Progress Scotland — the new group plotting a route to independence

The SNP’s former Westminster leader Angus Robertson is learning from the Yes campaign’s mistakes in 2014.

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Will the ongoing Brexit fiasco push more voters north of the border towards supporting Scexit from the UK? If so, will it push enough? What will it take to turn the 45 per cent who backed independence in 2014 into a winning majority?

Angus Robertson is on a mission to answer these questions. The 49-year-old former Westminster leader of the SNP, who lost his seat in the 2017 general election, wants to better understand the currents driving Scottish public opinion and in doing so believes he can perform a valuable service to the Yes movement.

Robertson has set up Progress Scotland, which he describes as a crowdfunded research project, which will use polling and focus groups to build a more sophisticated analysis of what Scots are thinking and why. In the next few days the organisation will publish the first fruits of its work, which I understand will show that a large majority now believe Scotland will become independent (regardless of whether they personally support such an eventuality or not), and that somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of voters have either changed their minds about leaving the UK or are at least thinking about changing their minds.

It is the latter group who are Robertson’s main focus. These are the people who, if enough of them could be persuaded to make the leap, would deliver victory for Yes in a second independence referendum.

“I’d like this work to inform a wider Scottish debate about where we are going,” he says. “We need to build a more nuanced picture, specifically around people who are open-minded about Scotland’s future, and how their thinking is evolving.”

Polls have repeatedly shown that support for independence remains stuck at around 45 per cent. Research has also found that since 2014 a small proportion of voters has switched from No to Yes, but that this has been counterbalanced by a roughly equal switch from Yes to No. Robertson puts the drift at around 8 per cent from No to Yes and 5 per cent the other way. “I think that having a better understanding of how people make decisions is profoundly important as to whether we can go from 45 per cent to above 50 per cent,” he adds. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from people who were open-minded or potentially reachable in 2014 but who for different reasons couldn’t commit when it came to putting their X in the Yes box.”

Free from the shackles of frontline politics, Robertson is willing to reflect honestly on what the SNP got wrong in 2014. “Are there different things that could have been done in 2014 that could have delivered more than 45 per cent? In retrospect there probably are.”

He concedes that a significant proportion of voters felt the Yes campaign promoted an unrealistic argument that an independent Scotland would consist solely of sunlit uplands. “They felt that was not nuanced enough for them to commit to a course of action [independence], given most courses of action have both upsides and downsides. I think at the next referendum you’ll see we have the confidence to acknowledge there will be good and bad decisions, and that we will not always get it right. And I think being empowered to communicate that will in itself allow us to reach a significant part of the Scottish population.”

He also admits that while the tone and content of the arguments advanced in 2014 “maxed out” levels of support among certain demographic and societal groups, they deterred others. In this latter camp, he specifically identifies older voters, those who had concerns about the economic implications of going it alone, English people living in Scotland, and EU citizens. An improved message must be crafted if more members of these groups are to be persuaded to make the jump.

He argues that Brexit is “radically changing” the views of EU citizens in Scotland, who are now more likely to see independence as a route back to membership. The SNP needs to work on the “intergenerational case” by persuading older voters to think about what would benefit their grandchildren, and by asking the pro-indy young to engage with older family members.

What the Yes movement can’t do, he warns, is simply keep advancing the same arguments and expect a different outcome. “There are those who are still in the trenches, who think we just need to make the same case with greater vehemence, and that we will be heard and understood better. I’m unconvinced by that. We need to ask: what is the independence people can imagine and support in 2019 as opposed to 2014?”

It’s easy to see why Robertson was attracted to this project, and why he’s likely to be rather good at it. Before he was a Westminster frontbencher earning plaudits for his impressive performances against Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs, he was a humble and geeky party staffer in charge of the SNP’s internal polling operation. In the mid 2000s, by then an MP, he oversaw the modernisation and professionalisation of its campaigning operation, which in 2007 delivered the party into power at Holyrood. He also ran the campaign in 2011 that saw the SNP win an overall majority, despite Holyrood’s proportional voting system being designed to render this outcome unfeasible.

The search for the data and arguments that could get independence over the line will be an arduous one, and will take time. The pace of change and the level of uncertainty in politics means opinions are not fully formed or settled. Those who suddenly find themselves more open-minded about Scotland’s ultimate constitutional destination won’t shout as loudly as the committed hardliners on both sides. “People don’t just leap from one analogue position to another,” says Robertson. “They find where they are is changing, and that can be an uncomfortable process. People plant their flag in a certain place then find the environment is being changed for them and that they are considering ideas they didn’t before – ‘I’m not sure where I am but I know I’m not where I was’.”

The feistier elements of the Yes movement need to try harder to empathise with the opinions of others. “If people felt in 2014 that they didn’t share my view on independence then that was not ‘wrong’. That was their choice at the time. It’s not some sort of competition about when the penny dropped for different people. We’re all considering all sorts of things daily and at different speeds. We need to understand that, understand the complexity people face, and this can help move the Yes case forward.”

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).