In the first of a six-part series of extracts from his new book, Determination, political strategist ROBIN McALPINE outlines what a plan to win Scotland’s independence in 2021 might look like

FOR political, cultural, social, economic and democratic reasons, I remain a strong supporter of Scottish independence. As with many other people, I am impatient. I fear drifting into “if only” territory, that very Scottish mindset which dwells on what might have been if only a historical battle, refereeing decision or vote had gone the other way. It is a comfortable place to be, “if only”; a place where we can feel sentimental about failure. For Scotland it is and has been a mindset which allows us to gain comfort in the face of defeat and provides an excuse for inaction and lack of progress.

It has an equally Scottish antidote – determination. I use determination to mean both the act of taking control (self-determination, to determine our way forward) and a thrawn, stubborn mindset which refuses to give up. It requires both meanings because we will require both attributes. We need a way forward which places the future in our hands and we need to recognise that we’re not going to get there by waiting and hoping.

I have worked in the field of professional political strategy for more than 20 years now. In my judgement independence supporters have reached a critical point, one where we will either develop a plan and move purposely forward or we will allow our commitment to transforming Scotland to become a cultural signifier of our Scottishness like a tea towel printed with a list of our national inventors or a reproduction of an oil painting of a romantic reimagining of the Jacobite rebellion which we can hang on our walls. And just now I cannot see a plan.

I shall argue that we need to understand why our strategy didn’t quite work. I’ll argue that we need to look more intelligently at who is likely to be the No voters who can be won over to create a strong Yes majority (and spoiler alert – they are neither rich nor Tories and won’t be reached via right-of-centre dog whistles). I’ll argue that we must dispense of the opinion which seems to have settled around us that somehow you win referendums during referendums.

I’ll suggest instead that a process of building up confidence in the case through diligent work and preparation is the key, and that we must get people used to change by setting a creative and imaginative domestic agenda. And I’ll propose that we must get everyone to look to their own skills so that we can be the best fighting machine possible when that next referendum comes.

Because at the heart of the book I will warn against the idea that an independent Scotland will be delivered by ‘triggers’, external events outwith our control which will fall in our lap and somehow make everything OK, deliver us a referendum and then win that referendum for us. It’s possible that will happen. To me, it just seems both unlikely and an awfully shoogly peg on which to hang our hopes.

We have to have a way of creating our own trigger, our own mechanism for ensuring a referendum. For me, by far the best opportunity is the 2021 Scottish Election.

THAT can provide a solid, unequivocal mandate for a referendum. And if we work between now and then to be ready, to win over people, we can hold that referendum quickly. We can have voted to be an independent nation by Christmas 2021.

But we need to be sure, to do this right. As everyone knows, we cannot fail again or we really do fail for a generation.

So how do we avoid failing again? The last Yes campaign started from a problematic assumption – it based its initial strategy on the established political practices of a general election. With less than 18 months to go, strategists were still claiming that the campaign would be won or lost on the basis of the “aspirational middle classes” (this is verbatim what I was told at the time). This was based on assumptions such as “the poor don’t vote”, “elections are won in the centre ground” and “people vote out of pure self-interest”.

Thankfully, all this turned out not to be true. The poor voted in numbers unseen in a British election for generations. The narrative which achieved this was heavily influenced by the progressive, creative campaign which emerged. And this narrative was enough to get people past their sense of self-interest (or at least persuaded a lot of people that the status quo was not in their self-interest).

I know that some people will contest this analysis, not least because I come from the political left, and there will I’m sure be charges of “seeing what I want to see”. But in the end, I thought then and continue to think now that the numbers strongly stack up in favour of this argument. The “aspirational middle classes” (which is shorthand for “Tory-New Labour switchers”) showed very little propensity to switch while those on lower incomes turned out in big numbers.

I’ve heard it argued that the reason for this is that the nature of the campaign “scared away” New Labour-Tory switchers and that’s why we lost. I’ve even heard it said that now that we’ve ‘got’ the poor on side we should move to the right to pick up the Tories. Now that really is a case of ‘seeing what you want to see’ – it was poorer pensioners that lost us the vote much more than middle-aged Tories.

IN fact, it has become a knee-jerk trope from some that what we need to do now is just “bank” all those working class voters by ignoring them and go after the “middle class voters we need to win over to get independence”. I hear these comments with a degree of astonishment. Because here “middle class” seems to be defined as those with an income over £40,000 or so a year (apparently ‘middle class’ people pay upper rate income tax). Except that only applies to less than 15 per cent of the population. I simply cannot understand what people mean when they say this. Is the strategy to win 100 per cent support for independence? As an aspiration it’s highly unrealistic. As a strategy it’s nuts. We need 60 per cent, 70 if we can get it. So if you really believe that the future of independence relies on upper-rate taxpayers, could you please supply some verifiable data to support your claim? Because everything I’ve seen – literally everything – suggests that the very last group of people in Scotland who will vote for independence are high-income, Daily Mail-reading Tories or Tory-New Labour switchers.

About four out of five working-age voters live on less than £35,000 a year. All the data I have ever seen makes it clear that it is them who are by far the most likely people to switch from a No vote to a Yes vote. There are more than enough people who do not respond to low-tax dog whistles in Scotland to give us an overwhelming victory. (And let’s be clear, plenty of people with incomes over £35,000 voted Yes – but they’re neither Tories nor Tory-New Labour switchers and they, like everyone else, are voting Yes because they’re sick of Westminster’s anti-social democracy). I can’t count the number of times commentators, who are basically Tory sympathisers, inform readers that only Tory-lite can win elections. I then watch as time and time again, people who play Tory-lite politics in Scotland are punished, from the Tories to New Labour – to the 2003 SNP which tacked to the right and was soundly defeated for it.

There are few myths more resilient but less well-founded than the “Scottish middle-class-upper-income voters are the ones that decide things”. There is almost literally not a shred of evidence to support this. It was only when this misplaced opinion was ignored by campaigners in the last referendum that we turned the corner. I remember people telling us that RIC’s “Britain is for the Rich” leaflet was a mistake, that the “schemes” didn’t matter and we needed to focus on Edinburgh’s New Town. Thank your lucky stars we didn’t listen. And express hopes that no one will listen this time. Scottish independence is not a centre-right cause and never will be (or not in any foreseeable timescale). We won’t win 100 per cent, and the 30 per cent we need to accept will not come over are precisely the 30 per cent who will say things like “tax is the state taking my hard-earned money” and “why can’t the poor get off their arses and work”. Let’s stop making eyes at them and instead focus on people who might actually want to vote for independence.

As I shall discuss in Chapter Three, much more important than whether Tories were “wooed” is whether a sufficient sense of security and confidence was given to people who felt vulnerable or who were sympathetic but worried. It is confidence and not ‘triangulation’ which in the end was the campaign’s problem (triangulation is the process of trying to be everything to everyone by sounding both rightwing and left-wing at the same time).

A large chunk of this book will focus on how to create that sense of confidence, the sense that the leap of faith is sufficiently safe to be worth it. But it is worth exploring very briefly why that wasn’t achieved. And the simple answer to that was the lack of opportunity to prepare.

Read part two now.

Determination: How Scotland can become independent by 2021 is available to pre-order at

Robin McAlpine is a political activist and a prominent campaigner for an independent Scotland