Voters' favoured choice as next SNP leader (Panelbase / Sunday Times, 21st-24th February 2023)
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Voters' favoured choice as next SNP leader (Panelbase / Sunday Times, 21st-24th February 2023)
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You might remember that after the Supreme Court verdict last autumn, the Tories' Adam Tomkins seemed to panic because he realised that he and others had misstepped by being far too triumphalist. He had used a football score analogy to present the ruling as a crushing defeat for independence, which pretty obviously implied that the right to choose or reject independence lay in the hands of judges in London, rather than in the hands of the people of Scotland. So he hurriedly backtracked by deleting his tweet and then stressing that there was still a democratic route to independence, or to a vote on independence. He summed up that route as "persuasion". He said the ruling had simply left the legal decision in the hands of the UK Government & UK Parliament - but it was obviously unrealistic to expect London to allow the independence question to be revisited when public opinion hadn't changed much since the 2014 referendum. Support for independence had "only" increased from 45% to 50%, so barely no change at all. So what the SNP and the independence movement needed to do was increase the support in opinion polls for both independence and for a referendum to such a high level, and to a high level on such a sustained basis, that the UK Government would be bound to take note and allow a referendum.
What could possibly be wrong with any of that? Why shouldn't democrats in the independence movement have no difficulty in agreeing with every word? In fact, almost everything is wrong with it. None of it is consistent with the principle of democratic self-determination, and a fair bit of it is not even consistent with the basic principles of democracy itself. As I've pointed out before, it grants a massive de facto constitutional role to opinion polls, and indeed elevates the results of opinion polls higher - far higher - that the results of general elections or Scottish Parliament elections. Quite apart from that being a barking mad thing to do, it couldn't even possibly be considered democratically legitimate until and unless pollsters are under legal obligations to eliminate bias from both their questions and their methodology, in a way that all sides accept as fair. There used to be a time when the Tories would say "there's only one poll that counts and that's the poll of tens of millions of people on election day". Now it appears their message is "there's only one poll that counts, and that's a YouGov poll of 1000 people that we quite like the look of".
Tomkins also hinges everything on the narrative that there's essentially no difference between a Yes vote of 45% and a Yes vote of around 50%. That's plainly an absurdity that no true democrat could ever accept. 45% is what the BBC would - and repeatedly did - call a "decisive defeat", whereas 50% is a tie. If you can't see the difference between those two concepts, then the onus is on you to go away and reflect, not on those who take a different view.
Tomkins believes that there needs to effectively be a supermajority - that, say, 51% support for independence will not be enough to justify the people of Scotland being allowed to make a democratic decision. You only need to think about that for two seconds to see why it's not consistent with democracy - he's saying that if 51% (or quite possibly 54% or even 57%) of Scottish voters wish to leave the United Kingdom, the correct democratic outcome is for Scotland to be forced to remain in the United Kingdom against the majority's wishes. Indeed, he believes the majority should not even be allowed a vote in which to express those wishes.
Tomkins makes the UK Government the arbiter, totally at its own whim, of what the threshold for "sufficient" support is, and also what the threshold for "sustained" is. That of course also means that it can change "the rules" at any time it wishes, so that if a threshold of 55% over one year is met, we'll suddenly be told we actually need 58% over five years. Before we know it the threshold will stand at 75%.
The operative word in democratic self-determination is "self". There's no veto from the external master. The whole point of Nicola Sturgeon's strategy last year was to ensure that an exercise in democratic self-determination would definitely take place, in line with the clear mandate for a referendum received by the Scottish Government in 2021. If the Supreme Court ruled in our favour, the preferred option of a conventional referendum would go ahead as planned, and if it ruled in the other way, that would make no practical difference because we would simply move on to a de facto referendum. In either outcome we would define a mandate for independence as a simple majority of 50% + 1. The decision would be the decision, and it wouldn't have to be "sustained" for seven years of 73,241 successive opinion polls showing Yes at 63%+.
What Adam Tomkins is inviting us to do is to convert the Supreme Court ruling into a real defeat by ditching the de facto referendum, accepting the UK Government will make all the decisions from now on, and getting on with trying to impress the UK Governments with epic - and almost certainly unattainable - sustained supermajority runs in opinion polls. Not a single person in the SNP should have any problem in dismissing that as the anti-democratic outrage that it is. Instead, very senior members of the party, including the "free by 2050" faction led by Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith, the continuity leadership candidate Humza Yousaf, the MSP Tom Arthur, and frankly even Kate Forbes, have been queuing up to accept the Tomkins worldview practically word for word. Don't believe me? Well, consider the following -
1) Nicola Sturgeon intended that an independence mandate should be based on a simple majority on the day of the decision. Do Humza and co accept that, or do they believe that far more than 50% + 1 should be required and over a much longer period of time?
2) Nicola Sturgeon's purpose in having at a de facto referendum was that Scotland would control the process by which an act of self-determination could be made - we cannot, of course, control whether the UK Government respects the result or acts upon it, but that's a separate matter. Do Humza and co agree with that principle, or do they agree with Tomkins that instead of organising a democratic event for ourselves, we should hand over all control to the UK Government and get on with the near-impossible task of trying to "impress" the UK Government into "giving" us something?
3) Nicola Sturgeon believed that the decision on whether or not a democratic vote on independence is held should be made by the people in an election. Thus, because the people clearly decided in 2021 that a referendum should be held, there would definitely have to be either a referendum or a de facto referendum by the end of this term of office in 2026. Do Humza and co accept that principle, or do they agree with Tomkins that the Supreme Court ruling was a real defeat and that therefore the 2021 mandate for a referendum should be dishonoured, and that in future all decisions on referendums should be entirely at the discretion of the UK Government, informed only by whether there are ill-defined "high enough" numbers for Yes in opinion polls of 1000 people run by private polling firms such as YouGov?
I included Kate Forbes above in the list of people surrendering to the Tomkins worldview, and I think that's unavoidable given one or two clear statements she's made during the leadership campaign so far. However, call me a hopeless optimist, but the type of people supporting Ms Forbes does still leave me with some lingering hope that a victory for her would not quite lead us into the graveyard for independence that Mr Yousaf's candidacy represents. Obviously by far the best outcome would be an outright win for Ash Regan, but whether that's realistically possible, I'm not sure.
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So for those of you who saw my post earlier today about the poll of SNP voters showing another clear lead for Kate Forbes, you'll know that I raised the question of how a big a percentage of the poll was conducted before the witch-hunt against Ms Forbes started. The fieldwork for the poll opened on Monday, and it wasn't really until Monday night that the media pile-on started.
I've now been informed by an authoritative source ("I'm hearing that..." as Laura Kuenssberg would say) that the fieldwork didn't actually begin until 5pm on Monday evening, which should mean that almost all of it took place post-witch-hunt, or post-the-start-of-witch-hunt at any rate. That could be extremely good news for Ms Forbes, because it may mean that her popularity has proved far more resistant to concerns about her religious views than many people were banking on. However, as ever, we'll just have to await more evidence.
A new poll related to the SNP leadership election is out. Crucially it has fieldwork dates from after the witch-hunt against Kate Forbes got underway, although there's a caveat on that - the poll opened on Monday, and if memory serves me right the witch-hunt didn't get properly underway until Monday evening. So much depends on what percentage of responses were received by then. It's also a poll of SNP voters only.
Preferred SNP leader, SNP voters only (Opinion Matters / BIG Partnership, 20th-22nd February 2023)
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A new full-scale Scottish poll from YouGov appeared last night, and it cleared up some outstanding questions from the previous one (more on that later), but of most interest to us at the moment is that it has personal ratings for the SNP leadership candidates. For the first time in any poll that I'm aware of, Ash Regan is included.
Net personal ratings:
I must admit I burst out laughing when I heard Stewart McDonald doesn't want independence until 2050. I'm past the point of despair now, it's just sheer comedy. Yes, another three decades should give Stew the chance to "steel the mandate to an unprecedented level".— James Kelly (@JamesKelly) February 22, 2023
Fun game for the evening: work out what age you will personally be in 2050, Stewart McDonald's new target date for independence. Will radical life extension technologies be required for YOU to see indy?— James Kelly (@JamesKelly) February 22, 2023
Oh gosh. I have defended The National to the hilt over many years but this does not look like a paper that is being neutral in a crucial leadership election. I hope they don't turn too obviously on Ash Regan as well, or they could lose a lot of trust.https://t.co/q00zu1Simt— James Kelly (@JamesKelly) February 21, 2023
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I said last night that I thought Kate Forbes' personal popularity meant that she'd probably be able to come through the current controversy relatively unscathed, but that there was also an alternative school of thought. A day later, it looks increasingly like the alternative school of thought is being proved right, with several of Ms Forbes' prominent backers hurriedly abandoning her. I must say the actions of those people is pretty extraordinary, because Ms Forbes' views on social issues were already well-known before yesterday, and if it was being automatically assumed that she was bound to publicly walk those views back, that was astoundingly presumptuous. But nevertheless what has happened creates a kind of 'reverse momentum' that encourages other people to withdraw support or to start looking upon Ms Forbes as an unsuitable candidate. In a nutshell, the wheels seem to be coming off her campaign, which leaves us staring into the abyss of a victory for the candidate who polls show is by far the most disliked by the public. That would be a grotesque outcome, and it would not come about because anyone particularly wants Humza Yousaf as First Minister. It would instead happen by default because there aren't sufficient people willing to make a positive choice for either of his opponents. Ms Forbes doesn't have enough support due to the strength of her religious views, while Ash Regan is hampered by being less well known than the other candidates, and to some extent also because of her stance on the gender issue.
There's still one obvious way that Kate Forbes could prevent this calamity, however. If she simply reverses what she said about watering down the independence strategy, and announces that she will instead be sticking with Nicola Sturgeon's plans for a de facto referendum, she would rally committed independence supporters to her banner. Those people would be prepared to forgive her all manner of things if she would only give them a strong enough reason to, and the prospect of winning independence in the near future would be enough to do the trick - especially as her leading opponent now looks like essentially a devolutionist candidate. And the beauty of it is that nobody would be able to paint her as a mad radical, because she'd simply be keeping faith with Nicola Sturgeon's own policy - it would be up to Mr Yousaf to explain why he wanted the SNP to perform a U-turn.
Kate Forbes with charisma, experience at the highest level of government, and prepared to offer a credible path to independence in the here and now, would be a package capable of overcoming the disadvantages that have become so apparent over the last 24 hours. But remove the red meat for independence supporters from that package, and I'm no longer convinced she can win.
We are currently on a trajectory leading to a Humza Yousaf leadership, and thus potentially a unionist government after the 2026 Scottish Parliament election. Someone in the SNP has to take decisive action to change that trajectory before it's too late, and I'd suggest the greatest onus at the moment is on Kate Forbes.
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It's being claimed on social media that senior people in Kate Forbes' own campaign team have said that she "f***ed it" with her admission that she would have voted against equal marriage when the issue came before parliament. I'm not sure whether that's true or not. There are two schools of thought -
1) Kate Forbes is so popular due to her personal qualities that episodes like this will only cause her minor harm. The SNP membership will mostly be tolerant of her private views because she has promised not to impose them on the party or the country.
2) The SNP has now become a party of 'liberal intolerance' and it can no longer live with a leader who holds 'unacceptable' views, even in private. The only way someone like Kate Forbes can ever win is by getting out the sackcloth and ashes and publicly recanting her beliefs, which she was clearly never going to do in a million years.
I'm more inclined to theory 1), but let's just assume for the sake of argument that 2) is closer to the mark. In one way perhaps I should be excited, because it's become clear that Ash Regan is the only candidate who has a credible strategy for winning independence in the here and now rather than in some far distant hypothetical future. I therefore want Ash Regan to win, and in theory, anything that harms Kate Forbes should give Ms Regan a better chance of prevailing. The problem is, though, that it also gives Humza Yousaf a much better chance of winning, and realistically he is the leading challenger to Ms Forbes at this moment.
The "ditch the de facto" plotters who are lining up behind Humza Yousaf regard themselves as the SNP realists, and set themselves in contrast to fundamentalist hotheads who would supposedly ruin the chances of independence with their impatience and ill-discipline. Well, it's high time for the realists to get real about one basic truth: you have backed the wrong horse. One thing that should unite all Yessers, whether fundamentalist or gradualist, "transphobe" or "misogynist", is that we need a pro-independence government to remain in power, and Humza Yousaf is - objectively and by some distance - the candidate least likely to deliver that. The polls are unanimous in giving him horrendous personal ratings, and most importantly of all, he is significantly less popular than the Labour leader Anas Sarwar. It is entirely conceivable Mr Yousaf would lead the SNP to defeat in the Holyrood election of 2026, bringing Labour back to power and putting an end to the independence cause for the foreseeable future.
So I say to the self-styled realists: if you really cannot live with Kate Forbes or Ash Regan, then for the love of God pick a different champion. Persuade Angus Robertson to change his mind, or draft in another semi-electable Sturgeon loyalist. But the person to pick up the pieces from any Forbes implosion simply cannot be Humza Yousaf, otherwise independence is sunk, the SNP is sunk, and your precious careers are sunk with them.
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I'm a little surprised by Angus Robertson's decision not to stand for the leadership, but I'm not totally astounded, and that's for two reasons. Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon's representatives on Earth like Mhairi Hunter have been very noticeably coming out for Humza Yousaf rather than Mr Robertson. Although there was always a chance Ms Hunter had suddenly developed some independent opinions of her own, that didn't seem very likely somehow. And secondly, Stuart Campbell made a cryptic comment a few days ago about how he didn't think Mr Robertson would stand, and that analysis didn't sound to me like the product of deep personal reflection - I think it had come direct from a voice down the blower. In fact I may even be able to hazard an educated guess as to who that voice belonged to.
We're now left with a fascinating race. Initially it looked like we were going to see an unbalanced contest between an already strong frontrunner candidate who would also have the additional advantage of the full support of the current Sturgeon/Murrell-backed hierarchy, and the leading outsider candidate, who might or might not have been Kate Forbes. Now it's the outsider candidate who will be the clear frontrunner, and although there will still be a hierarchy-backed candidate in the shape of Mr Yousaf, he will need to use that advantage to overcome what looks like a clear deficit from the start. That's a very different proposition and we'll now have to see whether any dirty tricks the current leadership can throw at Ms Forbes will be sufficient to close the gap. Frankly, if the Sturgeonite rearguard action succeeds, it's going to be just as bad for the SNP's electoral chances as it will be for the cause of independence, because the polls are unanimous in showing that Mr Yousaf would be a very unpopular First Minister.
Plus there's also the wildcard of Ash Regan, whose stated programme has deservedly guaranteed her the support of practically all truly committed independence supporters. However we have to be realistic and remember that the SNP membership has proved itself in recent years to be a strangely conservative group of people who quite often seek out the comfort blanket of the least radical option.
At this stage my money would be strongly on Kate Forbes, although much will depend on how resilient she'll prove as she takes an inevitable hammering from the usual suspects over her religious views in the coming weeks.
And whatever Mr Robertson's reasons for not standing, I think we should salute him for doing the movement a tremendous favour. Although my main concern about him was that I doubted he had a credible strategy for winning independence, a victory for him would also have further intensified the toxic division in the movement between Salmond and Sturgeon supporters. There is now an opportunity to move forward with a leader who can transcend that split - as long as Mr Yousaf is unsuccessful, of course.
Well, regardless of my speculations of a couple of hours ago, Kate Forbes seems to have been quoted backtracking from a de facto independence referendum, so I don't think there's much doubt now that I want Ash Regan to win. That's a tough ask, but we'll see.— James Kelly (@JamesKelly) February 20, 2023
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50%+1 of combined votes from pro-independence parties in any WM or HR election is a clear instruction from the electorate that we commence withdrawal negotiations from the U.K. Independence - nothing less pic.twitter.com/egYyyeDa8c— Ash Regan MSP (@AshtenRegan) February 19, 2023
This is excellent - the sort of 100% clarity I was hoping for from at least one candidate. If other candidates deliberately use vague language in trying to explain how they will win independence, ask them why they're not matching this.https://t.co/txkGn5L5TF— James Kelly (@JamesKelly) February 19, 2023
I'm not the only one who's impressed. If I was Ash Regan I'd put this at the top of the campaign website like a theatre review.— James Kelly (@JamesKelly) February 19, 2023
"Amazing" - Blair McDougallhttps://t.co/TJF3i8ySVX
I said a couple of days ago that it was inevitable that at least one SNP leadership candidate would emerge with a credible, highly specific and daring plan for winning independence, and that person would deserve the full support of SNP members and the wider movement. Ash Regan has now hit that threshold, so the only remaining question is whether any other candidate will match what she's done. If not, we'll all be getting our prayer-mats out and hoping Ms Regan wins.
I've been saying all along that the closing off of the referendum path - which is the fault of the British state and not of the independence movement - is an opportunity rather than a setback as long as we make it one. What it does is liberate us once and for all from the tyranny of the 'once in a generation' and 'we only get one more shot at this' narratives, which have been giving the 'do nothing' faction the excuse to run in terror from any opportunity to actually win independence. There's no longer any need to refrain from shooting on goal because you're trying to set up the 'perfect score'. The only limit on the number of times you can use an election as a de facto independence referendum is the number of elections that take place. And a Westminster election is never more than five years away. A Holyrood election is never more than five years away. If you're happy to use either a Westminster or Holyrood election, opportunities might come up roughly every two or three years.
Of course it's easy to see why the likes of Blair McDougall think that de facto referendums should - for some unspecified reason - have the scarcity of actual referendums, but why in God's name would we let Blair McDougall set the rules? All Ash Regan is promising is that we more or less revert to the pre-devolution principle that the SNP go into every general election seeking a mandate for independence. Famously, even Margaret Thatcher herself accepted that principle, and acknowledged that Scotland would become independent if the SNP won a majority in a general election - and that meant any general election, without any arbitrary limits. To her, a mandate for independence in 1987 would have had just as much validity as a mandate for independence in 1983 or 1979. There is no expiry date on a country's right to democratic self-determination.
I said yesterday that I don't think Ash Regan can win because she's best known for her stance on the gender issue, which puts her at odds (we assume) with the majority of SNP members. I still fear that's the case, but she's doing absolutely the right thing in trying to overcome that disadvantage - she's putting independence strategy rather than the gender issue at the heart of her campaign pitch. Even in 2023, independence is what SNP members care about most. An additional problem for her is that she's less well known than some of the other likely candidates, and the extreme haste with which the SNP hierarchy are deliberately running this campaign gives her less time and scope to introduce herself. But again, that means she's been extremely wise in coming out of the blocks so fast, and in setting a gold standard for independence strategy that the other candidates are now effectively being dared to meet.
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