Tommy Sheppard is right. The British government’s refusal to release the results of its polling on attitudes to the Union and Scottish independence certainly does beg the question, what is it they’re trying to hide? But we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to the most obvious questions, or the first query that occurs to us. We might well ask why they are trying to hide it.
The reasons for hiding something are not necessarily connected to the nature of the thing being hidden in any direct or obvious way. The act of hiding may be more significant than what is being hidden. It is certainly worth exploring what the motives may be.
The obvious conclusion is that the thing being concealed is potentially embarrassing. In this particular instance, it is only natural to assume that the polling must undermine the British government’s position on the Union. It would seem likely that the results show less support for the Union than British Nationalists would like and/or more support for independence than they are prepared to acknowledge.
But less support for the Union doesn’t have to mean a dramatic collapse. And more support for independence needn’t mean a dramatic surge. In fact, polling already in the public domain suggests the split is still hovering around 50%. I always thought the fuss which greeted a recent poll show 52% for independence was rather overdone, given that the margin of error is commonly +/-3%. Of course, any majority for independence is welcome news for some of us – even if it is conditional and with the ‘don’t knows’ stripped out. And such numbers would are certainly problematic for British Nationalists who are still trying to convince the public that independence is a ‘fringe’ issue in Scotland.
There being no reason to suppose the British government’s secret polling might be an outlier, I am prompted to wonder why they are so desperate to keep it hidden. It could be that they are simply defending the convention that advice sought or provided to the government is confidential. But even taking this very sensible principle into account, the case for a FoI exemption seems weak. Which makes their apparent determination to take it all the way even more curious. What might explain this apparently pointless obduracy?
Here’s a thought! Suppose the polling results are actually quite dull. Suppose they show, not a big swing to Yes, but just a run-of-the-mill 52/48 split in favour of the Union. Suppose the information is being hidden solely because the British government knows that the SNP will make a big deal of it only to be left looking a bit foolish when the information is finally released.
Devious? Indeed it is. Far-fetched? Well, I started out thinking so. The original idea was to use this to illustrate the need to always ask the awkward questions and never settle for the obvious answers. The ending I had planned dismissed the notion of such Machiavellian shenanigans. But, now that I’m here, I’m not so sure. The way British politics is at the moment it doesn’t seem safe to discount any silliness.
The real lesson here may be for Tommy Sheppard and other SNP politicians. Perhaps they need to be wary of reacting in predictable ways to the antics of the British political elite. With all due respect to Tommy, he could be following a script written by his opponents. He is playing their game. Following their rules. It might be worth considering more nuanced tactics.
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