SNP machine drives Yes Scotland’s success

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

The Glasgow headquarters of the campaign for Scottish independence are located, with obvious symbolism, on Hope Street.

For Yes Scotland, hope was always going to be an essential ingredient. Nationalism has never been a majority pursuit in modern Scotland. Many analysts say the rise of the Scottish National party – which paved the way for September’s independence referendum – was driven more by voter disillusion with the Labour party than a yearning to leave the UK.

But with less than five months to go before the vote, Yes Scotland supporters have increasing reason to be hopeful. Polls show a narrowing of the pro-union lead since the publication of the Scottish government’s vision for independence last November.

And organisers are convinced they are winning the “ground war” of canvassing and local mobilisation against Better Together, the cross-party, pro-union campaign.

“When I go around the country, I always ask what the other side is doing – and the answer is always ‘an awful lot less than us’,” says Blair Jenkins, Yes Scotland’s chief executive.

The Hope Street HQ is the centre of what backers say is Scotland’s biggest and most sophisticated ever grassroots campaign. Yes Scotland’s more than 250 local groups can set their own agendas while being guided by – and updating – the campaign’s electoral database, a development of the system that the SNP used when it won the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election.

Ross Greer, a Yes Scotland co-ordinator, shows how activists can even use their smartphones to feed back information that will be used to target undecided voters in the crucial last months before the vote.

“If I strike up a conversation with someone on a bus – because I’m relentless like that – I can file their details directly to the database,” says Mr Greer, a member of the pro-independence Scottish Green party.

Yes Scotland also thinks it is winning on social media. The campaign is followed by more than 42,000 people on Twitter, compared with Better Together’s 23,000. Internet efforts are combined with a revival of the old-fashioned public meeting, often packed-out affairs in halls across Scotland.

Better Together organisers are dismissive of much of this effort. They say that most of the nationalist internet activity and the public meetings are more about keeping activists cheerful than engaging with undecided voters.

In a sign of internal tensions, most of the original team of top staffers have quit or been sacked. The campaign has been highly reliant for funding on lottery winners Chris and Colin Weir, who accounted for four-fifths of the £3.15m it took in donations during the past year.

There are also questions about the dominance of the SNP, which is by far the largest pro-independence party. Though officially cross-party, Yes Scotland hews closely to SNP policies on issues such as its plan to continue using the pound, even though members of the campaign’s own advisory board strongly disagree.

And while pro-union politicians fret that Better Together is losing the initiative, Yes Scotland has itself faced plenty of criticism since its launch in 2012.

In a scathing article in the Sunday Herald last month, former Yes Scotland deputy director for communities, Stan Blackley, said it had become little more than an “SNP front”.

“The narrowing of the polls . . . has been in spite of Yes Scotland, not because of it,” Mr Blackley wrote, crediting the gains to the No side’s “relentless negativity” and the emergence of a wider “Yes movement” operating beyond the official campaign.

Others say the SNP’s formidable machine remains Yes Scotland’s greatest asset and that maintaining a united front is vital given constant assaults on the credibility of its independence vision from the UK government and generally hostile media.

Strains among the nationalists are for the moment eased by reports from activists on the ground who say momentum is shifting their way.

Yes Scotland asks voters to rate their voting intentions on a scale of one to 10, giving it a sense not just of which side they favour but how committed they are. Stephen Noon, an SNP veteran who is now Yes Scotland’s chief strategist, says the results show a majority can be achieved by September 18.

“Our task is to edge people up the scale . . . and this is happening,” Mr Noon says.

The pro-independence cause could also receive a late fillip from an unexpected source. The Orange Order, a strongly pro-union Protestant fraternity, has announced plans to hold a parade of up to 15,000 members in Edinburgh just days before the September 18 referendum. The show of support is likely to be deeply uncomfortable for many No campaigners, given the order’s association with sectarian conflict in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.