Robin McAlpine: 7 things Yessers need to know as #ScotRef gets underway

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine outlines some key points for Yes campaigners as plans for a second independence referendum take shape

IF anyone else happens to be feeling a little guilt that one of their reactions to Monday's news was not elation but a bit of anxiety and a touch of fear, I suspect there is quite a big club you can join. I'm certainly a member.

But it has already been overtaken by another emotion – determination. There has been an incredible flurry of behind-the-scenes work in the last few days and the shape of the task ahead is becoming clearer.

So the presbyterian work ethic has certainly kicked in with this atheist. We have a task. We have a deadline. There's nothing else - we need to clear our minds and focus ourselves.

There are already groups of really good people beginning work on detailed plans. I am growing in confidence because of this. So for now, here are simply a number of personal reflections.

1.) We may have been on different sides. We're not now.

I've been plenty critical of the Scottish Government over various things. SNP supporters have had their spats with the Greens (and even more so with some others). There's been quite a bit of individual 'we need to talk about...' (you can then fill in the name of someone or other inside the movement who is seen as a problem by the author).

This was at times dispiriting though perfectly understandable and frankly unavoidable. Because very simply, we've not all been on the same side.

But we are now. So it must stop. That means everyone. If you think you need to get something off your chest, just don't bother. If you think that group X or person Y can't be trusted so we need to go all command-and-control, think what a movement without trust looks like.

We move together or we fall apart. Everyone. From this moment onwards.

2.) There is no one single thing we need to do to win

There has been a bit of debate I've seen about what is the thing we need to do to win. But that question is flawed.

A group of professional political strategists met this week to really go over the early stages of creating a development plan for a campaign. If there was one thing I think was particularly clear it was that there is no one thing we need to do to win.

There is no one group of people. There is no single message, no single weakness, no unique strategy. We need to win this by building up a coalition of new Yes voters. Some will come from changing their minds, some from increasing even further the turnout.

We don't win it because of fixing the policy case, but we won't win it if we don't. We don't win it because of the EU alone, but we need the EU case to win part of it. We can't win simply by being better at rebutting claims made by the other side, but we sure as hell need to be better at it this time.

I think people are seeking to be helpful when they say 'don't worry so much about X, the important thing is Y'. But with the best will in the world, it's not that helpful. We need to do a lot of things and we need to do them all properly.

3.) We need to agree a number of things – quickly

Very roughly, we've got six months to get ready, a year to roll out a broad messaging campaign and then six months or so to execute a mobilisation campaign. By the time we get to the second of those tasks, we need to have agreed a number of things.

We can't go much longer without having agreed a line on currency. Common Weal has produced a position on the financial deficit and we understand that the Growth Commission is working from the same position. A line needs to be agreed.

We could do with nailing down just exactly what we say about the EU. I'm reassured that 'EFTA-then-choose' is at least being discussed. A line on pensions is going to help a lot.

Read more – Fund the answers for #ScotRef: Common Weal launches fundraiser for White Paper project

We don't need to be afraid of discussing these for a few months – as long as we end up with an outcome both that works and that everyone can live with. It would be much better if this could be discussed before half the movement is bounced into a position that makes it uncomfortable.

Put bluntly, if you think we can hold the line on 'let's just say Sterling because it's easy' then you're almost certainly not right. Half the membership of the SNP are hostile to this position, never mind the Greens and the rest of us.

4.) Get things right so others don't have to 'backfill'

You don't need to know a single thing about modern PR to know that the Yes campaign was sorely lacking in rebuttal last time. Anti-independence arguments, statements and claims were simply allowed to hang in the media air unchallenged for far too long – if they were challenged at all.

The vacuum was in large part filled by excellent work by Stuart Campbell and Wings Over Scotland, and what we ended up with was a kind of mass, civilian rebuttal team which did what it did over social media.

In the absence of anything else, that was great. But ideally it would be good if that's not how we do it this time. It should be the central campaign who it does and does it well so the rebuttal is on TV and not just online.

It was really great to see how ordinary people stepped up and really made the campaign last time. It would have been so much better if they could have spent less time doing things that should have been done elsewhere.

5.) Don't give the other side what it wants

The problem with the mass civilian rebuttal team was that by doing all this online, it inevitably got into fights. And there are few things the No campaign wants more than for us to be online fighting.

Can I make a radical suggestion? I sat down with the family after Monday to talk about the sacrifices ahead. Might it be possible to suggest that one of those sacrifices is that those of you who enjoy using social media to engage in robust argument should just not?

The social media landscape has changed enormously since the last campaign. It is still an important way to engage with your friends – but not with strangers. I'm going to bet that you're not going to change a single strangers mind through a Twitter debate in this campaign.

We're undoubtedly going to be tarred by the worst thing anyone on our side says on social media. So what if we didn't say anything? I know that social media functions a little bit like an addiction and I know that I've had unfortunate rows with people by suggesting that their reasons for keeping going with the online 'debates' don't really stand up.

But what would happen if we just stuck to a rule that said 'if you don't know someone well enough to say hello in the real world, just stay away from them online' (fine to retweet positive things and share articles and infographics). If we encouraged each other to stick to that rule, Brian Spanner would be left howling into fresh air and we could get on with winning independence.

6.) Look after yourself – and let's enjoy this

You know the theory that if you're frustrated or angry that the best thing is to 'let it out' (go out into a field and scream or whatever). Well the psychological evidence is that this is the worst thing you can do. Acting angry or frustrated actually makes you more angry or frustrated.

There are going to be endless people on the TV you're not going to enjoy watching. Indeed, it's not exactly clear that watching TV at all is going to be much fun.

Getting angry at things you can't do anything about won't help you. Put pressure on those in positions of power to create a campaign organisation (a new Yes Scotland) that does all that stuff for you. Focus on what you can contribute that makes you feel good.

The best piece of parenting advice I ever got was from my mum. She told me that when we were kids every time she looked out the window we were swinging a plank of wood around or hanging upside down from a tree – basically always within minutes of death.

But it never happened. Mum's advice? "Just don't look out the window."

Giving yourself a blood pressure problem and nurturing a secret Jacobean revenge fantasy over a unionist of your choice isn't going to help anyone. Try not to look. If you can.

7.) Oh, and I think we're going to win

I'm honestly not cocky. I really do accept that there aren't really floods of enthusiasm out there that this is all about to kick off again. We're going to have to make people want this campaign because the other side is putting all their effort into making it sound like the plague.

But at the end of it, irrespective of what happens during it, people are going to have a binary choice. Neither is the status quo. And when I look at it, subject to us fixing some of the parts of the case that do need work, our story is simply much better than theirs.

Two years will fly by folks. It may be our last chance. So let's fight the best, cleanest, happiest fight anyone ever fought.

Picture courtesy of Stuart Crawford

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Thu, 03/16/2017 - 13:13

Absolutely spot on, this should be the basis for the campaign we have ahead of us.


Thu, 03/16/2017 - 20:34

Lots of areas of agreement.

Positivity is the major one. It you can't write positively, leave it until you can.

I have great regard for Common Weal but tying the Scots currency to the GBP is wrong! However, in the early days, it might be the simplest solution but as it leaves rather more control in England's court than we should be looking to curtail that arrangement ASAP.

There are a thousand and one jobs to do, departments to build, even if only on paper, clarion cries of stability about the NHS, pensions, public transport, public television, schools and universities and of course local government and taxation.

I spent a year developing a series of strategies concerning transport and transport policies.

It was submitted to the Common Weal some time ago but they haven't had time to acknowledge it yet. No matter. There are quite a few hundred man-years required to get all this up and running and clearly it can't be left to the
Common Weal.

So, there are skilled financiers, skilled educators, those skilled in local government and these people and people like them need to be invited to cooperate on specific themes. With the advent of the Internet, a lot of good preparatory work could be undertaken.

There is no room for glory hunters. The fate of our country depends on doing this properly.

Food for thought.

Thin White Duke

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 06:50

Thank you for this article Robin.

I really can't stress what you say in #5 enough - arguing with unionists on Twitter and other social media platforms is a complete waste of peoples' time.


Fri, 03/17/2017 - 12:32

I agree with most points especially arguing on social media is just a waste of time and energy, however, when the majority of mainstream media is blatantly biased and hostile what else do we have? I think a coordinated and massive social media presence is essential.


Fri, 03/17/2017 - 16:26

Great article!

This is what we need this time, real honest answers that we can present to people and not having them make their decision on a lot of fabricated memes and unsubstantiated claims posted on social media.

Many voted no in 2014 because they didn't have enough information to make a calculated decision, therefore no change was the safe option.

Remove the fear and uncertainty from peoples decisions and this time we have a chance.

gjm's picture


Sat, 03/18/2017 - 22:42

good points


Sun, 03/19/2017 - 14:11

Re point 4 "It should be the central campaign who it does (sic) and does it well so the rebuttal is on TV and not just online."

We need a central 'instant response' point of contact.... I'd suggest that 'hoping to get things on the BBC' is going to be a waste of time so let's (crowd)fund our response(s) and take out paid-for adverts/time on the commercial channels. A professional response from a known personality supporter, Derek Bateman & the Newsnet team would be my favoured option, being regularly aired might, just might, shake up the BBC. BBC Alba might be the first to take it up...


Sun, 03/19/2017 - 14:19

Unless we 'invade' FB pages of known Unionists eg Ruth Davidson are we not simply preaching to the converted? This would also just lead to commenters being 'barred/blocked on FB & Twitter.

(See my comment further down)

Apologies: Thought that comments / replies would be 'nested' - apparently not. This comment is a response to DerekA

Lily Zotou

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 18:02

Great article. I'm not sure about your comments about discussion on social media. Certainly, getting into fights, being rude, or swearing are entirely counterproductive. But there is no need for any of these. It's possible to have good, serious debate, in a mutually respectful manner, and to help convince those who are undecided, worried, or unsure about information, or issues. One will never, of course change a closed mind, no matter what the medium, but respectful discussion with those people also can help those undecided people to look further, and deeper. One has to be careful how one does this - but it's entirely possible, with care.


Mon, 03/20/2017 - 07:58

We own 8.4% of the Bank of England. It is an independent public organisation serving members of the UK. England will still be our largest trading partner by far (England £48b, Europe £12b, ROW £16b). Sterling is the logical currency and it would help settle the nerves of the doubters if an early announcement was made on the currency position.


Mon, 03/20/2017 - 10:25

Whilst far from happy with the quality of debate on social media last time (and generally), I'm not so convinced about the one on social media: if you look at the bigger picture, support for Indy shifted from 30% to 45%, and that was against the background of an overwhelmingly hostile media, being heavily outspent, and any number of other unhelpful and very one-sided factors. Social media may well have been the only source of information that made that difference (it was certainly my route into political reactivation and the whole independence debate) - you have to think that for every reactionary die-in-a-ditch ball of fury, there's another who can see the possibility but has too many thus-far unanswered questions, and another who really doesn't have much idea what this is about. What is important then is the tone: however difficult it is, just don't rise to any barbs or sleights, stick to the argument I found I was able to have constructive and friendly discussions with even quite fierce unionists. Indeed, with the most fierce of them all, we actually have more of a friendship than we did before - and a lot of mutual pals said they got a lot from our discussions. Little seeds sown...


Mon, 03/20/2017 - 11:49

What's the main difference between Westminster and Brussels?

In terms of export revenue generated for Scotland, England is 4X the size of European market. (£48b compared to £12b). £48b creates a lot of jobs in Scotland. Is it worth keeping Sterling to protect these jobs?


Tue, 03/21/2017 - 00:11

Regarding the Unionist lie machine and rebuttals, as per Craig Murray's suggestion, Nicola Sturgeon should be asking for international monitoring of the referendum, and the role played by the BBC. The BBC should not be allowed to get away with murder this time and they need to know that this time they will have the eyes of the world upon them.

Magnus45 - why would the jobs just evaporate if we didn't use Sterling? Doesn't England trade successfully with many countries who do not use sterling? Jobs are generated by trading relationships, which continue for as long as they are mutually profitable. There is no reason why they would not be if we used a Scottish currency.

If we go down the sterling route again, the lie machine will rehash the same scares as before, about Scotland asking to share something they will not be allowed to share. Let's be bold and seize the initiative this time. A monetary authority, a national investment bank, with a network of local barnches, and a national currency. The economic furniture of any independent nation.

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