In the second of a six-part series of extracts from his new book, Determination, political strategist ROBIN McALPINE outlines what might be the biggest obstacles to achieving independence by 2021

THE biggest threat to Scottish independence, which it is in our hands to fix, is a mistaken belief that too many of us carry around in our heads. People have absorbed the idea that you win referendums during referendums. And so perhaps the single most important point I’d like to make in this book is to refute this idea as strongly as possible.

You do not win referendums during referendums. Or at least you should try very hard to not be in that position. You want to go into a referendum having already won. That should be the aim. You don’t walk into a pub, pick out 11 people at random and try to win a serious football match. You train; get fit; devise and practice strategies; train more. You don’t invite people round for dinner having never switched on a cooker before and then try to cook them all soufflés. You would generally practice a bit; start with scrambled eggs; get better; learn.

So why do we behave like we’re going to get anywhere by sitting around, talking among ourselves, proving our loyalty, believing really, really hard? Think of your line of work. If you had put as much time and effort into a project as big as Scottish independence and that project failed, a project which is crucial to you and your work which you are determined to see realised, how would you approach it (assuming you’re not an investment banker already expecting to be bailed out...)? Would you plan to wait around hoping the opportunity comes round again and then when it does come round again, do exactly the same thing you did last time but slightly more manically?

I suspect that whether you are a nurse or an accountant or a cleaner or a taxi driver, you are thinking about how you’d prepare better for next time, work out what didn’t work and get started now fixing things that you believe will better enable you to get it right next time.

In the case of electoral politics, that would mean that you’d want to start right now, shifting more and more people towards the voting outcome you want to achieve. You’d want to look carefully at what didn’t work so well last time and you’d try to find out what it was that you did or didn’t do that made it not work so well. You’d then try to identify ways you could address what it was that you did or didn’t do so that next time it is different. And you wouldn’t be waiting until next time was right upon you to do these things.

Almost every independence activist I’ve ever met is acutely aware that we failed to secure sufficient votes among those aged over 60 who are either reliant on a state pension or who are likely to be in the near future. Some in that age category are the post-war generation and feel strongly British as a cultural identity. Some are that generation of retirees who have become very wealthy out of the British management of the economy (and in particular the unsustainable way the housing market has made them wealthy). They probably will never vote Yes.

But what of the rest, the many, many pensioners who face life on one of the lowest state pensions in Europe with some of the highest housing costs in Europe, the ones whose insecurity about their financial future led them to vote No? We know, all of us, that failing to secure their vote was almost in itself enough to explain our failure to win. So we’ve analysed what went wrong and we’re taking substantial steps to make sure that problem does not arise again? We’ve begun work to ensure that there is a really solid and defensible plan in place to secure pensions for generations to come?

Nope. Actually, we’ve done nothing at all. I’ve heard some people on the small-c conservative side of the independence movement (many of whom are in influential positions) argue that this is precisely why the SNP must be a small-c conservative government, tacking to the centre to reassure those pensioners that they’re in ‘safe hands’. But is this not just a kind of projected self-interest? Is this not giving the impression that a small-c conservative future under the current political leadership is all that pensioners or anyone else can expect from independence?

AND worse still, is this not precisely reassuring them that Britain is the safest option? If we ourselves adopt the view that being as much like Britain as possible is the best way to make people feel safe, are we ourselves not reinforcing the idea that continuity, that Britain, is the definition of safety? How does that help the independence case?

So what have we done to address this substantial hole in our hopes for independence? Cross our fingers? Is that sufficient? Do we really believe that if only we can get that “one more shot at it”, this time they’ll “see sense”? Are we happy to go into the campaign with them not believing us but infused with the belief that if we just knock their door one more time, then they’re bound to believe us?

I would suggest that is risky. In fact, I would suggest that such a view is foolhardy verging on reckless. Often it takes people time to change their minds, sometimes quite a lot of time. And it can also take material change, a real-world shift that in turn shifts them. There are products I won’t buy because they’re unethical and I can’t bring myself to turn a blind eye. Their manufacturers can come back with all the rebranding they want, saturate me in as much advertising as they want, if they’re still unethical, if they still make me feel bad when I think about them, I still won’t buy them. Sometimes you have to accept that the barrier is not about how smooth you were with your sales pitch; the barrier is what you were trying to sell. That is not something you can fix during the sales pitch. You need to work in advance.

For me, the biggest irony in all of this is that we are a movement for self-determination which seems a little too happy to leave our fate in the hands of others. I’ve heard far too much talk along the lines of “the Tories will do our job for us” by being unpopular (or the Brexiters will; or TTIP will). It is of course possible this is true. It is of course entirely plausible someone, somewhere else will do stupid things which deliver us exactly what we want. Then again, it is just about plausible that a really brilliant government will come along in Westminster and be so damned good we won’t even want independence any more. Do you want to pin all your hopes on it, though?

I HEARD it said too many times during the referendum. Senior figures I admire and who I thought should have known better told me things like: “When Ukip wins the European Elections in England but no Ukipers are elected in Scotland, that’ll be the tipping point which gets us a majority.” That’s the problem with relying on external factors to deliver what you want – they’re damnably unreliable. As soon as you find yourself saying: “The key to us winning is not what we do but what they do,” you have immediately created a strategy based on weakness. And strategies based on weakness seldom work out well, do they? We need strategies based on strength, based on our own agency, our own ability to make things happen. Before we can have self-determination for Scotland, we need an attitude of self-determination in the independence movement. I suggest the way to achieve that is to plan as if the outside world was neutral and then consider in depth how we should respond when things go better or worse than neutral.

This approach forces you to come up with a way that gets you from here to there relying first of all only on what we ourselves do. Let’s say all the possible beneficial external circumstances we’ve got our fingers crossed for (Tory unpopularity; oil price recovery; Brexit with a Scottish In vote; another financial crisis; etc.) fail to happen. What then? What is it that gets us to a victory? That question must be answered in some detail – replying: “Keep voting SNP and wait” isn’t a strategy but a conviction of faith. What should the SNP do with its electoral power which can be expected to make pensioners feel comfortable with their wellbeing in an independent Scotland? The working-class voters who were sympathetic to independence but somehow felt that it was too risky, what do we do to get them to vote Yes? Can the famous “aspirational middle classes” ever be persuaded to shift and if so, what credible way can that happen?

If nothing else happens, how do we achieve these things on our own? That would be self-determination. Of course the outside world will not stay the same, but predicting in advance exactly what will happen is a foolish pursuit. Being prepared to deal with and use constructively all the possible external events we can think of is essential, but relying on them is dangerous.

Perhaps the most visible sign of our weakness, of our lack of self-determination, is our constant talk of “triggers”. We have speculated to an unhealthy degree about which external event will give us what is effectively an excuse to return to the battle we didn’t win. So desperate are we to believe that we can win the next referendum over the course of the next referendum that we are at risk of grasping at straws when we try to come up with a way to achieve that next referendum. It is this that has led us to use the word “trigger” – the work of the good fairies who will sprinkle magic dust on us. We must take matter into our own hands.

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

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

Read part one of our series.