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The First Minister's Dilemma

This article is an analysis of competing factors which are likely to affect the strategy with which the First Minister approaches achieving independence. Personal opinions are naturally conveyed throughout and undoubtedly impact the narrative which the article forms. Readers are entitled to disagree, and we would encourage any interaction and debate on X.


To progress with the best possible plan to achieve independence, the First Minister must continually assess the social and political climate in Scotland, and balance the competing interests of different groups of voters, who must be concurrently appealed to, or appeased.


While it seems clear that a democratic mandate exists for the SNP to pursue a second referendum, in the context of the UK’s ‘constitutional straitjacket’, it is not easy to force one to fruition, and it is for this reason that the realisation of a referendum may ultimately require actions to be taken which offend the Westminster establishment; for example, holding an unauthorised or de facto referendum, or withdrawing from parliament until authorisation is granted.


Of course, building a consistent pro-independence majority in the polls would help force Westminster’s hand with regard to their granting of another section 30 order, but considering the present mood of the core independence movement, we are seeking to predominantly examine the feasibility of alternative options in this article.


The mentioned alternative options could only be exercised effectively if they would attract widespread support from the Scottish public, for it is public consent which will dictate whether any form of referendum is democratically legitimised, and its results accepted. Accordingly, to maximise the chances of achieving independence, the assessment of when a ‘move’ towards settling the issue should be made, and what form that ‘move’ should take, must depend on the prospects of attracting the support of at least 50% +1 of the Scottish public, and not just those who are already convinced beyond doubt. External factors influencing the prospects of attracting such support must therefore be continually assessed, and any decision must be based on a sensible risk/reward analysis which avoids counterproductive measures that could jeopardise the reputation of the independence movement and dissuade potential swing voters.


It is also true however, that the ability of the First Minister to credibly initiate any such ‘move’ is predicated on his party (the SNP) sustaining solid levels of support and continuing to achieve electoral successes, for it is through those successes that democratic legitimacy will be conferred to his actions. On this front, the SNP inevitably rely on continued endorsement from strong independence proponents, and as such, must in some way cater to their independence laser focus.


This article will provide an opinion-based analysis of potential areas of conflict between the two mentioned necessary pre-requisites to achieving independence;


(a)    the sustainment of independence base support, and,

(b)   the attraction of ‘middle ground’ or ‘soft yes’ voters.


The article will evaluate how these competing factors could influence the First Minister’s preferred independence strategy.


1.      Sustaining support of independence base.


In light of the socio-economic harms which continue to be imposed on Scotland by UK governments which Scotland itself rejected overwhelmingly, those within the independence movement are understandably bound to develop a sense of urgency, and will want to achieve independence as soon as possible (with the First Minister feeling the same way).


Perhaps exacerbating this urgency is the fact that the SNP appear to be on track to make losses at upcoming elections, thus making the attainment of another pro-independence majority in the proportionately representative Holyrood parliament extremely difficult. As well as fundamentally inhibiting the progress of the push for independence, these losses will come after the SNP had, but didn’t make effective use of, several strong mandates for a second referendum obtained from the Scottish electorate.


Notably, the non-realisation of a referendum is not for want of trying, as the UK’s constitutional system has enabled UK governments to suppress Scottish democracy and force the SNP to an ultimatum between utilising radical means to force the issue, or accepting their constitutional subordination to Downing Street.


The basic fact remains however, that the SNP’s mandates have not culminated in a second referendum as most of their voters will have wanted, or expected. This is incredibly frustrating for independence supporters, and encourages a narrative to be formed that the SNP are being complacent and cannot be trusted to truly pursue independence. This can destabilise the SNP’s party base and encourage their support to splinter, reduce, or lose energy. This has been demonstrated by accredited polling which suggests that the percentage of ‘yes’ voters who will now vote for the SNP has fallen significantly.


This fall in support from ‘yes’ voters is hardly surprising; after being provided with mandate after mandate for a second referendum by ‘yes’ voters without delivering one, there is only so long before the SNP’s ability to credibly appeal for more votes to re-obtain that same mandate is seriously damaged. As always, the SNP have to offer something tangible on independence to ignite their base, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they are running out of options to effectively do so within the means at their disposal. Stagnation on independence after stone wall mandates have passed therefore reflects poorly on the SNP’s commitment to the pursuit of independence, while also harming the parties’ ability to mobilise core voters for future campaigns.


Accordingly, if the First Minister appears to be too complacent in his pursuit of independence and simply regurgitates previously failed strategies, he could turn away some of the SNP’s core support, thus harming the party’s abilities to campaign effectively and credibly initiate any ‘move’. This may suggest that his pursuit of independence must be more urgent, and that he should therefore use more radical means to achieve it, yet this tunnel vision perspective may lose sight of the fact that a referendum (however it is manifested) could only be converted into achieving independence if the wider Scottish population offers their support.


2.      Statistics relative to assessment of different approaches.


While polling consistently suggests that around 50% of the public would vote yes to independence (in a referendum), the holding of a referendum in the immediate future seemingly lacks support; in October 2023, a Savanta poll showed that only 16% of respondents thought that a referendum should be held before October 2025, and only 30% (including the previous 16%) thought that one should be held before October 2028. Similarly, on the 14th of September 2023, Opinium found that only 19% of respondents said that they wanted a referendum to be held “as soon as possible”.


This data which highlights apprehensive attitudes towards an immediate referendum can perhaps be explained, or at least contextualised, by other polling which suggests that Scottish independence is now not an immediate priority of the Scottish public; on March 13th of this year, Redfield and Wilton found that only 16% of the population placed independence in the top three issues which they say will determine how they vote. This poll is not an outlier, with 17% answering the same in January. In November 2023, Ipsos mori similarly found that only 18% of respondents placed independence as a ‘top issue’ facing the public.


These statistics suggest that the wider Scottish electorate (including ‘soft yes’ voters) do not see independence as an urgent priority. The statistics also show that there is not yet a consolidated and safely margined majority who would vote yes, even in an authorised referendum. This means that care must be taken when determining the approach with which independence is pursued, because there is no indication that current support would certainly surpass the required threshold in any form of referendum.


3.      Potential explanation for public apprehension.


It is essential that the First Minister and the ‘yes’ movement explore and respect the causes of any public apprehension to an immediate referendum, for by considering and addressing those concerns before pursuing a referendum, the prospects of successfully achieving independence could be significantly enhanced.


The root of such apprehension may lie in the UK’s turbulent economic climate, which, fuelled by Brexit and the Westminster induced cost of living crisis, has created considerable financial uncertainty that significantly affects each voter. It is increasingly clear that economic recovery is at the forefront of the electorates mind, and that the economy/cost of living is deemed, by the public, to be the most important and pressing issue. This is reflected by the same March 2024 Redfield and Wilton polling in which 64% of respondents rated ‘the economy’ in the top three issues which would determine their voting behaviour. Other polls tell a similar story; in November 2023, Ipsos Mori showed 48% of respondents as saying that either the economy or inflation were the most important issue which they faced, with only 18% saying that Scottish independence or devolution were (as mentioned previously). Compared with Ipsos polling of the same question from prior years, it can be seen that across the board, independence has become a less pressing issue in the minds of voters, falling from 44% in April 2021 to 18% in November 2023, whereas inflation itself has (unsurprisingly) become more pressing, rising from 2% in April 2021 to 25% in November 2023.


This suggests that the electorate currently see the resolution of economic issues as their immediate priority, and as such, see them as what their government should be focusing on. This could explain apprehension towards an immediate referendum which would shift the governments focus almost entirely to independence. 

This economic climate creates further relevant considerations for the SNP when strategizing for achieving independence. It is no secret that the prospect of economic uncertainty upon independence was a major driving force behind the ‘no’ campaigns success in 2014, and it remains clear that any future ‘no’ campaigns will again rely heavily on this factor. With the current upheaval caused by Brexit and the chaotic cost-of-living crisis, the effect of potential additional uncertainty on voting behaviour could be exacerbated. Although independence proponents will rightfully argue that those issues could be more effectively remedied through independence, and that the existence of those issues serves as an example of why independence is necessary, voters may, at this time, remain dissuaded from voting in a way which could induce any further degree of economic uncertainty.


4.      Analysis


a)      Risks of taking a de facto approach in the current climate.


i)                 Perception of approach.


For independence to be endorsed by sufficient numbers of the ‘middle ground’ within the Scottish electorate (which is evidentially key to winning a second referendum), it must be portrayed as a sensible option by a mature movement. In our twitter poll, 88% of 500+ respondents agreed with this (our twitter following is vastly from the strong pro-independence side of the political spectrum, and so this poll could give basic indications of the independence bases thoughts on some of the issues discussed. It is in no way intended as an authoritative source of data.)


An approach which could be perceived to be ‘wild’ such as forcing a de facto referendum at a time where;


a)      the public do not support holding an immediate authorised referendum,

b)     an average of just below 50% of the population support independence (with that support being premised on participation in an authorised referendum), and

c)      there are significant economic challenges causing the electorate to be fragile and averse to uncertainty,


could dissuade middle ground voters from voting yes and placing their trust in the movement, both in the de facto referendum itself, and in any future votes.


The perception of a de facto approach as ‘wild’ or ‘unfeasible’ may be reflected by polling which indicates whether the public believe that a general election could produce a result which correlates to a mandate for independence. A Panelbase poll from October 2023 showed that only 15% of the public believed that the SNP’s proposed de facto approach would provide them with a legitimate mandate to effect independence.


ii)                Voting structure.


By assimilating the ‘yes’ vote with a vote for the SNP, many voters who support independence but for whatever reason are opposed to the SNP would not offer their support. This party influence would therefore diminish prospects of success.


Similarly, a general election is not by nature a single-issue vote, and by using a general election to attempt to resolve one particular issue, discussions around other issues which are legitimately in play at that election will both distract and dissuade voters. A general election campaign cannot be accepted and framed (across the board) as a de facto referendum just because the SNP want it to. It is instead likely that voters will be confused by unionist messaging which will refute the existence of a simple yes or no decision relative to independence and instead propose alternative resolutions to a variety of pressing issues. Additionally, local issues regarding specific candidates and areas will affect localised voting attitudes towards the party.  


iii)              Campaign strategy.


In a climate where the vast majority of electorates minds are focused on the economic issues facing society, and very little of the electorate’s minds are focused on the immediate achievement of independence, it could be catastrophic for the SNP to campaign on an independence ultimatum while Labour campaign on the economy. This would see the SNP speak to a small group of voters in a way which actively dissuades the rest of the electorate and hands opposition parties a silver platter to set up their campaigns. The strategies of the Labour party, both at a UK and Scottish level, rely on them being an antidote to perceived ‘chaos’. By endorsing a de facto referendum approach which is viewed by the public to be wild, a parallel of ‘SNP chaos v Labour stability’ could become an incredibly effective campaigning tool for Scottish Labour when appealing to middle ground voters.


Lastly, it is simply unwise to lay down the gauntlet on independence at a general election in which the SNP’s share of the vote is primed to reduce. The SNP are, by all accounts, going to lose seats with a sizable amount of their support swinging to Labour. Simply put; why opt to frame this election as a single-issue determination of the popularity of Scottish independence when the party are almost certainly going to make significant losses?


For these reasons (among various others), approaching the upcoming election as a de facto referendum would be risky, and if the clear risks were to be ignored, and a loss incurred, unionists would likely attempt to claim that independence was authoritatively rejected for a second time. This would impede any future efforts of the SNP to pursue independence at such time as the electorate see it as a fair priority.


Therefore, while there is absolutely no question that a stone wall electoral mandate exists to pursue a second referendum, the First Minister will be bearing in mind that realisation of independence hinges on its support from the wider public, and he will therefore be considering whether by forcing the issue to be decided right now via a de facto referendum, the prospects of gaining the widespread support necessary to successfully convert a referendum could be harmed.


b)     Attempts to foster widespread support.


In his time in office, Humza Yousaf adopted a narrative which appeals to those middle ground voters who report that they were dissuaded from voting yes in 2014 by the perhaps untrustworthy idealistic perfection with which independence was portrayed. He clearly made an effort to publicly recognise the risks associated with independence, while attempting to address those risks and present alternative benefits to mitigate their effect. By doing so, he will have been hoping that over time, ‘middle ground’ voters will become more inclined to trust the movement and assess that on the balance of risks and rewards, independence is sensible and attainable. This can only be effective if communicated over time, and must be supplemented by appropriate engagement with substantive issues. On this front, the Scottish Government have been consistently publishing independence-based white papers on different relevant issues to outline their practical post-independence plans. A catalogue of these papers will help to communicate a clear practical vision for independence, and by doing so, perceptions that there is ‘no workable plan’ can be more effectively mitigated.


The First Minister (now John Swinney of course) will be aware of the demographic shift which strengthens support for independence with the passage of time. Independence is traditionally supported strongly in younger age groups and treated with much more scepticism and opposition in older age groups. As time passes however, young voters who are more sympathetic to the idea of independence will begin to populate and mix with the older age brackets, thus strengthening support for independence across the board. Those who then begin to populate the younger age brackets will do so in a climate where political discourse has normalised the idea of independence, and where Westminster incompetence commonly takes centre stage.


It is perhaps then not surprising that the First Minister may want to exercise caution and wait for


(a)    the demographic shift to provide more security to the yes campaign,

(b)   the population to view independence as a fair priority,

(c)    the population to be encumbered by less economic uncertainty and therefore be less economically sceptical, and,

(d)   the strategies for appealing to the ‘middle ground’ voters to start reaping rewards / placing the movement in a strong position to face another referendum campaign.


He has to balance this however with the interests of his party base who may support the SNP primarily for its stance on independence, and who will view complacency as simply unacceptable.


c)      Contradiction of the will of the independence base.


The natural recommendations stemming from this analysis seemingly contradict the will of the independence base; the SNP’s convention resolved that the party should treat the upcoming election as a de facto referendum, and from our twitter poll this is still supported, with 85% saying that it should be pursued the same. Interestingly, in the same poll, 56.2% of respondents agreed that the chances of success diminish when a de facto referendum is used. Again, these are polls of just over 500 individuals from our twitter page and must be treated with caution, but this seems to suggest that a large number of SNP voters think that a de facto approach may harm prospects of success but want it to be taken anyway. This is likely to be attributable to the understandable urgency within the independence movement (as discussed in part one of this article), along with the impression that an authorised referendum through consensual democratic agreement is simply unattainable.


Perhaps if the decision to hold a referendum was squarely in Scotland’s hands, those within the independence movement would be more flexible with the tactical timing of its execution, but since Scottish democracy is being so clearly suppressed, it is harder to avoid taking a hardened approach which centres on the immediacy of fulfilment.


The respondents of our twitter poll also seem to disagree with the analysis presented in part four of this article (which they are perfectly entitled to do); 78% said that voters would not be less likely to vote ‘yes’ amidst the economic uncertainty of Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis, and 67.5% didn’t think that forcing a vote now when polling shows that it may not be a priority of the electorate would harm the prospects of success.


These findings (although subject to reliability issues from being sourced in a twitter poll) can highlight a conflict between the legitimate and valid wills of the independence base, and the appetite of the wider electorate. This makes the First Minister’s job of balancing the competing interests of party base and middle ground voters incredibly difficult and exacerbates the challenge of crafting messages which appeal to a wide enough coalition of voters to win seats at the upcoming election.


If the election message is not about the achievement of independence, it will frustrate party base support, but if the message is solely about independence (in a de facto sense), it would frustrate middle ground support. This difficulty was already reflected in Humza Yousaf’s approach to the general election campaign, where he hinted towards the de facto approach being taken, while seemingly reverting to alternative messages focusing on Scotland’s role at Westminster. This mixed messaging can appear contradictory at times and may confuse voters; why would you be ‘standing up for Scotland’ at Westminster, or making Scotland ‘Tory free’ if this election were a de facto referendum?


This difficulty continues to be reflected in John Swinney’s election approach. He has accepted the framing of the election as a de facto referendum (seemingly reluctantly), but has not been campaigning based on an ultimatum of yes/no. He has in fact been very vocal about his belief that the party need to first convince more people of the merits of independence. The Swinney campaign has centred on the SNP ‘putting Scotland first’. This, I think, is a very good message which resonates well with a large coalition of voters in Scotland and could help court a good range of support. It’s use however again contrasts with the de facto referendum approach.


Conclusion.


The First Minister faces the very difficult task of balancing the contradicting wills of the independence base and the ‘soft yes’ or ‘middle ground’ voters within the wider electorate. It is incumbent on us, as those seeking to persuade others of independence, to recognise this predicament, and reckon with the reality that to truly achieve independence we must act according to the attitudes of swing voters, not those within the independence bubble who are already convinced beyond doubt. In my opinion, this means that we must accept that approaching the upcoming election as a de facto referendum would be counterproductive.


While at times this article can make bleak reading for those (including me) who want to achieve independence as soon as possible, it is vital that those of us within the movement are capable of respecting and considering the issues raised when assessing the strategy with which independence is pursued. It is entirely reasonable to disagree with this article’s conclusions, and it is important that healthy democratic debate on the topic is encouraged, but to instinctively dismiss or turn a blind eye to alternative opinions which project alarming forecasts would be careless, and we simply cannot afford to make careless mistakes.

 

 

 

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