Scotland’s referendum consultations farce

Petty tribalism has ruined two potentially useful consultations on the independence referendum.

A row was provoked last week when it emerged that the Scottish government’s public consultation on the forthcoming independence referendum was open to anonymous contributions. This prompted Anas Sarwar, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to suggest that the whole process had been “designed for abuse”, in that it allowed individuals to submit multiple responses, presumably with the aim of distorting the outcome.

In its defence, the Scottish government pointed out, correctly, that previous public consultations - including a recent one on same-sex marriage which received as many as 50,000 submissions - had been conducted according to similar guidelines and no-one had questioned their legitimacy. But Labour insisted, also correctly, that anonymous submissions should be discounted from the final official tally of total contributions. Eventually, the Scottish government relented and agreed to consider as valid only those submissions whose authors could be identified.

At this point, rather than fizzle out, the row intensified with the publication of the findings of the UK government’s own referendum consultation. Initially, they were seized on by Scotland Secretary Michael Moore as evidence of widespread support for the coalition’s position on the timing and format of the ballot (70 per cent of respondents said they wanted the vote to be held next year instead of in 2014, while 75 per cent said they wanted a single Yes/No question). However, it soon became clear that these figures were not a reliable sample of Scottish public opinion. This is because a quarter (740 of approximately 3000) of all the Westminster consultation responses were identical. That is, they had been copied word for word from a “standard text” response available on the Scottish Labour website.

The SNP immediately claimed that this discredited the UK consultation, with Alex Salmond expressing concern that it had been “flooded” by made-to-order Labour submissions. But the First Minister failed to mention that the SNP also provided a “standard text” response blueprint for the Scottish government’s consultation on its website. We won’t know what percentage of the total submissions to the Holyrood consultation (so far there have been around 12,000) are based on the SNP’s template until they are published in May.

Two things should be taken from this rather farcical episode. The first is that, under current conditions, government consultations in Scotland are not accurate barometers of the public mood and in fact invite party political manipulation, particularly when they are concerned with issues as deeply polarised as that of the constitution. The second is that Scottish politicians are apparently incapable of resisting the temptation to score cheap points off one another, even if it means engaging in embarrassing retreats later on.

It should also be said that instead of having a UK government consultation and a Scottish government consultation - both of which, if conducted properly, could have been helpful in bringing the Scottish constitutional impasse to some sort of resolution - Scotland now has a unionist one, tailored to unionist preferences, and a nationalist one, tailored to nationalist preferences. Even Salmond, Sarwar and Moore would have to concede this renders the whole exercise of “consulting the public” more or less futile.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.