A couple of weeks ago, an SNP leadership loyalist on Twitter (I think it was Marcus Carslaw) framed the debate on indyref timing as supposedly being between the official SNP position of holding a referendum in 2023, and the preference of Alba and people like Joanna Cherry for an earlier vote. That was completely bogus, because there is no official SNP commitment to a referendum in 2023, and if there was, most people in Alba would be reasonably happy with that - our actual fear is that there won't be a referendum at all over the coming five years, and that the mandate will be allowed to expire yet again. That concern has, to put it mildly, not been allayed by a comment in the Sunday Times' write-up of their new Panelbase poll, which states that people in SNP leadership circles are privately going around saying that there isn't going to be a referendum this side of the next UK general election, which isn't due until 2024.
There's a stock line in many a courtroom drama where the defence attorney says "do I have the court's permission to treat this witness as hostile?", and I think I've finally reached that point with the SNP leadership. Until very recently I was genuinely unsure whether they were serious about holding a referendum or whether they were just stringing indy supporters along, but I'm now forced to conclude that it's the latter. If they were intending to use the mandate for an indyref, they would be doing it before the UK general election. Waiting until afterwards means in practice that yet another mandate would be required, because we know from the experience of the 2017 general election that any seat losses for the SNP will lead to a consensus between the media and the 'caution' wing of the SNP that an indyref is unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would push it back to beyond the 2026 Holyrood election. And the balance of probability points towards seat losses, because the SNP won an exceptionally high 48 seats out of 59 at the last general election. No-one should expect electoral gravity to be defied forever. Besides which, waiting until 2024 carries the strong whiff of "hoping for something to turn up" that might bring about a Section 30 order - perhaps the SNP holding the balance of power in a hung parliament, which is a 5% chance at best. (And even if by some miracle it did happen, the SNP's caution faction would then be telling us that "now is not the time" to press home that advantage, because the voters would never forgive us for "playing games".) We've got to have a more credible plan for bringing about independence than this.
The term "neverendum" was coined in Quebec, and even though it originally meant the repeated holding of referendums on the same subject, what it's instead come to mean in both Quebec and Scotland is endless debate about a referendum that somehow never actually takes place. The SNP leadership and the Tories are colluding in the neverendum process - they have a shared self-interest in an indyref remaining an apparent prospect, but perpetually just over the horizon. The election that will supposedly determine whether an indyref takes place is always the next election, and when the SNP win each successive election we somehow find out the next day that another election two or three years down the road will need to be won - and that all "grown-ups" and "realists" understand this to be true.
Here's a thought we need to consider. Perhaps what "grown-ups" and "realists" think they know most of all is that Scotland cannot and will not leave the United Kingdom. After all, no integral part of a stable democratic state anywhere in western Europe or North America has become independent since the Second World War. (Even going a little further back, the only example I can really think of is Iceland's independence from Denmark, and that's a special case given the physical distance between the two countries.) Secession is not part of the 'normal', 'safe' political process as it's practised by statesmen and stateswomen across the democratic world. We should never forget that our political goal is an intensely radical one - bordering on revolutionary. To bring it about will require equally radical thinking about process and strategy. Staying within the normal 'safe', 'mature' parameters means staying within the United Kingdom - it's as simple as that.
This is not, incidentally, a call for Nicola Sturgeon to stand down or to be replaced. Apart from anything else, my guess is that her successor would probably be equally cautious about strategy. But I do think we now need to be hardheaded about the fact that the SNP leadership have become the biggest obstacle to progress, and if it's pointless to change that leadership, what we'll need to do instead is change the leadership's thinking. That will require the building up of tremendous external political pressure - both from direct electoral opponents like Alba, and also from non-party organisations like Now Scotland.
Just a word on the Panelbase poll itself - it shows Yes on 48% and No on 52%. The Sunday Times are portraying this as a significant drop in independence support, which on paper they're entitled to do because the last Panelbase poll had Yes on 52% - but the snag is that previous poll was an outlier. A week before it was published, another Panelbase poll (commissioned by this very blog) had Yes on 49%, which was much more in line with what other firms were showing at the time. So it looks to me like nothing much has changed since the election - either Yes are holding steady, or any drop has been very minimal. There is, frankly, no evidence yet to justify John Curtice's rather odd claim in the Sunday Times piece that there has been a post-election "cooling" of public attitudes towards independence.
Prior to the election, Mark McGeoghegan doused himself in parfum d'obsession and insisted that although he could not prove that the bastards in Alba were to blame for the fact that Yes no longer had a clear lead, anyone who didn't believe that to be the case was a zoomer. Well, let's be blunt - anyone who still holds McGeoghegan's view is the real zoomer, because Alba have had practically no coverage in recent weeks. The explanation for the small No lead must therefore lie elsewhere. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership quite rightly expected their fair share of credit for building up a sustained Yes lead last year - and it would be equally fair for them to accept the lion's share of the blame for any slight reversal of fortunes that has occurred since. The most plausible explanation is the complete failure to make the case for independence.
I'll leave you, though, with one piece of very good news from the Panelbase poll: 54% of respondents want a referendum in the next five years, and only 46% don't.
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You can catch up with the latest episode of the Scot Goes Popcast HERE