2007 - 2022

The Yes volunteers: Capturing the “Biggest grassroots campaign in Scotland’s History”

By Dr. Iain R. Black. Heriot Watt University, School of Management and Languages,and Sara Marsden, Social Researcher and activist with Common Weal Edinburgh North & Leith.

Much has been said about the Yes campaign, much has been written about its vibrancy and excitement, openness and inclusivity. It was planned to be the biggest grassroots campaign in Scotland’s history, it has been said that it brought new people to politics and represented a departure from the type of campaign seen when political parties fight for our vote. Yes was said to have been positive and Better Together was supposed to have been negative.

This report [read and download the full report here] provides detailed results of what we believe to be the largest and most comprehensive survey of those who said they took part in the Yes campaign. It examined who the volunteers were, what they did, what they thought of the campaign and their experience of it and the results from it provide evidence to support, refine or debunk ideas held about the campaign.

993 Yes volunteers responded to an online survey and to collect their views, we contacted a wide range of Yes supporting groups. These included local Yes groups still in existence such as Yes Edinburgh North and Leith and sectorial groups such as Youth and Students for Yes. Local SNP, Scottish Green and Scottish Socialist Party groups, the Radical Independence Campaign, Women For Independence and Business for Scotland also distributed the survey link for us. A special thank you goes to Bella Caledonia, Wings Over Scotland and Common Weal for distributing this via their blogs and websites. In short we tried very hard to get the views of the full range of supporters all marching under the Yes banner, we also tried very hard to ensure that only the data from those who did take part are included. With 64 questions, many using long scales, we can only report on a broad overview of the results.

Yes — Infographic-01

So what did the Yes campaign look like, do, believe and feel? Well, overall the analysis tells a story of heterogeneity amongst those who took part and a remarkable homogeneity in what they thought of the campaign, what their experiences were and whether they intend to stay involved. In other words, many different types of people took part but all reflected on a very positive empowering experience and intend to stay involved to achieve their goal of an independent Scotland.

Yes — Infographic-02

Overall, these results present a broad based campaign, though older (mean age 51, ranging from 17 to 88), more likely to be male (57.5% vs 39.6% female) and with a significantly higher proportions of those identifying as homosexual or bisexual (7.3%) than in the general population. A significant proportion hold an undergraduate degree (29.7%) and 26.6% hold postgraduate degree. Though a majority saw themselves as Scottish not British (69.7%), 30% feel they have a British or other national identity. Those who started in the campaign relatively early, before May 2012, tended to have been long term supporters of Independence though they were joined, right up until the last month by new volunteers who were more likely to be female. If they weren’t members already, they went on to join the SNP (65.9%), the Greens (8.5%) or the (SSP 2.9%), 14.3% had been members of the Labour, only 0.3% were when the data was collected. The volunteers are closer (mean= 3.19) to the Greens (mean= 3.35) than the SNP (mean= 4.31) or the SSP (mean= 1.86) in their left-right political outlook on a 1-11 scale. Perhaps campaigning with these parties required or moved the respondents in to a position where they were political close to all of them?


Yes — Infographic-03

Volunteers were typically members of more than one Yes group including local Yes (71.8%) and special interest groups and affiliated organizations. For example 2/3rds of female respondents said they were active in Women for Independence, 39.2% with the Radical Independence Campaign and 30.8% with the National Collective. Therefore, whilst all operating under the same yes umbrella, this campaign saw fluid and multiple affiliations where groups were felt to be close enough in perspective and ideas that it was possible to be part of a number of them.


Yes — Infographic-04

The volunteers spent an average of 10hrs a week, with just under 50% spent 1-5 hrs, 25% spent 5-10 and the remainder working between 11 and 100hrs a week. They performed a very broad range of tasks but were united in undertaking a core set of similar activities where in particular they discussed Independence. 99.5% of volunteers had conversations with family/friends and 98.3% had them with strangers, indeed in the virtual world where the corresponding figures are 85.1% and 81.87%. They showed their allegiances and normalized Yes with badges worn and window posters displayed. Very high percentages of volunteers demonstrated their support visually for the campaign. 96.7% said they displayed posters (90.1% doing this frequently or very frequently) and 95% wore Yes branded merchandise with 77.3% doing so frequently or very frequently. A quarter of them built things, designed things and put their creative energy into the campaign. It was these sorts of activities that suggest that the referendum campaigning was different to more traditional election campaigning, though they still canvassed (42.7%) and delivered leaflets (63.2%), frequently or very frequently. 27.8% felt confident enough to have spoken at a public meeting.

So why did they take part and do all this work? We asked this in two ways, in the first, they were asked to rate a series of potential motives and we found that they were motivated to take part for a number of positive, hopeful and negative reasons. The most common categories were A belief in independence for Scotland (mean = 4.79 out of 5 on a scale ranging from 1, Not at all important to 5, Very important) and a belief in Independence being a route to a more equal, socially just society (mean = 4.67) were very important reasons for them taking part. A belief in a greener country (3.94) still important but less so. Disillusionment with Westminster politics (4.59%) also acted as a powerful motivator.

In the second way this question was asked, respondents were free to write what they wanted. When categorized (each respondent could be motivated by more than one reason) 34.5% mentioned the importance of seizing the opportunity or avoiding the regret of not having got involved, 24.5% said they were took part because long term supporters suggesting many new converts got involved. The themes, oft repeated by the Yes campaign and in their marketing materials resonated with the volunteer, where 28% said they were motivated by being against the Westminster system and the UK, 19.6% by democracy, 12.4% by socially justice and 10% because of fairness (10%). The type of campaigning also had an effect with 11.8% being motivated to take part because of No campaigns negativity and media bias with 4.3% specifically mentioned BBC bias acted as their recruiting sergeant. A very similar 11.4% joined because of the inclusivity and exciting nature of the campaign. Whereas there are differences between when people joined a political party, between different ages and between those with and without a British identity, the variations whilst statistically significant in no instances are they dramatic, for example the mean score for women when asked to rate how important To be part of the democratic process was in becoming involved, the average score for women was 4.37% and 4.17% for men. Instances where any one group might score high and the other low, were not found- hence the earlier conclusion about the remarkable homogeneity or similarly of the Yes volunteers.

Irrespective of when they started, or who they are, respondents assessed the local and central Yes campaigns very positively (local mean of 4.57 and national mean = 4.59) on 1-5 scale where 5 is strongly agree, and assessed the No campaign very negatively (mean = 1.15) The local Yes groups as having been run in a welcoming (Mean= 4.50) and effective manner (mean= 4.15). Again, whist differences were found, they represent variation only around how strongly different volunteers felt that they had experienced a very positive, very exciting, and enjoyable campaign that left them feeling empowered and intending to continue their involvement in Scottish politics. At a national level, the figures are positive but less so, with them seen as encouraging people to get involved in (mean = 4.21) and effective (mean= 3.66). Crucially for its status as a grassroots campaign, volunteers saw the local groups as having had some effect on the outcome (mean = 3.49 on a scale where 1= No Influence, 7 =Complete Influence), compared to 4.59% for the national campaign.

Finally, we cannot say whether this was the largest grassroots campaign in Scotland’s history, but 97.4% believed it to be. Though they were very unhappy with the outcome of the referendum, and experienced a strong sense of loss as a the result, 77% went on to be part of the 2015 Westminster campaign and 95% intend to stay involved with the campaign for Scottish Independence.

So in many ways we provide additional evidence to the understanding that many commentators and activists hold. Those who took part The Yes campaign was something that the organisers and the volunteers can (and were) be proud of. New people were brought to politics and democratic campaigning, it was exciting, it was social and it was positive and it will continue.
If you will allow us to finish by highlighting what we think are some of the most important findings: It was enjoyable, liberating and social experience and people tend to want to repeat such things or join in next time, if they missed out first time round. Also the bonds formed during such periods are likely to survive arguments about speed or change or priorities as long as the inclusivity, openness and respect remain. This remains an obligation on the Yes supporting political parties, whose loyalty must be independence, not power, as this is where the volunteers loyalties lie.

The volunteers see themselves as closest to the Greens in their left-right political leanings but were also close to the SNP and the SSP and that significant numbers of ex labour members took part. It strikes us that you don’t need a particularly large political umbrella to cover these groups and cover the majority of political beliefs feeling in Scotland. We see strong evidence in these results that the uniformity of beliefs about what Scotland can be, the shared experiences that brought people together and the passion of the cause built before and during the first referendum will provide an extremely strong foundation for indy ref 2. Was it the biggest campaign in Scotland’s history- we don’t know but the results of this survey strongly suggest that when the starting gun is sounded, the next grassroots campaign will contain a formidable range of experienced, knowledgeable passionate campaigners who know how to run local groups, know how to run local campaigns and know how to persuade friends, families and strangers alike. We were unable to discover if this is the case for No.


Footnote: We would welcome request for the data and collaborations. Email Dr. Iain R. Black at [email protected]. The authors would like to thank Prof. James Mitchell and Dr Lynn Bennie for their assistance in developing the survey instrument.


Comments (7)

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  1. Finlay Macleoid says:

    Clearly shows that the Gaelic Language has no part to play within the Yes Campaign and the Scottish Independence Referendum Campaign at any level.

    Really makes you think as to whether the Scots want to be different from the English other than on a very superficial level.

    To think that Dr Iain R. Black has Languages in his title as well.

  2. john young says:

    Time Finlay for it and the gaels to be included.

  3. Kenneth Coutts says:

    More power to your elbow, the more this info is shown out there ,the better!
    Positive factual uplifting,to bypass the unionist controlled and self opinionated stenographers.

  4. yesindyref2 says:

    There was a certainl Slovenian poster in CiF back in 2012 who upset a lot of Indy supporters by pointing out problems. One of these was that, at that stage, there was no grassroots movement to speak of, and that Independence was never won without one.

    That did seem reasonable to me at the time, and it was incredible seeing such a huge and enthusiastic grassroots movement emerge. I think that’s what the official insipid YES campaign wanted, and was prepared to sit back and let it happen.

    I think many feared the enthusiasm would die down, and hence many wanted Indy Ref 2 to happen as soon as possible. But it does look as though the grassroots will grow, rather than fall away.

  5. Doug Daniel says:

    I have a horrible feeling people are taking the wrong lessons from this research, which itself seems pretty flawed.

    40% were active in RIC? 31% active in National Collective? That just doesn’t sound right. The question that comes screaming out of those statistics is: what are people classing as “active”? Does taking part in one RIC mass canvass mean you were “active” in RIC? Does going along to a National Collective gig mean you were “active” in National Collective? I went along to the launch of Better Together Aberdeen (for shits and giggles – and, oh, how it delivered) – does that mean I was “active” in the Better Together campaign?

    I can’t help feeling there is either a lot of wishful thinking going on with many respondents (the same way everyone ends up being far-left on the Political Compass website), or the self-selecting nature of the data gathering has completely skewed the numbers. I also wonder – and this is perhaps the biggest flaw – where the geographical element is in this, because the situations differed massively throughout the country. Glasgow and Aberdeen are not the same, as the end result highlighted only too well.

    People (such as several of the commenters in this Common Space article https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/3741/what-happened-to-scotland-s-left-wing-independence-movement-campaigners-respond – especially the partisan ones) are leaping on the statistic about campaigners being much further to the left than the SNP, and somehow interpreting this as proof that the radical left are the key to winning the next one. There are two glaringly obvious problems with this interpretation:
    1. The general population (ie the folk we need to convince) are not significantly to the left of the SNP (and they’re certainly not to the left of the Greens), so if anything, this just suggests the activist base was unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole
    2. We didn’t win

    That second one is what seems to be missed with all the back-patting. The campaign lost. Rather than mutual gratification about how wonderfully left-wing the activist base was, we need to be asking ourselves how we convince those that didn’t vote Yes this time. If the activist base truly was more left-wing than the Greens, and therefore more left-wing than the electorate as a whole, was that perhaps in itself a major problem? Did we miss out on a whole tranche of potential activists who may have had more luck convincing those who ended up voting No?

    I know of one situation where a leading activist in one of the campaign groups raised concerns that the overall message of their group was too Glasgow-oriented, and not enough being done to help win over folk in the North East. This was echoed by someone from Stirling. Their concerns were completely dismissed out of hand by the leadership (consisting of West of Scotland folk, naturally), who insisted the key to winning was to focus on left-wing voters in Glasgow – ie people like them.

    It comes as no surprise that the radical left thinks that a radical left campaign will win. But the “not yet” voters I spoke to in Aberdeen were not looking for more radical policies – they were simply looking to have their concerns allayed, and we didn’t do that well enough. Yes, we need to inspire people, and that’s why these groups played an important part, but to win the next time, we need to do more than that.

    If the second campaign is as dominated by central belt voices and concerns as the first one was, we’ll lose again. Instead of looking back wistfully like we do when Scotland gets knocked out of a sporting competition by a last-minute refereeing decision, we need to be figuring out why we didn’t get 50%. I sincerely doubt it was because the campaign wasn’t left-wing enough.

    1. Edwin Moore says:

      Doug: ‘Instead of looking back wistfully like we do when Scotland gets knocked out of a sporting competition by a last-minute refereeing decision, we need to be figuring out why we didn’t get 50%. I sincerely doubt it was because the campaign wasn’t left-wing enough.’

      As a No voter I agree. The SSP vote in early Holyrood fairly represented, I think, the high tide of left wing reach in Scotand, and their influenec actually did some good, eg on ending the appalling warrant sales. (Carolyn Leckie back there, and Cat Boyd in, would be good for the body politic but very unlikely to happen. At least we will see the last of Sheridan & his wretched Solidarity)

      Also the blood & soil lot tainted your cause. One of our youngest’s friends was given a Yes leaflet and got sneered at by the leafleter for her English accent. When she told her dad (a friend of mine) he said she should have responded in Gaelic (like our youngest she is fluent).

      When I mentioned this incident to a Yes campaigner she flatly refused to believe it had happened as described – ‘there must have been some misunderstanding’. No misundestanding: it happened as described and this element in the Yes camp certainly cost you votes.

  6. JohnEdgar says:

    The independence campaign, irrespective of groupings and numbers, percentages did one thing and that was to engage Scots primarily for the first time since 1707 in issues about Scotland and Scotland’s future. The generational mix at that point in historical time encompassed groups who had formative experiences about Scottishness, Britishness from the Imperial Britain of the 1930’s to groups who groups whose political awareness arose after the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the re- use of the word Scottish Government.
    The demise of UK/ English party representatives from Scotland to Westminster ( there are only 3) indicated that Scotland has begun to change and diverge from the post- war set up.
    Once national debate on the scale of 2014 begins, issues drive re-examination of attitudes and change follows. In this case, the drive towards independence continues even as policies from Holyrood shift aspects of Scottish life away from England- dominated UK.

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