Saturday, October 28, 2023
When I was a student, I remember reading a book about the (short) history of the SDP. It intriguingly stated that the only Tory MP to defect to the party had crossed the floor "literally", which I took to mean that he had reached the end of a speech, announced he was defecting, and theatrically walked across to the opposite side of the Commons chamber and sat down with his new colleagues. I'm not sure whether that actually happened, and even if it did it's effectively lost to posterity, because there were no TV cameras allowed in those days. So it was quite a privilege to actually be in the hall today for something equally theatrical - Alex Salmond announcing at the end of his leader's speech that Ash Regan had just joined Alba, and Ms Regan then immediately appearing on the platform to rapturous applause. If the BBC and STV weren't there to film such a moment of high drama, they have no-one but themselves to blame - although I'm sure Alba will be happy to share their own footage.
So what effect will this have? Above all else, credibility. Alba are now in the Scottish Parliament, which has become a six-party chamber. That will be reflected at least to some extent in media reporting from Holyrood, with Alba's voice being heard occasionally. Arguably this represents the same degree of credibility boost, albeit of a different type, that Alba spurned by not putting up a big name candidate in the Rutherglen by-election and seeking an electoral breakthrough. Some may even suggest that the whole reason for the Rutherglen decision was that the leadership privately knew Ms Regan's defection was coming and that they didn't want to take any risks with its potential impact - although ultimately defections can only take you so far, and true credibility will only flow from success at the ballot box.
Alba have also just bought themselves some time. Although they'll obviously do their best to hold Neale Hanvey's and Kenny MacAskill's seats, those are really difficult constituencies to defend - that would have been true for the SNP as much as it's true for Alba. There was a big danger that Alba would cease to have any elected representation at all after next year's general election, but that will no longer be the case, because Ash Regan is in place until 2026.
There will be opportunities going forward for the new Alba MSP to harry the First Minister on lack of progress towards independence, and on independence strategy, at FMQs. (She won't have automatic leader's questions due to Alba only having one seat, so she'll have to wait her turn, but the chances will come up occasionally.) That would have been one of the big prizes if Alba had won seats in 2021, so it's good that it's happening belatedly.
Paul Hutcheon affected weariness a few hours ago and suggested the SNP wouldn't be that bothered about losing Ash Regan. If he really believes that, he's a fool. This is a potential 'genie out of the bottle' moment - there was a good reason why the SNP were so euphoric about shutting Alba out completely in 2021. Now that Alba have their foot in the door of Holyrood, it becomes much easier to imagine them staying there.
The big question now is how many of the thousands of SNP members who voted for Ash Regan in the leadership election in March will follow her across to Alba. I must admit I'm a bit conflicted about that, because it was only with the second preferences of those people that Kate Forbes came so close to stopping Yousaf. If the SNP are ever to be reclaimed from the ruling clique, the votes of the more radical members will probably be needed. But I suppose every member will just have to make an individual decision about whether the SNP can be saved and is worth saving, or whether the greater impact can be made by joining Alba.
They say a politician should never hypothecate on failure, but then I'm not really a politician, and as UNIMAGINABLE as it may seem that I won't be elected the Alba Party's Membership Support Convener when the result is announced shortly, I'd better be ready for that eventuality because if I'm not elected I'll then immediately be going forward to the general NEC ballot, which I presume will once again be split into two separate votes for male and female candidates. This time you'll only be eligible to vote if you've registered for conference - although that's one of the rules I'll be arguing to change if I'm elected to the NEC.
If you'd like to see radical democratisation of the party, with the entire NEC and other national committees being elected by the whole membership, and perhaps with all members being able to participate in conference votes remotely, feel free to give me your first preference vote and I'll do my utmost to take that case forward.
As in previous years, I also pledge to keep a laserlike focus on the goal of obtaining independence. Any other preoccupations that could get in the way of that (and there are plenty) must fall by the wayside - it's as simple as that.
Thursday, October 26, 2023
There are various ways in which independence may be won - but it's not going to be won with a big petition
I've just been having a belated look at Robin McAlpine / Common Weal's plan for winning independence, although to be clear I've only read parts of the long document and I'm relying on the summaries in The National to fill in the gaps. This plan is something that has intrigued me for a good few months, because Robin said just after Humza Yousaf was elected SNP leader that he could see a way of winning independence in the near future but wasn't sure whether to say what it was publicly. Although I've often disagreed with him and could easily imagine not agreeing that his plan was workable, my interest was certainly piqued!
To start with what I do agree with, Robin is undoubtedly right to point out that trying to win international recognition for an independent Scotland "over the heads" of the UK Government is a complete non-starter. I've been saying that all along, and if you want proof of it you need look no further than what happened when Catalonia declared independence unilaterally. Not a single state recognised Catalonia's sovereignty - not even one of the 'rogue states' who might be thought to have nothing to lose by stirring the pot. Not even Venezuela did it. Scotland will get all the international recognition it requires on the day the UK Government grants recognition, and there is no way of circumventing that hurdle. So Robin is also right to say that the main task before us is to drag the UK Government to the negotiating table.
He may well also be right that peer-to-peer campaigning and a National Commission to answer detailed questions on independence have a part to play. But where I disagree with him is on the idea that we can and should forget about "process" because the type of campaigning he advocates can get us to 60% for Yes in the absence of a major democratic event such as a de facto referendum, and that once we do get to 60%, the game will be up for the UK. I'd be more inclined to turn all of that on its head and say that 60% probably isn't even attainable and that therefore what is required of us is to find a mechanism for allowing a mandate that falls short of that (probably well short) to be democratically recorded, and then to use that mandate as leverage to pressurise the UK Government.
I really struggle to understand the hostility to just getting on with using scheduled (or unscheduled) elections to seek an independence mandate. They would provide the focus for the type of campaigning Robin advocates, and they are a renewable resource - if you fail in one election, you can try again in the next. The psychological impact of winning 53% on an outright manifesto commitment to independence will not somehow be blunted by the fact that you only won, say, 36% at the previous outing - indeed if anything the reverse is true. And I have absolutely no doubt that an electoral mandate has far greater chance of forcing the UK Government's hand than Robin's idea of a petition. If London isn't impressed by Ipsos polls (which have fairly consistently shown a pro-independence majority), there's no chance of wowing the people that matter with what will inevitably be dismissed as an amateurish "Change.org effort".
I also think it's a tad odd that Robin prays in aid the supposed success of the Scottish Covenant Association in getting two million people to sign a petition in favour of Home Rule in the 1950s, because there could scarcely be a better example of how easy it is for Westminster to totally ignore petitions. I'd have thought it's beyond argument in retrospect that John MacCormick went down a blind alley with that wheeze and that he'd have been far better off sticking with party politics to achieve his aim, ideally in the SNP. Robin seems to imply (and apologies if I'm misreading this) that the value of the petition is that it led to the Kilbrandon Commission. That's well before my time, but I'm pretty sure it's historically bogus - Kilbrandon came about (tellingly) due to election results rather than petitions, namely Plaid Cymru's win in the 1966 Carmarthen by-election and the SNP's win in the 1967 Hamilton by-election. Its main recommendations were never implemented, of course, and devolution didn't happen until three decades later.
I also object as a matter of principle to the idea that we need a "supermajority settled will" before taking any action, because no supermajority is needed in a democracy, and because the only way of measuring it in the absence of electoral events is via opinion polls, which may well not be accurate. It's understandable that Alister Jack wants to put YouGov at the heart of the Scottish constitution, but why we'd want to follow him down that road is beyond me. Robin says the unionists have a stronger mandate than we do, but what does he mean by that unless he's taking dubious opinion poll results as gospel? For as long as Ipsos UK, widely regarded as the gold standard pollster, contradicts other firms by showing a Yes lead, we'd be very foolish indeed to just take it as read that there's a No majority, or even that there isn't a stable Yes majority already there.
But my biggest gripe with Robin is identical to the one I have with the SNP "delay" faction - it's not much use having a plan predicated on what you'll do when you get to 60% if you're not going to get to 60%, which you aren't. What you're actually doing is arguing for remaining in the UK indefinitely. Perhaps the only difference between Robin and the SNP "delay" faction is that we know Robin is sincere and therefore genuinely hasn't recognised this fatal flaw in his prospectus.
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If you're a member of the Alba Party, you now have only a few hours left to vote for me as Membership Support Convener. Go on, you know you want to! The link to vote should be in your inbox from a couple of weeks ago, and you can find my pitch for the election HERE.