There is only one thing that determines my approach to a second independence referendum and that is winning it. Losing again is simply unthinkable and we have to ensure that we are as pragmatic as possible in ensuring that next time we get over the line. That means we have to have a new case that is sufficiently persuasive to convince those amongst our fellow Scots who voted No last time and we must ensure that it is held under the optimum conditions for success.
The consequences of getting this wrong could damage our movement irredeemably. There is no guarantee that the movement would bounce back the way it did following the 2014 referendum. The lesson from Quebec is that a defeated second referendum could set back the cause of independence by decades. Closer to home we also have our own experience in the first Scottish ‘Assembly’ referendum in the 70’s which led to the subsequent near wipe out of the SNP and set the creation of a Scottish Parliament back 18 years. Losing again simply should not be an option.
There are those who say that a referendum should be held just because we have a mandate and we can. That we should proceed regardless of any solid evidence that it can be won. This is usually accompanied by a firm belief that simply holding a referendum would somehow encourage a majority in favour. I’m afraid that this is not a view that I necessarily share. Last time for most people independence was an abstract idea they hadn’t really considered and on which people were still to make up their minds. Now it is the most hotly debated issue in our national political life. People now have strong views about independence and running the same campaign again is only likely to produce the same result. That is why we need a persuasive new case to overcome deeply held convictions and we have to address the structural issues that continue to be an impediment to securing majority support. My view on mandates is also straight forward and that is if we can’t win a majority to hold a referendum there is very little chance we would win the referendum itself.
Then there is the actual evidence of what happened only 9 months ago. In the General Election we did a lot of canvassing and voter contact in Perth and North Perthshire. In fact we probably did twice as much canvassing as the second placed constituency in the SNP canvassing league. We therefore were able to determine a pretty reliable picture on what was perplexing and consuming the people who actually vote in our little corner of Scotland. The main campaign we were up against was the one that asked people to vote for the Conservative candidate to oppose a second referendum. It was a simple and crude appeal that seemed to chime with large numbers of my constituents who were just weary of big constitutional choices and wanted a break from having to consider them in the near future. It saw my majority fall from about 10,000 to 21.
It was not unusual for people to tell me that they had voted for me in previous elections but were now voting Conservative to stop an early independence referendum. There were also SNP voters who I found difficult to motivate because they had voted for Brexit and were unhappy in what they saw as our haste to rejoin the European Union as an independent nation. I never encountered anybody who told me that they were considering withholding their support for the Scottish National Party because they felt that the SNP were being hesitant about proceeding with a second referendum. If anything the exact opposite was the case. I don’t know how typical we were of other constituencies in Scotland but the campaign we were up against was almost identical to other unionist campaigns in the seats we lost in June last year.
There is good news though, and that is support for independence is steady with evidence of it rising. The latest STV poll shows support for independence at 48% and it may be that the ‘Brexit effect’ is starting to take hold. However, support for an early second independence referendum lies significantly below support for independence itself and we have to fully understand why that is the case and ensure that the reasons for this ‘gap’ are addressed. Our experience in Perthshire certainly suggests that this ‘indy-gap’ is real and we need to know if it could have an influence on our support if a referendum is called prematurely.
We also have to remind ourselves that even with the encouraging opinion polls we still do not enjoy majority support amongst our fellow Scots. We also have the ‘Yes leavers’ to consider. It is this group more than any other who stayed at home last year and until their issues are addressed they will remain semi-detached from our movement.
In saying all this it is still possible that an early referendum could take place and can be won. Support for independence is picking up and it will continue to rise as dissatisfaction with the UK continues to grow. Then there’s always Brexit. Brexit is the single biggest disruptive political event we have confronted and its chaotic and haphazard impact on political life is difficult to predict. Brexit can ruinously implode anytime leaving us with an early opportunity to strike and present the constitutional options available to our fellow Scots. This is why pragmatism has to underpin our approach to a timing of the next referendum.
Holding a second referendum only to lose it because the Scottish people weren’t ready would be the worst possible national tragedy. Holding a referendum and losing when we could have won if we were just a bit more pragmatic about the timing would be even worse than that.