SNP independence strategy: choosing how to fail

by | 11 Oct 2023

There are no outcomes from the vote on the SNP's independence strategy which are good. They're all bad. Picking the right bad outcome could be key.

Are you familiar with Kobayashi Maru? It’s part of Star Trek lore which has become a shorthand for an unwinnable challenge (in the episode an unwinnable simulation is used to measure the candidate’s approach to defeat). I’m afraid that the independence resolution strategy at the SNP conference this Sunday is a Kobayashi Maru.

The party has left itself in a disastrous situation. It has become detached from the wider political mood in Scotland or, more accurately, the leadership is wilfully ignoring the wider political mood for the purpose of activist management. That involves kicking the can right off the end of the road and down into a ravine.

I have no good solution for you. Every outcome from Sunday is bad. Sorry. I wish it were otherwise. But I think there is a least bad option, and I would recommend it – if everyone can stomach the consequences…

There is a conference resolution from Yousaf and Westminster leader Stephen Flynn setting a bare majority of seats as the threshold for ‘winning’ a de facto referendum at the General election. This is presented both ‘a means of progress’ and ‘the start of formal negotiations’. This makes it a confused sort of fundamentalist gradualism which seems designed for everyone to read into it what they want.

It comes with a lot of filler, more make-busy stuff to distract members. Among these you will find the idea that the next stage is to get the UK civil service to draft a negotiating strategy for its future negotiations with the UK civil service and to make that public so everyone can see it. I hope people can see how that is a new low of idiocy.

It really looks like Yousaf/Flynn have produced a motion based on an outcome they think there is a chance they might succeed with rather than an outcome that might actually work. This is a survival strategy for Yousaf, not an independence strategy. It buys him three years of make-busy (if it works). To be clear, no-one but no-one thinks a bare majority of seats will trigger negotiations.

So we get various amendments to make this more credible-looking. There are a couple that make minor changes like altering the wording on ballot papers or starting a pro-indy campaign (which caused me a double-take – they say they’ve spent quarter of a million pounds on indy campaigning in the last year or so). One changes the word ‘most’ to ‘majority of’, which means the same thing.

Then there are a few that are more substantive. These convert the strategy from from ‘majority of seats’ to ‘majority of votes’. Of these, one is ‘SNP votes only’ and one is ‘votes for any indy party’. These would at least create a democratically-sustainable strategy but would almost certainly sign Yousaf’s slow political death warrant because there is no way he’s going to come close to delivering a majority of the votes in the General Election.

Right now is the wrong political window for this initiative – This stuff should have been debated years and years ago when you were on the ascendency

But then that’s really the point, isn’t it. The SNP. Ain’t. Getting. A Majority. Of Vote. In 2024. A strategy based on that has simply got no chance of working. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. There is no credibility in saying you’re going to do something everyone knows you can’t do. A strategy with zero chance of working isn’t a strategy.

Most people know this, so we get the rather desperate idea that no, this isn’t going to work, but we can keep repeating it over and over and over until it does. Let’s call this the ‘demolishing the building using only my head’ strategy.

That is not realistic. You cannot run the same election strategy again and again if it keeps losing. This has nothing to do with some rule I’ve found in some obscure constitutional document. It is because you absolutely know that the seventh or eighth time we run this strategy (about 15 years from now) it will be absolutely farcical. Embarrassing. Toe-curling, eye-averting.

The cause of independence can absolutely use a de facto referendum strategy (though its really difficult to pull off) and it can absolutely use it at this General Election. When it fails, it can probably run it again at the Holyrood election. But I’d guess that that is about it. The strategy will have run its course. The public will tire of it quickly.

There is a solution, but it is ugly. The best real advice I can give is to ‘remit back’. Right now is the wrong political window for this initiative. This stuff should have been debated years and years ago when you were on the ascendency. Your task right now is to show you get that you need to reform the party and sort government – and to get started with it. Indy strategy is for later.

That’s what a remit back would do (for those who don’t know, it just means ‘we’re not saying No, but this needs a bit more thought before we vote for it so bring it back to the next conference’). It keeps the strategy option alive and avoids the sense of the party being detached from reality.

The problem is that this would leave the party leader with little credibility. To remit back a leader’s resolution is bordering on a vote of no confidence and it basically seals the end of Yousaf’s reign. It would suggest there is not faith in his leadership and major doubts about his judgement.

Can you see the traps here? Vote for majority of seats and you look like dafties at the election which you’ll fight with everyone saying ‘this isn’t serious’. Vote for majority of votes and you will set yourselves up for a big fail and undermine your leader twice over. Remit back and you can retain credibility and protect this potential strategy but you have hung your leader out to dry.

If you really believe in the de facto referendum route you need to be realistic that this isn’t the right election for it. If you are sceptical about a de facto referendum route, this is definitely not the election for it. If you support Humza you need to vote for a bad idea. If you want rid of him you are being bounced into a decision that could cause that in a chaotic way.

The only point of this conference vote, as far as I can see, is to choose how you fail – at the cost of your party’s credibility, at the cost of the cause of independence, or at the cost of your leadership clique

My interest isn’t in saving Humza Yousaf. My interest is in independence, and for all my criticisms of the SNP, it needs to be a credible vehicle for that cause. It has been promising referendums it never delivers for ten years. If it starts promising de facto referendums that keep failing, the SNP may not remain a credible vehicle.

Because the truth is that you are not debating independence here, you are debating a strategy for shoring up your vote next year. You’re not going to make any progress, you’re just defensively trying to retain as many jobs as you can. Independence is just a casualty of this. You’re about to do damage.

So you really need to come up with another reason for people to vote SNP at this election or you could get in real trouble. Perhaps ‘if you believe in independence, you have to keep the flame alive’ or ‘don’t let those who will block independence forever get a foothold in Scotland’. Something like that.

But you need to stop hurting independence by using it like a buoyancy aid and instead you need to open up and get the issue of Scottish independence out from under a single political party which is in trouble.

This is all happening because they (the leadership clique) blocked you from debating independence at all for a decade and now they’re letting you debate it at the very worst possible time because they’re in trouble. You should be furious at them. It’s them that are doing all of this damage. They are taking you further and further from independence and you are following.

Now they want you to board the (mythical) civilian cruise ship Kobayashi Maru on a mission which is preordained to fail. The de facto referendum route will fail in 2024, so a fail for the SNP is inevitable. The only point of this conference vote, as far as I can see, is to choose how you fail – at the cost of your party’s credibility, at the cost of the cause of independence, or at the cost of your leadership clique.

The only advice I can offer party members is to vote to remit back. It protects the credibility of the SNP and protects the cause of independence for a fight we can win later. The price of this will be an internal crisis. What I can promise you is that an internal crisis is coming one way or another. Choose how to fail and choose wisely. This is a pivotal moment for you.

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