Category Archives: postmortem

Indyref postmortem V: Critical mass

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the fifth and last of several indyref postmortems.

Yes rally Glasgow ahead of #indyref Independence Referendum
Yes rally Glasgow ahead of #indyref Independence Referendum.
Most people like to go with the flow. If you get the impression that everybody around you is in favour of X or against Y, it takes a lot of willpower to say the opposite.

This is of course why independence for so long was going nowhere – the establishment and the media managed to portray independence as a whacky idea that only lunatics would support, and it wasn’t until mainstream media started their decline that things changed. It is interesting to observe that the SNP only scraped into power in 2007, one year after Twitter was created, three years after Facebook was launched, and four years after WordPress came into being.

Online support is all well and good, of course, but people also take a lead from their family, friends and neighbours. It’s much harder to come out in favour of independence – even if you’ve been convinced by the arguments online – if everybody around you maintains it’s bonkers.

Because of this, it’s critically important to reach a certain critical mass that ensures that independence feels normal, perhaps even to such an extent that unionism feels old-fashioned and quirky.

This sort of critical mass was reached in Glasgow and Dundee in 2014, but probably not in many other places. If you spent a bit of time in FreedomGeorge Square the day before the referendum, you couldn’t help feeling that all of Scotland were in favour of a Yes vote. However, I’m sure things felt very different in the areas that voted No.

Could the Yes campaign have done more to achieve critical mass in other places? I can’t help thinking the strong focus on local campaigning (activists were almost never bussed around, or even just encouraged to help out elsewhere) made it very hard to break through in areas with a strong No majority.

Campaigning for a Yes in Newton Mearns in East Renfrewshire was definitely a lonely job for the first two years of the campaign. It would have been nice if groups of activists from different types of areas had come round to do some mass canvassing earlier in the campaign – and it might have been good for those helping out to realise not all areas were like their own home patch. Also, it would have been great for me and the other local activists to spend a day in a Yes area to realise how close we were to winning.

Of course bussing people around wouldn’t have solved everything. Some areas were always less likely to vote Yes than others because of local issues or because the national campaign materials weren’t tailored sufficiently to specific places (as discussed in the first postmortem). It would have helped, though.

In Indyref2 I’d like Yes Scotland II to keep track of whether critical mass is being reached in different neighbourhoods across Scotland, and if an area is getting close to getting there, other areas (especially those that already appear to have a Yes majority) should help out to carry them across the line.

We’ll only win if there are more than two Yes cities next time.

Indyref postmortem IV: Postal voting considered harmful

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the fourth of several indyref postmortems.

After verification, the referendum ballot papers were put back into ballot boxes to be counted at 4pm.
After verification, the referendum ballot papers were put back into ballot boxes to be counted at 4pm. by Epping Forest District Council, on Flickr.
I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists who believe the independence referendum was rigged. Electoral fraud might have happened in a few places, but not to such an extent that it can possibly have turned a Yes into a No.

However, I still think postal voting as practised in this country is a very problematic.

Firstly, it’s democratically questionable when there’s a late shift in the public opinion. As a campaigner, I don’t like the fact that there is one deadline for convincing postal voters and another one for everybody else, and from a postal voter’s perspective, it’s horrible if a late development in the campaign suddenly makes you realise you’ve changed your mind.

Secondly, it’s not healthy for democracy when conspiracy theories flourish. Ideally, everybody should be able to convince themselves that no fraud took place, and huge numbers of postal votes makes this much harder, especially when there have been many examples of fraud using postal votes in the past.

Thirdly, Westminster politicians have been pushing postal voting in a vain attempt to stem the tide of low voter turnout. However, the independence referendum demonstrated that people are very happy to vote, so long as their vote counts and the election matters. The corrupt Westminster system with its FPTP electoral system and nearly identical main parties might need postal voting as a form of life support, but independence referendums most definitely do not.

Of course there needs to be a mechanism in place to allow everybody to vote, also those who cannot go to the polling place for various reasons. In Denmark, in lieu of postal voting voters can cast their vote at council offices and embassies for a period of time before the election if they know they will absent on the day, and polling places have a small mobile team who can take a small ballot box out to immobile voters. Mechanisms such as these could be considered in Scotland, too.

Hopefully the Scottish Parliament will soon get more responsibilities for conducting elections and referendums in Scotland, and if that happens, postal voting should be replaced by a better system, hopefully in time for the next independence referendum.

Indyref postmortem III: Why were EU citizens ignored?

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the third of several indyref postmortems.

European Union flags
European Union flags by, on Flickr.
One thing I didn’t really understand during the indyref campaign was why EU citizens were largely ignored by the Yes campaign.

I do realise some leaflets were produced in Polish and possibly other EU languages, but most EU citizens living in Scotland speak English fluently, so what was missing wasn’t really materials in other languages, but answering the specific concerns shared by EU citizens in Scotland, such as the following:

  • Would they be forced to leave Scotland if the EU terminated Scotland’s membership after a Yes vote, as the Unionists were often warning the EU would?
  • Would the non-discrimination of EU citizens continue without change after independence? In particular, would they be continue to be able to work, to access the NHS, to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, and so on?
  • Would it be easy to become a Scottish citizen after independence?

The last question was answered unequivocally — it would be rather hard, much harder than for British citizens living in Scotland. However, the first two items weren’t addressed very clearly.

It would have been very easy for the Scottish Government to issue some clear plans to reassure all EU citizens. However, this didn’t really happen — there were some promising clauses hidden in the draft constitution and other places, but it was all too hidden to be of much use in the campaign.

It’s really rather sad, because most EU citizens were fundamentally sympathetic to getting away from the Eurosceptic consensus that often seems to reign supreme in England — indeed, for many EU citizens here, the in/out referendum could lead to losing their jobs and being deported back to a country they haven’t lived in for many years.

I don’t know why the Scottish Government didn’t do more. I can think of a few possible explanations, but I don’t know whether they’re correct or not.

Firstly, I think there was an unwillingness to discuss the possibility of Scotland being thrown out of the EU — if the Scottish Government had said: “We guarantee your rights to live and work here even if Scotland is temporarily excluded from the EU”, they may have feared the Unionists would have used this as evidence they were right to raise doubts about Scotland’s continued EU membership.

Secondly, they may have wanted to keep their powder dry for the membership negotiations with the EU. If they had already guaranteed the rights of all EU citizens in Scotland, their negotiation position might have been seen to be weakened. However, as an EU citizen it’s not very attractive to vote to become a bargaining chip.

Thirdly, there might have been some disagreements within the Scottish Government about the right way forward, and this kept things vague.

Finally, I’m not sure many Scots really understood how scary the prospect of being chucked out of Scotland as an unfortunate side effect of the EU playing hardball was for EU citizens here. However, we’re so used to threatening and xenophobic language from many English politicans (especially from UKIP) that it’s easy to become somewhat paranoid.

Of course a large number of EU citizens (including myself) voted Yes enthusiastically in spite of all this, but a more proactive approach from the Scottish Government could have led to an almost unanimous backing for independence from these voters. In the end, No won the referendum by such a large margin that it didn’t really matter what the EU citizens voted, but nobody could have known this in advance.

(Much of this blog post might also apply to Commonwealth citizens in Scotland — I’m not sure. On the other hand, people from outwith the EU and the Commonwealth couldn’t vote in the independence referendum unless they had obtained British citizenship, so there wouldn’t have been a specific reason to appeal specifically to them in the campaign.)

Indyref postmortem II: We need to talk about Yes Scotland

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the second of several indyref postmortems.

Blair Jenkins
Blair Jenkins by Ninian Reid, on Flickr.
During the independence campaign, lots of people were privately girning about Yes Scotland, but most of it remained private out of fear that any criticism would be used against us. However, Yes Scotland — or rather, the headquarters on Hope Street in Glasgow — made many mistakes, and we need to learn from them before the next referendum.

My main criticisms are listed below.

Failure to liaise with local groups

Yes Scotland did play a role in setting up many of the local groups. However, once they had been set up, they were to a large extent ignored, except for endless requests to raise money for Yes Scotland.

One particular problem was that it led to uneven campaigning — if there were many volunteers in one area, they could undertake lots of activities such as fundraising and canvassing that would help later in the campaign, whereas other areas were starved of resources. Nobody seemed to look at the “empty” areas and try to help them grow until they could campaign on their own.

It could also get quite depressing being a Yes campaigner in a strong No area — on Facebook you could see how much fun campaigners in Yes areas were having, but the strong focus on local campaigning meant you had to knock on the doors in your No-leaning area alone. I often wished we could have swapped volunteers with a Yes area for a day!

Perhaps this was all caused by the lack of community organisers, as pointed out by Alistair Davidson last July:

Yes HQ made a serious mistake in not hiring any community organisers. An organiser’s job is to put themselves at the service of a movement (the professional jargon calls organisers “staff” and ordinary movement members “leaders”), to develop and maintain relationships with people who take on leading roles, and to encourage new activists to become involved in leadership and planning. This kind of organic connection to a movement helps to smooth over clashes with the careful plans of the political strategists.

Instead of actually liaising with local groups, Yes Scotland seemed to see it as their role to provide ads, literature, merchandise and email updates.

Yes East Renfrewshire's offending leaflet.
Yes East Renfrewshire’s offending leaflet.
Another problem with not engaging sufficiently with local groups was seen when HQ called me in June ’14 to tell us (i.e., Yes East Renfrewshire) to pulp 20,000 newly printed leaflets because they contained a link to Wings over Scotland. We had already distributed the first batch, and before we produced it, I had talked to somebody from HQ who waffled and didn’t give me a straight answer. (They claimed later they had said they didn’t want Wings included — but if so they did it so subtly that I didn’t understand it — all I took from the conversation was that it wasn’t their job to tell local groups what to do or not do.) However, because of a potential media story about a leaflet produced by Yes Leith, they wanted us to pull ours, too. Eventually we produced 20,000 more leaflets without Wings, which we then distributed before distributing the old leaflets once the media story had gone away, in spite of what HQ had said. I imagine a community organiser would have been more closely involved in the design and contents of local leaflets so that the issue wouldn’t have arisen.


Yes Scotland seemed to think that all the local groups should do was fundraising and canvassing. As soon as people signed up, they were typically told to go and canvas rather than being invited to a social event to make them feel welcome. I think we lost many potential volunteers in this way, especially in the early days of the campaign.

Raccoon Circle
Raccoon Circle by CommonGroundAdventuresFL, on Flickr.
As I argued on this blog in July ’13, there was a huge need to motivate and encourage volunteers, and this almost only happened online, and not by HQ, who instead told us to “step away from your keyboards and talk to people!”. Robin McAlpine expressed this very well a year later:

[Wings over Scotland] has lifted our spirits throughout the campaign. When we wake up in the morning and Yes Scotland isn’t in the papers (why?) and the SNP is being timid and talking like an accountant, it is often Wings that is the primary source of commentary that doesn’t seem always to accept the premise set by the mainstream media as the only possible frame for discussing independence. It makes it OK to be both angry and excited while becoming informed at the same time.

It often felt like Yes Scotland had no idea how to deal with their campaigners. As a parent, I often felt they used negative parenting techniques, ignoring the volunteers for too long and then suddenly barking commands at us (“Pulp that leaflet! Don’t participate in the BBC Bias demo! Don’t read Wings!”), instead of using positive techniques, such as engaging proactively. The problem with negative parenting is that eventually the sproglets get fed up and start ignoring you or — worse — start acting against you. Yes Scotland were actually quite lucky that all volunteers felt so strongly about the goal — Scottish independence — that nobody wanted to rock the boat during the campaign.

In addition to community organisers, some internal web forums might have been useful, as well as a yearly Yes conference for lead volunteers.

Yes Scotland the company

Other people have already pointed out that Yes Scotland initially seemed to waste a lot of money by hiring directors used to working in big corporate positions.

Chevron Corporate Offices in Houston TX
Chevron Corporate Offices in Houston TX by Jonathan McIntosh, on Flickr.
As a result, it often felt like they constantly felt cash-strapped but short of hands. However, many people who participated in the campaign had more time than money, and to me it just didn’t seem sensible to beg volunteers for money in order to hire people to do the jobs that the volunteers would have done for free if they had been asked. The number of emails asking for financial contributions were endless, but I don’t think I received a single one asking for help (apart from reminders to go canvassing).

Would HQ in their heart of hearts have been happier with a small army of paid canvassers like Better Together’s, rather than having critical and engaged activists with their own dreams, hopes and campaigning ideas? At an event for lead volunteers in Stirling in June ’14, a representative for Yes Scotland for instance told people their job online was to regurgitate the daily messages sent from HQ so that the campaign theme of the day was the one decided in Hope Street, which of course was a pointless appeal at that point in the campaign.

In fact, Yes Scotland often seemed to think like spin doctors, for instance preferring to arrange photo-ops for the media with hand-picked volunteers, while talking down or ignoring the actual grassroots events organised on Facebook.

The database

One huge problem was Yes Scotland’s database. They were clearly so keen to get it up and running quickly that they installed a version of NationBuilder without testing properly that it could cope with Scottish addresses.

Database Diagram FAIL
Database Diagram FAIL by Tony Buser, on Flickr.
The result was that we lost many volunteers. The system couldn’t assign volunteers to the right groups (partially because it didn’t register the address of many volunteers, only their email address, I believe), so when we tried to use their system to email everybody in our area, we didn’t reach many people. My dear wife at first received the emails from Glasgow, not from East Renfrewshire, and later she didn’t receive any local emails, only fundraising messages from HQ.

I understand they were keen to launch before Better Together, but they would have been better off with a simple one-table MySQL database and a simple PHP website (I could have made this for free if they had asked) until they had had time to test the real system sufficiently.

It would also have been good if there had been a decent canvassing app (or a mobile-friendly website) that could have been used when you sent people out to knock doors. Yes, eventually there was an app, but it arrived late in the day and its functionality was limited.


Yes Scotland wasn’t given an easy task, of course, being tasked with combining the campaigning strength of the SNP with the varied skills exhibited by smaller groups and inexperienced first-time volunteers. One might argue that the laissez-faire attitude adopted towards local groups in many instances actually worked well and that a more active HQ could have demoralised local campaigners much more than Yes Scotland actually did.

However, many of highlights of the campaign that people instinctively associate with Yes Scotland were actually organised independently, such as the wonderful independence marches, the flashmobs and the gatherings on Glasgow’s Independence (George) Square, and it often felt like Yes Scotland weren’t always too happy about not being in control of these.

Hopefully the next incarnation of Yes Scotland will learn from the mistakes made, turning the coming Yes campaign into a truly unstoppable force.

Indyref postmortem I: What went wrong in Edinburgh and the North East?

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the first of several indyref postmortems.

The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.
Map of disappointing results: The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.
On the 18th of September last year, the good people of Edinburgh were basically asked “Would you like to live in the capital of an independent country?” and proceeded to answer No. How could they?

Also, the SNP has traditionally been strongest in the North East, but places like Moray that I had predicted would vote Yes by 60% instead voted No by a huge margin. Why are the people up there happy to vote SNP in local elections, but when they’re asked about the raison d’être of the SNP, they say No?

The map on the right shows the most disappointing indyref results in red. Some of the areas aren’t that surprising. I can understand that some people in the Scottish Borders would have worried about creating an international border close to home, and the fact that this area receives ITV instead of STV cannot have helped the Yes vote either. It’s also natural that people in Orkney and Shetland are worried that Edinburgh might be too far away to fully understand their needs.

"Let's become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty."
“Let’s become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty.”
I wonder whether there was a lack of local campaigning materials. Many of the posters, leaflets and TV ads produced by Yes Scotland seemed to have been designed to appeal to low-income voters in Greater Glasgow and similar areas.

Why didn’t anybody produce Edinburgh-only posters with messages such as “70 embassies will be built in this city, bringing a lot of money to the local economy” or “After independence, Edinburgh will be a real capital again, like London, Paris and Washington”? Where were the leaflets reassuring voters in the Scottish Borders? What was being done in Orkney and Shetland to explain to voters there that turning Scotland into a Nordic country would make them a central and crucial part of Scotland? Did anybody serious target occasional SNP voters in Aberdeenshire?

I was campaigning in East Renfrewshire, where we did more or less as well as one could have expected, and the only other area I visited frequently was Glasgow, which did better than most people expected, so I don’t know what exactly went wrong in other areas. However, my impression was that the campaign themes were the same all over Scotland, and if they were right here, they must have been wrong in other places. I definitely got the impression that a lot of the leaflets we distributed went down much better in the poorer parts of East Renfrewshire than in the rich neighbourhoods.

Did Yes Scotland suffer from a lack of regional campaign managers that could have identified a need for local campaign materials? Were local groups too passive, expecting to be given materials by Yes Scotland instead of producing their own?

Whatever the reason, it’s an error we can’t afford to make next time. Of course we need national campaign materials, but we must be better at targeting local areas with messages that matter to people there.