As you may have seen, Derek Bateman commented yesterday on my post about his views on the timing of a possible second independence referendum. I won't try your patience with a full dissertation by way of a response, but there are a few points that I'd particularly like to pick up on.
Firstly, very loud alarm bells started ringing in my mind when I saw Derek's suggestion that demographics are working in favour of the independence movement. That's a slightly softer version of the refrain we often hear in the comments section of this blog that "more No voters die every day", and that the main thing we have to do is wait for the slow passage of time to weave its inevitable effect. I don't think that's so much a complacent view as just entirely misconceived. If you trawl through the archives of Scotland on Sunday from fifteen or so years ago, you'll find a headline story about a poll of teenagers showing that people who hadn't reached voting age yet were strongly in support of independence. SoS concluded (somewhat provocatively) that the SNP were entitled to take the same view as Sinn Fein : "Our day will come." All they had to do was be patient, wait for a generation to pass, and independence would fall into their laps. In fact, a generation did pass, those teenagers became voters, and yet by 2012 the independence movement had a larger deficit in the polls than for many years. It took a referendum campaign to turn that around, not a further dose of patience.
As I alluded to in my post the other day, there were a number of polls in 2005/6 (including one from YouGov) showing a lead for independence. Indeed, there was a famous poll in the run-up to the 1992 election giving 50% support for independence, even though a three-option question had been asked. It's very difficult to track down datasets for old polls, but if we could, it's highly likely we'd discover that the strongest support for independence was among the younger age groups, just as it is now. So the believers in demographic inevitability could easily have said in 1992 or 2005 : "Aha! All we have to do is wait for ten or twenty years, and Yes will be completely out of sight." If anyone did say that, they must have been scratching their heads slightly at the state of play in 2012 and 2013.
The flaw in this whole line of thinking is, of course, that the independence movement does not "own" people who say they support independence at any given moment in time. The biggest changes in public opinion are not caused by older voters dying or by younger people becoming old enough to vote, but simply by people changing their minds - and that can happen in either direction. The idealistic teenagers of 1999 are today's working-age adults with bills to pay and a different set of priorities. The bullish fifty-somethings of September 2014 will be the pensioners of 2029, and may well develop the same fears as their forerunners. Demographic shifts are not our enemy, but they're not our friend either - they shouldn't affect our thinking on the timing of a second referendum. Whether that vote is held in five years' time or thirty years' time, it will have to be won through hard persuasion. There are no short cuts.
The second assertion of Derek's that I want to take issue with is that a second referendum defeat would be "the end". What does that mean? Does it mean the end for a generation? If so, I'm struggling to understand how we'd be in a worse position, because we're effectively being asked to put off holding a referendum for a generation in order to avoid...er, killing the issue for a generation. Why is the generational wait less bad if it's self-imposed?
Of course, Derek could mean that a second defeat would be the end for all-time. If so, I just think that's wrong. Twenty or twenty-five years is an eternity in politics, and voters won't be impressed by the idea that they can or should be bound by something that happened such a long time ago. You only have to look at the arguments that were put in favour of the in/out EU referendum : nobody under the age of X has ever had a say, and nobody could have foreseen in 1975 what Europe would look like today. Very similar arguments will apply in respect of the independence question once enough time has elapsed, irrespective of whether there has been two previous referendums or only one. And if you want to be reassured that there's no supernatural law preventing a country holding a third (or even fourth) independence referendum, I'd point you in the direction of Puerto Rico.
Thirdly, Derek has reiterated (and indeed amplified) his point that it's an insult to all Scots who voted in the referendum last year to be even talking about the possibility of another referendum so soon. I must say I struggle with that line of argument. The way that the Labour party show respect for the democratic process is by accepting that the Conservatives are the legitimate government at present, and that there can be no change of government until there is another general election. They don't do it by saying that there shouldn't be another general election, or that the next election should be postponed indefinitely, or that they won't put up candidates in the election. By the same token, we show our respect for the people's verdict in the referendum by accepting that we are part of the United Kingdom at present, and that we won't and shouldn't cease to be a part of the UK unless the electorate freely decide to reverse their decision. That would be a two-stage process - firstly, they would give a parliamentary majority to a party or parties with a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and secondly they would vote Yes in that referendum. If either or both of those things never happen, last year's result remains in force indefinitely and we remain part of the UK. Our respect for democracy is total and impeccable because we accept that. We aren't going to declare UDI. The more interesting question is how respect for democracy can be reconciled with the view that the Scottish people should be denied a referendum even if they vote for one.
Derek's objection seems to be that a referendum would just be one manifesto commitment out of many, and that the mandate for it wouldn't be clear or binding. That's fine as a debating point, but it falls apart when you think about it in a real-world context. If the SNP have any mention of a referendum in a future manifesto, the opposition parties will ensure that it completely dominates the election campaign. For heaven's sake, they ensured that it dominated the 2015 general election campaign even though the SNP manifesto DIDN'T propose a referendum! So there's not much danger of a mandate for a referendum being won by accident.
The broader point I would make about the need to respect the voters' verdict is that Derek seems to view the referendum outcome as totally self-contained, whereas I think most of us now see it as merely the first act in a two-act drama. It was said more than once in the days after the referendum that something truly extraordinary would have to happen for an early second opportunity to come around, but the fact is that something truly extraordinary has indeed happened - the SNP won all but three Scottish seats at the general election, and pro-independence parties won an absolute majority of the votes cast. OK, that isn't sufficient in itself to trigger a referendum, but the idea that it changes absolutely nothing is, I think, quite difficult to sustain. David Cameron sought a No vote on the basis that all options for further devolution were on the table and all were possible. The Scottish people took him at his word by voting No and then using the general election to express their wish for maximum devolution to be granted. Cameron has cheerfully ignored the second part of that mandate, and indeed has retrospectively redefined the No vote as precluding the possibility of maximum devolution. That cynical sleight of hand has not gone unnoticed, and I would suggest the average voter would not find it unreasonable that the prospect of a second referendum has been brought at least somewhat closer as a result. I also think most voters will have been nodding along when Sally Magnusson put it to Jim Murphy that, irrespective of what the SNP themselves said, it was just a statement of common sense that an SNP landslide was bound to reopen the question of independence.
Paul Kavanagh has said that the correct time to hold a referendum is when we're going to win. I almost agree with that, but with a slight modification : the correct time to hold a referendum is when we have a better chance of winning than we will at any future time. If the chances of winning in 2019 are 40%, but we have good reason for thinking they would rise to 70% by 2027, the right thing to do is wait. But if we think a 40% probability is likely to prove our high watermark, it's absolutely rational to go early even though the odds would be slightly against us. Derek thinks it would look "desperate" to push ahead because of a fear that the political seasons will change. I'd call it realism. I'm not sure whether it would have looked desperate for James Callaghan to call an early election in 1978, but there can't be many people on the Left who don't think that would have been a price worth paying for averting Thatcherism. It also seems highly probable that the Yes vote in the first devolution referendum would have been higher if the ballot hadn't taken place just after the winter of discontent in 1979. Seasons do change, unfortunately. It really shouldn't be a controversial point to say that the time to make the next push for independence is when the SNP are still in the ascendancy, not when they're in a long spell of opposition and Nicola Sturgeon has been long since replaced by a less popular successor.
Of course, it's impossible to know for sure whether your stock is going to rise or fall in the near future - it just comes down to instinct, or educated guesswork at best. But there are no consolation prizes for getting the timing wrong because of over-caution rather than rashness. If you succeed in arguing for a twenty year delay, and if at the end of that period First Minister Dugdale (or whoever) is at 50% in the polls and independence has reverted to being a pipe-dream, I'm coming looking for you. I don't have your address, but Maryhill isn't that big.