Here’s how we won.
For me, it started for real way back in May 2011. I had been planning to get to bed reasonably early because the recent Scottish elections had all been decided in the afternoon of the following day. But quickly it became clear that bed was not the place to be. Something big was definitely happening. I am not a party political person (my ability to put loyalty above my own views has always made me a bad fit). I am to the left of the SNP. But it didn’t matter – I realised immediately that there was going to be a referendum on independence. I had lived through Tony Blair and I had realised that the best (perhaps only) chance of my life to reform the pretty rotten British State had been squandered by a preening little dilettante. This was our last, best hope of a better place to live.
Bleary eyed, there was a knock at my bedroom door. It was mid morning the next day and my two-year-old daughter was waving a Saltire at me. I was elated. The world was possible again.
But I’m not naïve and I knew instantly that the real fight was now on. There had been more than a decade of relentless, negative No campaign. Everything – absolutely everything – relied on Scotland accepting everything the London Establishment told us. The media and most of the ‘influential people’ (mainly the wealthy) had been chipping away at any belief we could have a fresh start and it was corrosive. Many independence supporters felt beleaguered, under siege. It makes for defensiveness, inclines people to circle the wagons and set up the barricades.
By the following year, when the Yes campaign was being launched, the growing belief that this could be won, that we could create a better Scotland, infused life well beyond any political party. I found myself in so many conversations with community activists, leading figures in the arts, grannies, academics and many more and they all wanted to know how they could be part of making a Yes happen. By the long, hot summer of 2012 (if I’m going to make up the future I’m damn sure choosing the weather) politics was only a part of the independence movement. As with all ideas it now very clearly had its own life, it lived independent of any owner.
And like everything that grows, it grew strong from what it fed on. This was an idea that could not be split apart from hope (as much as many tried). It was an idea of something that did not already exist (a rare idea in modern politics) and so it couldn’t be proved, only imagined. Which means calculation and prediction was useless – it could only grown on hope and fade through fear. This became really important. It was the way that this understanding grew that made the Yes campaign so strong. This is how we won.
Just before the launch of the Yes campaign the media and others talked about splits in the Yes campaign (because some people wanted to keep the Queen as head of state and others didn’t). Back in those days the commentators were unable to understand the independence movement because commentators only understood political parties. I wanted independence and I wanted nothing to do with the Queen. I knew other who wanted independence and didn’t care whether the Queen was there or not. This wasn’t a split, this was the very point of the whole thing. Us independence-supporting republicans and us independence-supporting monarchists were not fighting for or against the Queen, we just wanted to have the right to have the fight.
Gradually, it became impossible for the stale world of insider politics not to notice that something was quite different here. This was not happening in their front living room (which is where all other politics had been taking place for decades). It was happening somewhere else with people they didn’t know and whose phone numbers they didn’t have in their iPhones. The journalists noticed this and felt a sense of reluctant awe. Could this really be that thing that they had heard of but never previously see? A genuine people’s movement? How could they write about this thing? It was so alien from what they knew. This in itself was enough to begin in then the feeling that something was really happening.
But that wasn’t how we won. It wasn’t the realisation of the commentators and the journalists and the proprietors that they did not own this moment that changed everything. It was when the politicians realised it. That was what turned things upside down.
Politicians are like M&Ms – bright, primary colours on the outside, a nervous brown colour on the inside. I have worked with them and for them and have never once blamed them for this – hardly anyone really understands what it is like to be in a profession defined by perpetual criticism and attack. If nothing you say or do is safe from distortion and misrepresentation, why say or do anything at all? So politicians thought they could tiptoe their way through the debate, not upsetting anyone, taking all fear out of as many issues as possible.
It was only when they realised this couldn’t be done that we began to win. Eventually, when politicians realised that they weren’t talking among themselves any more, they saw the real shape of the question. That moment brought back an old memory. In the 1990s I was working for the leader of the Scottish Labour Party when Michael Forsyth was Secretary of State. Forsyth knew how to craft a good press release and the media loved it. ‘Tartan Tax’ was the endless talk of the Scottish media steamie – how clever is that Forsyth! Labour was on the run. We spent day after day working out how to blunt this attack. I was a lone voice (I still spent time with Scottish people who weren’t involved in politics which gave me a big advantage). I kept explaining to stop worrying about it. The media loved Forsyth and his media releases. Actual people hated him. Really hated him. It turned out that every minute we spent trying to persuade journalists that in fact we had the larger penises turned out to be a complete waste of time – we could have ignored him for the whole year this stuff lasted and won just as big if not bigger. A press release is admired only by a very few people. It’s the idea that counts.
That’s what I had been thinking back in that early period when the commentators – with no idea what else to write about – were debating whether Alex Salmond or Alastair Darling was going to better the other. How quaint that seems now that a debate captured and owned by ordinary people has won the day.
But this was how we won. It was when Alex Salmond realised that we weren’t going to win this like a political party but like a movement and that we needed not the ‘discipline’ of a party but the enthusiasm of real people that things changed. It made so many more things possible. We didn’t have to worry about disagreeing about Queens or currency or armies. In fact, we made a great virtue of our disagreement.
“This is why we want independence” we shouted, “not because we agree on everything but because we want to be able to disagree, to be able to talk about all these things we can’t talk about as part of Britain”. The No campaign tried desperately to make people believe that any one thing said by any one person ‘was’ what an independent Scotland would be. But people (even their media supporters) had realised this was silly. People came to realise that if voting Yes meant everything the SNP said was now our permanent destiny, then voting No meant making everything David Cameron said our permanent destiny. So people rejected the silliness.
This opened up all the space we needed to win. At first, strategists believe that we could win by granting ‘permission’ to people to vote Yes. It was when they realised that permission only allows us to do things we already want to do that minds turned to the other half of the decision-making process – desire. Permission gives us rational reasons to allow ourselves to do the things we really want to do deep down, the things we desire. Desire comes first, permission second. When the campaign stopped being about permission only and started becoming desire first, permission second, things changed.
We had so much to say, unafraid of the reaction. Sometimes people said crazy things (I particularly liked the brief subplot which suggested that Scotland might begin cultivating heroin poppies as a cheap economic stimulus – as if the weather was going to allow that to happen). But we could manage it so easily – ‘brilliant, put forward your idea and if you can persuade the people of Scotland to vote for it then mibby it will happen’. When we said that the people of Scotland realised we weren’t going to be living among fields of heroin.
This is how we won. We found a way to make independence seem like a way of making things possible that aren’t possible when ruled from London. We used it to inspire, without fear. And we matched it with an easy way to stop people worrying. We explained that everything from now on would be their choice. And it worked.
People all over the world watched a country be born, not out of animosity to others, not out of self-regard or over-confidence but out of ideas and hope. An economy of cooperatives and worker democracy? Mibby we could, but we’ll need independence first. A land of arts and culture where everyone draws, paints, writes, sings, dances? A place of beauty and clean air protected by a genuine understanding and love of the land? Hell, even a decent football team? Mibby we could, but we’ll need independence first.
We won it not through promises but ideas. They lost it not by being outmatched in a game of political chess but because they offered no hope. We trusted the people of Scotland and we were honest – no guarantees, just a chance to be better. Your chance, your choice. People saw this. In the end they became sick of being made afraid and they became sick of being told that what they have now is all they will ever be allowed and to be grateful.
That’s how we won. The next day my five-year-old daughter knocked on my bedroom door, again with a Saltire in her hand and again I felt elated (though I suspect her mother put her up to it this time). What I knew at that moment (apart from the fact that I would never drink alcohol again) was that everything we had said was true and this was the moment we promised. Nothing was over, nothing real had happened. We just got the right to vote for a Scotland of our choosing. We told people that the real work started only after we could choose and that begins today. They understood their responsibility and the accepted it. Because – and only because – we didn’t try to patronise them by claiming they would never need to fear anything ever again. We told them we’d be normal, a small country with prospects a wee bit above average and with lots of problems to solve. From there, it was up to them. But – and its a big but – we showed them many things that could happen, that could be possible, that Scotland could become but that a Britain dominated by London couldn’t. We did it without worrying what the professional politicos thought and we spoke directly to people in words of hope. We weren’t patronised by professionals who told us that only discipline would work (‘professionals’ who had never done anything like give birth to a new country). We simultaneously nationalised and devolved hope. And we stopped being guided by fear. That was what made the difference.
That was how we won.