The practical implications of using the 2024 general election as a de facto independence referendum

There’s one caveat that needs to be placed on my two previous posts from earlier today, which relates to the fact that the referendum legislation the Scottish Government are referring to the Supreme Court specifies that the question would be exactly the same one that was asked in 2014, ie. ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?”  Since the outset of devolution in 1999, it’s been widely felt that a referendum held without Westminster’s consent would have the best chance of being legal if it asked a more indirect question about whether the Scottish Government should open independence negotiations with Westminster.  The fact that Nicola Sturgeon is very deliberately spurning that tactic makes it look as if she’s actually trying to maximise the chances of the Supreme Court rejecting the legislation.  I would be incredibly cynical about that if she hadn’t so firmly committed herself to the Plan B of a plebiscitary election in 2024.  Nevertheless, it’s legitimate to ask questions about why the SNP leadership now seem to actively prefer a plebiscitary election to a legal referendum, given that they’ve spent several years lecturing us that a legal referendum is the only viable way of achieving independence.

The explanation is, as ever, likely to be bound up in the SNP’s own partisan interests, and I’m wondering if they fear a Scottish Labour surge at the general election if it looks like Starmer could become Prime Minister.  They may have calculated that turning the election into a de facto referendum is the best way of ensuring that Yes supporters don’t drift off to Labour.  It resolves the ‘Cat Boyd Paradox’, ie. the problem of left-wing Yes supporters who seem to sincerely believe that voting Labour at a general election is not irreconcilable with their backing for indy.

I’ve always said that there are dangers in using a Westminster election, rather than a Holyrood election, as a de facto referendum, because it’s harder to control the narrative – we have a London dominated media that will always tell us UK elections are about UK-wide issues.  That may explain why pro-indy parties in combination won an absolute majority in the Holyrood list vote last year, but not at the Westminster election in 2019.  But let’s accentuate the positive – there has been one occasion in the past when Yes parties won more than 50% of the vote at a Westminster election, so that shows it can be done in theory.  It happened in 2015 in the very special post-indyref atmosphere, and it may well be that a plebiscitary election is a potential way of recreating that atmosphere.

I would imagine it’s also occurred to the SNP that even if Yes parties fall short of a popular vote majority, they can still win a majority of seats with the help of first-past-the post.  That would allow them to muddy the waters with a ‘contested mandate’.  The biggest threat to a majority in terms of seats would be a formal unionist electoral pact – but I just can’t see that happening, because it would be tantamount to a unionist concession that the election is functioning as an independence referendum.

One obvious practical issue is what the non-SNP pro-indy parties will do at the 2024 election.  The SNP are in coalition with the Greens, so those two parties will undoubtedly have already nailed things down between them.  I hope to goodness there’s no electoral pact allowing the Greens a clear run in one or two constituencies, because there are plenty of people who would vote SNP but would never vote Green. From a popular vote perspective, we can’t afford to squander those votes.  

As far as my own party Alba are concerned, we’re all still processing today’s announcement, but it’s pretty much inconceivable that we would do anything to impede a serious attempt by the SNP to secure an outright independence mandate – exactly what we’ve been begging them to do from the start.  So I would imagine we’d end up backing the SNP in the vast majority of constituencies.  The only real question mark would be over the two constituencies in which Alba currently have the incumbent MPs.  There will be considerable thought on the latter point, I’m sure, but I’m very confident that any decision will be taken with the best interests of the independence cause in mind, rather than the partisan interests of the Alba Party.