As you may have seen by now (although probably not in The Times itself, as I doubt if many of you cough up your Murdoch levy!), Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson hit a new low today with a bizarre article in which he claimed to be using 'method acting' to work himself into the mindset of an SNP supporter, and then declared himself hopelessly confused about how he should vote in the EU referendum - partly because he can't shake off the nagging doubt that the arguments for a Leave vote are very similar to the arguments for a Yes vote two years ago, and partly because he claims that he is being sent mixed signals by the party leadership about the outcome that would be more likely to hasten a second referendum on independence.
Hmmm. I think what this tells us more than anything is that a man whose motto is "Devo or Death" is probably never going to be much of an authority on how independence supporters think. (Which obviously helps put into perspective his endless optimistic tweets along the lines of "many Nats will privately agree with every word in this must-read piece by Euan McColm".) Just look around you, Kenny - social media is awash with SNP members/voters proudly using the party's "In" twibbon, and most of them aren't riven by doubt in any way at all. They understand perfectly well the difference between a union of independent nation states, and a union that extinguishes statehood altogether - even if that very simple concept seems mysteriously beyond the grasp of one of this country's leading anti-independence journalists. They also understand that to the extent Brexit might bring independence closer, that can only happen if there is a substantial vote for Remain in Scotland - meaning there is no contradiction between the SNP leadership's principled support for EU membership and any tactical calculations that are being made behind the scenes. It's simply not possible to campaign for two different outcomes simultaneously, so even if the leadership are secretly hoping for Brexit (and it's not at all clear to me that they are), they'll know full well that all they can do is campaign for as many Remain votes as possible in Scotland, and pray that doesn't tip the balance towards Remain in the UK as a whole.
However, I can maybe help Kenny out here, because even though his fictional SNP supporter is a rather silly figure who doesn't have any basis in reality, there are a minority of real-life SNP members/supporters out there who do feel somewhat ambivalent about this God-awful referendum - and I'm one of them. In spite of the fact that I've always been very pro-European and should be a natural Remainer, I haven't finally decided how to vote yet. So I'm ideally placed to set Kenny straight on where he's gone wrong in his creative endeavour.
Most importantly, although I'm undecided, I'm in no way confused. The arguments seem crystal-clear to me, it's just that they're fairly finely-balanced.
The elephant in the room is that Brexit would almost certainly lead to an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Many SNP supporters tend to roll their eyes to the heavens when this point is raised by the Leave campaign, because they reckon it's obvious that the likes of Tom Harris don't give a monkey's about Scottish self-government. And that's absolutely true, but it doesn't mean that the actual point is in any way bogus. Many of the policy areas that are supposedly devolved to the Scottish Parliament are in fact only devolved in a very nominal sense, because they are largely or wholly competences of the European Union. The Sewel convention prevents Westminster from legislating on devolved matters, but entirely the opposite principle applies in respect of Brussels - EU law is always supreme, no matter how completely it encroaches on the Scottish Parliament's powers. One obvious example is fisheries, where the Scottish Government's role is basically to implement EU rules. So if Britain was to withdraw from the EU, at a stroke we'd find that theoretical devolved powers would become actual devolved powers.
Now, in the majority of cases (fisheries is an exception), I and other SNP supporters would tend to think that the EU's curtailment of the powers of national and sub-state parliaments is entirely appropriate - these are policy areas that on the whole are best dealt with at a continent-wide level. But here's the thing - if we're serious about wanting a much more powerful Scottish Parliament, there's an argument that beggars can't be choosers. Trying to get the most appropriate powers repatriated from London is like trying to get blood out of a stone, so there's an obvious attraction to getting a different package of powers repatriated from Brussels instead. That would be an equally effective way of building Holyrood's prestige and demonstrating to the public that if we as a country can cope with such an enormous level of self-government, the final jump to independence is really quite a small one.
In my view, that's the single most compelling argument for a Leave vote from a Scottish pro-independence point of view. A much more dubious argument (but one that isn't totally without merit) can be summed up in the following dread phrase : "tactical voting". In spite of Kenny Farquharson's incomprehensible inability to grasp that Brexit can only be a trigger for Indyref 2 if Scotland votes Remain, is there still some way that "tactically" voting Leave could bring a referendum closer? Well, possibly. Although it's not possible for the SNP as a party to campaign for two different outcomes simultaneously, it's open to us as individuals to take a more nuanced view if we want to. Suppose the polling averages in ten days' time look something like this...
In that scenario (which is actually pretty plausible based on what we're seeing now), the risk of Scotland not voting Remain will look extremely remote, but the UK result will be on a knife-edge. If we genuinely want to see a UK Leave coupled with a Scottish Remain, it would be entirely logical to 'lend' votes to Leave in the hope of tipping the balance across the UK. The problem is not that tactical voting isn't viable (in contrast to the Holyrood election, there aren't too many variables and it should be fairly straightforward), but rather that we should be very careful what we wish for. If we help to bring about Brexit in this rather frivolous way, it may well trigger an independence referendum - but it won't necessarily lead to independence. If it doesn't, we won't have an independent Scotland within Europe, we'll instead have the nightmare outcome of a dependent Scotland within the UK but outside the EU - completely the opposite of what the tactical vote was supposed to achieve. It could mean losing our rights as EU citizens to live and work in any other EU country - not necessarily, because EEA citizens have exactly the same rights, but the trajectory of this campaign doesn't fill me with any great confidence that we'd be staying in the EEA after a Leave vote. We could lose the much-needed flow of immigration from other EU countries that enriches our society and economy. We might well suffer all sorts of other reverses on employment rights, and even the most basic human rights. Yes, we'd have a significantly more powerful Scottish Parliament to sweeten the pill, but would that make it all worthwhile?
I don't know. Probably not. But I can't completely shake off the thought that a Leave vote could be a rational 'each-way bet' - ie. it might well lead to independence for one reason or another, but if it doesn't there would at least be partial compensations. I'm going to think some more about that over the next fortnight. (And then probably cop out, vote Remain, and feel a lot better for it!)