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.