I feel slightly queasy even raising this issue, because it took years and years for the independence movement to convince the SNP leadership of the necessity of having a plebiscite election as the back-up option if an independence referendum proved not to be possible. Having finally persuaded them of that (some would argue they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the realisation), it's tempting to just say we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, because of the fear that opening up a debate about the details of the plan could give them an excuse to back off from the whole thing. However, hopefully Nicola Sturgeon's public statements on the matter have gone far enough that it would be very hard for her to backtrack (there would surely be hell for her to pay among SNP members if she did), and in any case, sometimes a point is so obviously true that it just needs to be said.
So here goes. The massive collapse of support for the Tory government across Britain over recent days has been very sudden, but it's unlikely to be fully reversed unless Liz Truss is ejected by her party or forced to step down. That means the ongoing chaos will probably work against us if we use the next Westminster general election as a de facto plebiscite. The media narrative will be overwhelmingly about change via a majority Labour government, which will seem like a novelty to voters after fourteen years (remember that some young voters won't even be able to recall living through a Labour government). That will make it very hard for the independence message to get a look-in. Now, it doesn't necessarily follow that Scottish Labour and their media allies will get the result that they've spent the last few days self-indulgently and very publicly fantasising about, but here's the thing: they don't actually need to win a majority of Scottish seats - or even get close to that - to throw a spanner in the works of a plebiscite election. They would just need a 2017-style result with a moderate percentage of SNP supporters drifting across, which is entirely conceivable given that the "prize" (ahem) of a Labour government would be just 24 hours away.
By contrast, if the SNP bring about an early Holyrood election in 2023 and use that as a plebiscite instead, the Tory chaos suddenly works firmly in our favour. If you vote against independence in that election, you're voting for extremist Tory rule to continue with no guarantee that the polls in England won't turn around over the following year. The onus will be on Anas Sarwar and others to make the case for continued Tory rule and then a massive gamble thereafter. With no Labour government imminent, it'll also be easier to persuade voters to keep a proper sense of perspective and to bear in mind that, even if Starmer does become Prime Minister in 2024, the norm in Britain is Tory rule with only occasional interludes of Labour government, which is generally centre-right in character anyway. In a nutshell, the argument set out in the tweet below would resonate far better in a Holyrood plebiscite election than it would in a Westminster plebiscite election.
Fellow Scots, I beg you, PLEASE seize the opportunity to get us out of this shit show 🙏🏻 Scotland deserves better.— Steph 🍀🏴 (@steffi0611) September 28, 2022
And then of course there is the obvious advantage of using a Holyrood election that would apply irrespective of the current crisis - the fact that it's a 'home fixture' in comparison to a Westminster 'away fixture' and that there'll be no struggle to get the media to focus on Scottish issues.
Are there any disadvantages? Well, there are maybe two. There's the two-ballot nature of Holyrood elections, which might make it harder to define what a mandate for independence actually looks like - if we win a majority of the popular vote on one ballot but not the other (as happened last year), we might not actually know whether we've "won" or not, and unionists would be unlikely to concede the point. On the plus side, though, the fact that it's a proportional representation system means that we wouldn't have to worry so much about the danger of vote-splitting, as long as the smaller pro-indy parties confine themselves to only standing against the SNP on the list. (But to be clear, the problem of vote-splitting wouldn't necessarily be totally non-existent, because any party needs at least 5% of the vote in at least one region to ensure that its list votes aren't 'wasted'.)
Then there's the precedent of voters punishing governments that call 'unnecessary elections' - witness for example the fate of Theresa May in 2017. The current SNP leadership are notoriously and almost excruciatingly risk-averse, and I'm quite sure this is the main reason they prefer using a scheduled Westminster election to an unscheduled Holyrood election. But the reality is that any sort of plebiscite election is in itself a risk - there are monumental downsides to setting yourself a target of 50% in a Westminster plebiscite election and ending up with 35%. So what you have to do is choose the least risky of the two risky options, and in my view that clearly means a snap Holyrood election. It can be justified on the basis of a Supreme Court judgement that leaves Scotland with no option but to take extraordinary measures to ensure its democratic voice is heard.
(Note: Before anyone claims that it's impossible to call a snap Holyrood election without a supermajority in the Scottish Parliament, it would actually be pretty easy to engineer. If the SNP-Green government resigns, there would be no viable alternative government on the current parliamentary arithmetic, and an early election would inevitably follow.)
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