As you may have seen doing the rounds on Twitter, the letters page of this month's iScot magazine contains a contribution from Pete Wishart MP, billed as a "right of reply response to James Kelly's article Why the SNP must use its mandate to call an Indyref". I have to say I'm rather bemused by it, because with one possible minor exception it doesn't actually engage with the points I made in the article at all. Quite the contrary, in fact - it implies that I said things I didn't say, or that I said the opposite of, which suggests to me that if Pete is replying to anyone, it's to an imaginary person who is not me. My article was in itself a reply to Pete's 'Braveheart' piece in The National, and to a large extent all that Pete's "reply" does is reiterate the points he already made in his original article about why the SNP's hard-won mandate for a second independence referendum should be allowed to expire (albeit he fleshes some of them out a bit). Well, this is my own right of reply to his "reply", and I'm actually going to try to take things forward by tackling some of his arguments and claims directly.
First things first: Pete says that the only thing that dictates his attitude to the timing of an independence referendum is winning it. He obviously thinks that point is a no-brainer, but is it? Isn't there also the small matter of honour in politics, and carrying through a solemn commitment made to people who voted for you in good faith? We must never forget that before the June 2017 general election, the Scottish Parliament voted to hold an independence referendum in this current Holyrood term, meaning before May 2021. People were then urged to vote SNP on the basis that if the party won a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster, that would constitute a "triple lock" mandate for the referendum. A comfortable majority of seats was duly secured. If Pete thinks that no SNP supporters took the 'triple lock' commitment seriously or cared about it, I would suggest he urgently catches up with the writings of Thomas Widmann, a pro-indy blogger with Danish citizenship, who listened to the SNP leadership's promise about an independence referendum before Brexit, and made hugely important personal decisions about whether to remain in Scotland on that specific basis. He now doesn't know what to do, because it's so difficult to read whether that promise is actually going to be honoured, at least in part (ie. we already know the originally planned timing is likely to slip at least a bit).
Pete writes at length about the canvass results the SNP received in his own constituency. It's a statement of the obvious that the Tories were gaining traction with their ultra-simplistic 'No to Indyref2' message among people who didn't want Indyref2, but Pete also claims that he never met a single person who was refusing to vote SNP because the party wasn't being strong enough in its support for a new referendum. I'd suggest we'd all be well advised to take the implication of that claim with a heavy dose of salt, because there is ample polling evidence that large numbers of SNP voters from 2015 abstained in 2017 rather than switching to another party. By far the most plausible explanation for that phenomenon is the failure of the SNP leadership to find a suitably inspiring pitch on independence. But even if we accept Pete's contention that pro-referendum voters were broadly happy with what the SNP were saying during the election, isn't it rather problematical (or fatal) for Pete's argument that what the SNP were saying during the election is the opposite of what Pete is saying now? There was no talk during the campaign of "we want a mandate from you, but we probably won't use it unless everything seems perfect". The call was for a mandate which was actually going to be used. It's a bit meaningless to pray in aid your belief that pro-referendum folk were satisfied with what you were offering at the election if you're also arguing that what you offered should not be delivered now that the votes are safely in the bag.
It seems to me there is a very obvious subtext in Pete's letter that the holding of an independence referendum should be subordinate to considerations of what is going to win or lose the SNP votes and seats in a Westminster election. That sort of thinking really ought to be alien to a party that is serious about achieving independence, but it actually doesn't even make sense on its own terms, because in all probability a pre-2021 referendum would precede the next Westminster election, and indeed every other election apart from by-elections. Yes, a snap general election is still possible, but the strengthening of Theresa May's personal position means it's considerably less likely than it was.
To turn now to the central thrust of Pete's letter, he repeatedly uses language like "Losing again is simply unthinkable" and "losing again should simply not be an option". That's an argument that has great emotional resonance for some people, who think back to how they felt on September 19th, 2014, and want to avoid feeling that way ever again. It's also, I'm afraid, an extremely immature argument, because the nature of holding any democratic vote at any time is that defeat is always an option. Absolutely always. I can give you chapter and verse on referendums from around the world in which one side or the other has lost a commanding lead in the blink of an eye. It is simply a statement of fact that if we hold a referendum, we might win it and we might lose it. But here's the the thing - if we want independence, we can only get it by holding a referendum, which means we have to risk losing again sooner or later. Pete is arguing that we must wait until we have "optimum conditions" that will "ensure" and "guarantee" victory, but those conditions will simply never exist in the real world. His prospectus is a recipe for what you might call the 'heat death' of the independence cause - the SNP would continue nominally arguing for independence into infinity, but the rallying cry would be the hollow shell of "let's keep preparing for those optimum conditions!", which will always be supposedly around the corner, but will never actually arrive.
In my article that Pete is nominally "replying" to, I turned his call for "pragmatism" on its head by pointing out that pragmatism actually demands that we hold a referendum when we can, and not when we can't. In other words, even if his "optimum conditions" were theoretically achievable, they wouldn't be much use to us if they happened to coincide with a time when there was no pro-independence majority at Holyrood, and therefore a referendum couldn't be held. To the limited extent that Pete indirectly addresses that point, his answer is totally unsatisfactory. He claims that if the pro-indy camp can't win a majority at Holyrood, there would be very little chance of winning a referendum anyway. Frankly, that's an absolute nonsense, and I can't believe he really thinks that. There are any number of reasons why pro-independence voters might vote for an anti-independence party (especially Labour) at a parliamentary election but then still vote for independence in a referendum. We saw plenty of evidence in opinion polls last year that a minority of people were moving from SNP back to Labour but were still backing independence. The idea that if pro-indy parties "only" win 48% of the seats at a Holyrood election, it would then be virtually impossible to achieve a pro-independence majority vote at any point over the subsequent five years, which is essentially what Pete is arguing, is risible and not worthy of serious discussion. The only thing that would make a Yes vote impossible in those circumstances is that we wouldn't be able to hold a referendum in the first place without a pro-indy parliamentary majority - and that's the trap Pete is leading us into. He tells us what a tragedy it would be if we were to hold a referendum prematurely and lose it when it could have been won later - but how would that be any more of a tragedy than spurning the chance of holding a referendum when we actually have the mandate, and as a result being utterly powerless to hold a referendum for potentially decades thereafter, including at times when we might easily have won? That scenario could very easily unfold if a minority of pro-indy voters revert indefinitely to voting for the Labour party for cultural reasons.
Pete seems incredulous at the notion that you should use a mandate for a referendum just because you have one. I suppose that depends on whether you believe that pro-indy majorities at Holyrood are as plentiful as grains of sand on a beach, or whether you recognise that under the Additional Member voting system they're actually murderously hard to come by, and they should be treated as precious when they come along, and not casually squandered. We're not talking about a referendum next week - by all means let's choose the "optimum moment" between now and May 2021 when our mandate expires. But going beyond that date on a wing and a prayer is a different matter entirely.
Now to deal with a few miscellaneous red herrings that Pete throws in -
* I'm not quite sure what the relevance of this is, but he claims that failure in the 1979 devolution referendum (thanks to the 40% rule) led to the near-wipeout of the SNP at Westminster. Not so. The SNP had gone into reverse well before the referendum - by 1978, Labour had shown itself to be serious enough about devolution that it started winning back 'soft nationalist' votes. It's highly likely the SNP would have lost seats regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
* He suggests that the lesson of the 1995 Quebec vote is that a second defeat can set back an independence movement for a generation. In actual fact, the pro-independence Parti Québécois continued to hold an absolute parliamentary majority for eight years after the 1995 defeat. Because of excessive caution it didn't take advantage of that enviable situation, and as a result hasn't had the arithmetic to call a referendum at any time since 2003. (And one of the main reasons why it keeps failing to win elections is because it continually ties itself up in knots with a muddled prospectus of "we want a referendum, but not yet", which reassures nobody and inspires nobody.)
* He ascribes to me (or to the imaginary person he's responding to) the belief that simply calling a referendum would make a decisive shift towards Yes likely. I have never said that, and indeed I have repeatedly pointed out that the opposite may happen, including in the very article Pete is "replying" to. I believe this is projection on his part - he's so preoccupied with "guarantees" and "certainties" that he believes anyone who argues against him must automatically be saying that a Yes victory is already guaranteed. Completely untrue. I simply take the grown-up view that we might win if we fight a good campaign, that we might lose if we fight a bad campaign (or if we fight a good campaign and are unlucky), and that the future is fundamentally unknowable. We can help shape the future but we can't possess it in advance.
* He talks of something called the "indy-gap", meaning that support for an early referendum runs below support for independence itself. But is that actually true? The most recent Ipsos-Mori poll showed that just under half of people who expressed a view wanted independence...and just under half of people who expressed a view wanted an independence referendum within the next three years. So simple question, then - where's the indy-gap? To claim that it exists, at best you'd be cherry-picking only the polling numbers that suit your argument.