Friday 2 March 2012

News, headlines and tax

Yesterday’s reports on the latest Welsh opinion polls gave the Western Mail its headline with not too much effort either needed or expended, although the first three words (“No to Independence”) are hardly what I’d call news.  Their supplementary headline on an inside page was also noteworthy for getting it wrong – “Poll confirms independence not in national interest”, it screamed.
Well, no, actually the poll didn’t confirm that at all.  It certainly confirmed that the people of Wales are far from being convinced that it’s in Wales’ national interest, but that’s a rather different question.  An opinion poll can only tell us what people think of a proposition, not whether the proposition is true or not.  I wouldn’t conclude anything about the shape of the earth on the basis of an opinion poll, even if the majority agree with me that it isn’t flat.
The paper’s editorial wasn’t much better.  It seemed to be telling us almost gleefully that we simply can’t afford independence for the foreseeable future because we are totally dependent on fiscal transfers from England to pay our benefits bills.  I suppose it depends on how far one can see into the future – never one of the Western Mail’s strongest abilities.  It was, though, a dismal, depressing, and defeatist message to give to the nation on St David’s Day.  Keep taking the handouts.
The paper’s attempt – on the basis of a poll of only 1,000 people across the whole of Wales – to tell us which constituency was most in favour of tax raising powers is best ignored.  It would give my old statistics lecturer a fit, I’m sure.
The positive part of the survey, from my perspective at least, was the high level of support for taxation powers to be devolved to the National Assembly and Welsh Government.  It’s a finding which puts public opinion ahead of the politicians in Wales.  Ahead of all four parties in fact. 
Plaid’s recently reported submission to the Silk Commission, spelling out which taxes it wants devolved and which it doesn’t, now looks timid and unambitious against a background of 28% supporting the devolution of all taxation, and another 36% supporting the devolution of some taxation powers.
And if almost a third of the public can be ahead of the politicians without anyone even putting the case for devolution of all taxation, what might the polls show if the case were to be put?


Cibwr said...

from the breakdown the most nationalist area of Wales is Merthyr, on a poll of 19 people over 30% want independence! So much for statistics...

Anonymous said...

The Guardian editorial on the poll is almost as bad at least they have the excuse of not being a Welsh newspaper, what's the Western Mail's excuse?

Old_Miwl said...

What's interesting in this one is the 28% in favour of the Welsh Government controlling all tax revenues. That's pretty close to devo-max from where I'm standing. To go from a situation in 1997 where only half of those who voted backed a very weak administrative assembly, that is one heck of a shift in public opinion.

Boncath said...

Is it all right to feel sorry for the Western Mail when newspaper sales are falling away and when golden opportunities to support the people of Wales in securing a better future are squandered. I once had hopes that it might one day be the National Newspaper for Wales The only future now for it seems to be as a admag for Cardiff and even that is uncertain

Adam Higgitt said...

"the first three words (“No to Independence”) are hardly what I’d call news".

On the contrary, given that it is the first such poll since the volume has really been turned up on Scottish independence, I'd say it was very newsworthy. Given also that Plaid's entire strategy for Welsh independence can be summarised in one sentence - "let's pray that Scottish independence somehow also causes Welsh independence" - the fact that it may not is fairly novel.

But I agree with you about the limitations of polling. Two things occur to me about the BBC St David's Day poll. The first is that the questioning around more powers is a tad soft: people are probably highly likely to always suggest the Assembly should have more powers not through any deep self-interrogation about their constitutional convictions, but because it probably seems like a vaguely good thing. That less reflective sensation can, of course teach us something about preferences, but I'd hesitate to infer from this poll in particular that people are set clearly on a course for more devolution, much less that this tells us anything about the broader march to Welsh autonomy.

The second is one I'm a little surprised that Welsh nationalists haven't taken up, namely that I don't think we've ever had a straight choice question on independence in any poll, i.e "should Wales become an independent country or remain part of the UK?". All our knowledge on the parlously low level of support for Welsh independence (which in this poll appears to have gone from half as popular as the abolition of the Assembly to a third as popular) is drawn from a multi-question "preferendum". A two-way fight might push the independence support up as it would deprive respondents the perceived safer route of clustering around the middle options of same devolution/a bit more devolution/quite a lot more devolution. Until we do, all we can really say about the Welsh electorate's views on independence with a high degree of safety is that they prefer it far less than any other outcome, and have done for as long as the question has been asked.

John Dixon said...


Your point about not giving people a simple 'yes-no' choice is well-made. We've seen in Scotland that reducing the question to that choice increases the support for independence by removing the safer options. I've no reason to suppose that the same wouldn't happen in Wales, although, to be honest, I'd still expect to see the answer come in at under 20% currently.

I don't think, however, that your comment "Plaid's entire strategy for Welsh independence can be summarised in one sentence - 'let's pray that Scottish independence somehow also causes Welsh independence'" is fair or accurate.

I don't disagree that there are some in Plaid who might think that way; but equally, I am convinced that there are some whose attitude could be summed up by saying 'I wish the whole Scottish debate would just go away and let us get back to our comfortable devolutionist position'. And there are yet others for whom independence is a thought-through position; they've just been quiet about it for some time.

Your perception is nevertheless an interesting one, because I can see how it can arise. After a long period during which the party had a leader who was, shall we say 'uncomfortable' with the I-word, and during which many others were therefore reluctant to highlight disagreement by using the word too often, it should surprise no-one that people will conclude, as you do, that what is happening in Scotland is some sort of life-raft for the concept of Welsh independence. But perception isn't always reality (even if it counts for an awful lot!).

Gwilym said...

If Plaid really wants to become a serious political party it should listen to the 22% who say that the Assembly should be abolished. Thereby it would separate itself from the establishment parties and triple its vote.

I've not seen or heard anyone addressing the issue of this 22% who are clearly not happy with the current arrangements.

John Dixon said...

That's an interesting idea, Gwilym - Plaid distancing itself from all other parties by proposing to ditch devolution. Somehow don't think it will catch on.

Unknown said...

For me what is most striking about this poll is that Plaid objectives that, even 10 years ago, were considered madcap and unattainable have now become part of mainstream political discourse in Wales. 80% of what most Plaid members dreamed of has been, or will shortly be achieved.

Plaid is now preparing itself, very effectively in my view, to achieve the extra 20%, which includes full independence.

Spirit of BME said...

I think the poll figures are smack on what international studies have shown (Dr Dilly’s Davies in the USA has done valuable work on this) that the vast majority of people who live in countries that are occupied by another are conquered and suffer low self-esteem and tragic lack of self-confidence; in short they feel they are not up to the job of being able to run their own affairs. I think the Adam person input makes my point.
The call for HMG in Wales to have more fiscal powers is acceptable to them, but deep in their souls they step away from ultimate responsibility and cannot break away from the feeling that the English are more superior.
- I would not dismiss the Gwilym proposal that quickly.

Adam Higgitt said...

"For me what is most striking about this poll is that Plaid objectives that, even 10 years ago, were considered madcap and unattainable have now become part of mainstream political discourse in Wales."

This poll shows independence to be even more resolutely in last place in terms of preferred constitutional outcomes - and you deem that a success? Hilarious.

For every respondent who says their preferred outcome is independence there are three who say they want the Assembly abolished and all devolution done away with. Do you say the return of a centralised British state is a mainstream political idea?

"80% of what most Plaid members dreamed of has been, or will shortly be achieved."

That's a bit like saying that someone shipwrecked on a desert island has achieved 80% of their objective of getting home. The fact is that ten years of devolution has turned the people of Wales into a nation of devolutionists, not separatists. They are as far from wanting independence as ever, if not further.