Yes, James Mitchell, of course there’s such a thing as a de facto referendum

For many years, Alex Massie regarded Nicola Sturgeon as a fellow traveller.  He thought – and he was probably right – that she shared his view that the only truly dignified way of attempting to achieve independence is to not particularly attempt to achieve it at all.  On that basis he lauded her as a “serious” leader.  But now that Sturgeon has returned to her roots as a politician who wants independence in practice as well as in theory, Massie is attacking her with all the bitterness of a lover spurned.  The latest leg in his neverending whingeathon concerns Sturgeon’s repudiation of Professor James Mitchell’s claim that “there is no such thing as a de facto referendum” and that people can and will vote on all sorts of issues in an election.

The way I was originally going to put it was that Mitchell was half-right and half-wrong, and that it was the half-wrong part that was far more important.  But actually, on reflection, he’s just plain wrong.  Of course there’s such a thing as an election which functions as a de facto referendum, and there are examples of it from the past.  From a UK perspective, the best-known one is the Irish component of the 1918 general election, which was decisively won by Sinn Féin and was regarded as the mandate for Ireland to become an independent country.  Essentially that’s the precedent the SNP would be trying to emulate if the 2024 election becomes a plebiscite election, although it remains to be seen whether they would be brave enough to do what Sinn Féin did after winning the 1918 election – ie. refuse to take their seats at Westminster and instead unilaterally set up an independent parliament comprised of their MPs.

Of course no party can simply decide on its own that an election is going to function as a plebiscite – but the voters can.  If the voters give more than 50% of the vote to a party putting forward a single-issue proposition, then they are simultaneously doing two things – they are giving majority assent to the idea that the election is a plebiscite, and they are also giving majority assent to the party’s preferred position in that plebiscite.  So in the case of 2024, an SNP popular vote majority would mean that a majority of voters are saying Yes to the principle of a plebiscite election, and Yes to independence.  If fewer than 50% of the electorate vote for the SNP and allied parties, there is no clear majority for the principle of a plebiscite election and no clear majority for independence.

That’s pretty straightforward and I don’t really see how Mitchell or anyone else can credibly argue with it.

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Just a quick postscript to my post about the ComRes poll: I meant to mention that it showed Nicola Sturgeon has a better net personal rating than other Scottish political leaders, including Anas Sarwar.  This leaves Mandy Rhodes looking a bit foolish for putting all her eggs in the basket of an earlier individual poll which gave Sarwar a better net rating than Sturgeon –  and on that basis declaring that Sarwar “looks increasingly credible as a future First Minister”.  In truth, net ratings can be a bit of a red herring anyway, because a lesser-known leader can have a better net rating than a well-known leader while still having a lower percentage of people feeling positively about them.

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We’ve already seen since Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that the overwhelmingly unionist mainstream media are attempting a ‘shock and awe’ campaign to try to kill off independence – and the misuse of polling is playing a key part in that.  If you’d like to balance things out with polling commissioned by a pro-independence outlet and which asks the questions we want to see asked, one way of doing that would be to help Scot Goes Pop’s fundraising drive – see details below.

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