I've just voted for Stewart Hosie in the SNP deputy leader election. I know that won't come as any great surprise to regular readers, because I explained my thinking at the end of last month. However, that was before Angela Constance's late entry into the race, which has given me severe pause for thought. Her passionate pledge to ensure that the SNP never takes its eyes off the goal of an independent Scotland, and to put the party in a permanent state of readiness for the next opportunity whenever it comes, is I'm sure what all of us want to hear. However, I think at moments like this we really have to put our faith in the basic nature of the SNP as a pro-independence party. As Winnie Ewing memorably said : "We are all fundamentalists." Each and every one of us is committed to full sovereign independence - the only disagreement is on the most effective tactics for getting us to the goal. And no-one has a monopoly of wisdom on that score. In many ways it comes down to gut instinct about what would be most likely to work.
My own gut instinct is that Stewart Hosie and Angela Constance are absolutely right to back the idea of a "Yes Alliance" at next year's general election (Keith Brown seems much less keen). However, I'm more impressed by the clarity of Hosie's vision for that alliance, which is to push relentlessly for the devolution of all powers other than foreign affairs and defence. If that's the path we follow, it will put the SNP in the unique position of being the only major party that has made its peace with the referendum result, and has declared itself as being on the side of the popular will as expressed on September 18th. Because that popular will was for Devo Max. Not for full independence (yet), but most certainly not for Labour's Devo Nano either, or for the Tories' Devo Bit More, or even for the Lib Dems' Federalism Lite. Imagine the moral authority of a nationalist party that is the only authentic voice for a large chunk of No voters who want a devolution settlement that goes way beyond what the anti-independence parties are prepared to offer. I gather J K Rowling said that she would vote No and then back any party that offered Devo Max - well, if the Hosie vision carries the day, we'll all be holding our breath for the inevitable £1 million donation winging its way to the SNP from Hogwarts. (Apologies if that joke doesn't entirely make sense - as you've probably gathered, I'm not a Harry Potter fan.)
None of this means that we lose sight of the goal of independence - far from it. Making a success of the current weak devolution model paved the way for a 45% Yes vote. Achieving Devo Max and then making a success of it (thus comprehensively destroying almost all of the scare stories about independence) could pave the way for a comfortable victory in a second referendum. Alternatively, if the mandate for Devo Max becomes stronger and stronger with every passing election but without any sign of Westminster acting upon it, that in itself will bring independence closer, because it will demonstrate to the electorate that the United Kingdom is utterly incapable of accommodating our legitimate aspirations for domestic self-rule.
There are two other advantages to Hosie being the deputy leader. The first is that he is, in my view, the most charismatic of the three candidates, and also the most effective debater. Above all else, the deputy leader is one of the party's key spokespeople - we've become used to the position being held by the most charismatic person in the party other than the leader, and I think we should probably aim to continue in that vein. In the literal sense that means Alex Salmond should be the deputy leader, but obviously he's excluded from the equation because he'll now be the SNP's equivalent of George Foulkes as a "senior" all-purpose media go-to man. (I know in one sense that does the First Minister the biggest disservice in history, but I'm also sure you know what I mean!)
The second advantage is that Hosie is a Westminster MP. The dream scenario next May is that the SNP will hold the balance of power with 15, 20 or even 30 seats, and will be able to negotiate a deal with Labour that would simultaneously get the Tories out and deliver Devo Max (or at the very least something much closer to Devo Max than is currently being contemplated in London). We would need a lot of luck for the cards to fall in exactly the right way, but it's not inconceivable. If it did happen, it would be ideal to have Hosie in Westminster speaking with the full authority of the deputy leadership position. And don't completely rule out the possibility of Angus Robertson as Deputy Prime Minister of the UK in a Labour/SNP coalition with Stewart Hosie as Scottish Secretary (or vice versa). I know most people in the SNP would at the moment dismiss that idea as utterly fanciful, but if it came to the crunch and there was an opportunity to deliver Devo Max, who would you trust to deliver it more than an SNP government minister?
To return to the proposal for a Yes Alliance, you might be wondering if there are any risks attached to it. There are indeed, and probably the best recent example of how an electoral pact (albeit an extremely informal one) can spectacularly backfire came in 2003. The SSP, back in the pre-split days when it was still led by Tommy Sheridan, decided not to stand candidates against Labour incumbents who were viewed as genuine socialists. But it had the opposite effect to the one intended, because the swing from Labour to SNP was actually bigger where the SSP didn't stand. It turned out that natural SSP voters were people who would otherwise gravitate towards the SNP, and not towards Labour. Most notably, this led to John McAllion losing his Dundee East seat to Shona Robison.
So there are things that can go wrong, but in my view it's definitely worth the risk. It's misguided to look at the SNP's current strength in the opinion polls and think that all we need to do is more of the same. If the rigged TV leaders' debates are allowed to go ahead as currently proposed, the lead could disappear in a puff of smoke overnight. We really need to think out of the box if we're going to do what we've never done before (with one partial exception in 1974) - make a telling breakthrough on "away soil".
For all those reasons, it's Stewart Hosie for me. But I was sufficiently impressed by Angela Constance's pitch to give her my second preference vote.