As you may have seen, Pete Wishart has an opinion piece in today's issue of The National which effectively functions as his preliminary manifesto for the SNP depute leadership election. The central thrust is a thinly-coded call for the party to allow its hard-won mandate for a second independence referendum to expire, and to instead try its luck at some unspecified point after 2021. You won't be surprised to hear that I disagree with that entirely, which means that in spite of my huge regard for Pete Wishart, I'm almost certainly going to end up voting for someone else in the depute election. Time will tell whether that'll be James Dornan or someone who has yet to throw his or her hat into the ring.
In fairness, Pete does half-heartedly leave open the possibility of supporting a referendum before 2021, but only if victory is "certain", which is an absurd threshold that is quite simply not going to be met. Perhaps more pertinently, it's not going to be met after 2021 either. We could wait twenty, thirty, forty years, but the fundamental point will not change - independence would be a rupture to the status quo, which means there will always be a considerable percentage of the population who fear it and instinctively oppose it. The idea that gradual demographic changes or the long-term failures of Brexit are going to deliver us victory before we even fire the starting-gun is in the realms of fantasy. Whenever the referendum happens, we'll go into the campaign uncertain of the outcome, and requiring a massive effort to emerge victorious.
Pete is correct in one limited respect - there is no guarantee that the big net swing to Yes during the 2014 campaign will be repeated next time. The first independence referendum in Quebec in 1980 saw a substantial swing to No over the course of the campaign, while the second in 1995 saw a substantial swing to Yes. It could very easily go either way, which means that all that can be said about the mid-40s showings for Yes in Scottish polls at the moment is that it leaves us within plausible striking distance of victory. But the actual winning and losing will be done during the campaign, and that will be the case regardless of timing. If we wait for certainty, we wait forever. I'm not a big football fan, but I've heard it said of some football teams that they try to score the perfect goal and never actually shoot. That's the first huge danger of Pete's strategy.
The second huge danger is that excessive patience may mean that we won't even be able to shoot for goal if we ever finally decide the timing is somehow 'optimal'. It shouldn't be forgotten just how difficult it is to win a pro-independence majority in a Holyrood election fought under the Additional Member voting system. Can you imagine the frustration if the SNP poll strongly in successive elections, but repeatedly fall just one, two or three seats short of a pro-indy majority, and consequently a referendum remains tantalisingly just out of reach for a couple of decades or more? After the narrow defeat for Yes in the 1995 Quebec referendum, it was assumed it was only a matter of time before a third referendum would be called. The sovereigntists duly won an overall majority in the 1998 election, but backed off from using that mandate - and as a result a referendum simply hasn't been possible for the last twenty years, because they haven't won a majority since. They've been in power as a minority for a while during that period, but have never had the arithmetic to call a referendum. I don't want the same fate to befall us.
Pete says the only question that matters is whether we win the next indyref. But there's an even more important question that has to be placed before that - namely, "will we have the capacity to actually call an indyref?" We know one thing for virtually certain - we'll have the arithmetic to call a referendum until May 2021. We don't have a clue whether that will still be true at any point after May 2021. Our window of opportunity is in this current parliament, and it would be a historic error to turn away from it.