Time is already running out…

by | 13 Jul 2022

The more you look at the new 'indyref plan' the more it becomes clear that it is a fixer-upper. That is very worrying, because the time to fix it up is very limited.

Let me offer you a thought experiment. In 18 months there is a General Election. The SNP confirms that it will seek to turn that election into a ‘plebiscite’ and runs the campaign as a party event (with Greens and Alba doing their own thing). This is the question; if between them they do not achieve 50 per cent of the votes plus one at that election, do you accept we lost and the independence question is therefore settled for ‘another generation’?

I have been back at my desk for a few days now post-holiday and so I’ve been able to absorb a little bit more about where things are. I’m afraid that nothing I’m seeing just now makes me feel any more confident; the balance between my hopes and my misgivings is moving the wrong way.

Let me reiterate, if the SNP is sticking hard and fast to its new strategy then we will have no option but to try and make it work. It will be hard to make it work – but not impossible. But right now I amn’t confident that it is truly committed to this path because so little work has been done on what it means.

I set out the basics of the problems earlier in the week. Some of those, like the sheer difficulty of managing to keep a General Election as a single issue election, are as they were. But my sense of some of the other problems have grown.

At the heart of this is that I simply amn’t properly convinced any of this was announced primarily as a strategy to get to independence rather than to deal with internal party matters. If it was it would have been, well, properly strategised.

Think about the usual message discipline in the SNP. Now persuade me that, if this was all properly thought through, tested and complied into a strategic document which covered all of these points, it was just an oversight that no-one gave that document to the Deputy First Minister prior to a major media appearance.

Which must mean there isn’t a proper core briefing document (I don’t believe that John Swinney would have failed to read one if he was given it). That almost certainly means that the many, many difficult questions raised by the announcement have not yet been properly worked through. Which means that no-one knows for sure if the problems can definitely be overcome.

At the top of these is a really cruical one – you cannot claim that you are standing on a single issue but then subsequently say that you also got a mandate to serve constituents. I don’t think this is really filtering through yet. A plebiscite election is a single-issue election based on a proposition, not a candidate.

If the SNP starts saying to voters ‘you can either vote for independence or you can vote for an SNP candidate to represent you for five years, take your pick’, no-one will recognise it as a plebiscite election. That’s because it won’t be, it’ll be a normal election.

So has this all been discussed and resolved? Does the SNP’s Westminster Group realise that the First Minister just asked them all to give up their jobs? Or, if they’re not being asked to give up their jobs, does the wider movement understand that this isn’t really a plebiscite election at all but a request for yet another SNP mandate?

De facto means ‘in practice, in reality on the ground’. Referendums aren’t constituency-based first past the post events, they are binary absolute majority events. So if the election is run as a first past the post constituency affair, it isn’t a de facto referendum.

That almost certainly means that the many, many difficult questions raised by the announcement have not yet been properly worked through

There are so, so many holes in this proposal as it stands. I think most can be resolved if there is a will to do so, but so far I can see insufficient evidence of that will.

Another worry that makes me think this is currently poorly prepared is the franchise issue. To choose a UK General Election is to choose the UK electoral franchise. That means no 16- or 17-year-olds and no EU citizens. I asked Craig Dalzell to do me a quick assessment of how many votes that would currently cost us.

If you take the current voting intentions of the demographic groups that are included in the Scottish franchise but not the UK franchise and you pro-rata them up to the total population share (these numbers only include people who said they were ‘likely to vote’ so turnout issues are already covered), then you find that the No side would lose 220,000 votes and the Yes side 340,000.

So that is a net loss to the Yes side of 120,000 votes. To put that into perspective which should concern you, that’s a full 7.5 per cent of the 2014 Yes vote. Am I convinced that that was factored into the decision-making process? No, not really.

But it is possible to repair all of that – it is possible to work out solutions, at least in theory. What can’t be easily fixed is the timing, and that is causing me equal degrees of concern right now. It is based on a series of conversations I’ve had with ‘civilians’ since I got back.

I’m thinking of five of them in particular – conversations with people from a wide demographic range, very different economic and age profiles, all independence supporters but none of them activists. I’m finding a pattern to these conversations; it is confusion that in some cases drifted towards hostility.

No-one (from a guy who works on a building site to a young woman with a degree in politics) knew what a ‘plebiscite election’ was. The concept was unfamiliar to them. None of them could untangle the three things they were aware of being announced sufficiently to make sense of them. They know there is a referendum bill for a referendum next year – or not.

They also know there is some legal case at the Supreme Court but they don’t understand it properly or how it is linked to a referendum bill that hasn’t been introduced into parliament. And since they don’t understand a ‘plebiscite election’ and they’re still being told there will be a referendum, they have no idea what it all means.

In the book Determination and the policy paper Within Our Grasp I repeatedly asserted that, in the absence of a consensual process agreed with Westminster, the cause of independence would have to ‘earn’ every escalation. If you step up a gear the public will either think it feels reasonable or unreasonable, and if they find it unreasonable it means you haven’t earned the escalation.

Every one of the people I talked to (barring possibly one) wants Scottish independence asap but they also feel that there should be a sense of justice in the progression of public affairs. That they seem almost to be as annoyed with us as with the No side over this move is a strong indication that they don’t ‘sense that we’ve ‘earned’ this escalation.

The time we ideally need to work out whether this is viable and can be made to work is much less than the time available to us

Make no mistake; neither do I. I have said over and over that we still lack many of the foundations I’d want to seen in place at the outset of a strong campaign. I think that moaning about having a mandate the other side won’t recognise is insufficient to enable such a sharp escalation.

Voters haven’t been brought along this path with us; we’ve run off way ahead of them. The route hasn’t been properly signposted in advance and we’ve done too little to trigger a constitutional crisis. I think everyone can sense that the route we’re travelling is following the line of political expediency rather than moving along a path that has opened up in public sentiment.

We’re going to have to chose soon. Either we have a united, all-movement strategy for going forward from here that makes sense or we’ll fiddle away more time until we discovered it’s too late to make a decent fist of whatever it is that lies ahead.

I fear that writing this is as futile as every other time I’ve called for a united, all-movement approach – but the consequences of a fragmented campaign will be worse this time and the choreography to make it work is harder to pull off. We can’t paint ourselves further into a corner, we can’t afford any more sense that we’re not properly on top of this.

If we have any chance of helping the public to catch us up and understand properly what is going on we need clear messages about the process and why we’re taking this route to be in place very soon because we are going to have to repeat them many times to break through. And we need to get to a place where people clearly understand what is expected of them or the sense of chaos will continue.

And that’s only to catch up to where we were – we then still need to deal with currency, borders and finances and to inspire people to turn out.

Whatever you think of all of this, it is no longer a shadow war; our hand has been revealed. If we’re to begin the charge then very soon indeed we all need to understand unequivocally what that means and how it’s going to work. And if this is all going to fizzle out or revert back to ‘one more mandate’ or be dropped altogether, we need to know that very soon too or we’ll just look silly.

To return to my opening thought experiment, right now none of this feels like it is happening with my consent and it is not at all what I’d have done. So do I personally feel that after a six week campaign of the SNP, the Greens and Alba knocking lumps out of each other and collectively scoring 49 per cent of the vote I’d resign myself to ‘fair fight but we lost so that’s it for another generation’?

No, I wouldn’t. Would you? It tells me that I’m not yet psychologically bought into this plan. Are you? We don’t have many escalations left in us. The time we ideally need to work out whether this is viable and can be made to work is much less than the time available to us so getting a shift on is essential and if it happens behind locked doors we have trouble.

At the heart of this is one simple truth – with each escalation, the consequences of failure get bigger. And we’ve escalated, so we simply cannot afford to fail.

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