Persuading the SNP leadership of the need for a Plan B is a triumph for the independence movement – we now need to park our cynicism and make this work

I’ve been astonished by some of the reactions on social media to the prospect of a plebiscite election in 2024 – and when I say ‘astonished’, I don’t just mean that I disagree with the reactions, I mean that I’m genuinely surprised.  For years we’ve been begging the SNP leadership to commit themselves to a credible Plan B in the event of an ongoing rejection of a Section 30 order, but I was very, very sceptical that we’d ever be able to persuade them to do that.  If you’d asked me two weeks ago whether I thought Nicola Sturgeon would unambiguously commit herself to using the 2024 Westminster election as a de facto plebiscite if a consultative referendum in 2023 was blocked, I’d have said that was very unlikely.

Having got so much of what we wanted, against all the odds, I’d have thought we would then have all fallen over ourselves to smooth the path towards a plebiscite election (should the Supreme Court ruling go the wrong way).  Instead, there’s been endless chatter on Twitter about using a plebiscite election to take on the SNP and to have as many pro-independence parties and candidates standing against each other as humanly possible.  With all due respect to the otherwise sensible people saying this stuff, it’s absolutely bats**t crazy.  As the Alba Party leader Alex Salmond has made clear in his statement, the objective has to be for us all to unite behind a single pro-independence candidate in each constituency.  The first-past-the-post voting system will punish us heavily if we don’t – a factor which is more important in a plebiscite election, not less so.

I think what’s probably going on here is that some people have become so alienated from the SNP that they’re finding it emotionally impossible to imagine being required to vote SNP to deliver independence.  So they’re casting around for plausible-sounding reasons why it would somehow be helpful to have multiple pro-indy parties directly battling against each other in a plebiscite election – but, of course, it really, really wouldn’t be.  One common argument is that seats don’t matter this time – all we need is 50% + 1 in the popular vote, and it therefore doesn’t matter if we lose seats by splitting the Yes vote.  By having multiple Yes parties to choose from, it is said, we would actually boost the combined vote for Yes parties, because there are supposedly people who would never vote SNP, but would vote Alba or Green.

Well, there are two answers to that.  Firstly, seats do matter.  We can undermine a mandate on the popular vote by needlessly throwing seats away, and we can buttress the mandate by maximising the number of pro-indy seats.  But more importantly, the idea that you increase the pro-indy vote by having multiple candidates to choose from is completely misconceived, because it looks at the problem from the wrong way round.  A single-issue election means exactly what it says – the objective is to convert voters to independence, to get them excited about it, and then to direct them to the option on the ballot paper that will deliver it, whether that be a Yes alliance, or the SNP on their own, or whatever.  If you try to squeeze out an extra 0.5% here or there by saying (for example) “here’s an independence option for people who dislike Sturgeon’s neoliberalism”, it’s fool’s gold because you’re undermining the clarity of the single issue message.

I’m not going to rehearse this point endlessly, though – there’s no need to, because I’m actually pretty confident that common sense will prevail and we’ll all be getting behind a single slate of candidates in any plebiscite election.  As I’ve said a few times, the trickiest part of the equation will probably be the two constituencies where Alba have the incumbent MPs.  Common sense would suggest that the SNP should give the incumbents a clear run (as the Liberal Democrats did with the remaining SDP MPs at the 1992 general election), but we know that the SNP have long since abandoned common sense and reason in their attitudes to the Alba Party.  However, even in those two constituencies, I believe the problem will somehow resolve itself, even if it’s not yet clear how.  There’s a tremendous incentive for the independence movement to clear the path towards victory.

The above is typical of the more negative reactions to my blogpost yesterday.  “It doesn’t matter what the SNP have committed themselves to, we can’t trust anything they say, this is just a way of getting Pete Wishart another five years at Westminster to do sod all”.  Well, frankly, if we’re quite as cynical as that, what was the point of pressuring the SNP to adopt this new strategy?  We might as well have just packed up and gone home several years ago, because although the pressure can come from the grassroots and other parties, it’s only the SNP leadership who can actually deliver what we want, and we’ve known that all along.  If we were ever going to achieve our objective, we were always bound to arrive at this moment where a leap of faith is required.  Yes, the SNP could just pocket a mandate at a plebiscite election and do nothing much with it apart from Mr Wishart getting even more comfy in his slippers.  But if you think about it, exactly the same could be true of a consultative referendum.  The important thing is that we’ve finally persuaded the SNP to decouple the problem of legally securing a mandate for independence from the problem of legally securing independence itself.  We now have a golden opportunity to secure the mandate, and we need to make damn sure we actually do that.  If we succeed, it’s possible we may subsequently need to hold the SNP’s feet to the fire as far as using the mandate is concerned – but that’s a battle for the future.  First things first.