Please forgive me if I am writing too much about referendums and plebiscites. Full disclosure; I have never been quite so bewildered in my professional life and I’m thinking out loud. I have been wandering round and round the latest version of the SNP’s ‘route map to independence’ and I bumped into the Minotaur. The poor beastie was utterly lost.
I want to reiterate that I am approaching the situation we are in by taking at face value that there is a credible route to independence that has emerged from recent developments and that there is an intention to follow it. Most of me demurs from this view, but until it is clear it is no longer possible I will try constructively to see if this can be made to work.
The problem is not that I can’t see how it could work, its just that what I think it would take is so alien to the way the SNP operates of late that I can’t see it happening. Which means I’m desperately trying to work out how the SNP leadership thinks it’s going to work. What, roughly, is their plan?
What brought us here is clear enough. As I’ve been predicting for ages, the broad plan was ‘wait as long as possible, introduce a Referendum Bill and ride the nine months of procedural drama until it passes, gets referred to the Supreme Court and probably gets rejected’. If they did win the case, then some kind of referendum would be put together. If they didn’t then there would be some formulation of ‘super-mandate’ which would demand SNP vote-maximisation at a General Election.
The spanner in the works (how they didn’t see this coming I can’t explain) was that the Lord Advocate had to approve the Bill as probably legal before it could be cleared to be introduced. When she didn’t I can only assume there was a blind panic because it left the SNP leadership virtually empty handed.
I can only assume that the First Minister basically begged the Lord Advocate to refer it to the Supreme Court pre-emptively to keep the whole plan (theoretically) alive for a bit longer. Sensing this wasn’t enough and with a tricky party conference looming, the last card in their hand (I suspect) was played – plebiscite election.
I’m almost certain that’s what actually happened. But even when politicians do things our of panic or expediency they generally have at least some sense in their head of how those things can play out successfully. That’s the bit I’m searching for, an explanation of how they think this will work.
Throughout my search I have always maintained the possibility that they simply haven’t thought it through at all – you’d be surprised how much of politics is someone under pressure saying anything they need to to get through the day and then trying to work out what it actually means tomorrow.
But that’s only one possibility. What are the others? I don’t think that they really believe that they’re going to win the court case given that the Lord Advocate (who must make the Government’s case) clearly isn’t pretending all that hard that she is convinced in her own case. The desperate and dangerous wading into this case of the SNP as a political party should very deeply concern an independence supporter (Roddy Dunlop’s take on this is important).
In fact to understand where we are I strongly recommend you read Tom Gordon’s analysis which appears sound to me. The Supreme Court is more Hail Mary than confident gambit. And it is very likely to fail.
I can only assume that the First Minister basically begged the Lord Advocate to refer it to the Supreme Court pre-emptively to keep the whole plan theoretically alive for a bit longer
But what if it doesn’t? Where does that path lead? The one place I think we can discount is a rerun of 2014, because the other side will almost certainly refuse to take part. I’ve explained how hard it is to make that work and the conclusion is that we need to be really clever in how we fight it and basically need to get two million people to vote Yes. That is hard. Really hard.
Would the Scottish Government trigger an uncontested referendum? It would leave the whole campaign and everyone involved deeply exposed and it would effectively become a battle of turnout, something neither the SNP nor the independence movement is currently geared up to deliver.
Let me expand on that a bit. The vast majority of local Yes groups are held together by a handful of people. As we stand that’s not a get-out-the-vote army. I know of someone who has calculated an estimated current membership of the SNP based on published membership revenues and it is closer to 40,000 than 50,000.
That may not be accurate, but what is definitely true is that of the thousands the SNP lost to Alba, many were old hands, the people who have done the SNP’s street organising for decades. The SNP may have swapped its once-extensive street team for a Twitter army, and Twitter armies don’t turn out hard-to-reach voters. Plus there is no Radical Independence Campaign with a structure to do the turnout job in poorer parts of the country that the SNP traditionally doesn’t come close to maximising. That was essential in 2014
So I’m not confident there is anything like enough infrastructure in place to fight a campaign predicated on high turnout. Of course there is a year (or more) to build that up. But it’s a very big task which has not begun.
Let’s then assume the vastly more likely scenario that the Bill is deemed not legally competent and so as of October this year the movement is forced to awake from its referendum dreams; what then? The biggest immediate problem is control – because at this point the pro-indy side has lost control of the timing.
I have struggled greatly with the rank and file of the independence movement and their insistence that ‘it’ll all be fine once we get a referendum’. The argument is that only then can we start a campaign. This is a profound misunderstanding, because campaigns never end until they are finally won or lost.
We have been in the middle of a campaign for a decade – we just chose not to fight it for eight years of the decade. The other side didn’t stop, and the conviction that it was inevitable that we’d spring into gear and add another ten per cent to our vote just by holding a referendum was one of the biggest flaws in the progress to independence.
But we must now work on the assumption that there will be no referendum, and so no referendum campaign. What then? Remember, General Elections are called with no notice and from the moment one is set, the whole thing is over in not usually more than eight weeks. Unless it is held at the very last possible moment, we will have no idea when that is.
So what’s the plan? I think an October General Election is highly unlikely but nothing is now impossible in terms of timing. Whenever it is it is incredibly difficult to mount a civic, non-party campaign in a General Election. Never mind the strict rules about non-party participants, never mind the fact that civic organisations don’t get media time in general elections (and no TV because it is impossible to ‘balance’) – civic campaigns don’t fit a six-week schedule.
That the pitch is to give this particular Scottish Government unlimited power is quite crazy (it doesn’t even say ‘put power into the hands of future Scottish Governments’)
There will be no flurry of public meetings, little time for a string of individual campaigns to be run, very limited capacity to do any of the things we did in 2013/14. So this becomes a campaign largely without a movement. Which is to say it becomes a General Election.
In any case the SNP leadership has been quite open (in private) about trying to sideline the non-party independence movement and bring all independence campaigning fully in-house. That is what Yes.scot was set up for.
So we become wholly reliant on the SNP, or the SNP and any other pro-indy parties that choose to stand. That being the case the theory appears to be that it is feasible to do fuck all about independence for eight years and then win it in six weeks – without advance notice of when those six weeks are going to be.
Which means unless the SNP has gone mad, we’re already into the phase where it should be rapidly shifting opinion. We have three pieces of evidence of what the SNP thinks that means – two Scottish Government papers and a Yes.scot leaflet. The first two of these were met with a universal yawn. Seriously, they are very poor.
And as for the Yes.scot leaflet? If you’ve not seen it it is dominated by a big picture of Nicola Sturgeon on the front, a dull summary of the first crap paper from the Scottish Government inside and the pay off line: “that is why we need to place all the levers of change in the hands of the Scottish Government at Holyrood”.
As a professional strategist that is beyond belief. Any voter who is turned on by a picture of Nicola Sturgeon is already on board; most voters who we need to win over are hardly Sturgeon fans. And the Scottish Government is universally recognised as being a long way from good. That the pitch is to give this particular Scottish Government unlimited power is quite crazy (it doesn’t even say ‘put power into the hands of future Scottish Governments’).
Let me be really clear; 12 or 18 months of this will do way more harm than good. The civil servants involved in preparing the indy papers are complaining that they aren’t getting any real guidance on what is to be in them. The leadership of this process is absent and that’s why they’re so vacuous. Our whole case is resting on them (at least in this theory about ‘the plan’).
But I fear that the leaflet may give the game away. My reading of it is that this isn’t really a relaunch of an indy campaign but more like a relaunch of Brand Nicola. The text about giving the Scottish Government all the power suggests to me that the audience of this relaunch isn’t the public.
(If you’re not immediately getting why that pay-off line is so bad then it’s worth just getting yourself up to speed with the world of current professional campaign theory and current attitudes to political insiders. Basically trading on being the current political establishment and presenting things through a party-political lens does way more damage than good.)
Do they think that they can win independence over the top of an uninspired public by instead trading on Nicola Sturgeon’s personal profile? Don’t think too much about currency or borders, here’s the woman that saved you from Covid? That is what it looks like so far, and of course that has really been the only strategy the SNP has pursued in nearly a decade but it probably won’t work here.
And then there is the ‘it’s votes cast’ versus ‘it’s seats won’ conflict in terms of setting out the criteria for success in a ‘plebiscite election’. Let’s not beat about the bush here; the former could propel Scotland towards independence but only at the cost of the self-interest of the SNP. The latter is just another mandate which will clear no log jams but entrenches SNP power.
Which is it to be? And when will we really find out? That is, for me, the crux of this. It is the indicator for me of what parts of the preceding analysis seems to be accurate. Is this ‘exceptionally brave’ or is it ‘utterly cynical’?
A labyrinth has been constructed, big solid walls to make it look substantial, intricate and confusing as it winds its way round massive obstructions
But here is why I’m so bewildered – every exit I can find leads back into the maze (for the SNP leadership). Win in the Supreme Court and Sturgeon will find it hard not to get drawn into an ugly uncontested referendum, one she has gone to great lengths to reject in the past.
Lose the Supreme Court and there will be a surge of dismay and undoubtedly more people will move away from giving the benefit of the doubt. It is pretty clear that few things seem to play more on the minds of the SNP leadership than the fear of losing more support to Alba (they seem to see the threat as much bigger than most onlookers do).
In usual circumstances I believe the First Minister’s response to this would be to back away from the ‘plebiscite election’ (a potential exit), but fear of losing the confidence of her base seems to block that exit. So she’ll have to plough on.
Which leaves a plebiscite election to fight. That being the case an exit could be to fudge it and just be half-in, half-out – ‘when I said plebiscite I meant return the maximum number of SNP politicians but with a bigger mandate this time’. However that is an exit to a precipice – stripped of control of the timetable no-one has any idea how that will go or how well it will go down with indy supporters.
And that’s the better exit – another strong SNP showing in a General Election leaving them with an unpersuasive case that they’ve shifted the dial by doing almost exactly the same thing again. The worse exit is that the SNP doesn’t hit over 50 per cent of the vote share. That is beyond a disaster for the cause of independence. That would surely turn out to be Nicola Sturgeon’s last gamble, one she lost.
And remember, at this stage in their career absolutely every politician is looking to their ‘legacy’, their place in history (and for Sturgeon her place in the story of the fight for Scottish independence). Tom Gordon is right that it rather looks like she is destined to arrive empty-handed and leave empty-handed. In terms of legacy and history, that is beyond perilous.
Which leaves me with four possible interpretations of what is going on. One is that I’ve missed something important (always a possibility, so as always email me anything you think I should have considered). The second is that the SNP leadership has a quite different set of interpretations about all the above – that they believe the opposition will actually fight a no-Section 30 referendum, that they think the Scottish Government indy papers are good, that they are confident Sturgeon’s personal appeal is still strong enough.
Interpretation three is that all of the above is moot because Sturgeon will engineer an exit-exit, that she will leave before any of this happens. I think she has made that incredibly difficult for herself now (it’ll look like running away at this stage) so my assumption is that we can rule that out.
And interpretation four is that this was a purely cynical move to get through a potentially fractious party conference which they have been desperately trying to avoid for two years now – and beyond that they’re making it up as they go along. But that is massively dangerous with endless scope to backfire.
And that’s me back to the start again. A labyrinth has been constructed, big solid walls to make it look substantial, intricate and confusing as it winds its way round massive obstructions. Wandering around that labyrinth you will find lots of exit signs, but when you follow them they lead you back into its depths. There was never going to be an easy way out, but those who built it and locked us all into it ought to have a credible way out, and I’ve not really found it yet.
I’ve been speaking to lots and lots of people about this, read anything I can find on it. Everyone I’ve met or read who has thought carefully about this issue is as confused as me. But confusion doesn’t win campaigns. Nor does bad planning, or making it up as you go along, or refusing to see what might go wrong, or crossing your fingers.
So where are we? God knows.