How to make this work

by | 11 Jul 2022

Whatever our reservations, we're left with no option but to make the 'plebiscite election' plan work. Here's how we could do that.

Returning and catching up on events, one thing is clear – we need to find some way to make what has been announced about ‘indyref’ work. It’s not that I don’t have reservations (I very much do) and it’s not that I think any of this will be easy. It’s that our hand has been shown and we now need to make it look like it could be a winning hand. There isn’t a good alternative to that.

I’m going to go on to explain how I think a success can be made of this. But before I do it is important quickly to go over my misgivings since some of these are directly related to how to make this work.

I don’t think we can bank on a referendum. If your Lord Advocate doesn’t think your referendum bill is legally competent, it’s probably not a good bet to hold your breath for the Supreme Court to be more accommodating than the Scottish Government’s own chief legal adviser. My focus is therefore a plebiscite election.

So to my reservations. First, the ‘no referendum bill but a plan to turn the General Election into a plebiscite’ is quite clearly scrambled together and poorly coordinated. To kick off with the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister not on the same page is a mess that bodes ill for how well thought-through this all is.

It is also much, much harder to pull this off (a plebiscite election) than it first appears. At the best of times, elections are highly unpredictable. If something major and politically relevant happens, your entire planned narrative can easily go out the window. This is made much worse because all the opposition parties are going to be doing everything they can to derail your strategy. There are many more opportunities to do this than you might think.

So think about something like the TV debates. Do you refuse to do them if the subject is the NHS? Or do you turn up but refuse to talk about the NHS? Or do you somehow make every NHS answer about independence, which may not look good? Or if you stonewall and the Labour representative keeps asking you about it, do you refuse to answer and look evasive? This is only a small example of the problem.

If this wasn’t hard enough, only ten percent of this election will be treated this way at best – the UK news will be absolutely dominated by the coverage of what will be a quite pivotal moment for UK politics. The idea that we can insulate ourselves from that is unrealistic and the idea that there won’t be any political feed-across to Scotland isn’t realistic either.

As best as I can tell, right now the indy movement is as fragmented as it’s ever been and as best as I can tell no-one with any power or position is trying to bring it together again. In fact I can see evidence that the nature of what has been announced has if anything intensified inter-faction hostility.

But above all, I have never been one of those in the movement who has been clamouring for an early referendum. I believe the cause of independence is urgent given the direction of the UK (and indeed its primary ally the US). But there is clearly far too much of the Scots Presbyterian in me because I strongly believe that you have to earn that which you want.

I really struggle with the idea that we have earned the right to another referendum. I don’t mean ‘mandates’, I mean doing the work needed to have enough of the voting population believe you’re earned the right to ‘another go’ by doing things like developing plans, answering their questions and talking to them. That has not been done systematically and the polls reflect that.

So what I’m really trying to get across is that we are not in a dominant position and a lot of people have been relying on an official campaign to let us build a dominant position (they assumed that building that dominance was an inevitability and I very much never did). We’re not going to get an official campaign and so we really needed that dominance to have been built by now, for the groundwork to have been done.

What do I mean by dominance in this context? Well, that takes us on to the steps that, on first reflection, I think need to be taken to make this work.

It’s not about what we think

When I write about dominance I don’t just mean big wins in first past the post elections and saying mandate a lot. I don’t even just mean leads in opinion polls. You know you have dominance when the broad public opinion believes you’ve earned your right to do something and when even those who don’t agree with you grudgingly recognise you are in that sort of position.

That is the fundamental point here; there is no such thing as a ‘plebiscite election’, there is only the presence of or the lack of public belief that that is what just happened. If we are to make this work then the public must believe that we just ran a referendum in all but name. It is no good persuading ourselves that we did it, we need the public believe it.

Manipulating first past the post to gain a majority of seats on a minority vote is a perfect example of how not to do that so the First Minister is right to make it about votes cast and not seats won. But it also puts a lot of pressure on turnout. If you want the public to believe you just won a real mandate for independence I’d suggest that overtaking the No vote in 2014 is still a good target.

We cannot trick or scam or scheme this if the public doesn’t come along with us. We only win if they believe we won. That must be foremost on our minds since we are ‘playing without rules’.

So it must be unequivocal

This in turn means that there must be no ambiguity. When someone approaches the ballot paper there should be something on that ballot paper which makes clear that you are voting for independence and not just political parties.

My strong suggestion would be that anyone standing on an independence ticket should share an ‘identity mark’ (the logo or emblem on a ballot paper next to each candidate). Something simple like the motif of a letter I in a circle. That should be used rather than party logos to make clear what you’re voting for. That way the message is clear – if you want independence pick a candidate with the I mark next to them.

And that way the outcome is clear; if a majority of the votes were cast for candidates with the I mark then there is no confusion and no misunderstanding – that is a vote for independence.

It might be possible to incorporate such a mark with the existing party logos but if this is a ‘referendum’ in all but name, it is very hard to see why party logos are needed.

It cannot be ‘Schrödinger’s referendum’

The single most important factor to make this work is that it either is a proxy referendum or it isn’t. If it inhabits an uncomfortable in-between status, proxy referendum, but also a party political show, it will fail at both.

Short of stepping down the political parties altogether and standing a single paper candidate in each constituency to represent an indy vote (a very good idea but unlikely to be supported by either the SNP or the Greens), it must be clear that those on the ballot paper are representing the cause of independence and not standing for election to Westminster.

To do that it seems inevitable to me that any indy candidate will commit to not taking up their seat at Westminster after the election (the Sinn Fein approach). There is quite a good case for this anyway given the lack of relevance of backbenchers in the UK parliament, but this time we must either be voting for a candidate or for a cause, not both.

Likewise parties (if they absolutely will not step back from standing as parties) must not produce manifestoes for Westminster. Again, you can’t say it’s about independence if you’re also trying to sell a social security policy at the same time. They could feasibly each stand on a manifesto for what they’d do with independence (see below), but not what they would do with power in Westminster.

This above all is key; if the SNP starts to revert back to making this about the SNP or starts to adapt its rhetoric to make the plebiscite election about jobs for their payroll, in fact if anything takes away from this being about independence, there is a high risk it will fail.

It either is or it isn’t about independence. This is virgin constitutional territory (best I can tell) and to make it work it must be different from other elections. In our out.

It needs to be lively and diverse

Another crucial aspect is that we need to motivate and really turn out electors. Again, none of this is normal and if it feels normal it’s probably not working. The most loyal of party members would accept that the SNP is looking tired as a campaigning machine and it’s approach to making the case for independence is to keep things dull.

If this is to be more like a referendum and less like an election it needs wide civic engagement and narrow party politics obstructs that. There must be more than just the same-old-same-old if people are to believe this is different.

Helpfully the ‘votes cast for any pro-indy candidate’ model makes this easy. We could have three visions for independence from the existing pro-indy parties. Perhaps Labour for Independence could put together enough candidates to stand. Perhaps there might be new political parties or formations putting forward candidates. Certainly there is scope for well-kent independent candidates.

Why does this help? Because every single vote helps. If (say) a famous footballer agrees to stand in some constituency and that pulls in votes which wouldn’t have gone to the SNP, Greens or Alba, those are votes we otherwise wouldn’t get. In a normal General Election an independent candidate who gets 50 votes has wasted 50 votes that could have gone elsewhere. This time those are extra votes.

Plus it means people alienated by any one message from any one party can find a home that fits them better and it still ticks over the total indy votes counter.

It is more exciting. It looks more like a diverse politics waiting to be born after independence. It helps to dominate the political space during the campaign. It maximises votes. It only has one problem – can the SNP really put its own interests aside for the cause of independence?

We need to reconcile

For various reasons I don’t think a united independence movement is possible in the timescales we now have (largely because there are a small number of actors who seem determined to prevent that through vitriol or by trying to exclude their enemies altogether). But we need to stop shooting at each other.

We don’t need to be friends right away but we need to reconcile to each other. This shouldn’t be difficult but it looks like it may be. As someone who has yet to say a bad word in public about anyone in the independence movement (government politicians are a different category) I can’t quite work out why people can’t just stop being nasty to each other.

I certainly know that I’ve been the target of some pretty nasty hate campaigns over the years and yet I would have no difficulty in setting that aside if there was an agreement for at least mutual respect in the movement. Can’t everyone else do the same?

We really need to. This can’t be a unified campaign (I had differences of opinion with the 2014 White Paper yet was able to stand by it as a broad prospectus anyway – but the way the SNP has forced the Growth Commission on us makes it impossible for me to do that again). But we can’t afford a rolling civil war in the indy movement.

This will need to come from the top. The attack briefings must stop, olive branches must be offered and those to whom they are offered must accept. We simply can’t keep shooting at each other. Full stop. Pack it in or we lose.


There is an awful lot more to say than this and this is already too long. But if this plebiscite election proposal is serious, if we’re properly committed to all of this, these are issues that we must start to talk through now. No more diktat. We win this together or we fail. And, if this goes ahead, we cannot afford to fail.

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