I've been having a look at Robin McAlpine's attack on the SNP leadership, and there are parts I strongly disagree with, but also parts about which I just have to throw my hands up in the air and say "it's too soon to tell". He's convinced that the SNP have no intention of delivering an independence referendum in the next five-year Holyrood term - well, that's a concern
that I have, but I'm not sure how either I or Robin are in any position to say that it's a certainty
The most despicable part of Tony Blair's tactics in engineering an illegal war in Iraq was the way he managed dissent within the Labour party. In the autumn of 2002, many Labour MPs wanted to debate the prospect of invasion, but they were told that "it's far, far too early to think about that, nothing is even remotely imminent, there'll be ample time to debate before anything happens". But then in a blink of an eye, they were being told that it was far, far too late for debate, we had passed the point of no return, and that any attempt to stop the military build-up should have taken place much earlier.
The suspicion in some quarters is that the SNP leadership are attempting a similar stunt - but instead of shutting down dissent over a predetermined action until it's too late to stop it, they're shutting down dissent over a predetermined lack
of action. But is that actually what's happening? I've been told, by someone who is in an excellent position to judge, that Nicola Sturgeon remains sincere in her commitment to independence, but that she only ever listens to an extremely small, closed group of advisers who simply have no strategy for bringing independence about in the absence of a Section 30 order, and no interest in ever devising such a strategy. But I've also heard it said by others that a strategy is already firmly in place and that we'll see it play out reasonably quickly after next year's election. Without being a mindreader, it's impossible to tell for sure which of those possibilities is the correct one. That being the case, my main criticism of the leadership at this stage would be their tendency to say to the wider movement "just get on with building support for independence and don't worry your pretty little heads about process". We all have a stake in "process", and being told not to even think about it is bound to fuel paranoia that we're being led up the garden path.
I think part of this problem will resolve itself, though. The movement will be expecting a crystal-clear manifesto commitment to a reasonably early referendum. If that doesn't materialise, or if there are caveats in the wording about taking no action until the economic impact of the pandemic has been reversed (which, if taken literally, could mean decades of delay), then at that point it might cease to be so illogical to look at smaller pro-indy parties. I certainly wouldn't say there'd be nothing to lose, because there are some pretty major potential downsides to risking a unionist government, even when the main pro-indy party has no intention of pursuing independence. (I keep thinking about how the Parti Québécois failed repeatedly to come close to regaining majority power after losing it in 2003.) But it's fair to say there'd be somewhat less
The much more likely scenario, however, is that the desired watertight referendum commitment will be in the SNP manifesto, in which case the most promising course of action will be to give the SNP a thumping mandate, and then to hold their feet to the fire over honouring their own commitment. The only possible exception to that would be if there is a new party led by Alex Salmond, which might well be strong enough to win seats and to gain some leverage with the SNP government.
Of course I'm going to have to take issue with Robin's language about the electoral system. His subtext is that the SNP asking for "both votes" is greedy and unreasonable, and that they'd have to clear an extremely high bar to even begin to justify it. But the reality is that the whole logic of the Additional Member System hinges on the assumption that the vast majority of people will vote for the same party on both ballots. The only reason there are two ballots rather than one is to give people some discretion to vote tactically on the constituency ballot
, while still voting for their first-choice party on the more important list ballot. It would be downright odd if the SNP weren't
asking for both votes.