This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Back in 2007, the SNP came up with a clever wheeze for the Holyrood election. Instead of the regional ballot simply saying “Scottish National Party”, it would instead offer voters “Alex Salmond for First Minister”.

There were two benefits to this, first was that the then-party leader was well-known by voters. The second was that by starting the party description with the letter a, the SNP got the much-valued top spot on the ballot paper. 

They weren’t the first party to try and trade on the name of a weel-kent frontman. In 2003, the SSP’s description read “Scottish Socialist Party – Convener Tommy Sheridan”. 

While the Lib Dems registered the term “Sir Menzies Campbell's Liberal Democrats” with the Electoral Commission they never got round to using it. 

As far as the SNP were concerned, the tactic worked. Salmond and the SNP secured a one-seat lead over Labour and squeezed Jack McConnell out of Bute House. 

The result came after what ended up being probably the most chaotic election night in modern Scottish history.

That was partly because voters went to polls for both the Scottish Parliament and every Scottish council on the same day, partly because of the new super high-tech electronic counting system that didn't work, and partly because of the new ballot paper for the parliament.

It meant 147,000 ballot papers were rejected because voters misunderstood them, counts had to be halted because of technical failures and 5,000 postal votes arrived at homes after polling day.

A damning report commissioned by the Electoral Commission singled out the decision to allow parties to use non-party titles on the ballot to “sloganise” their campaigns. 

It was recommended then that legislation be amended to “minimise the possibility of confusing or misleading voters while facilitating a level playing field for all political parties”.

That didn’t happen though there were some tweaks. From then on party names had to appear in bold on the ballot papers for the regional vote, though descriptions/slogans were still allowed. 

And in 2011, the SNP once again used Alex Salmond for First Minister on the ballot paper. 

That led to David Cameron comparing him to a South American dictator. 

“Alex Salmond is encouraging people to vote for a First Minister, as if it's a presidential election. This is not a presidential system. Last time I looked it was a parliamentary system. El Presidente Salmondo needs to think again,” the then Prime Minister said. 

Nevertheless, five years later Tory voters were being urged to vote “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”.

With a general election just a year or so away (possibly just ten months or so if reports over the weekend are right) there is once again talk of what exactly should be on the ballot papers. 

Toni Giugliano, the SNP’s policy convenor, has written to the party leadership suggesting the words “Yes to independence” be used alongside the party’s name. 

The call comes after Humza Yousaf detailed plans to use the next general election as a de facto referendum, with the SNP winning a majority of seats as a mandate to “seek negotiations with the UK government on how we give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent nation”.

“We need to send out a really strong message,” Giugliano told The Herald. “A strong as message as possible that this will be, for us, an independence election. It's an election, but it will have independence front and centre.” 

The Herald: 'It's a bit of recognising that we need to build a campaign that goes beyond the SNP if what you want to achieve is support for independence', SNP policy convenor Toni Giugliano told The Herald'It's a bit of recognising that we need to build a campaign that goes beyond the SNP if what you want to achieve is support for independence', SNP policy convenor Toni Giugliano told The Herald (Image: Newsquest)

While at the Scottish Parliament elections, the party’s name must be on the ballot paper, for the UK election it can be either party name and a description, or just a description. 

Giugliano’s intervention is about starting a conversation, he says, about what the party could do. 

He says his suggested description would help the SNP reach out beyond traditional voters and supporters.

“So it's a bit of recognising that we need to build a campaign that goes beyond the SNP if what you want to achieve is support for independence.”

There are others in the independence movement calling for something similar. Vive Ecosse wants all pro-independence parties to have “Scotland should be Independent” as their description. 

They say every vote for one of those parties would be an instruction made by the electorate to begin independence negotiations. 

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“As it is clearly stated on the ballot paper, it cannot be argued that the electorate do not know what they are voting for in an election. It bypasses the need for Westminster consent for a referendum and returns democracy back to the people of Scotland.”

The whole issue raises questions about the threshold for negotiations. Yousaf has said he wants to start talks after winning a majority of seats. Can he do that if a majority of voters don't put a cross beside the instruction to say yes to independence? 

Does it matter anyway? Will independence literally being on the ballot paper make it more likely that Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak will come to negotiations, and agree to a second referendum? 

The problem for independence supporters is that that ballot paper, the one where voters are asked to mark a yes or a no, doesn't seem any closer.

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