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.
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.