I can't get past the paywall, but apparently Alex Massie says in his latest column that "a consultative referendum designed to heap pressure on the British government is the kind of wild gamble made by desperate punters who have run out of options". But what does he mean by "run out of options"? As I understand it, Massie believes the only circumstance in which an independence referendum should take place is if it's agreed by Westminster - in other words he thinks Boris Johnson should be given an absolute, condition-free veto over Scottish democracy. There's not much point in Massie praying in aid opinion poll results that he thinks supports his case when he doesn't believe the wishes of the Scottish people actually matter anyway. "Run out of options" literally means nothing more than "Boris has said no". Any attempt at any sort of action whatsoever now that Boris has said no is thus a "desperate gamble". Massie's message to Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War would presumably have been "stop gambling, just do nothing, accept Moscow's veto". But, as those dissidents would doubtless have reminded him, a gamble when you've been left with little to lose is barely a gamble at all.
Elsewhere, Gerry Hassan argues that our guaranteed referendum date of October 2023 is too early, and like Massie he also prays in aid opinion polls purportedly showing that voters want a referendum, but at a later date. As I've pointed out umpteen times, this is one of the biggest red herrings in Scottish polling. Five years ago, polls showed that voters wanted a referendum, but not imminently - they wanted it about three to five years down the road. In other words, they wanted it around about now. So if you took what they said absolutely literally, polls should still be showing that voters want a referendum now - but they don't, they show that voters want a referendum, but in around three to five years' time. If you came back in five years' time, you'd find that voters still say they want a referendum, but after another three to five years. This is a vicious circle that no pro-independence government will ever break out of unless they decide to lead public opinion on referendum timing rather than be a slave to it. "Yes, but not yet" effectively means "never", unless the "yet" is a fixed, immutable date. So the majority SNP-Green government have done absolutely the right thing by guaranteeing - "no ifs, no buts" - that the referendum will take place in 2023.
Turning to the piece in the Times that is causing so much interest, I must just start by noting the irony of the Scottish Tories suggesting that an advisory referendum would be a "glorified opinion poll". It's the Tories themselves who have attempted to turn Scotland into a "YouGov democracy", constantly arguing that Scotland shouldn't have a referendum because YouGov says we don't want one. A glorified opinion poll should thus be right up their street.
There's a suggestion in the article that the SNP may have a "clever legal wheeze" in mind whereby the wording of the referendum question is changed to ask whether voters want the Scottish Government to open negotiations with the UK Government to bring about independence - in other words it wouldn't be a direct independence question, and thus might evade any difficulties arising from the Scotland Act. What undermines the sense of cleverness somewhat, though, is that the "open negotiations" referendum question is exactly what the SNP had in mind in the early days of devolution - I distinctly recall the late, great Professor Sir Neil MacCormick discussing the possibility of such a question in the run-up to the 1999 Holyrood election and saying he had "no doubt" that it would be within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. So clever wheeze it may be, but that cleverness long predates the current SNP leadership, and is presumably what we'd have ended up with in 2014 if the UK government hadn't spontaneously offered to negotiate a Section 30 order (remember it was David Cameron and Michael Moore who made the initial approach to the Scottish Government, not the other way around). Nicola Sturgeon has long set her face against what was once the preferred approach of the government she was Deputy First Minister of, so in a sense she's just ended up back where she started after a needlessly long detour. But the important thing is she's getting it right now - "more joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth", and all that.
One thing that becomes abundantly clear - albeit indirectly - from the SNP source quoted in the Times article is that Alba and their fellow travellers have played a crucial role in bringing about the SNP's somewhat more radical new stance on independence. The clue is in the suggestion that pushing for a referendum will be a "win-win" because it will re-unite the Yes movement behind the current SNP leadership. Nicola Sturgeon wouldn't even need a strategy for rallying the Yes movement behind her if we had all remained slavishly loyal to her previous "in my own good time, dears" messaging. So this gives the lie to the idea that unity for unity's sake would have achieved independence quicker, and I would respectfully suggest that the most effective way of keeping the SNP leadership honest over the crucial sixteen months until the referendum they've promised is to join or support the Alba Party.
There's been a lot of cynicism about the SNP source revealing that uppermost in the leadership's thoughts has been that the new strategy may help to gain seats at the 2024 Westminster election. Well, what I'd say is that the SNP might well deserve to gain seats if they secure a Yes vote in a consultative referendum and the UK government refuse to accept the result - the obvious next step would be to pile on the pressure by securing as many pro-indy seats as possible at Westminster, and given the nature of first-past-the-post, that would have to mean getting behind the SNP in most constituencies.
But yes, just as pure observation, it's fair to say that there's one obvious difference between the Salmond and Sturgeon governments. The object of Salmond's strategy on a referendum was to deliver independence. The object of Sturgeon's strategy on a referendum is to rally the pro-indy base and help the SNP win elections. If independence itself is actually achieved along the way, that would no more than a happy by-product. But I suppose, ultimately, who cares if the motivations are cynical as long as they help us all to get what we want.
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