I've only just discovered, via Peter A Bell's blogpost
, that Tommy Sheppard used his Thomas Muir memorial lecture the other day to argue that there should not be an independence referendum until after the next Holyrood election. (This, incidentally, means the Sunday Herald
were perhaps not quite so wide of the mark after all in suggesting a few weeks ago that Sheppard had 'broken ranks' and was calling for the referendum to be 'parked'.) You won't be surprised to hear that I think he's recommending a course of action that would be an enormous strategic error.
Now, in fairness, judgements over the timing of an independence referendum are a bit like the dilemma in rugby over whether you should "take the three points" when awarded a penalty - in other words, either decision can be the 'right' or 'wrong' one depending on what happens next, which is unknowable in advance. If Nicola Sturgeon plays the long game, if Brexit proves to be an unmitigated disaster very quickly, if Labour slip back into chaos and disunity, if the SNP reverse the recent swing against them and don't lose any seats at the 2021 election, if they still have the arithmetic to call an indyref after that election, and if a Yes vote is won, then obviously Sheppard will look like a strategic genius. But there are an awful lot of 'ifs' there.
Here's something we do know pretty much for certain - there will be a pro-independence and pro-referendum majority in the Scottish Parliament until May 2021. The only realistic way that won't be the case is if the Greens reverse policy, which in practice would be very hard for them to do given that so many of their current members joined as a direct result of their involvement in the Yes campaign.
We don't have a clue whether the pro-independence/pro-referendum majority will survive the 2021 election, but we do have perfectly rational reasons for worrying that it might not. Polling evidence in the run-up to this year's general election suggested that a lot of independence supporters were 'cross-voting' (which primarily meant voting Labour), while very few opponents of independence were returning the compliment by voting SNP. Unless that trend changes (it may do, but it may not) it's quite possible that even a strong popular majority in favour of independence in 2021 would translate into an anti-independence majority at Holyrood, thus making a referendum impossible until at least 2026. The irresponsible rhetoric of Cat Boyd and her supporters only serves to make that scenario more likely.
Bearing in mind the relative certainty that exists until May 2021 and the complete uncertainty thereafter, it seems more than a little crazy to suggest that we should wait until just after
the point at which we may no longer have a majority for a referendum. Sheppard's answer seems to be that if we can't win a pro-independence majority at the 2021 election we wouldn't win an independence referendum anyway, but that logic is wholly misconceived. Persuading people of the virtue of holding a referendum is an entirely different task from trying to persuade them to vote in a particular way in a referendum that is already underway. Here's an analogy that might seem silly at first but I think is a good one - every year, I dread Christmas, and if I could vote to put it off, I would. But when it actually comes round, I usually enjoy it and don't want it to end. There are people who for temperamental reasons find the anticipation of a second intense referendum campaign unbearable and would always vote against holding one, but who would nevertheless vote Yes if it actually happened. Winning a mandate for another referendum is arguably a tougher task than winning the referendum itself, and that's a truth the Parti Québécois can attest to.
We're incredibly fortunate in that we've already won a mandate to hold a referendum in this current parliament. We should use it. For the avoidance of doubt, that does not
mean a referendum next week, or even necessarily before the day Britain officially withdraws from the EU. There are almost four years to go until the 2021 election, so there's still plenty of time to play a relatively long game while not throwing away the existing mandate.