Nate Silver delivers a timely wake up call to the Scotland Yes camp in the #IndyRef?

You get a sense of why Nate Silver has annoyed politicians and pundits in the US when you have a look what he’s been saying in Edinburgh about a prospective Scottish Referendum whilst launching his book, The Signal and the Noise:

In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Silver said polling data was “pretty definitive”. “There’s virtually no chance that the Yes side will win”, he said. “If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definitive really where the No side is at 60-55 per cent and Yes side is about 40 or so.

“Historically, in any Yes or No vote in a referendum, it’s actually the No side that tends to grow over time, people tend not to default to changing the status quo.

“The No side is even more dominant with the younger voters, so there’s not going to be any generational thing going on.”

Not that that’s not been said here before. As you might glean from his outline responses to the UK General Election here, Silver deals in probabilities, much in the way a good Poker player similarly pays attention to detail. His observations are made from studying patterns in broad datasets, and not just polling data.

He uses the Quebec referendum as a case in point:

The French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada has previously rejected a vote on independence, despite sharp “cultural differences and genuine hostility” with the wider Canadian state, Mr Silver added.

“That is a case where a smaller country reads more about the economic consequences and it becomes harder to change the status quo. That was one where the Yes vote had been ahead, then faded down the stretch and lost.

“So on general principle, even if you took all the undecided votes, they are more likely to end up being No votes than Yes votes.”

So that’s it then? Well, no. Even if we miss out on a nasty and disastrous downshift in wider economy, the referendum has at least been focusing minds creatively. On Belladonia, David Grieg outlines what he hopes for:

1) There are reasonable arguments for both sides. Most Yes voters have their private doubts as do No voters. The fruitful debate emerges when we share those doubts, not when we pretend to certainty.

2) Try to stay future focused. We can’t ignore the past but lets not dwell on it. This is the 21st century. Surely on behalf of our children surely we can imagine what might be best for them, and not get bogged down in a hundred quid in tax here or there, or whatever economic argument happens to suit your side politically right now.

3) Whichever way this vote goes it’s going to be close and we’re all going to have to live together in the same country afterwards. It will do no good if this debate is characterised by contempt or name calling. There’s no value in building up a new us and them, or fomenting new grudges. If either side feels defeated or humiliated in 2014 we will all be storing up serious trouble for the future.

Whatever the result of the referendum, there are in Scotland (indeed right across the democratic world) what Chris Dillow calls diseconomies of scale:

Scottish independence is a narrow, businesslike cost-benefit issue, in which nationalism is only part of the story – it matters in the sense that highly nationalist people feel alienated from the centre, and so the union breeds diseconomies of scale.[emphasis added]

Silver’s word certainly should not be taken as Gospel, but on the other hand living off planned outcomes as though they were already in the here and now is not great politics either.  As Jon Greenaway put it earlier this year

…this assumption of inevitable victory is intellectually dishonest and rhetorically cheap. The most important constitutional debate in the nation’s history should be treated properly. As the leaders of the nation the SNP should not be trying to ‘fast forward through the difficult bits’ as Michael Moore put it.

They should be better than that. The people of Scotland are owed an honest conversation and ignoring facts that happen to be unpalatable should not be a challenge from which we shy away in cowardice.

Finally, the idea of independence will remain a significant motivator for Scots whatever the outcome of next year’s referendum. Not least because it has considerable meaning for many who will not show in next year’s Yes tally.

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”

Carl Jung

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • FDM

    This article has saved the UK a fortune. No need to hold a referendum now.

    The “Yes” campaign have clearly lost by one book to nil.

  • Ruarai

    There’s a very strong argument for Nate Silver as the most instructive analyst writing on politics in the US today. So what does it say about traditional news media that his home is (now) at ESPN?

    It says this, in part: News papers are dying not because people are uninterested in news coverage. They’re dying, in part, because younger readers don’t consider their coverage of news very good. It’s at least a day old in an age where the news cycle changes every few hours and its written by generalists who have often spent a whole career writing in generalities about a diverse range of subjects they have no expertise in.

    News coverage and analysis is improving, not regressing, precisely because journalists are being replaced by niche expert analysts with the means of self-publishing.

  • Kensei

    I think Nate is both probably right and on much less firm ground than with his US Election predictions. His analysis of US polls have decades of high quality polls to be based on in a relatively static environment. There is much less data for independence referendums, and obviously much less data for Scottish independence referendums. It’s worth pointing out his UK General Election predictions were out by a large margin. A Scots Nats blog did an interesting poll last week:

    Plus there is a bit of a phony war to things as is. Maybe it’s different in Scotland, but it feels like the campaign really hasn’t kicked off yet. I’d agree with my entirely non scientific spider sense that it’d take something to really move the needle enough to get independence. But I suspect the margin is going to make a big difference to the future shape of Scottish politics, so I’d still be pushing as hard as possible if I was the SNP.

  • runepig

    New Statesman also had something to say on Nate:

    Another thing to note is that despite the particularly interesting findings of the WoS PanelBase poll, the results have been roundly ignored by the press and the BBC. I’d agree with the above comment about us being in a ‘phony war’, there are significant milestones to come such as the white paper which will ramp up the debate a bit – hopefully anyway, surely there will be a point when the Project Fear FUD reaches saturation.

  • runepig

    Also, WoS isn’t a ‘Scots Nat’ blog. Yes campaign != SNP.

  • Kensei

    He’s a Scottish Nationalist, or Sots Nats for sort. I did not mean to imply the site was linked to the SNP.

  • Mick Fealty

    I linked that summary post from Stu above Ken.. Interesting enterprise, commissioning a bespoke poll to try and use it to dig a little deeper… Maybe something we try here at some point in the future with the right subject…

    The thing to account for in Nate’s predictions is that they have the capacity to shift quite radically between now and the actual event… So that the analysis is not hard and fast but left open to unforeseen factors…

    I think Alex lost on round one, when independence landed the positive end of the question… Noes are generally more satisfying as a kick to which establishment is asking the question…

    As Paul Evans put it so wonderfully, referendums are great at building up expectations and then making issues toxic, by making the actual decision about something other than the central question itself:

    I’m tempted to splash out on that book (I’m reviewing two books as it, so I don’t have the nerve to ask for a review copy)…


    Spot on. Things are getting better precisely because lazy or inexact pundtry is gradually losing its price in the market

  • Dewi

    I’m a big Nate Silvers fan…..but all the points above + another…the SNP like being behind….I’m still confident.

  • Kensei

    I dunno if I commented at the time that Paul Evan’s piece was antidemocratic nonsense, but it’s anti democratic nonsense, Fundamental constitutional change can only be affected by consent of the people, regardless of how stupid / bastard like they are.

    In any case, while low key referendums run the risk of being used as a protest vote, I’m not sure the same logic applies to something as big and fundamental as Scottish independence. SNP popularity will play, but it’s too big an issue to dick about with and the populace knows it,

    Nate always represents his predictions as probabilities. But he’s been fairly categorical here. If he’s actually modeled it, I’d love to see it, allow with a bit of discussion.

  • aquifer

    (print journalism is) “written by generalists who have often spent a whole career writing in generalities about a diverse range of subjects they have no expertise in.”

    So complements our rule by generalist bureaucrats perfectly.

    No need to get good at anything in particular before the next posting, just wait for big wrong decisions to be handed down from on high.

    Devolution or even independence is likely to be more efficient as on high is not so far away, so we can pay the egos back for their incompetence.

    e.g. So-called Unionist “leaders” promoting street disorder that distances us from Britain.

    It is all a bit of a laugh really. For Irish separatists at least.

  • Barnshee

    “This article has saved the UK a fortune. No need to hold a referendum now.

    The “Yes” campaign have clearly lost by one book to nil.”

    Talking about the “book” a glimpse at the “bookies” would appear to suggest that the odds are not running in the direction of independence.

    I think the bookes are as likely to get it right i(f not more so)as the pundits

  • Alex Salmond’s declaration that the campaign so far has been ‘the phoney war’ and that things will now, over the final year, become more serious, is clever.

    It enables a restart, a fresh narrative, renewed momentum, learning form the tests and travails of the last 18 months.

    But to replicate the last weeks’ Quebec surge is a huge ask; on what will it be based?

    And although ‘Better Together’ has not lit the heather up with rhetoric or vision, they don’t need to – they are defending the status quo and chipping away on pensions, benefits, the currency, the monarchy, NATO, the EU, defence and so, has thus far served them well.

    Let battle, part ll, commence!

  • The other intriguing question is whether Unionists will manage to fulfill their self-denying ordinance not to intervene?

    So far, some loyalist rumbles and some football exchanges have been noticed, but can they maintain basic radio silence, or will it become a new front in the cultural, political battle over NI?

    And, there is an argument that we – the rUK, as we’re now known in Scotland – do have a perfectly legitimate right, duty even, to intervene with our perspectives and opinions, even if we don’t have the franchise.

  • IJP

    The “No” side will win by roughly 2:1.

    It has always struck me that those who deny that sound awfully like those who said Romney would win, lacking even a shred of evidence for their contention.

    What frustrates me, and where I hope Quintin is right, is that the debate has been focused on who will win rather than who should.

    My own view is that Salmond never had a chance, but has been finished off, counter-intuitively, by his own insistence that independence really wouldn’t be all that different. His only remote chance to beat “better the devil we know” was to say independence would be very different (and much better) – if it’s only slightly different, at best it’ll be only slightly better… in which case, why bother?!

  • FDM

    IJP 17 August 2013 at 6:37 pm

    The “No” side will win by roughly 2:1.


    Oh dear the independence camp start to get their nose in front…

  • Neil

    Update: Having looked at the full tables for the survey, it’s now clear what might explain the anomalous result. Those polled were first asked whether they thought Scotland could be “a successful, independent country” and whether they trusted the Scottish government or Westminster to take “the best decisions for Scotland”. It’s likely that both questions nudged people towards supporting independence in the final question. All the more reason, as I said before, to treat the result with caution.

    Wonderful. Those two questions will be asked often in the run up to the referendum, and as mentioned before, the more likely the Tories get to winning the election (or forming a coalition government) the more likely Scots are to vote for independence. They regularly end up governed by a party that gets no vote in Scotland, and who have taken every opportunity to tell Scots that they don’t have it in them, their country couldn’t hack it, leave the real governance to the Eton boys we’ll keep you right. The greatest threat to Unionism, as ever, are those who purport to support it. These are wonderful times for those of us who would see the Union consigned to the scrap heap where it belongs.

  • Barnshee

    Among those certain to vote, 59% would vote ‘No’, up four points since February, while 31% would vote ‘Yes’, down three points. One in ten Scots are undecided, down a point

    Bookies are still running against a yes vote Typical of the odds is paddy power giving 4/1 against.

    I suspect the bookies have it

  • Neil

    I’ve beaten the bookie on a two horse race at 9s before. 4 to 1 a year from the off sounds pretty positive to me.

  • Canisp

    Legislative programme for referendum year. Pandering to the mob?

  • Neil

    Just demonstrating the gulf between what Scots want and what Lord Snooty has delivered so far. Who could complain about such legislation?