Tuesday, August 7, 2018

John Curtice is wrong: the Yes rank-and-file would not accept the independence referendum being "kicked into the long grass" this autumn

"Ask John Curtice" was a Twitter meme a few years ago.  It was based on the BBC's endless attempts to get their money's worth out of Curtice's role as a studio pundit by asking him about topics that went quite a way beyond his true expertise as a psephologist.  People started to wonder only half-jokingly if Gordon Brewer might eventually invite Curtice to give relationship advice to viewers.

I was reminded of that earlier today when I saw that Ruth Davidson had jumped on a Courier article in which Curtice is quoted as saying that the odds are against a second independence referendum being held within the next five years, but "probably only marginally".  Needless to say, Davidson didn't mention the "only marginally" bit, which presumably should be taken as meaning that Curtice thinks there is at least a 40% chance of an early referendum.

What made me raise my eyebrows, though, is that Curtice seemed to be basing his assessment mostly on a psychological analysis of Nicola Sturgeon - something that as a psephologist he is no more or less likely to get right than you or I.  He clearly believes that Ms Sturgeon cares more about keeping her job than she does about independence, and therefore won't risk calling a referendum because she supposedly knows that she would have to resign as First Minister if she lost.  If I was Ms Sturgeon, I would feel somewhat insulted by that assumption.  She did, after all, join the SNP at a time when Labour would have been the more natural option for a careerist.  I see no reason to doubt that her commitment to independence is genuine, and that she will judge the success of her career by whether she achieved independence or brought it closer, and not by the number of years she stayed in office.  So, for what it's worth, our knowledge of Nicola Sturgeon's motivations would lead me to the opposite conclusion to Curtice's - ie. that an early referendum is more likely than not.

Curtice also attempts a bit of Kremlinology by reading huge significance into the supposed lack of activity during the summer.  Well, maybe, but remember that the referendum announcement in the spring of 2017 was a complete bolt from the blue as far as the media were concerned.  If Ms Sturgeon wants the same element of surprise the second time around, she wouldn't telegraph a decision in quite the obvious way that Curtice seems to have been looking out for.

What's missing from Curtice's psychological analysis is the psychology of the SNP membership and the wider Yes movement.  Expectations that the current mandate for a pre-2021 referendum will be used are sky-high, and it's hard to understand why Curtice thinks the rank-and-file would just shrug their shoulders if the announcement this autumn is a decision to kick the referendum "into the long grass", as he thinks is marginally more likely.  They might accept a very short further delay if the shape of Brexit was still not known, but not a decision to let the mandate expire.  They would quite reasonably ask: if the double-whammy of the destruction of the devolution settlement and Scotland being dragged out of the EU is not sufficient grounds for a referendum, what on earth would be?  What magnitude of disaster would we actually be waiting for?

Lastly, I'm bemused by the Courier alleging that SNP depute leader Keith Brown had "signalled" that a referendum would not be announced this autumn, and then providing a quote from him in which he signals no such thing.  I suspect there's a touch of journalistic wishful thinking in there.

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Independence remains the only viable Brexit parachute

You may have seen that Thomas Widmann of Arc of Prosperity has written a blogpost in which he turns conventional wisdom on its head by suggesting that Magnus Linklater's notorious article in The Times (claiming that "the SNP's dithering" on EU membership is turning immigrants "angry") makes a perfectly logical argument which he largely agrees with.  In fairness, it's true that the generous interpretation Thomas puts on the article is not irreconcilable with the actual text, but I think most people would say that the operative words are "by Magnus Linklater".  This is not a man who wants Scotland to become an independent member state of the EU or who believes such an idea is even worthy of consideration, so the obvious conclusion is that he is indulging in sophistry by very vaguely giving the impression that the SNP can somehow secure Scotland's place in the EU without independence being required.

Thomas notes that it is correct to say that he, as an immigrant from another EU state, is angry about the SNP's alleged "dithering".  I think what we're seeing here is the tension between an EU citizen who puts the prize of continued EU membership above all else and sees Yes as a means to that end, and those of us who may be extremely pro-European but who nevertheless would be Yes anyway, and indeed probably would have been Yes even in the 1970s when the independence cause was associated with Euroscepticism.  I remember Thomas reacting with horror when I listed a number of extreme concessions that the UK government could theoretically make that I thought might be sufficient to justify the SNP dropping its opposition to Brexit in return for a deal.  One of my suggestions was Devo Max (genuine Devo Max, obviously, not the Jackie Bird version).  Thomas wanted to know why on earth I thought any deal that didn't involve staying in the single market or customs union could possibly be acceptable, and my answer was simply that genuine Devo Max would be such an enormous concession from London that it would be worth making our own sacrifice for.  That makes sense to me as someone whose primary goal is Scottish self-government.  (I think most of us, if forced to make such an improbable binary choice, would prefer an independent Scotland outside European structures to non-independence inside the EU.)  I can easily appreciate why it doesn't make any sense at all to someone for whom the whole point of Scottish self-government is as a means to remain in Europe.

That said, I think Thomas is dead right to point out again that the SNP has at least partly lost sight of the moral obligation it owes to EU citizens after persuading them to stay in Scotland in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum on the basis that an indyref was coming and that it would secure full EU membership for Scotland.  Somehow the clarity of that pledge has got lost as the SNP fret about the votes shed to the Tories in places like Moray.  But those lapsed voters in the north-east were always unlikely to back independence in a referendum anyway, so there really oughtn't to be any tactical conflict between those who prioritise EU membership and those who prioritise independence - the most promising way to achieve both goals is to push ahead unapologetically with an indyref, either next year or the year after.

Unfortunately Thomas himself is now departing from that script by effectively abandoning independence as the most effective Brexit parachute, and is instead pinning his hopes on another UK-wide referendum to reverse the outcome of the last one.  That's not something the SNP can realistically be expected to campaign for, because they'd be conceding the right of the rest of the UK to overrule Scotland's constitutional wishes.  As it happens, I don't think it's a viable way of furthering Thomas' own priority either, because I cannot see any circumstance in which a Tory government would allow a referendum in which Remain was a possible outcome.  It would be electoral suicide for them to do so.  A snap general election followed by a second referendum held by an incoming Labour government is just about possible, but there would still be the formidable obstacle of Jeremy Corbyn's private but well-documented Euroscepticism.

The bottom line is that there is a far greater percentage chance of maintaining EU membership because of an indyref than there is of maintaining it because of a second UK-wide vote.  So although Thomas' priorities may differ slightly from most of the Yes movement, I can't see any reason why there should be a corresponding divergence on strategy.  We should still be marching in the same direction down the same road.  I do understand why Thomas feels misled and let-down, though, and I hope that Nicola Sturgeon's long-awaited decision in the autumn will remedy that.

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