Long term readers (and my handful of ever-beloved stalkers) may recall that I got involved in some pretty unpleasant exchanges last July with a number of people on social media who were being willfully obtuse about how a de facto referendum would work. Whenever I made the point that smaller pro-independence parties had to be very careful not to split the vote in a plebiscite election conducted by first past the post, these people would instantly pop up and say "but Nicola Sturgeon has already said it's a majority of votes that counts, not a majority of seats, so she can't have it both ways, can she?" The reality is that it's got nothing to do with Nicola Sturgeon having it both ways, because Nicola Sturgeon is not the Electoral Commission, or the UK Government, or God, or the international community, or any of the other authorities that a de facto referendum is trying to impress. She can't just set whatever "rules" she likes and expect everyone else to defer to her decree. A vote in favour of independence will only give us leverage if it looks watertight to neutrals, and to the media, and to reasonable unionists. That's why setting a majority of the popular vote as the target for victory was not so much a choice as a statement of the inevitable - if we demanded independence negotiations on the basis of a majority of seats won on 35% of the vote, we'd just be laughed at. It's also why seats matter as well as votes, because in the real world losing seats would be regarded as complicating any mandate won on the popular vote.
However, I'm beginning to feel like it's the SNP rather than the smaller parties that need to be reminded that Nicola Sturgeon can't just make up "rules" as she goes on. If you look at the details of the second option put forward in the NEC proposal from earlier this month, the one about delaying the de facto referendum until Holyrood 2026, they're just absolutely laughable. A majority of the popular vote will still be required at the plebiscite in 2026, but paving the way for that will be an earlier mandate at Westminster 2024 - for which, randomly, only a majority of seats will be required, not a majority of votes. Why should anyone in London take that remotely seriously? They'll just say "you can't unilaterally pick and choose which elections you need a majority of votes and which you don't". It'll look like student politics or playground politics. If the SNP get 40% of the vote in 2024, people will wryly say "but that's OK, because they've self-identified a lower victory threshold for this particular election".
There are many excellent reasons why a plebiscite election must be held by 2024 at the latest, and should ideally be an early Holyrood election brought about by the entirely practical means that have been clearly identified. Avoiding turning the Yes movement into a laughing-stock may be the very best reason of the lot.
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