How We Won

By Robin McAlpine

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.

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Categories: Yes Launch

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18 replies

  1. So now I know that my YES vote is not guided by fear. I can state for the record that it is guided by my hatred of the westminster coalition of snakes and weasels.

  2. Thanks for this, I find that telling as many doubters as possible that ……”Your not voting for the SNP, you’re voting for independence” …… goes some way to free them from their fears of a one party state future, Queen and all.

  3. Edit comment
    Thanks for this, I find that telling as many doubters as possible that ……”You’re not voting for the SNP, you’re voting for independence” …… goes some way to free them from their fears of a one party state future, Queen and all.

  4. A stirring opinion and I’ll buy it. For me, it’s looking at the teenagers and those making their way through school, who slouch around as if ashamed of their present and hopeless about their future. I look at this quite aghast and take full responsibility for leading them into this state. Yes, it was me. For I voted for a traditional unionist party, time after time and albeit, I was lied to and persuaded, but I accepted it was my lot and kept it up. Not any more!

    I want the best for my nation, the best for our children and the best we can do to balance the inequalities in this shameful world.

    But, now I will accept nothing less for the future and we will only get down that road if we, you and me, take that bull by the horns and make it a YES!

  5. Thank you for this inspiring and very accurate article.
    And as an aside, today having reached 31 degrees in my part of Falkirk with more heat to come probably is your visionary take on the 2012 part of the future coming to pass in reality, so why not the rest as well.

  6. Rousing stuff, Robin. It really brings home how utterly irrelevant and banal the current “debate” within the media is, with their pathetic attempts to try and make an idea like independence fit into their well-worn little party politicking narratives. Journalists lately have been questioning the timing of the launch of the Yes campaign, claiming we’ll be bored long before the referendum arrives. What they mean is THEY will have run out of ways to try and frame the debate as they would like, and will not be able to set the agenda. Yes, if this was just an ordinary election campaign, we’d soon get bored of the triangulation and the dreary attempts to try and etch out differences between three versions of the same ideology; but once people have bored themselves of that sort of nonsense, minds will start to run, and people will do something that undermines the establishment that seek to keep us in our place – they’ll start to imagine how we could do things better. And they’ll quickly see it can’t be done under Westminster.

    Just as an aside, this line got me thinking:
    “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).”

    Not a criticism of Robin here, it just reminded me of some of the things I’ve seen from some Greenies recently, spouting this idea that if you don’t want to explicitly reject the monarchy in 2014, then it means you actively want to keep her. I don’t want to keep the Queen, but I do want to leave that battle for another day, when we are able to count on the support of republicans who will vote “no” in 2014. I think in all these sort of areas, we should ensure we don’t alienate potential allies by trying to reduce everything to “with us or against us”. I include fellow SNP members in that. Let’s always look for the areas we have in common, not the differences we have. I’ve already seen too many examples of people saying their vote is dependent on such and such a factor.

    There will be plenty of time to fall out with each other over how best to use Scotland’s full powers once we have them. Let’s just make sure we get them, first!

  7. As fine a piece of polemic as I have seen for many years. I very much doubt that the ‘NO’ camp for all their “Big Beasts” and media supporters could come up with anything even close to this.

  8. Leaves you with a lump in your throat, ohhh the possibilities, “if only it was so easy” but actually thinking about it, it is. The Westminster establishment and the Unionists all think 2014 is a long way off, come that october they will all be left standing around looking at each other and wondering where the hell Scotland just disappeared too (and a lake of treasury revenue) and will be demanding a rerun due to a false start in 2012

  9. I loved this article. It is an absolute truism, I believe, that ideas have their time and ours is now.

    I trust my fellow Scots more than I trust any politician who owes the continuance of his or her career to Westminster. For the compromises they make, for the sake of their career, destroy their very character. It is up to us to refocus their political ambitions to our needs, our agenda.

    Not their career.

    There is a side of me that sees a failure of the ‘Yes’ vote in genuinely dystopian terms. We would be no more than an expirimental station for the most outrageous expoitation that the square mile – the true centre of gravity of the South East nexus – could impose. With consequences for us akin to slavery. Is that too strong? Perhaps it is, but, whilst the people of England would forgive and forget, the Westminster grandees would not. Every cheap trick, every undermining of our self confidence would be like honey to a bee. We could expect to be exploited and denigrated for a hundred years. We would be reduced to no more, and perhaps less, than Essex. That would be the revenge for our abusive partner.

    That is the nightmare. That we surrender an opportunity for intellectual freedom and genuine democracy.

    By electing an SNP majority at Hollyrood we, the people of Scotland, have set a hare running.

    It is up to us to follow through.

    Anything less will be a complete, utter, disaster.

    • Newsnight yesterday ended the report with ‘So scottish people are being asked to vote on something when they don’t know the full details of a YES vote’ – or words to that effect. Well, maybe it is time we started demanding details about what a NO vote would mean. Not soft promises of ‘more powers’ or all the other snakeoil they have been peddling, but hard commitments! They will find the questions much harder to answer than the YES contingent!

  10. Great article – really good. Should be prescribed reading!

  11. This is a very nice fantasy, but it’s not exactly what the “Yes Scotland” movement looks like from outside.

    I think it’s telling that the most common reaction of “Yes Scotland” supporters to the social media debacle of the past 24 hours was “Well, why don’t you just unfollow @Yes Scotland then?”

    Not all of you are like that! There were many supporters of independence who absolutely got what the problem was and were advocating for the campaign to fix it.

    But the largest single group in the independence movement on Twitter were telling everyone undecided or neutral or anti that they weren’t wanted if they weren’t supporters.

    That’s not how you engage with people. It’s not how you change minds. That’s how you could spend two years in the company of people you agree with and then lose the referendum because you never tried to convince anyone who wasn’t already on board.

    • You’re totally right – certainly about the problem of closed groups talking to each other and self-confirming existing views and beliefs.

  12. Agree with EdinburghEye.

    Many supporters leave much to be desired in the language they use and attitude they demonstrate toward those they perceive as ‘not one of us’.

  13. Just a clarification. All we need to do is destroy or break up the unitary British state in a non-violent way through the referendum. The archaic state, the hegemony of S.E. England, the monarchy, the medieval so-called ‘constitution’ unwritten and open to convenient view of the state. The English will be forced to reform. The crown goes too.

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  1. Fundamentally, this is what Independence is about

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