Because the candidates are perhaps a little less well-known than would usually be the case, I had planned to take my time before making a final decision about who to vote for in the SNP depute leadership race. However, the three remaining candidates have now all expressed clear views on the timing of a second independence referendum. Unless those views change, I think the decision to vote for Chris McEleny has effectively been taken for me.
These are the positions of the candidates as I understand them -
Chris McEleny: There should be an independence referendum within the next eighteen months.
Julie Hepburn: We have a mandate for a referendum. But the timing of the referendum is not what members should be thinking about right now. We should trust Nicola Sturgeon to make the right decision.
Keith Brown: The SNP is not yet ready to fight an independence referendum, and we need to get ready before a referendum can be called.
Now, I know some people will argue that this contest should not even be about the timing of a referendum. Julie Hepburn's exhortation to "just trust Nicola" is superficially seductive. But here's the thing: although Nicola Sturgeon will ultimately be the person who makes the decision, she will do it after factoring in the views of other key players within the SNP. It would be perverse if the voice of the membership is the only voice that is not heard in that decision-making process. What "trust Nicola" really amounts to is saying that you'll be equally happy regardless of what is decided, and there can't be many of us who truly feel that way. Even if a decision goes against you, it's a lot easier to accept the outcome if you've had a chance to express your view and to be heard. This election is taking place at a time when the SNP is facing one of the biggest forks in the road in its history, and the idea that we should all just be ignoring that and choosing who to vote for based solely on other factors seems to me naive and unrealistic.
Some people will argue that Chris McEleny does not have a high enough profile to be depute leader. The reality is, though, that because the SNP's big beasts are all sitting this contest out, the role of depute is going to be very different from before, regardless of who wins. Keith Brown is the only parliamentarian standing, but even if he wins, he's plainly not going to suddenly become the second most important person within the SNP, and probably not the third or fourth most important either. The new role of the depute could be as a bridge between the leadership and the grass-roots, and Chris McEleny is arguably best-placed to fill that role.
"Preparation and persuasion, not obsessing over timing" is another seductive argument, but my huge concern is that all the best preparation and persuasion in the world will count for absolutely nothing if the referendum never actually takes place. That would be the risk we'd take if we flirt with allowing the mandate for a pre-2021 referendum to expire. In fairness, Keith Brown isn't adopting the Pete Wishart/Jim Sillars stance - nothing he has said would specifically preclude a pre-2021 referendum. However, it does seem to me that he is effectively ruling out a referendum in the spring of next year - if he's saying that the SNP is not ready now, it's hard to see how he'd be able to argue that everything had been turned around by the autumn, when the starting-gun for a vote in early 2019 would have to be fired. I don't think that taking any option off the table is helpful at this stage. At least Julie Hepburn appears to be genuinely neutral on timing (and her emphasis that "we have the mandate" perhaps points to the likelihood of a pre-2021 vote), so on that basis I'm currently minded to give her my second preference vote, behind Chris McEleny. I'll continue to keep an eye on what is said, though.
Remember that even if Keith Brown wins due to name-recognition, a strong showing for Chris McEleny would still send a powerful message to the leadership about members' views on the urgency of a referendum. So from that point of view I feel that a vote for McEleny is an each-way bet that is well worth taking.