Am I missing something?

by | 9 May 2022

The hyper-confidence SNP politicians demonstrate when telling us there will be a referendum next year makes me stop and check my assumptions

Every so often in life I find myself stopping, looking at strong assumptions I hold and I wonder to myself if I’m missing something. I’ve never been afraid of being wrong or admitting it. My goal in life is always to find out what I’ve missed, what I’ve got wrong – and to correct it as quickly as I can.

This means that I’m watching the confidence and swagger with which some in the SNP are saying there is now no question, no if, no but, no doubt – there will be a referendum next year that there is no chance that the independence side can lose. Sometimes people can say things with a confidence that makes you doubt what you think you know.

It means I’ve been starting again with my assumptions about the period ahead in Scottish politics to reassess and see if there are things I’m missing. Is there a path ahead which makes this SNP self-certainty seem more persuasive? Why have I been unable to see it?

First, some context. Nothing happened in the local elections that anyone didn’t think would happen. The Tories lost seats in the wake of the apparently endless ability of Boris Johnstone to seem ill-suited to the job he is in. Those losses raised all the other parties, by default if nothing else. An independence supporter looks at the ballot paper and generally finds not much option.

There was a pretty low turnout and fairly underwhelming performance by the smaller parties, not least because the STV voting system is brutal on smaller parties. Why Alba briefed it was going to make inroads is a bit of a mystery to me because everything was stacked against them.

Give or take a seat here or there, ‘largest party’ status just won or lost in different places, things look like they were always going to look. The SNP remains dominant, the Greens make small gains, the Lib Dems do well in local politics some places, the Tories fall and Labour overtake them and the inability of Alba to gain traction is beginning to look seriously existential.

Is this a ‘just’ outcome? This is a daft question. Since my first General Election as an adult I can count not even half a dozen major elections that went the way rational analysis says they ought to. Major should never have won in 1992. Blair should have in 1997 and probably again in 2001- but certainly not in 2005 after the Iraq War scandals.

It is probably fair that Labour lost in 2010 and that this was not to a single party but to a hung parliament. But a Tory majority in 2015 given their track record? And again in 2017? And 2019? From a second term for George Bush to the unbelievable ability of Silvio Berlusconi to get elected again and again to the years Pasok dominated Greece without doing anything to deserve it, elections are about anything other than rational outcomes, much less ‘justice’.

The barriers to a referendum that are ahead are not going to be overcome purely through the momentum delivered by this election result

So no, a government with the appalling track record of this SNP government shouldn’t be gaining seats in a local election in this phase in the cycle. But with Scottish Labour determined to be boring and ever-more British unionist, the Tories dying in Scotland under Boris Johnstone, the constitutional issue still very live and next to no option for most indy supporters, here we are.

I labour this point slightly because it is quite easy to send out your army of spin doctors to persuade journalists that you are on a massive roll and have incredible momentum, but it is much harder to argue that it’s actually true. In fact, in a week or two it is very likely that there will be little remaining sign of some kind of surge in support either for the SNP or for independence.

Which is to say that I don’t think I’m wrong to conclude that the barriers to a referendum that are ahead are not going to be overcome purely through the momentum delivered by this election result.

And yet that self-certainty remains. So if I haven’t missed an irresistable tide of public sentiment sweeping over the country demanding a fast referendum, are there other things I’ve missed?

I had an email exchange with an informed constitutional expert this week. Yes, he’s from the unionist side, but we were both interested in what the other thought about the likely content of the legal advice on a referendum the Scottish Government has been told it must make public. Assuming it’s decisive at all (not necessarily the case), what does it actually say?

This was a reasonably lengthy exchange but basically neither of us thought there was any realistic chance that it currently says ‘Scotland has the right to hold a referendum on a reserved policy issue, no ifs, no buts, no questions’. In fact we were both pretty confident that it was more likely to be pessimistic than optimistic.

So is the SNP sitting on a document that assesses that the things they are currently saying in the media aren’t true? Have they been told they probably can’t hold a referendum without support of Westminster but are saying the opposite in public? Again, it may well not be that clear cut, but at the same time it almost certainly doesn’t back up the argument that this is purely a decision for Holyrood.

Are there a set of circumstances in which Westminster will agree to a Section 30 Order? I think that one can be dismissed out of hand, at least for the course of 2023 (the Tories most certainly do not need another headache to deal with…).

So will the First Minister defy Westminster and hold one anyway? And if she does, is the purpose to hold one or to be overturned in the Supreme Court? I’m afraid I’m pretty cynical on this first point – Sturgeon has made clear she isn’t in the business of holding ‘wildcat’ referendums. I’d imagine it almost certain that unionists would boycott a Holyrood-only referendum. So I cannot be persuaded the First Minister will go down that route even if she could.

But might she have advice that implies this isn’t a risk she faces? If the advice says that she will lose in the Supreme Court, would that make it more likely for her to press ahead and trigger a court battle she knows she will lose? Is the calculation that this will buy her out of promises she has made her party that she can’t deliver? Or that it will create a constitutional crisis?

Possibly. It would be deeply cynical and I believe harmful for the cause of independence, but there is strong self-interest in doing so, and one must never, ever underestimate the power of self-interest in politics. Certainly the planning for independence looks little more than perfunctory to me and that implies that yes, whatever is happening, next year it is not expected to be a referendum campaign.

And from there? On this I am no longer able to offer a judgement. I’ve been told by loyal SNP members so many times that they are only buying the last excuse for reneging on a promise because they really, really believe the next one will be different. Does a Supreme Court defeat pacify them enough, give them a target other than their own leader about whom to rage it they are disappointed?

I suspect it is purely the loop politicians fall into after a lengthy period in office – get-through-the-day syndrome

I think that only seems possible if there is then a promise to turn the General Election into a plebiscite. But do I believe that that would be offered as a solid promise? Sorry, here again I’m sceptical. If we go to the polls in 2024 or 2025 and it looks like a single-issue campaign will cost the SNP seats it could win by keeping its head down, I have doubts that price would be paid.

So my guess is roughly that the dramatics will continue for another year with the intention being to postpone a likely defeat in the Supreme Court for as long as possible and buy more time. Then there will be something that sounds like a promise on a plebiscite election that on closer examination has generous loopholes built in.

One would imagine that there must be some point at which the remaining SNP activists have had enough, but I’ve been proved wrong on that on numerous occasions. This could potentially all be strung out for another three years, not done to achieve independence but to continually provide more political space.

In the end, I can’t see the other path. Had the SNP wanted to go for a plebiscite election it has had plenty of opportunities. Had it wanted to get a firm position on the legal position it could have done so. Were it interested in the business of preparing a prospectus it could easily have done that too. Were it serious about the ‘long process’ of persuading voters, that would have begun in some form.

Nothing-but-nothing I can see looks like a government or a party gearing up for the biggest fight of its life next year. Even if you squint really hard at what is going on, surely you too must struggle to see the signs you yourself would expect to see. Think of May 2013 which was as far from indyref as we are purportedly from indyref 2 today. Do you see the scale of the difference?

So what, in the end, do I think is going on? Unless I really have missed something (which is perfectly possible), I suspect it’s simple. I suspect it is purely the loop politicians fall into after a lengthy period in office – get-through-the-day syndrome. I’ve seen it first hand – say or do anything to get through today and we’ll worry about the consequences of what we’ve said another time. Then repeat.

I think SNP politicians have been telling us a referendum is just round the corner for so long now that they say it in a manner inseparable from if they actually believed it. They certainly don’t know Sturgeon’s strategy (as I write the news tells me she is still refusing to set out a timetable so I doubt she does either), so they may just believe her without question. But it could be even more cynical than that.

I can’t see any way there is a contested referendum next year so there won’t be a referendum next year. It feels like there will be another ruse to persuade supporters this isn’t a failure on the part of Sturgeon and she does like a bit of drama, so the Supreme Court crescendo designed to bring about the roars of loyalist fury looks like a good bet.

But that only works if she has another offer. Hence I imagine we’ll see words in the form of ‘well there are other elections at which we can demonstrate public anger over this’ – or something else which sounds like a promise but isn’t.

If I’m missing something, email me at the usual address. If not, we’re probably going to have to sit patiently through the rest of this charade and wait until there are just enough people in the SNP who have finally had enough to stop facilitating it.

And if I’m wrong? I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit it.

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