Sir Keir Starmer may have unwittingly done the SNP a huge favour yesterday by more or less putting the luckless "Plan A" out of its misery and forcing us to look at more viable options. If there had been any realistic prospect of a future Labour government looking more favourably upon a Section 30 order than the Tory government do, the 'delay' faction within the SNP would undoubtedly have been tempted to hold on until 2024 or 2029 or however long it might have taken, and in the meantime just string the rank-and-file membership along with the illusion of activity. Of course Starmer's stance doesn't mean that the 'delay' faction will automatically embrace "Plan B", but it does massively complicate any efforts they might make to hold the line. It'll be difficult for them to credibly claim that they're still in favour of independence if they're angrily denouncing any suggestion that we should actually try to bring our objective about in any circumstances that are remotely likely to exist within the next ten or fifteen years. Back in the 1990s, we used to scoff at the London media's ignorance in referring to the "devolutionist" and "pro-independence" wings of the SNP, but we're perhaps on the verge of genuinely seeing a small, de facto devolutionist wing take shape for the first time, particularly at Westminster - and that will fundamentally change the relationship of those parliamentarians with activists and members who are for the most part deadly serious about making independence happen.
Is there no hope at all that Plan A could still work? I can only see two paths by which it might be reactivated as a viable option, and both of them are long shots -
1) Labour might do so badly in next year's Holyrood election that they embark on yet another round of soul-searching. I discuss this possibility in a forthcoming column for iScot magazine - Labour are probably nursing the hope that they're going to make some sort of recovery in the election due to Keir Starmer's encouraging Britain-wide polling numbers, but at the moment Scottish polls still put them firmly on course to lose yet more seats and slump to a new all-time low, which would be a shock to their system. It doesn't necessarily follow that Starmer will provide a boost once the campaign is actually underway, because it's Richard Leonard that will be leading the campaign and facing up to Nicola Sturgeon in the TV debates - a comparison that could look almost embarrassing. Remember that this time Ian Murray won't be able to disingenuously blame any seat losses on Corbynism - his own fingerprints will be all over the results, and his constitutional extremism may take a hefty share of the blame. From the SNP's point of view, this outcome is certainly worth pursuing, and probably the best way of maximising the chances of a Labour slump is to foreground the question of independence and coax the electorate into making a polarised choice between SNP and Tory. However, the reason it's a long-shot is that bouts of Labour soul-searching always seem to follow the same pattern - once the initial shock of an election defeat wears off, they revert to type and decide that the fault lies with the voters and not with themselves.
2) The 2024 election could result in a hung parliament, thus forcing Starmer to do a deal with the SNP if he wants to become Prime Minister. No-one can deny this is theoretically possible, but the problem is that hung parliaments happen by random chance - there's no way of campaigning for them or making them more likely to occur. There have been twenty-one general elections since 1945, and only three of them have not produced a majority for a single party - a 14% strike rate. And of course one of the three hung parliaments was in 2017, when the SNP had more than 5% of the seats in the Commons, but still didn't hold the balance of power. So you don't just need a hung parliament, you need the right sort of hung parliament. I would guess the chances of it happening in 2024 are 10% at the absolute most, and we simply can't bet the house on that kind of outside hope.
Which moves us on, if we're sensible, to "Plan B". Fortunately, the people of Scotland seem to be firmly behind both of the two main options for seeking an independence mandate in the absence of a Section 30 order...
Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, 28th-31st January 2020:
There are differing legal opinions on whether the Scottish Parliament currently has the power to hold a consultative referendum on independence without Westminster’s permission. If the UK government continues to refuse to give permission, do you think the Scottish Parliament should legislate to hold a referendum and then allow the courts to decide whether it can take place?
With Don't Knows excluded...
Scot Goes Pop / Panelbase poll, 1st-5th June 2020:
If Boris Johnson and the UK Government manage to block an independence referendum, do you think that pro-independence parties such as the SNP and the Greens should consider including an outright promise of independence in their manifestos for a future election, to give people an opportunity to vote for or against the idea?
With Don't Knows excluded...
And the choice between those two possibilities isn't necessarily binary. I think the most logical approach is to legislate for a consultative referendum first, and if the Supreme Court blocks it (a very big "if"), use that ruling to demonstrate to voters that the referendum route has been closed off, and that an election will have to be used instead.