LAST week The National reported some of the early findings of the Scottish Independence Convention’s work on trying to find out what it is that No voters need from the independence movement if we want them to change their minds.

I’ve been working closely with Dr Iain Black and the team at Heriot Watt University from the beginning of this project to look at what it might mean for the independence movement’s political strategy. This is what I’ll be talking about at this weekend’s Build conference in Edinburgh.

It’s important to start by making clear that we are still in the early stages of the research – there is still a lot of qualitative and quantitative work to be done before we can be really confident about the conclusions to draw. Plus we still have about half of the Scottish population supporting independence and we need to retain and reinforce their support. But here are four early, tentative conclusions from what we know so far about how we can attract soft No voters.


As Iain explained in his article last week, people are feeling absolutely overwhelmed. There has been an enormous amount asked of voters in recent years with very major decisions like whether Scotland should be independent and whether Britain should leave Europe, as well as a string of domestic elections.

Even more to the point, a lot of people don’t feel like they have enough information to know whether they even made the right choice in these two referendums. Soft No voters in 2014 think they probably made the right decision back then – but, especially with Brexit and the turmoil in UK politics, there is definitely doubt. And Brexit hasn’t even happened yet.

Until they feel they have more information on these big questions, they aren’t ready for another one. But it is also important to be clear what this seems to mean. Even soft No voters aren’t talking about “a generation” before being ready to look at this again. The main factor seems to be how Brexit turns out and, in an inter-related way, what happens with the UK economy and its social politics.

Even some of the most No of the No voters that were interviewed seemed to be saying “look, ask me about Scottish independence again if Brexit or British politics go badly”.

It’s not all about Brexit, but it is definitely about looking at two possible futures and asking “which is going to be better for me and the people I love?”.

Unless something major and unexpected happens, 2018 and 2019 do not look feasible moments to hold another independence referendum. And there is no guarantee that attitudes on this will definitely change in 2020 when the ripples of Brexit start to spread.

I think the best way to look at this is that we should be ready to fight an independence referendum from 2020 onwards. This doesn’t meant that you should start writing the date into your diaries; this window may not open. But there are strong signs that it could.


One suggestion that has been made by some independence supporters is that we were perhaps a bit too “land of milk and honey” last time, that voters saw us as naïve utopians and were turned off.

We specifically asked people about this – and it doesn’t appear to be true. Or not exactly. In fact, almost everyone including No voters rather liked the Yes campaign. (They universally loathed the No campaign. Even the strongest No voters were utterly critical of the negativity of No campaigners.)

No-one wants to believe the future is going to be worse; people want an optimistic case. My reading of what everyone said on this is that they liked our optimism and largely wanted to buy into it.

The problem wasn’t that we were too far along the “optimism” spectrum and so should move backwards a bit towards pessimism. Rather it’s that on another spectrum – from believable to unbelievable, realistic to wishful thinking – we simply weren’t quite in the right place.

People liked what we were offering, but they weren’t sufficiently confident we could deliver it. If we want to win them over we’d would be much better to spend time making that offer more believable by backing it up with concrete plans than we would by going back with a more miserable offer.


There is little evidence that the soft No voters feel they are making their decision emotionally. The warm and fuzzy emotional appeal of “pride in your country” or “ain’t we great?” is not something they say is going to change their minds.

But the same is every bit as true of the emotional appeal of Unionism. The decision is more utilitarian than that – they want to know what is going to work out “best” for them. And that means they say they need “facts”.

And before you run for your “big book of statistics for independence supporters”, bombardment or saturation strategies are the problem, not the solution. Sure we’ve got numbers – lots and lots of numbers. But so do Unionists – showing exactly the opposite of what our numbers show.

It’s like the “terms and conditions” you might start to read but never finish – if you don’t really understand information or it doesn’t feel useful, you stop listening. So when bombarded with lots of numbers “proving” apparently opposite things, the public just switches off. Worse, there is evidence they almost actively “hide away”, avoiding places or circumstances where they feel this bombardment may happen.

We need to provide “facts” that show independence will make their lives better. There seem to be two kinds of “facts” that can do this.

One is plans. Solid, concrete plans for something seem to be taken as a fact – “we will do this and then this and then this”. It explains what will happen, and even if it doesn’t “prove” a particular outcome it at least gives people something real and solid they can consider.

The other thing is what you might call “lived experience”. To put it simply, the more they feel in their day-to-day lives that Scotland is a country which is moving forward, getting better, showing ambition, the more they feel confident it is capable of taking the next step.


If a policeman turns up at your door to tell you everything is OK, you’ll still probably find that your heart is racing at the possibility it was the worst kind of news. Often, it’s not just the message that counts, but also the nature of the person who brings you the message.

Politics is seen as divisive and confrontational at the best of times, and this sense has been heightened in Scotland. Soft No voters in particular do not seem to respond to this well.

They’re looking for ways to come to “the right answer” and some kind of slug-fest between two warring sides is not offering them that.

The independence movement has very often behaved like “beating” Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale in a television debate or on social media is what would win over soft No voters. The evidence is that they’ve already tuned out before the fight is over – or that they are unable to adjudicate on who “won” if they actually stick it out to the end.

And there is definite evidence that any awareness that things are about to become “party political” is enough to turn them off. Political symbols may be a rallying point for the persuaded, but they’re turn-offs for the undecided. It is not a criticism of any one political party, it is simply a statement of how party politics is currently seen by “weakly aligned” voters (I’m not keen on the word “swing”). When they see a party logo they tense up, preparing themselves to be browbeaten.

If we want them properly to consider what we’re saying, it will work better if it’s not coming in a confrontational manner and is not always directly associated with a political party.

We need to achieve a “conversation of ideas”, not a fist-fight between opposing politicians. There isn’t a lot of evidence that over the next two years anyone is going to change their minds because of what they see broadcast from TV studios.

Rather, simple messages delivered by non-politicians locally and where possible with a highly visual element may be more effective. It’s us, having conversations in pubs, at work, at home, out shopping. These conversations have more weight than another stunt in another newspaper; it’s how we work our way round an unsympathetic media.