Saturday, June 24, 2023

The "Schrodinger's De Facto" announced by Yousaf today is a deliberately ambiguous and contradictory policy - but it may still represent a step forward *if* he can be held to it

The minutes immediately after Humza Yousaf reached the key part of his speech were rather comical, with the BBC claiming that he had announced a de facto independence referendum, LBC claiming that he had announced something even more radical than a de facto referendum, and Kenny "Devo or Death" Farquharson claiming that he had announced that the de facto referendum had been scrapped.  The confusion was, of course, wholly intentional.  Yousaf's team had callibrated the speech so that everyone would hear precisely what they wanted to hear, and if someone didn't have any particular preference, they would just hear one of the three possibilities roughly at random.  

The formulation the leadership have come up with is what happens when you try to please both the people who want the SNP to be seeking an outright mandate for independence, and the people who want the SNP to only be seeking yet another mandate for a Section 30 order that everyone knows will never be granted.  It's a pretence that you can seek both types of mandate at one and the same time, which of course you can't. But for as long as that pretence is the holding position, you can kind of say that all of the journalists were both right and wrong simultaneously.  What Yousaf has proposed can't really be described as a de facto referendum, because the retention of a conventional referendum as the preferred outcome of post-election negotiations with the UK Government implies that an election victory would not in itself be a sufficient mandate for independence.  But it also can't really be described as *not* being a de facto referendum, because if you clearly state in the SNP manifesto that a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence, and if the SNP win more than 50% of the vote, that would plainly constitute the first ever democratic mandate for independence.  The more fair-minded journalists down south would actually acknowledge that, and it could potentially build some pressure on the UK Government.  There would be a very clear contrast with earlier SNP election victories in the devolution era, when Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and others always replied to the question "is this a vote in favour of independence?" with "no, it's a vote for an SNP government which will give people a choice on independence at a later stage".  

So it isn't a de facto, it isn't *not* a de facto - it's some sort of weird purgatory that hovers ambiguously in between the two concepts.  An alternative interpretation of how we've ended up here is that it wasn't a straight compromise between two warring camps, but instead a case of the opponents of a de facto referendum winning the leadership election and then completely changing their minds very soon afterwards due to the opinion poll evidence showing that independence is now far more popular than the SNP.  They had previously assumed that independence would be a drag on SNP support, and then suddenly realised the opposite was true, but because they had made such a song and dance about a de facto referendum being the worst idea since the "Ed Stone", they had to find a dignified way of making a U-turn.  So they hurriedly came up with a plan very similar to a de facto referendum, but called it something else as a face-saving exercise.  I don't think that interpretation really holds water, though, because this plan must have already been devised a couple of weeks ago when both Yousaf and Jamie Hepburn were persevering with the line that there needed to be a sustained supermajority in order to somehow force the UK Government into granting a Section 30 order.

Which of course flatly contradicts the apparent revelation today that Team Humza will define a mandate for independence as being a majority of seats, not a majority of the popular vote, meaning that they're actually setting a lower threshold for victory than Nicola Sturgeon did.  No obvious sign of joined-up thinking there.  Last year, I found myself among a small minority within the Alba Party, because I said that it was actually perfectly reasonable for Sturgeon to declare that a majority of votes would be required - I felt she was just stating the obvious, because nobody (not the public, not the London establishment, not the international community) would be remotely impressed by a mandate that fell short of that, and if she didn't acknowledge that truth upfront, the voters would think she was trying to win independence by tricksy or underhand means.  But most Alba people, all the way up to Alex Salmond, disagreed with me and felt strongly that a majority of seats should be sufficient for an independence mandate.  Logically they ought to now welcome the unexpected fact that Yousaf has decided they were right and Nicola Sturgeon was wrong, although he could have a hell of a job defending that position during the general election campaign.

To my mind, the biggest problem with what Yousaf has announced is that the creative ambiguity he's deliberately built in will be picked up on by voters, who won't believe that they would 'really' be voting for independence if they put their cross in the SNP box.  That could cancel out any benefit of trying to galvanise the independence vote, in a way that wouldn't have happened if Yousaf had simply stuck with the clarity of Sturgeon's de facto referendum message.  Nevertheless, if the SNP and other parties with similar language in their manifestos were to somehow pull off a popular vote majority, in spite of Yousaf making that majority less likely due to his own strategic missteps, it would be the first time in history that Scotland has voted in favour of independence, and for that reason I would have to say that today marks a step forward - provided that Yousaf doesn't backtrack on what he's said, which is always the million dollar question given how many cowardly U-turns the SNP leadership have performed since 2017.  I had thought that the way Nicola Sturgeon practically signed in blood the original de facto referendum policy meant that it couldn't be scrapped, and yet they still found a way of backtracking by the extreme method of changing leader.  

So nothing can be relied upon - although the alternative way of looking at it is that what happened today is evidence that it wasn't actually possible to reverse the Sturgeon plan after she announced it, or not in full anyway.  You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Friday, June 23, 2023

"SETTLED WILL" SENSATION on eve of special SNP conference: yet ANOTHER Find Out Now poll shows a majority of Scottish voters want independence

I can't 100% guarantee the provenance of this, but Marcia has directed me towards a website claiming that yet another Find Out Now poll is showing Yes in the lead - if it's confirmed, that'll be six out of six for Yes in polls conducted by that firm.

Should Scotland be an independent country?  (Find Out Now, 13th-20th June 2023)

Yes 47.9%
No 45.0%

I can't find the figures with Don't Knows excluded, but a rough recalculation suggests Yes may just about make it to 52% when rounded to the nearest whole number.  Very disappointingly, it looks like Find Out Now have introduced weighting by recalled 2014 indyref vote in this poll - that's a massive step backwards given the danger of false recall from a vote that took place almost a decade ago.  However, there's some reassurance to be gained from the fact that Yes still have the lead even after that retrograde methodological change.

Another limitation of this poll is that 16 and 17 year olds are excluded from the sample, which may conceivably have led to a very slight understatement of the Yes vote.  

The news that the Scottish people have maintained their settled will in favour of independence (assuming Find Out Now are getting it broadly right) should heap further pressure on the Yousaf leadership to restore Nicola Sturgeon's de facto referendum plan.  Certainly, for what it's worth, I'd urge all attendees of this weekend's SNP special conference to lend their full support to the excellent proposal Ash Regan will be putting forward.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Winnie Ewing effect

Many of the tributes to Winnie Ewing, who died yesterday, will rightly focus on her victory as the SNP candidate in Hamilton in 1967, which literally changed Scottish politics forever.   Apart from a few weeks at the end of the Second World War, the SNP had never held representation in Westminster prior to that landmark moment, but they've held it continuously ever since.

But for my money her biggest electoral achievement of all was single-handedly transforming the European Parliament constituency of Highlands & Islands from a three-way SNP-Liberal-Conservative marginal into an SNP fortress over the course of a decade and a half.  She was the SNP candidate on all four occasions that the enormous constituency, covering roughly one-eighth of the population of Scotland, was contested.

Highlands and Islands results in European Parliament elections:


SNP 34.0%
Liberals 30.7%
Conservatives 26.1%
Labour 9.2%


SNP 41.8% (+7.8)
Liberal-SDP Alliance 28.1% (-2.6)
Conservatives 16.0% (-10.1)
Labour 14.1% (+4.9)


SNP 51.5% (+9.7)
Conservatives 16.8% (+0.8)
Labour 13.9% (-0.2)
Greens 9.5% (n/a)
Social and Liberal Democrats 8.3% (-19.8)


SNP 58.4% (+6.9)
Labour 15.6% (+1.7)
Conservatives 12.3% (-4.5)
Liberal Democrats 10.1% (+1.8)
Greens 2.4% (-7.1)
UKIP 0.8% (n/a)
Natural Law Party 0.4% (n/a)

Make no mistake - a big part of those increases was the ever-growing personal vote for Winnie Ewing.  Not all of it, admittedly, because the SNP made big advances nationally in both 1989 and 1994, with the latter being at the time the highest national share of the vote (32.6%) the party had ever received in any type of election, even eclipsing October 1974.  Nevertheless, the bulk of the Westminster constituencies that overlapped with Highlands & Islands remained firmly in Liberal Democrat hands until as late as 2015, which gives you a guide as to the extent to which Winnie Ewing was denying gravity with her own results.

At around the time she left the European Parliament in 1999, she became one of Holyrood's inaugural MSPs, and famously chaired the first session, taking the opportunity to utter a line that caught the popular imagination so much that BBC Scotland even integrated it into their title sequence for the official opening of the Parliament a couple of months later: "The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened."  To this day her children Fergus Ewing and Annabelle Ewing carry on the family tradition as MSPs, with the latter serving as a current Deputy Presiding Officer of the Parliament.  Another famous member of the Ewing clan was Fergus's late wife Margaret, who was leader of the SNP group at Westminster between 1987 and 1999.

It's thus horribly ironic that stories started surfacing this week that the Yousaf leadership plans to withdraw the SNP whip from Fergus Ewing.  The blogger Paul Kavanagh even used his column in The National yesterday to call for the SNP to give Mr Ewing the boot.  The timing is of course just a tragic coincidence, and I'm sure Paul will be mortified about it.  Nevertheless, out of common decency it's surely now unthinkable that the SNP will go ahead with their plan of expelling Mr Ewing in the short-term, and hopefully they'll now have the space to reflect and forget the whole thing in the longer-term.  The Kavanagh column implied, as the controversial journalist David Leask might put it, that Mr Ewing is somehow not "real SNP".  But as SNP members look back on his mother's legacy, they'll surely ask themselves the simple question: "if the Ewings aren't real SNP, who actually is?"  

Paul Kavanagh branded Mr Ewing a Tory, and said the only thing that separates him from "yer actual Tories" was his belief in Scottish independence.  I doubt if that's true, actually, but even if it is, and with all due respect to Paul, it's belief in independence that is supposed to separate SNP politicians from unionist parties.  Fergus Ewing might have been a Tory if he hadn't believed in independence.  Margo MacDonald might have been Labour.  Kate Forbes might have been a Lib Dem.  But they all joined the same party because it was independence they had in common.  But now?  Why would it seem so obvious to Paul Kavanagh that independence-supporting Fergus Ewing belongs outside the SNP and the (effectively) opponent of independence Ben Macpherson belongs within it?  What does that tell us about the core principle of the SNP in 2023 - the one that defines who is inside the tribe and who is outside?  Is it trans rights? Pronouns? Bottle return schemes?

Hopefully today's tragic news will play a small part in helping the SNP to step back, and reconnect with what they once were as a party, and should never, ever have stopped being.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The SNP need to start getting real - they face a full-blown emergency, and they will not resolve it with "steady as she goes" or with minor tweaks

A few weeks ago, I pointed out that polling had lulled the SNP into a false sense of security in the run-up to the 2017 general election.  As it's Panelbase polling we have at the forefront of our minds just now, let's use a Panelbase poll as an example of what I meant.  With around a week or ten days to go until polling day in 2017, this is what Panelbase were showing - 

SNP 42%
Conservatives 30%
Labour 20%
Liberal Democrats 5%

No obvious cause for alarm there - the SNP were clearly going to lose a few seats to the Tories, but the vast bulk of their seats looked rock solid, because Labour were the only potential challengers in most of them, and the lead over Labour was almost as big as it was in the landslide of 2015.  But when the real votes were counted, the SNP were five points lower than Panelbase had suggested and Labour were seven points higher, wiping out more than half of that lead.  Six SNP seats were lost to Labour, and it was very close to being a lot, lot worse.  The Tories also made more gains than expected, because in the end they trailed the SNP by only eight points, not the twelve suggested by Panelbase.

Now, it may be there was simply a systemic error in the polling.  But it's also possible that there was genuine movement against the SNP as the campaign drew to a close, due to the disadvantages any Scotland-only party has always faced and always will face in UK general elections.  (You can guarantee that next year our wonderful impartial BBC will want so-called "Prime Ministerial Debates" featuring only Sunak and Starmer.) So just imagine for the sake of argument that next year's campaign goes as badly for the SNP as 2017 did.  Taking last night's Panelbase poll as a starting-point, a similar type of further swing to Labour could see a result along the lines of - 

Labour 41%
SNP 29%
Conservatives 17%
Liberal Democrats 9%

Seats projection (with changes from 2019 general election result): Labour 41 (+40), Conservatives 7 (+1), SNP 6 (-42), Liberal Democrats 5 (+1)

The above is not in any sense a prediction, because sometimes momentum can catch you out by going into reverse very dramatically.  2017 actually offers a demonstration of that phenomenon, because the wheels seemed to be coming off for Jeremy Corbyn in the local elections of May 2017, and nobody would ever have believed that Labour would be making gains and depriving the Tories of a majority just a month later.  But nevertheless, I do think the above numbers are a perfectly reasonable illustration of what could easily happen if the SNP don't take drastic action to change the direction of travel.  

As you can see, it would be an unmitigated calamity for the independence movement.  We'd be right back to where we were prior to the 2014 indyref, with the SNP reduced once again to fringe status in the House of Commons.  And once Labour have their feet under the table in those Westminster constituencies, it would be very difficult to dislodge them.  The SNP might find themselves once again ghettoised as a Holyrood party, which would make independence more difficult to win.  The London establishment will scoff at the idea that independence is even on the agenda for as long as the SNP have only a handful of Commons seats, given that Nicola Sturgeon didn't come close to the Holy Grail when she had 48 or 56 seats.

This is why I despair at the current lack of perspective in SNP ranks.  Remember the leadership loyalist Twitter account who said during the early spring that party members had the luxury of electing someone as unpopular as Humza Yousaf, because if he turned out to be an election-loser at the "less important" Westminster vote, it wouldn't matter that much because they could then correct the mistake in time for the 2026 Holyrood election?  Well, no, actually, you don't have that luxury.  The Westminster election isn't one you can afford to be drubbed in, because you and the independence cause might never recover from that.  I sometimes get the impression that people think 20-30 seats is the lowest the SNP can possibly fall to next year, but as you can see above that's far from the case.  Under first-past-the-post, relatively small movements can result in total carnage. And frankly, I think this is a mistake that even Kate Forbes' allies are making.  All the mood music suggests they think they can afford to wait until Yousaf crashes and burns at the general election, but in the very plausible worst case scenario, there may not actually be much left for a new leader to inherit.  The SNP need to save themselves before the general election, not afterwards.

Perhaps the most dispiriting part of the Sunday Times' write-up of the new Panelbase poll was the revelation that SNP MPs under Stephen Flynn are alive to the danger they face, but that their proposed "solution" is to double down on Yousaf's shelving of independence rather than reverse it.  I'm sure it's possible to squint at focus group results and convince yourself that Labour can be beaten at a general election in Scotland by sidelining independence and concentrating on the bread and butter issues that "people really care about", but the stark reality is that you will just never get away from the fact that Labour can form a government at Westminster and the SNP can't.  It doesn't matter how wonderful your proposals are - people will stop listening because you can't do anything about them.  What you really need to do is put your proposals in the context of independence - say "this is how we will fix the economy and public services in an independent Scotland" and invite people to vote SNP in a de facto referendum so that independence negotiations can start.

As far as the problem of Yousaf's leadership is concerned, I hold no brief for Kate Forbes.  If I was going to construct my perfect SNP leader, I'd want someone a bit more left-wing than Forbes, a bit more socially liberal, and certainly someone who is committed to a de facto independence referendum (Forbes distanced herself from that plan during the leadership election almost as much as Yousaf did).  But if you look at the qualities that are required in the current circumstances, Forbes is quite plainly the nearest fit the SNP have actually got.  She's liked, trusted and regarded as credible by the public.  She's capable of injecting some optimism and ambition on the subject of independence while all Yousaf does is drain the life from everyone's veins.  And most importantly of all, she would represent a decisive break from the Sturgeon leadership, whereas Yousaf represents a continuation of it (as indeed would other potential alternative leaders such as Angus Robertson and John Swinney).

*  *  *

I launched the Scot Goes Pop fundraiser for 2023 a few weeks ago, and the running total has now passed £1800.  The target figure is £8500, however, so there's still quite some distance to travel.  If you'd like to help Scot Goes Pop continue by making a donation, please click HERE.  Many thanks to everyone who has donated so far.