So, with a certain amount of weariness, I've taken a look at Pete Wishart's latest 'contribution to the debate' on the timing of a second independence referendum (at least this time it's not a phoney 'right of reply'). First things first: let's deal with the outright inaccuracy which essentially proves that Pete hasn't been bothering to properly read the many responses to his previous articles. As I and others have pointed out to him again and again and again, his notion that there is a so-called 'indy-gap' (meaning that there is supposedly far less support for the holding of an early referendum that there is for independence itself) is simply not borne out by the evidence. Both of the two most recent polls, from Ipsos-Mori and Panelbase respectively, have shown that support for an early referendum is essentially identical to support for independence. But Pete isn't letting the evidence get in the way of his mythologising, and yesterday doubled down by ludicrously claiming that: "Optimal conditions are not when a significant gap exists between support for independence and support for an ‘early’ independence referendum. Every test of public opinion has shown that this gap is real..."
Every test? What? If the two most recent opinion polls on independence do not qualify as 'tests of public opinion', what the hell is he even talking about? Pete can't be allowed to get away with this false claim indefinitely - he's been proved factually wrong on the 'indy-gap' point, and as the old saying goes, he's entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts.
The alarm bells in the cynical part of my brain were ringing when I saw that Pete had started his post by noting that it was a good thing that the SNP depute leadership contest looked set to be dominated by the issue of indyref timing. Pete of course pondered the idea of standing himself for depute on a "delay" platform, but decided against it because he didn't have enough support to mount a credible challenge. I do hope that he isn't now planning to misrepresent a hypothetical victory for Keith Brown as an endorsement of "delay". It's true that Mr Brown had until recently come across as the most sceptical of the three candidates about an early indyref, but he was always a long way from Pete's position of actively campaigning for the current mandate to be allowed to expire. Personally, I'll be voting for Chris McEleny because I want to give the most emphatic thumbs-up possible to an early referendum, but regardless of which candidate wins, there will be no endorsement of the Wishart position. I believe the Wishart position is essentially an unelectable one, and I also believe that Pete clearly acknowledged that fact by pulling out of the race. You can't stand aside because of lack of support and then still claim a proxy victory later on.
In the second paragraph of his post, Pete says this: "We are so close to securing our historic objective that to throw away a victory that we’ve so patiently and constructively worked for over the decades through impatience would be the worst type of defeat." Would that really be the worst type of defeat? What about if we opt not to use our mandate for a referendum, and then fail to secure another mandate for another twenty years? (Twenty years is, after all, a mere four elections, and given the way the Additional Member System works, it's far from implausible that the pro-indy parties in combination could repeatedly fall just short of the magic number of 65 seats, even if the SNP itself remains relatively popular and manages to stay in minority government.) And what if over that interminable period, there are prolonged spells where the polls make obvious that a referendum could have been won, but we're powerless to do anything about it because we don't have the parliamentary arithmetic to call a referendum? That's a defeat every bit as real as a defeat in an early referendum. It takes independence - you know, the prize we've so patiently and constructively worked for over the decades - off the table for a generation, and it does so because we threw away a golden opportunity out of fear. How is that sort of defeat any better than one that we might suffer by having the moral courage of using our mandate and actually trusting the verdict of the electorate? It plainly isn't any better. It's a million times worse. Democracy is something we should be running towards, not away from.
Pete says: "I want to see evidence [the referendum] can be won." That's a bit disingenuous, isn't it? He doesn't want evidence that it can be won, because we already have that. He actually wants evidence that it definitely will be won, which is a lovely idea, but in the real world no such evidence is even possible. Huge and rapid swings in public opinion happen frequently during the official campaign stage of referendums around the world, so even if Yes started out with 65% support, there would be no guarantees of victory at all.
He also says: "I want [the referendum] held at the time of our choosing when the optimum conditions are in place for success." Again, the certainty of being able to hold the vote at the time of our own choosing is a beautiful thought, but is completely impracticable unless he's planning to abolish parliamentary elections. The main barrier to being able to hold a referendum at the best possible moment is the possibility that there will be no pro-independence majority at Holyrood after 2021. It's Pete who is arguing we should just recklessly take our chances with that, and his only justification is the absurd claim that if we can't win a pro-indy majority at Holyrood, we wouldn't have been able to win a referendum anyway. Really? If we win 48% of the seats in the 2021 election, it would be completely impossible to win 51% of the vote at any time between then and 2026? A seven-year-old child would be able to spot the flaw in that argument.
The truly 'pragmatic' thing to do is recognise that we have a mandate, that it's a precious thing that may not come our way again for a very long time, and that it therefore shouldn't be lightly squandered. That doesn't mean holding a referendum next week - it means choosing the best available moment between now and May 2021, when the mandate expires. That's where the centre of gravity for pragmatism lies - and not in the pie-in-the-sky notion that there will be some ideal moment in the distant future where the stars will align perfectly for a nailed-on victory, and that all we have to do is wait long enough for this magical process to occur.
Pete claims: "[Optimal conditions] are not when we are less than one year away from having lost over one third of our independence supporting MPs to candidates who had as their main campaigning message ‘No to a second referendum’". The problem with this theory is that we don't know what would have happened if the SNP had stood up to the uncompromising nature of the Tory message with an equally uncompromising "Say Yes to an Indyref" message of their own. It's possible that a third of the MPs wouldn't have lost if that had been done. Pete has previously claimed he has canvassing evidence that there was no appetite for a stronger pro-indy message from the SNP, but you'll have to forgive me if I'm a tad sceptical about anecdotal claims from a less-than-objective source. What we do know from polling evidence is that large numbers of people who voted SNP in 2015 went on to abstain in 2017. That suggests to me that there were a lot of people out there who wanted to be inspired, but didn't hear what they were looking for.
Pete says: "Optimal conditions are also not when a majority of our fellow Scots continue to tell us they still oppose independence by a significant margin when public opinion is tested." Sorry, but what is a "significant margin"? It's only a few weeks since an Ipsos-Mori telephone poll produced figures of Yes 48%, No 52%. Is Pete seriously arguing that four percentage points - a lead that is within the standard margin of error - is a "significant margin"? (It's true that Panelbase have shown a bigger gap since then, but that's simply a 'house effect' of a different firm's methodology. Nobody knows the true state of play in exact detail, and it's perfectly conceivable that Ipsos-Mori is right and that public opinion is split roughly 50/50.)
Pete claims: "That last five percent we need to win over in a renewed referendum will be the hardest five percent we have ever had to convert. It is a five percent that is deeply dug in with over five years of intense debate about our countries constitutional future." Hang on, hang on. If these No voters are as hopelessly entrenched as Pete claims, why have there have been several polls since 2014 (including one as recently as last year) showing Yes with more than 50% of the vote? It doesn't make sense, does it? In reality, polling trends since the last referendum clearly show that there is sufficient fluidity and volatility among the electorate for either side to have a realistic chance of winning. It just depends on who fights the most effective campaign.
Unfortunately, if Pete gets his way, we'll run away from the battle and we'll never find out what would have happened. But when another twenty years have passed and no referendum has been held and independence is further away than ever, at least we'll be able to console ourselves by saying "we didn't lose a second time". (So what?)