How to win at shadow boxing

by | 22 Jun 2022

If there was to be a referendum next year, how could the independence movement make it work? It is much harder than you might think - but it can be done.

I feel constantly caught between my desire to be positive and constructive and what my rational mind is telling me about the reality I can see. These don’t match. But I still want to make a constructive contribution where I can so let’s have a look at how to make a 2023 indyref (if it happens) work for the cause.

Before I do I need to reiterate that I am a long way from being convinced that the Scottish Government is serious about holding a referendum next year. It’s far from clear that they can get a meaningful referendum into law anyway. It’s pretty certain that any referendum that can be held will not look anything like that of 2014.

I also want to be clear that I don’t think we are properly prepared for it, that the timescales are now too tight and that above all we have not done the political spade work to get us into a strong starting position. It means I remain of the view that pushing the story of a 2023 referendum is in the interests of the politicians but against the interests of the cause of independence.

But if it happens, how could we make a success of it? The first thing to state is that this is much harder than it initially sounds.

Let me start with what ‘win’ might mean. Given that this would be neither a mutually-agreed nor a binding referendum, ‘winning’ isn’t about crossing a legal or democratic threshold leading to an outcome; it is about perception. Whatever we are doing here is really about increasing the pressure for independence rather than delivering it, so ‘winning’ relies on us creating a broad consensus that support for independence took a major step forward.

How do we create that consensus view? We can’t win by clear majority if the other side boycotts the vote (which they will). So we have to work out what are the metrics which would build a consensus that we had ‘won’ the referendum.

Let me keep that simple. We couldn’t afford to gain fewer votes than we did in 2014 or it would look like a backwards step, so that is our baseline – we must get more votes than in 2014. There is then a number which represents an absolute overall majority (boycott and all) which would be over 50 per cent of all eligible voters voting Yes.

And in between these is a symbolic number which would generally be taken to be a pretty compelling success – getting more votes than the No side did in 2014. That gives us a ‘baseline, a threshold for clear victory and a target for political victory’..

We should take a step back and be conscious of the weight of this – the minimum outright success requires us to get a full 25 per cent increase in our 2014 vote

Let’s put that into numbers. With a bit of rounding it means we absolutely have to get more than 1,619,000 votes, we could probably start to claim a decisive outcome at around 2,123,000 votes (but that would still be argued as a slim majority so would ideally be higher) but we could certainly claim a strong political victory at about 2,002,000 or so votes.

Let me spell that out even more clearly; we absolutely need to turn out absolutely everyone we turned out in 2014. Then we really need to find a minimum of just under 400,000 new voters to send the message that we’ve overtaken the 2014 No vote and another 120,000 beyond that to sneak over the absolute majority line.

We should take a step back and be conscious of the weight of this. The minimum outright success (if this analysis is right) requires us to get a full 25 per cent increase in our 2014 vote. Unless we can achieve a 100 per cent turnout of all Yes voters (which isn’t really realistic) we’re looking at a total population Yes support of at least 60 per cent before we’re getting close to delivering a decisive victory. It is best not to pretend this is anything other than a challenge.

Can we do it? To think that through it is important to think about the likely nature of the campaign. Assuming a unionist boycott, we are trying to fight an opponent who won’t fight back. That is much harder than it sound.

Calling for a boycott of a vote is a perfectly legitimate democratic strategy and it therefore enables a No side to both be participants and not participants. They can drop stories, put out materials and so on but they can legitimately not turn up for debates or media appearances, which hampers our ability to campaign.

And while it might sound at first that fighting against an opponent who is unwilling to fight would be an easy task, it really isn’t. It’s a bit like the difference between boxing and shadow boxing – if you’re alone in the ring and swinging at shadows, how does anyone know if you’re winning? Remember, they can do damage to you without officially engaging but you have to make your case alone.

This takes a lot of the drama and theatre out of the kind of campaign you would normally expect. It puts all the onus on the Yes side to drive everything, particularly enthusiasm. If a Yes side can’t deliver that sense of enthusiasm without the ‘thrill’ of a contested campaign, the whole thing risks falling flat.

And if this campaign is to continue as it began, ‘thrill’ isn’t a word you’d associate with it. The idea that the Yes side can turn out two million people based on a series of papers filled with dull OECD statistics that literally no-one would read if they could avoid it is fanciful.

Her we reach a big problem; the SNP leadership seems determined to follow a kind of Keir Starmer route, doing everything to avoid any sense of excitement in the hope that steady managerialism will ‘not scare the horses’. In theory we therefore have under a year from now to really build a sense of anticipation and excitement. That is not what I see happening.

What seems to me to be happening is that a whole bunch of circles are being squared and nothing is fitting together. The First Minister wants to maintain an image of cautiousness which she thinks will counteract worries from the establishment and the upper middle classes.

But at the same time she want’s red meat for her party’s base and so is at least in theory taking a pretty Braveheartish route to a referendum. This has forced her into a place where the referendum can’t be agreed consensually with the other side. That creates a dynamic that will require an energising campaign, but such a campaign would run counter to her cautiousness strategy.

If we’re going to go running into battle at top speed, we’d better start to think hard about what we’re fighting for and how we win

This creates a series of clashing tactics which means we’re watching two conflicting strategies bang up against each other and I can’t see how to make that work. It’s either got to be an insurgent rebellion or a carefully negotiated joint venture. It can’t be a bit of each.

So how could we do it? If this is serious (and for me serious doubts remain about that) then I think the first thing we need to accept is that there is no outcome from any possible referendum which will lead directly to independence. Even an absolute majority would not be accepted by Westminster which would argue that it didn’t recognise the whole affair from the beginning.

Which means this is step one of a two (or more) step process. At some point there would probably have to be some kind of confirmatory vote no matter what happens, so what we can most effectively do with this referendum is to design it to create clear political pressure.

That effectively means this is a pre-referendum referendum. If we accept that, a clearer path opens up. The purpose of this referendum would be to demand the right to a full, mutually-agreed referendum. There are various forms of wording this could take but it all basically comes down to demanding a Section 30 Order.

(For those who have been drawn into the idea that there is a unilateral way out of the UK it is time to state clearly that Scotland cannot afford not to have full international recognition and that will be very difficult if we are not recognised by the UK. You can look for all the loopholes you want and you still can’t make other nations recognise you – and they won’t.)

So what I’m saying is that since this can’t be a binding referendum we need to think of it as a ‘super-petition’, a massive act of one-day ‘public theatre’ to heap more pressure on Westminster to accept the jig is up.

Running that campaign then becomes much less about fighting unionists than it does energising Yes and soft No voters to see a real, consensual referendum as being an absolutely necessary step to putting this issue to bed. It would be a ‘vote for choice’ campaign. It would need a real edge, a real sense that this isn’t abstract but concrete, a real and specific step we are demanding.

So it is possible to make that campaign work. It needs us to do something to get two million people off their sofas and into polling stations to demand the right to come back and do it all again. So it needs a brilliant, energising campaign.

If we can do that, if we can turn out two million people to say ‘you must give us the right to have a binding vote’, this could be a big step forward towards independence.

This doesn’t make things easy but it makes them possible. But if we are going to get to that place the Scottish Government has to drop both its caution and also it’s pretence that this is ‘indyref 2’ (this would, at best, be ‘indyref 1.5’). We have to stop fighting with spreadsheets and focus on stronger messaging. And activists need to understand this strategy and we need to unify behind it.

That we’re nominally a year away from being in the middle of a major referendum campaign and we’re still discussing basic strategy of what that campaign is even for makes me nervous about all of this. But if we’re going to go running into battle at top speed, we’d better start to think hard about what we’re fighting for and how we win.

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