I’ve got quite the collection now. A letter from the Tories telling me the only option is the Tories, a letter from the SNP telling me the only option is the SNP, and a letter from Labour telling me the only option is Labour, and because I’m a good little voter I’m reading them all from start to finish. Then Keir Starmer says something and I think: oh, so it’s going to be like that is it?

What Sir Keir said was: no. As in: no, a Labour government will not grant another independence referendum if the SNP win a majority of the seats in Scotland. He didn’t go into details – a recurring theme – but do they matter? For a certain type of voter (a voter like me) what we feel when we hear “no” is relief mixed with the realisation that, even though it was 10 years ago, and even though the SNP’s influence is not what it was, and even though we sometimes think we’ve moved on, the 2014 referendum is still playing a part in our decisions.

But before I explore that a bit more, and the possible effects it could have, here’s more from Sir Keir: “What the SNP are saying is that they want to go to Westminster to send a message, that’s the height of their ambition. I want Scotland to return Labour MPs who will sit at the heart of government.”

He also effectively ruled out a second referendum within the five years of the next government: “It’s never been a priority,” he said, “and I think the SNP have got the wrong priorities.”

Sir Keir Starmer says no to a second referendum on independenceSir Keir Starmer says no to a second referendum on independence (Image: free)

What to make of that? Firstly, it’s typical Starmer: high on generalities, low on detail, low on risk, but it’s also interesting on the relative importance of independence in the election. What’s striking is how little it’s being talked about really – by the parties, by commentators, by voters, but most strikingly by the SNP. Yes, they tell us it’s “line one, page one” of their manifesto, but the issue is clearly not front and centre of their campaign in the way it has been in every other election since 2014 and that’s because they sense, they know, that it’s shifted down the list of priorities for most people.

But Sir Keir’s intervention in the whole thing – his pretty firm “no” – also proves it’s not quite as simple as that and that the issue of a second independence referendum still has a residual power to influence, even control, many of us. It’s certainly influenced my vote in the past, which I’ve used tactically against the SNP and for candidates I wouldn’t normally vote for. But even now, ten years on, I hear Keir Starmer say “no” to another referendum and it makes me (even more) likely to vote for him. So there you are: I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s true.

However, I think something else is at work here too, which perhaps makes it easier for Sir Keir to say “no” than it would have been, say, five or even two years ago, and it’s the arguments that the SNP have been making about mandates for a referendum and independence and how the arguments have been shifting. Crucially, their case has moved to accommodate the SNP’s slip in popularity and their relative fall from dominance when Nicola Sturgeon was in her pomp.

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Let’s recap on some of the supposed mandates for a second independence referendum. Because of the result of the Brexit referendum. Because of the results of the elections in 2015, and 2016, and 2017, and 2019, and 2021. Because the Scottish Parliament passed a bill allowing a referendum. Because the UK Government blocked the Scottish Government’s bill on gender reform and self-ID. And because the SNP really, really want one.

But according to the SNP manifesto, it’s now much stronger than that: “if the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats,” it says, “the Scottish Government will be empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. In other words, it’s a dusted-off version of the de factor referendum idea Sturgeon came up with after the Supreme Court ruling two years ago. We can’t get a referendum, they tell us, so we don’t need a referendum.

There are obvious problems with this position. Firstly, the SNP have strengthened their demands as they’ve become electorally weaker (hate to break it to you guys but it actually works the other way around). Secondly, according to some polls, the SNP will not win most Scottish seats and the logical conclusion of that is clear. If the SNP’s argument is that winning a majority of Scottish seats means the people have spoken for independence, then not winning a majority must mean the people have spoken against independence. But (surprise) the SNP seem unwilling to accept this logic.

In fact, the SNP have gone even further with their reverse-logic. According to John Swinney, it seems his party would have a mandate to demand independence even if it did not win a majority of the Scottish seats, which is surely the Jeremy Corbyn approach to elections: losing is winning. Mr Swinney’s argument has also apparently been rejected even by Patrick Harvie (Patrick Harvie!) and was always dubious anyway. The SNP says “most seats means mandate”, but they’ve won the most seats at Westminster and Holyrood on a minority of the votes, and that’s a rum kind of mandate for profound constitutional change.

SNP’s mandate argument, based on public support, is getting weaker as they lose public supportSNP’s mandate argument, based on public support, is getting weaker as they lose public support (Image: free)

All of this means Keir Starmer is right to say no to another referendum or negotiations for independence, and he no doubt feels even more confident in saying it because the SNP’s mandate argument, based on supposed public support, is getting weaker as they lose public support.

The obvious alternative – and it’s one the SNP used to accept – is that there should be a settled will, or a big and consistent majority for change, as there was in the 1990s with devolution. A referendum in that case is just a way to confirm a change that’s already happened rather than a means to try and get your own way based on minority support. Big difference.

What surprises me a bit, I suppose, is how much all of this still matters to me and others like me and still influences the way I might vote. But we need to get this stuff right don’t we? And we need to know the SNP gets it and I don’t think they do yet. Instead, as they stretch the logic of their supposed mandate, then stretch it again, there’s a chance they’ll be met not with criticism but with ridicule. And the bottom line, surely, is that if a party wants major change, they need to be fair and honest about how they seek it.

Until then, you need someone to say no to them. Like Keir Starmer. So good on him. Well done.