Before starting I’d like you to look at the above image. No one knows exactly what reality really is. Is it possible we’ve come the closest we’ll ever come in our lifetimes to an independent Scotland? Can we go further? This article is premised on the assumption that there are still opportunities to gain independence for Scotland, if we learn from where I believe we went wrong.
I’d like to make four points early on in this article. The first is that it is long. The second is that although there are a lot of negative points in it, it is not intended to criticise or dishearten. I admire everyone who made an effort in the campaign. The third is that it is my own personal view. The fourth is that when you get down to it, campaign or no campaign, the people of Scotland had a very simple question put in front of them: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ The answer to me is obvious, but to 55% of those that voted, their answer was different from mine, and that is a shame.
The fourth point is the one that is the most important. Why did people vote ‘NO’? I’ll not exhaust you with possible answers. 23% of people surveyed in Scotland say they feel ‘British’. This gives feeling ‘Scottish’ an overwhelming majority of 77%. A majority that, the Scottish People being like other people in other countries, you might think would make self-governance self-evident to them. Yet that did not convert into a 50% +1 majority at the polls. Either people genuinely do not believe that Scotland should be independent (because they have researched the issue in depth and have concluded that Scotland is unviable as a slightly separate economic entity, or it will encourage division or…whatever) or they never had that cocktail of reason, evidence and emotion that would give them the confidence to vote ‘YES’.
If it is the latter, and I believe it is, then I think we have to be clear and say that each individual is responsible for their own education in these matters. However, given that persuasion and a powerful campaign can make a sizeable impact on people’s willingness to educate themselves on such issues and that the psychological needs of individuals have more impact than just ‘facts’, then running a good campaign that hits crucial areas of a person’s needs has the potential to deliver an independent Scotland. This is why examining where the YES campaign possibly, might have, maybe came up short may be a useful exercise.
I will cite a few areas where I think improvements could be made and at the end of the article I will give suggestions on what can be done. I would like people to bear in mind that although we came close, close isn’t winning. And, although we were, in many ways, unlucky not to win; in other ways, we were lucky not to have been hammered.
Our Activism was Slightly Deluded. Already there is a myth growing about the YES campaign and the strength and effectiveness of its activism. My opinion is that our activism was weak all the way through and it was only in the last six weeks that things started to take off. This was due to the idea of an independent Scotland filtering into the People and hundreds of thousands of people adopting that idea of independence actively. The YES campaign can take a certain amount of credit for this, as can the leadership of the SNP for demonstrating competence for 7 years, but I would suggest it was the latent power of the idea of an independent Scotland exerting its appeal, rather than anything else. I believe that almost two years of activism by YES activists had only a marginal impact.
There were reasons for this. One was an unrealistic grasp of what canvassing is trying to do. First of all, you do not ‘flip’ a NO voter in less than a minute. I doubt you do it in 5 minutes either. Yet time and time again, I heard or read about people who had claimed to ‘turn’ NO voters into YES voters in record time. A person’s vote, especially for something as large as independence, is a complex matrix of emotions, beliefs, references and reasoning power. For a person to change position takes time. To think that a stranger can have a serious impact with a five minute conversation is slightly delusional. Let me emphasise, it takes time. Usually, the best that can be hoped for is that the seed is planted, which I’m sure did happen on many, many occasions, subsequently growing, before going on to bear a fruitful YES. (How many times this happened relates to how many activists we had. See next point.) If it was the case that someone had been ‘flipped’ within five minutes then they were as likely to flip back five minutes after the YES activist left or the next scare story came on TV.
Our Activism was Weak. The campaign was two and a half years long. I seriously started campaigning a year and a half before the vote. The first observation I would make is that there were no numbers and massive apathy. People did not come out in droves until about six to ten weeks before the vote itself. My experience was that usually, two to five stalwarts would meet-up and go round an area for a couple of hours, once a week. Sometimes canvassing was cancelled because no one turned-up. A stall would be manned by a few, not many, and it would be manned for a couple of hours, once a week. This stood in stark contrast to the final couple of weeks of the campaign: there were more people than organisers knew what to do with: extra stalls were able to be set-up, extra leaflet runs done and canvassing was able to be completed quicker. This was needed a lot, lot earlier if the campaign was going to be successful. We needed masses of people to not only create a ‘buzz’ but to give that intensity and reach to the work which was lacking for most of the campaign.
Continuing this theme, the culture of the campaign was not strong enough. I have stood at countless stalls where campaigners were more intent on talking to each other than talking to the public, as if we were slightly embarrassed about discussing the independence issue or frightened or we didn’t trust ourselves to do it well. I do not exaggerate. Countless stalls. And I was involved in about 4 different areas. Too many times, I heard the words ‘non-invasive’, ‘non-threatening’, ‘let them come to us’. It was all too passive, despite the fact that we were trying to push a message some people had been working for their entire lives. You’d think there might be a bit more urgency. We were not confident enough. We lacked a self-assured-directness. I have nothing but respect for people giving-up their time, but it’s a waste of time, if it isn’t used properly. The training of activists? Well, as far as I could see, this never happened to any great extent.
What happened was that our perception of success was too easily achieved. Lots of people at a meeting ignored the fact that there were few undecided people and a vast, vast amount NOT there. I heard predictions of 60/40 for YES or more. At times I got carried away, yet I was never confident about a victory. Too many people were not opting-in – attending meetings, stopping at stalls or even listening – on such a big question. For every 10 000 in Buchanan Street, 20 000 walked past. For every window with a YES poster, 40 had no posters. We were too impressed with our achievements, partly because it has been decades since anyone ran a decent political campaign in this country and we had little to compare ourselves against.
Our Recruiting was Poor. Originally, the idea was that there were to be YES ambassadors who were to be trained and who would then in turn train others until there was a literal army of campaigners to take the message to the masses. I signed-up twice and never got an email. However, I do know that some training did take place. My own anecdotal evidence is that people did the training and then disappeared. Some would come out for a day, some a couple weeks, others a few weeks. In the end, for the most part, it was the stalwarts and the die-hards that carried the message for most of the last six months of campaigning. Recruitment had to be much deeper and have more time spent on it. It would have paid-off. It had to enter into the lives of recruitees on a much more regular basis, like the social realm, and not just a pint in the pub, although that would be a good start. If we think about it, hundreds of people slipped through our fingers for a long time. The opportunity to make the campaign more than just political issues was passed-by for a long time.
Our Approach was Weak. I love balloons as much as the next person. I don’t like face paints, but I do like flags. The strategy of using balloons and face paints at stalls was misguided and weakened us, I feel. It was trying to take the message to adults through their kids. I don’t think that is the correct way to do things. If parents want that for their children, then they can do it themselves. I do not think that we should be setting-up stalls with stuff for kids. Badges for adults, fine. If kids want them, fine. Balloons for decoration, fine. But face paints? Is the campaign that orientates itself towards children, even slightly, going to be the one you trust when you’re being frightened about your job? It was all a bit lightweight.
In certain contexts, I believe it may be appropriate. There should be joy and frivolity on the way to independence, and if parents want their kids to have flags, then who are we to stand in the way? Yet it has to be underpinned by some serious, confident, grounded activism. And that wasn’t always there. There needed to be more power behind the events, even a stall.
The Strategy was Questionable. There were 18 activists in East Lothian who were consistent throughout the two years, so I heard. There are 100 000 people in East Lothian. The canvassing strategy was merely touching the surface. Leafleting could be done one village each weekend. There are several villages never mind towns to get round and large distances to cover (relatively compared to a city). From over a year out, it was pretty clear there would be a huge turnout. Why just find out what a small amount of people are thinking when energy could have went into something else? Wouldn’t a strategy other than canvassing have been more effective? I realise that stalls and door knocking are considered the staples of campaigning, nevertheless, there must be millions of people who never once got their door knocked, who never went near a stall, but who may have heard a loudspeaker, or could have had a leaflet for a local meeting that may have piqued their interest, or might have been invited to a neighbour’s house for a discussion.
We never found a way to reach silent NOs and this was the campaign’s ultimate Achilles heel. Obviously, canvassing WASN’T the way to do it. Instead of canvassing, I feel, this finding a way to the silent NOs should have been the priority. After all, we knew they were there and that they’d vote. It was pointless to try and identify the vote or even Undecideds. In the last few weeks of the campaign I was in the ludicrous position of handing letters targeted to Undecided voters who’d made their minds-up months ago, sometimes even years ago. Yes, it had been that long since they’d been canvassed! I genuinely don’t know a solution to this one. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. My instinct is that people might come along to something out of curiosity, if it is interesting enough.
Our Tone was Off. If we are going to compare campaigns, then the YES campaign won. Yet there were hundreds of thousands of people who would not engage with the Better Together campaign and still vote NO. I cannot tell you how often I saw and was on the end of dismissive responses about independence: ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, ‘It’s a sham’, ‘Nonsense on stilts’ (to quote a phrase). These did start to die away as time progressed, however, clearly not fast enough. We went with the attitude of trying to persuade in a nice, non-threatening, rational, positive way. I’m not arguing with this approach entirely, but there could have been, if not arrogance, then more assertion – a greater projection of confidence. Of course we can run our own country. Why are you saying we can’t? We run most of it already. Look… We had quotes from David Cameron and Alistair Darling saying Scotland could be successful! How crazy is that? We were looking to our opponents to approve of our belief in successful independence to give doubters confidence. So when they had doubts? Who did they run back to? Who had we turned into authority figures? On whose premise did we fight the campaign? Theirs. If we asked a Dane if he really felt Denmark should be governed by the people who live there we’d receive an incredulous look before either being asked a sarcastic question or being dismissed as a lunatic? We should start to think in this way, because…we actually do run the country, a few administration points aside. And independence isn’t a strange idea, it’s a normal, self-evident proposition that should be treated as such. We’re not breaking-up a Union; we’re running our own affairs.
This tone was partly the product of a belief that we should not annoy or frighten people off. Independence is such a ‘bizarre’ idea that people may run a mile if we try to invade their lives with it or confidently promote it. Underlying this approach is the assumption that people are frightened. Often our positivity was both a cover for our own timidity and a way of engaging with the public’s in a way to soothe their anxiety. I’m not saying that people aren’t frightened, or frightened by change, but a judgement was made to run a conservative campaign in the hope that we would peak and get across the finish line before anyone noticed. Yet, ultimately, we fought a campaign that was premised on people being afraid, just as Better Together assumed, a campaign of change but not frightening or radical change, just tiny little change, but Better Together had the weapon of fear, and we, not being allowed to talk about courage, freedom or anything like that because these words were banned, and with them any emotions they may stir, we only had positivity, happiness, evidence and reasoned points. It IS a lot, ultimately though, not enough, and never will be. To fight fear, you need values of courage and freedom, emotional calls to action and a vision. We should remember, we’re campaigning for something good and we should not be uncomfortable about using the tools nature provides to address fear.
We’d conceded a great deal of that which is useful before we started. Understandably, we didn’t want to fall into the trap of being caricatures of Braveheart. And yet, there’s a reason why Braveheart made hundreds of millions at the Box Office. It appealed to these values and emotions. We never found a way of appealing to people emotionally while remaining in the present. I believe, it was there for the taking.
We Fought the Last War. It has become part of SNP folklore – the great victory of 2011. Twenty points behind then surging to an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. It was a great election victory. However, I was never convinced that you should fight a referendum the same way you fight an election, and in too many ways we did just that.
The first thing to realise is that 2011 was not the shocking victory it is often seen to be. Ian Gray was never going to be First Minister. Weak leader. Poor communicator. Little profile. Alex Salmond always had him well beat. The SNP were competent and confident. They deserved another term. Also, less than 50% of the electorate voted and of those that voted slightly less than 50% voted SNP. The complete collapse of fringe parties and the Lib Dems meant for many the SNP were the only viable repository of a vote. Despite that, polling 25% of the total electorate is roundabout where the SNP have historically stood. There was, in my opinion, no reason to believe that some great election strategy had been discovered. Also, no one cares that much about Scottish Parliament elections in the rest of the UK. Do you care about the Welsh elections? Fighting a referendum for independence was always going to be much different and the same strategy was, in my opinion, one that would fall short.
So fighting an election by going for the late surge was always open to a few flaws. It relied a lot on superficial voting – the ‘Why not? They’ve done alright’ vote. In the case of reaching a decision about independence, it relied on people being engaged for a long time but only being convinced towards the end of the cycle. This seems a little unrealistic about human behaviour. I would maintain that giving the weight of the issue, a successful campaign would have to reach deeper, reach further and be more intense for a longer period of time. It could not be a last minute surge to victory but a mass movement where the vote was a formality and the size of the victory all that was left to be revealed. Therefore, using the 2011 campaign as a template was a mistake since it meant we could not run the sort of campaign that was needed to win or even build the structures that could deliver that type of campaign. (D’you know 4 months before the referendum, media aside, you’d struggle to see any visible signs that this was a country about to decide upon independence.)
This isn’t to say that one of the crucial aspects of that campaign, the positive message, is not vital. The positive message is central and must remain so.
We Relied on Social Media Too Much. There are 200 000 people on Twitter in Scotland. 70% of them will be for YES. If it was 100%, it still wouldn’t be enough. Roundabout 3 million in Scotland are on Facebook. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. Don’t misunderstand me. Without blogging, the internet, Twitter and Facebook it is very possible that we would have gotten thrashed. The internet allowed the truth to get out and it allowed a lot of people to educate and politicise themselves very quickly and very well. It goes to show what a revolution the medium is, but a lot of energy was put into social media that would have been better spent doing something else. Too many people thought they were activists when all they were doing was tweeting or posting.
The weakness with the internet and social media is that you can send up speaking to yourself and not reach beyond a small circle. You create a bubble where you surround yourself with people with similar interests, similar views and you (and they) do not get exposed to other ideas. In Twitter this is a serious weakness as when you engage with others, the medium presents difficulties to any sort of meaningful argument or enagagement. Facebook is different. There is more capacity for meaningful exposure to a wider range of people in most people’s Facebook, but trying to campaign through Facebook is tricky. Most people share articles and posts, yet the people who need to be persuaded can easily ignore these, unfollow that person’s stream, or not be moved by the post’s picture or tag line. It’s difficult to know what is the right amount to share and I’m sure that as the vote approached many people were swamped with posts so just tuned-out and relied on traditional media instead.
When you get to the nub, the internet is a passive medium. Unless you go to it with a questioning mind and a desire to really know something, then you’ll engage passively with information and you will not absorb the emotional impetus that is required to take that step towards independence. If we cannot get people emotional about independence in some way, we won’t get independence. The way people interact with the internet means that it is hard to reach that emotional core in a person. It’s passive. It can be a self-referential bubble. It has information overload potential that dulls emotions. You find in it what you want to find and if independence isn’t your thing then when will you encounter it?
On the plus side for campaigners and interested parties, it did effectively, time and time again destroy the BT narrative…but many were not paying attention.
We Underestimated the Opposition. There’s no doubt that Unionists underestimated the YES campaign and the latent desire for Scots to be independent. For two years, they had a 20 point lead, possibly more. They never really had to try that hard and I think that fooled many people in the YES campaign into thinking that the ‘ground war’ was being won easily. Yet they did do things. The BT campaign had millions to spend and I’m sure that there were other shell groups, including the Labour Party and unions, who helped spend millions to shore-up the campaign. This allowed them to do masses of phone calls, masses of leaflet deliveries, pay activists and put up masses of adverts. I remember being told about a campaign fought in Edinburgh in the 80s. The Tories were nowhere to be seen. Labour thought they had the seat for sure. On election night, the Tories romped home. They’d been one of the first to use telephone campaigning. I’m sure that telephone campaigning in particular was used to great effect by BT.
The BBC more than any other media outlet demonstrated what a one-party state must be like. It was continually negative, but its ‘7 days of fear’ in the run-up to the vote deployed every trick in the book under the guise of impartiality and it stopped then rolled back what was, I will maintain to my dying day, the beginning of a possible winning surge (in spite of my criticisms of the campaign!). We did not think, as was the obvious from the direction of travel, that the media was the campaign, so we engaged with it unwittingly. The BBC was as much Better Together as Alistair Darling or The Daily Record. We needed a way to counteract that. We didn’t have one. (In truth, we were fortunate that this onslaught did not happen earlier due to the fact that they thought they were winning comfortably. It could have meant a larger margin of defeat. That too was a possibility.)
Beneath all this of course is a very powerful and disconcerting truth: no one lets go of £1.6 trillion of resources. Or more. Scotland has possibly greater oil resources than Iraq. Look at Iraq. If we want to have an independent Scotland then we have to be a lot smarter about how we go about it, because we are up against some very experienced, ruthless people. The Scottish People should be made aware of this and every campaigner should know it. We have to find a way of re-orientating the interests of people, organisations and institutions, including some who we’d rather kick out of the country, so that independence is in their interests and Unionism and being associated with Unionism will be a painful experience. (The Tories are obviously helping with that.)
We Never Made A List of Enemies. Richard Nixon once said, ‘Make a list of enemies, and stick to it!’ Many people do no like Nixon but Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson are two political geniuses almost without parallel in democratic politics, in my humble opinion, and so are worth listening to. I would love to run a purely positive campaign, but let me know when human beings are brought-up in a society where all are loved and all have their needs met, and there’s no hierarchy, humiliation or injustice. Until then, we need a mix of the positive and the negative. And, unfortunately, in politics that means undermining the credibility of the messenger as much as the message.
It was right to have a positive message and there are certain people like Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and others who should have been aloof from the battle, freed to articulate the positive Vision. However, there should have been credible heavy hitters and campaign materials that were devoted to annihilating people like Alistair Darling. Darling has a terrible record, and he’s dull. He’s the Chancellor that oversaw the biggest collapse, the largest deficit and a massive increase in borrowing. Why was he allowed to speak about economics? He should have been discredited. Danny Alexander has never had a proper job. Why was he given any credibility? Ruth Davidson was appointed by David Cameron, again, why not a thorough attack? And Willie Rennie…is Willie Rennie! Johann Lamont was always out of her depth by a couple of miles. Their credibility should have been undermined to the extent that people stopped listening to them and continual re-arrangements of the BT front line were required, ultimately discrediting Better Together. Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy et al. Same treatment.
There were other enemies that it would have been good to have. RBS has been asset stripping small companies for years and banks would be a good enemy to have. The media have The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Daily Record – worthwhile attacking them too. Sticking to the same enemies over 2 years would have slowly undermined their credibility and made their own attacks on independence like throwing sticks at a tank. It would not have been easy but given time, and their continual hostility, it was possible and necessary.
It would also have been a good idea to have some general labels which people could have been placed under to raise questions about their credibility without having to research each individually. So, if someone, like Alf Young, is continually negative to the point he is making things up about economics then he should be labelled a ‘Can’t do Scot’. Labour MPs are ‘Red Tories’ and big business opponents are ‘London Scots’. I know it doesn’t sound nice, but it works, and to a certain extent, it is fair, because…it is true. I’m not suggesting going around throwing labels at everyone and anyone, but there were people, like Alf Young, like Labour MPs and like some people in the financial community who would lie for the sake of a NO vote and since it is impractical to research and discredit everyone, what is needed is an ‘enemy’ label that can be used. Obviously misuse discredits the label, so having it and using it appropriately is the key.
We Allowed Ourselves to be Bullied. In 1979 companies threatened to leave. In 1999 companies threatened to leave. Guess what happened in 2014? Yet we seemed unprepared for this. We should have confronted directly these companies with the language of pride and the undercurrent of an economic backlash. We should have made clear that Standard Life was building a new £70 million building in Edinburgh. We should have threatened consequences about unpatriotic banks. Or loudly and publicly laughed at the idea of sacking 20 000 people and then heading south and hiring 20 000 in the age of the internet. We should have called them out. We didn’t, enough.
We were Unprepared. The SNP has kept the torch of an independent Scotland alight and deserves all the credit in the world for that. Nonetheless, Alistair Darling made one of his two good points about the SNP. He said that the SNP had been around for ’80 years and they still didn’t have a currency plan’. A fair point. The currency plan was there but it needed to be there 10 years ago so it could be explained and everyone had grasped the rudiments. What it showed, fundamentally, was that the SNP were not prepared for independence and did not have a long-standing plan for it. This meant that currency was an open goal for Better Together and they could not score enough with it. Eventually, they blew themselves out on it because they are, collectively, useless politicians, but they’d done a lot of damage.
I know from anecdotal evidence that the SNP lacked a plan for an independent government even after 2011. There was a vacuum where policy should have been, policies that should have been installed years ago, even if it was just for the sake of being taken seriously. This was never more apparent than when it came to the Lender of Last Resort and the banking system. An independent Scotland did not require a lender of last resort under two of the plans, and if it wanted or needed one, then setting it up would be easy. There was no need to ditch the Scottish pound under any circumstances. Yet we were bullied on this issue again and again. Failure to have a plan and then explain the plan or possible alternatives cost us. (Another hole was failure to explain why definitively Plan A would have worked. rUK would have to negotiate to save the £.)
The lack of clarity meant that people who wanted to dig further had to become experts to understand the information that was available. This takes months of effort, probably more than the average voter will be prepared to exert. The lack of clarity meant that the vague fears BT and its acolytes continually conjured in the air, stuck.
We Did Not Believe. There were too many truths we accepted without serious examination. I for one never believed that Alex Salmond was as unpopular to the public as the Labour Party and the media would have us think. I always felt there was potential to recast him as Scotland’s Champion. Post-referendum, this is what he is becoming. However, it needed to have happened a lot earlier. Alex Salmond does have the common touch and if he’d been unleashed a lot earlier, even below the media radar, he would have packed places out. Advisers, politicos, maybe even himself, believed that he was slightly toxic: there was no belief in the transformative powers of change the new context of an independence campaign could bring about. This is what the campaign needed. At no point did the campaign ever shape circumstances, it tried to operate effectively in the reality handed to it. Mistake. We did not believe we could alter circumstances enough so that BT were facing an uphill battle themselves. Ironic given that was the intent of the campaign.
We Lacked Faith. I don’t mean religious. People are crying out to be engaged with. They just don’t know how. I personally think that they are bored of looking at cats on Facebook or surfing the apps. But there’s not much else on offer. The YES campaign could have really barnstormed its way across the country with speeches, with loudspeakers and rallies. We were scared of turning people off! We were scared of being called ‘Nationalists’! Being compared to Hitler or having a ‘Sheffield Rally Moment’ like Kinnock! We should have had faith in people’s desire to have meaning and identity in their lives. The real engagement only started in the last weeks when, at last, people started using the Saltire. When Alex Salmond got out on to the streets he owned them. People wanted to be involved. Imagine what four months of that might have looked like! People want meaning. They want to engage. The YES campaign was starting to give them that. It needed to have started a lot earlier.
Political Careers Are Dangerous. Obviously a lot of people have taken the opportunity of this campaign to promote independence…and themselves. I don’t personally have a problem with that. There are many individuals who have made outstanding contributions, notably Rev Stu Campbell, Carolyn Leckie, Derek Bateman, the Indycyclist, Ivan McKee, Phillippa Whitford, Tommy Sheridan, Natalie McGarry, Craig Murray amongst others. If their careers benefit, then good luck to them, I view the great majority of these contributions as unequivocally good.
However, there are many people who seek a career in a political party whose profile is much lower and, I would suggest, their contribution is a bit more mixed. There are a lot of people who have put a mass of work in to organise things and the campaign could not have run without them, yet having one eye on a political career has meant their priorities have not been purely independence for Scotland. They have wanted to avoid making mistakes. They have wanted to make sure rivals are kept in their place and they have not wanted to be made to look bad by someone coming in and stealing their thunder. I can’t criticise really because they often keep the ship afloat. However, finding a way to welcome new ideas, new approaches and having a variety of leaders would be very useful. I have seen not a few people restricted and turned-off by local organisers who always want to do things their own way and want to have control of matters. Typical of a top-down organisation. It meant there was a lot of pointless in-fighting and a loss of useful activity.
They beauty of the YES campaign was that when it eventually started to lift off, people could do and organise as they liked. There were a vast range of campaigns going on. There were great quantities of common sense, unity and creativity throughout a mass of people. They had different values and ideas, nevertheless, they united behind independence, consciously knowing they would split once it was achieved. It was rational, mature and correct. If there is to be independence, then this has to be trusted to continue and some of the organisers in the SNP have to learn to let go. Especially as the SNP is likely to be at the forefront of a movement now.
We were Saying Yes into a Vacuum. Labour had the unions; it had the majority of councils; it had much of civic society and much of local government. The small ‘c’ conservative mentality had the civil service, the media, the financial sector and corporations. A Yes vote would have been into a culture with a lot of resistance to independence. It is always a good bell-weather to see how many people are abandoning the ship. I was surprised that as it looked like Yes could win, few Labour councillors jumped ship. A lot of them probably would sense they were heading for destruction at the polls in the future, but they stayed onboard. It shows the power of the Labour machine and it also shows that the chances of a Yes victory were less than we thought. The edifice stayed intact. This meant that one of the issues an independent Scotland would have faced, if it had sneaked across the line, was governance. A sizeable and powerful group were resisting independence.
It wasn’t only in politics that independence wasn’t attracting people. It was in the culture stakes too. In what way is life noticeably Scottish here? If you go to work, come home and watch the BBC, in what way are you Scottish? You’re just like another region of England. Yet you are Scottish. Scottish culture has been caricatured and marginalised. It has to be brought amongst the people and the people have to embrace it. Scotland has to be a little bit more Scottish. Just enough so that people know that it is a separate nation. Otherwise, what’s the point of independence? If you know history you know there’s been a systematic attempt to wipe Scotland from the face of the map. If Scotland is going to return to the map, there has to be a culture of Scotland that the politics and the map reflect. As Gramsci noted, politics reflects culture. Our culture lacks Scottishness, so then does our politics lack the belief in an independent Scotland.
People don’t like to talk about it too much yet the existence of Scotland has to be more than just economic or protecting the NHS; it has to be about asserting Scotland as a nation and Scottish identity. This is why the flag has to come out more. The SNP must embrace the Saltire. We all must. As a symbol of positive, progressive nationalism and as a symbol of Scotland, free, open and independent.
We Were Robbed. Maybe. Every experienced activist I spoke to before the vote mentioned their worry about the vote being interfered with. Since the vote there has been unsubstantiated evidence that raises questions. My own feeling is that whether it was anti-YES employees at the count or actual manipulation by state security services, then there probably was some tampering. To what extent, who can know? However, this is why it had to be a huge YES vote. The sort of vote that could not be manipulated as it would be logistically impossible and the falsified outcome would fly in the face of clear evidence. Yet no one could say, hand on heart, that it is impossible that there were 2 million NO voters.
Here’s a thing and it’s my only evidence. I’ve never called an election entirely wrong. Not being an egotist, or lying, I never have. I felt a Tory victory in ’92, Labour obviously in ’97, ’01 and ’05. A victory for YES in ’99 Scottish Parliament referendum. Labour in ’99, 03 and ’07 I felt that Labour’s vote wasn’t going to collapse (which it didn’t and apart from a disputed seat, Labour would have been the largest party). 2010 I had as an unconvincing Tory win, mainly due to anti-Tory rhetoric from Mums on mumsnet!
On referendum day, I spent 3 hours in an Edinburgh area that should be clear NO. The BT woman beside me could not give her leaflets away and given people’s reaction to me with a YES badge, it was a clear YES from an area that should be hostile. So, I felt it was possible that we’d done it. I would have called it for YES. Make of that what you will.
Update on This Point. I’ve been pleased to get feedback on this article form many people. Some of it has said that the above point discredits the article. I’d like to make clear a couple of things. The first one is that I believe that there were many hundreds of thousand of NO voters and that there is only unsubstantiated rumour and unsubstantiated evidence for tampering, and even that which has been presented would not significantly affect the final result. YES would have needed a large margin of victory to overcome any tampering or, importantly also, to negotiate credibly if successful, so the bar for victory was higher for YES.
The second point is that I do believe that some sort of tampering is inevitable. You do not let a country with over £1.6 trillion in resources leave without the services at your disposal being used. The stakes for Scottish independence were much higher than we were lead to believe in the public narrative. The UK state, losing both trillions of natural resources and the £3.3 billion annual subsidy of its military would have been severely weakened as an economic force and as a military ally. Furthermore, the success of a ‘separatist’ movement by peaceful and democratic means could have triggered a response across the globe for other similar movements (if I remember correctly there are about 50 regions potentially in China that would like significant decentralisation). So Scotland faced a World Establishment worried about internal nations asking for ‘home rule’, not just a UK Establishment.
In the light of this, I think my own personal experience might be relevant. A good few years ago, as member of a UK party, I worked reasonably closely with a person who was involved with the process of keeping tabs on every constituency in the country. Each constituency had a person who made reports about meetings and then sent them back to Head Office so that tabs could be kept on things and issues controlled. The discourse of the conversation at group meetings was to be controlled, subtly. If it looked like a certain person might get elected as a candidate, then there was always a group that could be called on, ‘sleeping members’, who would turn-up and whose votes would prevent a particular candidate from being selected. So much for party democracy.
In the seat where I worked, the Liberal Democrats were the main competitors and, given the trend, looked like they were going to take it. However, once all the parties standing in both council and Westminster seats had been registered the list of parties to appear on the ballot papers showed a unique combination of names. There was ‘The Liberal Democratic Alliance’, ‘The Scottish Liberal and Democratic Party’, ‘The Democratic Liberal Party’ and others. It would have been very confusing for an inattentive Liberal switcher to find on their individual voting forms the right party! Who had registered these parties? Who was in them? No one knew, but plenty guessed. Some group who wanted a particular UK party to win that seat. Of course, these parties were shells that had never been heard of before or since, and whose existence was purely to syphon votes from the Liberal Democrats. ‘We’ kept the seat.
For me, it is naive to think that there would not have been involvement in the vote by…?
There are some people who spend their life campaigning because they never actually win one. Some of these people have already embraced ‘Round 2’ and are gearing-up for another referendum and round of public meetings. I feel I need a rest, first of all, and I can think of quite a few activists who’d benefit from one too. Secondly, we’d lose another referendum in the near future, even if Devo-Max is a fraud. Thirdly, we all need a bit of thinking and reflecting time. As noted, there are weakness in the strategy that need to be addressed and I don’t see how an independence campaign will avoid being viewed with contempt unless they are fully addressed. There’s also the YES campaign itself. Where’s it going? ‘Nowhere!’ people say. I’ve been kicking around in politics awhile. The campaign took off a few weeks before the referendum. Are all these people who arrived late in the day really prepared to remain active through the winter and deliver a crushing SNP victory in May? Is it a false dawn? Can the SNP provide enough freedom to allow people to remain engaged? Can independence parties co-operate?
These are all questions that we and time will answer. Depending on the answer and our response, we may well become those life-long campaigners who never win, although many will have dropped the cause when that becomes apparent, or we may soon be opening a new chapter in the life of an ancient nation called Scotland.
For me there’s hope: 1.6 million people looked into the greatest fear bombing I’ve ever witnessed in my life in this country and still voted ‘YES’. Some probably had to fight a lot of fear to do it. We have to build on this. And brave people are a good foundation to build on. Here are some of the areas which I think are worthwhile thinking about:
Our Definition of Success is Too Low. Good canvassing is not 5 people talking to 30-40 people in one night and then having a gratifying 65% support independence return. Good canvassing is creating events people want to be part of in the community and then spending the time with people required to persuade them of the benefits of independence. It is being in the community, part of the community, knowing the community and knowing that the community will support an independent Scotland which will be the barometer of success. When the vast majority of communities across Scotland support independence then we’ll be on our way to success.
(In some ways canvassing is a sign of failure. It means that politics is a product being sold and that strangers have to go into a community and find out how the product is going down. It means that there is little community, little continuous community organisation, little penetration of the community by politics and that the community is being sold an idea rather than rising up with with one.)
We were too easily pleased with our success during the campaign, and we still are. Glasgow and surrounds have 2.5 million people. Getting 5000 people into George Square doesn’t mean anything. Getting 5000 into Musselburgh town square means something, or Kirkintilloch town square or Elgin. Until the numbers are seriously big (much bigger than we had) in local villages and towns for rallies and speeches then we’re not successful. When Haddington can be filled with people from Haddington waving flags and calling for independence, then that will be success.
Canvassing Needs Re-thinking. Walking around similar looking housing areas week after week is boring and a lot of people don’t like it. Having an event, a local clear-up, a coffee morning with a speaker where people can be talked to is, to my mind, more effective. Shift patterns, mass fibbing and door entry systems are making canvassing a time heavy, impact light process. There has to be a better way of doing it.
I think we need to re-examine some of the shibboleths of campaigning. I like leaflets but 9% of them are read, and how many ever persuade anyone? No idea. We have to deliver 10 leaflets to get 1 read, and then what? Add in the fight to be noticed with other junk mail and to me it’s clear that leaflets need re-thinking too. (Look at the success of The Wee Blue Book!)
One of the things we have to realise is that we can work really hard and have no effect. I once delivered 20 000 leaflets for a candidate to get 600 votes. I’m not saying abandon; I’m saying re-think all aspects of it.
We Need to To Think Big. As I write SNP membership has reached 70 000, the Greens are at 7000 and the SSP at 3000. We have 1.6 million strong supporters of independence which will grow as disappointment with Westminster inevitably follows from the misleading promises. There is no reason why a pro-independence rally could not fill Murrayfield or Hampden, or both. We have the speakers; we have the numbers and we have the organisation. These events give people a fantastic focus, a talking point and a socialising opportunity. It turns politics into an event, into theatre and showmanship and adds the further quality of being meaningful. It is an irresistible combination. If it can be done correctly then 60, 70, 80 000 people and more will return to their workplace and community as energised peer-to-peer activists. Millions of people would want to be part of that.
Flags, Music, Theatre, Meaning. George Orwell, a dull guy, has left a decent but dull legacy to UK politics. He articulated the suspicion of music, marching and oratory that many people in the UK have. They think its fascist. Orwell’s intentions were good but they stifled politics. I think that fascist is fascist. If you’re not a fascist, then what’s wrong with a bit of organised music? What’s wrong with a bit of theatre? Meaning can be delivered dully and be rejected because of it, or it can be delivered with verve, passion, boldness and colour and be twice as meaningful. If we learn anything from the YES campaign, it should be that being part of something that is colourful, fun, meaningful, showy can withstand the blasting fear of the UK state.
Party Structures Need to be Examined. The SNP are thinking about this. I think unless we can get away from dull meetings and cliques running local parties then there will be serious difficulty. If people want to be creative and dynamic and there are people putting the brakes on all the time, for whatever reason, there’ll be splits and in-fighting for years. There has to be leadership and a certain degree of order, but there has to be ways in which people can organise with freedom and not be reproached for not always towing the party line. A little bit of the ‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom’ attitude might go along way (minus the Maoism, of course).
Parties Need Discipline. People who join political parties often make the mistake of believing that they represent the public. However, by joining a political party you are doing what only maybe 5 people out of a 100 do. So, hardly representative! Yet this belief and passionate commitment to values means that members fight for what they want and what they think will benefit the community, not thinking about what is electable. It’s important to fight your corner but also to be able to compromise about what can be realistically achieved. It is the end of a politician or party that gets too far ahead of their public. Certainly at the moment, there are a lot of people who are going to be involved in politics for the first time and who perhaps do not realise that it is often quite a messy compromise even over little things. It’s important that we all realise there’s going to be compromises, lots.
There are some great political opportunities approaching. UKIP look like they are about to present a very open goal for the independence movement with a Euro referendum added. We also have a genuine rock star unburdened by Office. Alex Salmond now owns the streets and will be a larger figure out of office than in it. If he uses his free time well, he can put in place that understanding of the issues that tens of thousands require to enable them to vote for independence next time. That and a movement, a strategy and a culture that drives the political process will deliver us independence, I believe.