP. Instead of being a triumph of party democracy, Conference was now to be celebrated as a triumph of debate.
What followed was fascinating, uplifting and encouraging in one sense, yet profoundly depressing in its outcome.
The delegates (759 from the voting outcomes) arrived in various states of preparedness for the great debate. Some were there with a free vote, presumably permitted by their branches. Many were mandated in advance by their branches. I have no statistics or information on what went on in the branches, other than anecdotal, from Twitter exchanges, and from emails and comments, many of a confidential natures.
But what I can say with reasonable confidence is this -
1. No general detailed, specific effort was made by any SNP branch to canvass and collate the views of the wider, non-active branch membership. (If there was, there was no evidence of such a consultation)
2. Some branches thought the whole affair very low key and gave it little attention or thought. They were, to use the phrase quoted again and again, “relaxed about NATO membership”.
3. Some branches gave it a lot of discussion, voted on it, and mandated their delegate or delegates accordingly. Some delegates had a very narrow mandate, based on a narrow margin, some were virtually unanimous.
4. No mandated delegates were given authority to change their minds, based on the arguments they heard in the debate. (Bear in mind, there had been no pre-conference debate mounted or indeed encouraged by the party – the debate drivers all came from the NO to NATO camp.)
The delegate group of 759 permitted in the conference hall for the debate therefore included delegates with no mandate who were at least in theory free to decide on their vote based on what they heard from the platform speakers and delegates who were pre-mandated and therefore had to be immune to reason and argument from the platform.
The debate itself was a triumph of passion, cogent argument and principled belief, but the context of the debate, especially what preceded it, was close to Tammany Hall politics. Some anti-NATO speakers came close to saying this. Some have said it to me in confidence, one which I respect. All were torn between their horror, not only at what the party was doing but also how they went about it, and an overriding imperative to close ranks for the sake of the YES campaign.
The outcome was quite simply this -
759 members of a political party that constitutes the Government of Scotland have voted to take 24,000 party members, a much wider number of party supporters who are not members, and a Scottish electorate of millions into a first strike nuclear alliance if independence is secured, and - without any vote, discussion or consultation whatsoever - into a grossly hypocritical and perhaps lethal arrangement to permit nuclear submarines armed with Trident WMDs to come and go freely in the waters of an independent Scotland.
If this is what the dominant theory of our party politics has brought us to, then that dominant theory and all its related assumption, practices and procedures require urgent revision, because this is not democracy as I want to see it in an independent Scotland. I hope my fellow Scots agree with me.
Christine Grahame – and others – have called upon John Finnie and Jean Urquhart to resign their seats as MSPs because they were elected as list MSPs on a party vote.
On the contrary, any SNP list MSP who supported the NATO U-turn should resign, because the voters who placed them in Holyrood voted for a party that was clearly opposed by policy to NATO membership, and committed to Partnership for Peace.
Get your dubious principles right, please …