I had hoped to go along to Tom Harris’s campaign launch this morning with my Better Nation hat on, but work got in the way. Never mind. David Torrance on Twitter tells us he said:

“Devo Max is a nationalist ploy, aimed at disconcerting and confusing the Labour Party… an obvious bear trap.”

I don’t know what Tom’s detailed thinking here is, but he’s right that there’s a risk here for Labour. There’s also an awful lot of muddled thinking about this putative third option, irrespective of how the questions are structured. Much as I miss writing with Malc, formerly of this parish, I think this post of his on Burdzeyeview is uncharacteristically off the mark.

The received wisdom, as discussed there, is that Salmond’s trying to look conciliatory, that it gives him a fallback option if the public aren’t ready for independence, and that it makes the Yoonyonisht Conshpirashy look like they’re against any change.

But who’s really in favour of it? Polling (as Malc rightly says) suggests it’s popular, but where there’s an ill-understood middle position the ‘don’t knows’ and ‘won’t votes’ will tend to congregate there. Given the uncertainty about the specifics of what Devo Max or Indy Lite might actually be even inside the bubble, rest assured the wider public haven’t a scooby about it.

But these standard assumptions may rest on a misunderstanding of what Salmond and his sofa cabinet want. Allow me to digress again into some theory.

A standard political theorist model of coalition-building is that three variables count: policy, office, or votes (that link is to the whole of Strøm and Müller’s book, I’m afraid). The Lib Dems, for instance, got more ministerial roles after May 2010 than they perhaps deserved, so scoring highly on the office front. They got much less on policy, with some wins on Europe and tax changes massively outweighed by student fees, NHS privatisation and the rest. The price they’re paying in vote terms is also very clear. Strøm and Müller would call them a predominantly “office-seeking party”, perhaps driven in part by the memory of their Gladstonian heyday.

New Labour, conversely, were more of a “vote-seeking party”, governed by focus group and the winds blowing from Fleet Street – now Scottish Labour mostly want to run Scotland because they don’t like the SNP doing so, and are perhaps better understood as primarily the “office-seeking” now. Greens have historically been a “policy-seeking party”, as exemplified in 2007-2011 by the efforts to secure policy changes rather than office from the minority situation (although having Patrick as convenor of the Committee that covered climate change was certainly useful office). The Scottish Tories are probably best understood in that way too.

And the SNP? For my money I believe their activist base to be sincerely committed to policy above all. They have a range of opinions on the rest of politics, from left to right to none, but achieving independence is the Holy Grail, the defining purpose, the eschatological moment itself. If you asked them to choose between independence with the dissolution of the SNP on one hand, and the status quo – the union with a rampant SNP – on the other they’d choose independence every time. And on Twitter and elsewhere, the mood amongst the nationalist massive was pro-Margo’s position, that Devo Max is simply a distraction.

But do the Ministerial team and SNP strategists agree? The top team do definitely love their jobs, their office, and their status. And they will have gamed the consequences of six possible outcomes – the two possibilities from a straight Yes/No to independence question, plus the three from a indy/devo max/status quo referendum, plus the one where no referendum is held.

Any clear vote for independence means they will have fulfilled their manifest destiny – and it’s hard to see how or why they’d make a pitch to continue to govern, or even whether people with bread-and-butter politics as diverse as Linda Fabiani and Fergus Ewing, for example, would want to remain part of the same party. Do they really want to become Scotland’s answer to the ANC? Similarly, a clear vote for the status quo pushes any progress towards independence off the table for a generation, despite the threats of a “neverendum” from the likes of John Mason, not to mention the speed at which morale amongst their activists would drain away.

The late-term referendum bid, derailed by legal challenges, might be a high-risk way to play the original 2007-11 game plan, mysteriously abandoned during that session, which was to blame the Conshpirashy for blocking democracy and preventing the people from having a say. However, the only one of the six options that allows them to say “we’ve made progress, give us another shot” in 2016 is a win for Devo Max. They can’t propose it themselves in case people come to the conclusion that it’s their first preference, so they would need someone else to do it for them. It would string the activists along and could, potentially, be the only option that could almost guarantee they retain Ministerial office.

Why else would they have spent so long pushing Indy Lite (as set out best here by David Torrance again) to no avail? And why do their press team put out so many press releases urging Labour and the other Yoonyonishts to put forward a Devo Max option and pointing out endlessly when the odd Labour voice backs it *? Prizes are available for anyone who can provide a clear distinction between the two proposals, incidentally.

If I’m right, Tom Harris is right too, on this if nothing else. Many in Labour now, finally, belatedly, realise that either a clear yes or no to independence would allow politics to move off the constitution and onto all the issues those outside the SNP got into politics to take an interest in – poverty, climate change, methods of taxation, cuts and alternatives to them and so on. And they have probably worked out that the only option they should fear is Devo Max, an option being pushed to the SNP’s benefit by that little list of semi-detached Labour figures. One day Labour’s strategists may even realise they should have offered an up/down vote in 2006.

* 17th Oct, “Henry McLeish is to be congratulated for urging Labour to back a “devo-max” option in the referendum”; 19th Oct, “The SNP today urged those Labour members who want to see the party back more powers for the Scottish Parliament to openly support Malcolm Chisholm MSP’s call for Labour to develop a position in favour of devolution max.”; 25th Oct, based on a single tweet from George Foulkes, “Labour and the Lib Dems need to understand that the only alternative to campaigning for “devo-max” is for them to stand with the Tories in opposing any more powers for Scotland”, 26th Oct, an almost identical release to the previous day’s one, just with a different headline.