The logic of fear

We’d still been scratching our heads about the sudden flood this week of Unionists all demanding the Scottish Parliament election in May be postponed, the latest example being angry old uppercase-letter-phobe Euan McColm in today’s Scotland On Sunday.

Bizarrely, the piece doesn’t even attempt to acknowledge the fact that literally dozens of countries on every inhabited continent have managed to carry on with democratic elections and referendums during the COVID-19 crisis with no significant problems, just insists that it’s something Scotland definitely can’t do.

But then we had a lightbulb moment.

Because there’s obviously no outward sense to the argument. If there’s any activity that ought to be classed as “essential” at challenging times it’s surely the continued exercise of democracy. And the objections are weak:

But if we can potter around Tesco for an hour to buy cornflakes, we can certainly pop into a polling station for two minutes to put an X in a box. Sanitise your hands, wear your mask, maybe even bring your own pencil as an extra safeguard, job done.

Also, nearly 800,000 Scots cast postal votes in the 2014 indyref, with no major issues being caused as a result (other than Ruth Davidson’s suspicious previews, anyway). Around 2.3m people voted in the 2016 Holyrood election, so we know that at least a third of the likely vote could be done postally even without any expansion of capacity. So there just shouldn’t be any sort of logistical difficulty.

(And of course, by the time May comes round millions of voters should already have been vaccinated too, reducing the risks enormously.)

Why, then, do Unionists want it cancelled? Clearly they have nothing to lose on current polling – they’re going to get thrashed senseless and it couldn’t be much worse – so one argument is that they might as well delay and hope for a miracle.

But there’s not much sign of one of those on the horizon. Even if the Salmond scandal brings down Nicola Sturgeon, voters still don’t want Douglas Ross or Randy Lendlease [SUB PLEASE CHECK] in charge of the country. If the SNP are winning anyway, may as well get it over with and start again with some fresh legs on the pitch.

But what McColm inadvertently reveals in the extract above is something much more threatening. Because even if Boris Johnson was minded to grant another referendum – which we know he isn’t, but that’s another argument – he DEFINITELY isn’t going to do it during a pandemic.

Suspending scheduled democracy by cancelling an election, though, is a much harder sell. And here’s the thing – if you can hold an election, you can hold a plebiscitary election that’s a de facto referendum. (Because mechanically they’re identical.)

Unionists are, largely out of necessity, pretty comfortable with the thought of another SNP government led by Nicola Sturgeon, because that outcome has been priced in to their thinking for years. They’ve basically never come within 20 points of the SNP at any point in the whole Parliamentary term, so it’s not like another SNP victory was ever going to come as a surprise.

But they also know that if Sturgeon had a plan to force another indyref she’d have done it by now, so as a worst-case scenario they can live with another five years of cushy opposition, especially with the Internal Market Bill putting devolution on a leash.

Postponing the election gives them an insurance policy just in case the Salmond affair does for her and the SNP get a more belligerent new leader before May who might seek to make the election a plebiscite. Now, all a delay does is buy them time to think of something, of course. The election has to happen eventually.

But the developments of the last few days seem to have given the Unionists a jolt of shock that just maybe Sturgeon won’t be there to take them safely past the moment of danger with her toothless, twice-failed Plan A, thereby delaying the day of reckoning for at least another half-decade.

And if you suddenly fear that you might be facing an effective indyref 2 in less than four months, when you’re currently trailing 58-42, buying yourself some time while you’ve got a sellable excuse is a completely natural and rational panic response.

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