I've been taking a proper look at Marcus Carslaw's rather peculiar opinion piece in which he lambasts the idea of using the next Westminster election as a de facto independence referendum (which is official SNP policy, remember) but offers no alternative plan other than more "gradualism" and aiming for a "sufficiently large and consistent majority of voters" in support of independence. The latter will be correctly interpreted as meaning Carslaw adheres to the anti-democratic belief that if a narrow majority of voters support independence, the outcome should be that Scotland remains indefinitely trapped in the United Kingdom against its will.
The fascination of the article is that, if it had appeared a year ago, it would have been seen as Carslaw acting as a loyal outrider for the SNP leadership, and trying to prepare the ground for the independence campaign being quietly shelved for the foreseeable future. But now, if taken at face value, it's instead the peculiar spectacle of a 'do nothing' faction of the SNP rebelling against Nicola Sturgeon because they think she's being too radical. As I said on Twitter, the worry must be that she'll be so disconcerted by the novel experience of being 'outflanked on caution' by others within her own party that she'll start to question what she's doing.
The language Carslaw uses is quite funny and unwittingly revealing in some places. He queries whether the de facto referendum plan "fits into the gradualist strategy that the nationalist movement has successfully pursued for decades". This begs an obvious question - if gradualism has been so "successful", why has it lasted "decades" and why isn't Scotland independent as a result of it? And how would Carslaw measure further success in the future if gradualism is maintained? A cynic might suggest he'd be looking for it to last several more decades without independence being achieved.
My own view on gradualism is fairly simple. I don't think there was ever any realistic prospect of the Scottish public being bold enough to jump from direct London rule to outright independence in one go. A devolved Scottish Parliament within the UK was always a necessary stepping stone, so until devolution was achieved twenty-four years ago, gradualism was the only game in town for the SNP. But since devolution, gradualism only makes sense if it is actually effective in accruing more powers for the Scottish Parliament. If that was the case, I would continue to be an enthusiastic gradualist (and long-term readers will attest that I've never been dismissive of enhanced devolution in the way that other pro-indy bloggers are). The problem is that the complete opposite has been happening in recent years - by the SNP's own admission, there has been a "power grab" from Westminster leading to devolved powers actually being taken away.
I'd be interested to hear from Carslaw how he reconciles that trend with his narrative that gradualism has been a "success". Perhaps he'd argue that the power grab has to be set against the new powers that were won in 2014/15 by the Smith Commission process. But that doesn't make sense, because the Smith process wasn't actually a triumph for gradualism - it was instead triggered by an attempt to achieve independence as a "Big Bang" in 2014 and by the panicked unionist response to the near-success of that bid. If anything, that's a precedent that suggests the best results are achieved by ditching gradualism.
Perhaps because he's an SNP staffer and office bearer at branch level, Carslaw is careful not to directly call for the de facto referendum policy to be reversed. Instead, he demands clarity from the policy's proponents on how it "will deliver an independent Scotland". But why and how can that be the test? It's the SNP leadership and its fans in the 'do nothing' faction that have argued for years for immaculate constitutionality and legality, which is another way of saying that Scotland will only become independent at the UK government's discretion. Carslaw is therefore knowingly demanding the impossible when he implicitly asks how a plan to achieve independence can succeed against London's wishes. His own plan, such as it is, would fail exactly the same test. He can't explain how twiddling our thumbs while we wait for a "sufficient majority" will deliver independence. If anything, a supermajority in the polls for independence, even assuming that's remotely achievable, will just give Westminster an even greater incentive to refuse an independence referendum.
Perhaps the most revealing word Carslaw uses in his article is "risk". The de facto referendum is a "high-risk gamble" and is therefore unconscionable. If Carslaw has any sort of creed or discernible strategy, it seems to amount to nothing more than the avoidance of risk. But again, can he explain how running away from risk at all costs will deliver independence?
The reality is that it is not in our own hands to deliver independence - that will always require agreement with London. But what is in our own hands is to secure a mandate for independence. Securing a mandate is a necessary prerequisite for negotiating an independence settlement. You can only secure a mandate if you actually take the risk of seeking one. The proponents of a de facto referendum, including to her credit Nicola Sturgeon, want to seek a mandate. Carslaw, it would appear, does not. He is therefore considerably further away from passing his own "delivery" test than those he denounces.
There's also a touch of intellectual dishonesty from Carslaw when he points out, as so many of us have, that using a Westminster election as a de facto referendum carries the disadvantage of disenfranchising both EU citizens and 16 and 17 year olds. Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that this means a snap Holyrood election should be used instead, he fatuously pretends that the problem is completely insoluble.
I can only speculate as to why a young independence supporter would be quite so evangelical about not actually trying to win independence for a few more decades. He's probably in a decent position to seek selection as SNP parliamentary candidate, and perhaps he fancies a full three-decade career in Westminster before independence happens. Maybe I'm doing him a disservice, but I'm struggling to think of a more plausible explanation.