OpenSpace Q&A with Robin McAlpine: Talking strategies for independence and more

Maxine Blane

All the questions and answers from the first OpenSpace Q&A with CommonWeal director Robin McAlpine

Common Weal director and CommonSpace columnist Robin McAlpine was live on OpenSpace from 6-8pm on Tuesday 30 August answering questions about all things strategy for Scottish independence. He talked about points covered in his new book, ‘Determination’, and his recent columns on GERS and Scotland’s relationship with the EU, as well as answering questions about how to move forward with a vision of a better future for Scotland. 

If you missed it, don’t panic: We’ve collated all the questions and answers below, and they are also available to download as a document over on the OpenSpace page on CommonSocial. We’ll be uploading all the Q&A sessions hosted on OpenSpace to CommonSpace, and as downloadable documents that you can use as resources to share or start a discussion, so even if you can’t be online when a discussion is happening you can still get involved.

Join the OpenSpace page on CommonSocial now to make sure that you stay up-to-date with all the upcoming guests and what they’ll be talking about. If you’re not on CommonSocial, our editor Angela Haggerty has written a wee guide on how to sign up, and once you’re on you can join OpenSpace, or any other space you have an interest in and get a discussion started!


Q: Vicky Swann

Hi Robin,

I agree that there were many concerns left unanswered within the last referendum, such as currency. As you say, it is important to do the work and ensure that viable options are given. However, when the work has been done how will this be communicated to those who were unconvinced the first time? If there are still issues with the mainstream media not giving a voice to alternatives, and if explaining the alternatives takes time, how will the message reach the people we need it to? Will these alternatives only receive air-time inside our pro-indy echo chamber?

A: Robin

Funnily enough this was exactly the subject of the last email I was writing before joining you all here. I'll be quite honest – I've been a little frustrated generally at progress since 2014. The question you raise is incredibly important – but in my mind it is part of a chain of actions and there are a number we need to get through before we get to the communication stage. So you're absolutely right – we published a major paper on a new Scottish currency (it is an excellent and very well informed paper by Craig Dalzell). And the pick-up from the mainstream media? Zero (apart from the National). The mainstream discourse in Scotland as managed and controlled by the media has more or less forced out the indy movement which emerged during the referendum. There are very few of us who can get mainstream coverage for these kind of discussions. But here's the thing – before this really becomes a mainstream discussion (something which the wider public who are no indy supporters will engage with) it needs to go beyond being a 'discussion document' and start to become the firm policy on independence. When the indy movement (which in this context effectively means 'the SNP') decide what currency option we're going to use, at that stage actually the mainstream really will start to engage. Now I don't think they'll engage particularly positively, but that is the stage at which we then need to become much, much better on communicating. It'll mean trying to get to the legendary 'soft no voters' both through the media and directly. I can think of dozens of ways we can do it. But there is little or no point in exerting a lot of energy preparing a strategy for explaining a new Scottish Pound pegged to Sterling to the wider public if the SNP then came along and ruled it out in favour of a currency union (which is looking less likely but still perfectly possible). I know people really, really want to get going on the persuasion phase. In my mind (from late 2014 onwards) the persuasion phase for a 2021 referendum should be starting in late 2017 or 2018. I still see this as the preparation phase, the inward looking bit where we get our act together and have a really, really good plan. With that we can go out and campaign confidently. I'm just a bit worried that we're a year behind where I think we should have been so we'll need to accelerate things and try and catch up…


Q: Yes 2 Scotland

With the relaunch of SIC n the 18th September how do you see that influencing grassroots supporters and groups?

A: Robin

Well let's start with what went wrong. It was a mistake to simply allow the networks which developed during the indyref to basically fragment and fall apart. I went to talk to lots of different indy groups in the year after the vote and a common theme in most of them was a sense that they were fighting on alone in a kind of sporadic guerrilla war. I kept saying 'no, there's lots of others who're trying to do the same thing'. But it is very difficult to keep your shape and your coordination if everyone is left to move on alone. It was great that there was a surge of membership in the SNP, but I think too many people saw that as a substitute for keeping the broad Yes movement together at least a bit. So it's been a process of rebuilding and both Yes2 and YesRegistry have done great work trying to 'repair' some of the networks. I have been closely involved with the relaunch of the SIC and so its important tosay that it's a forum and it hasn't met with all its new members yet so I can't say for sure exactly what it will do. But one of my very strong views is that if the genuine grassroots don't have a proper and influential seat at the top table, we not only miss a great opportunity but we also leave an hole in the campaign base. First and foremost we need to start to develop a plan for what we go on to do, and this time there will be much merit in developing that more collegiately. In 2013/14 there was so little time to organise that we ended up with a pretty centralised model by default. It would be a shame not to have a more open model of organising and developing the campaign. I have personal views about this but first and foremost we need to talk together to gather everyone's views and to plan. That's the purpose of the SIC relaunch.

A: Yes2 Scotland

We look very much forward to the Relaunch of SIC, probably the most positive move in many month for the Indy campaign… Thanks Robin


Q: Mary-Jane Douglas

Hi Robin,

Where do you think the most important work is being done at the moment regarding currency in an independent Scotland?

A: Robin

No work is being done on currency. This is the one dogmatic thing I want to explain to people. The Scottish Government (civil service and SPADs) can't work on this because it's not a Government commitment (a Scottish Government can't just do any work it wants unless it puts it in a programme for government and so on). As far as I can tell the SNP as a political party doesn't employ even a single researcher to develop the policy case for independence. As far as I know not a single piece of work has been commissioned from academia or think tanks. The Greens have started to think about doing some work but it hasn't begun (I don't think). There is no cross-party independence organisation to commission or carry out work. In fact, I can't see that even a side of A4 policy work has been done since September 2014 (I may be wrong, but it's very secretive indeed if it is and none of the senior politicians I talk to are aware of it). The only respected organisation who has done anything that I can find is Common Weal (I hope we're respected…). I think we've reached a point where there is a clear conclusion and a clear outline of what needs to be done to set up a Scottish currency. I think our work is solid. But this is all political. I spoke to a very senior SNP figure who told me that they couldn't do any work because it would be damaging if anything leaked. At the moment I see no mechanism for dealing with any of this. It's partly why Common Weal is trying so hard to jump-start a debate by producing properly researched policy responses. We're hoping people react and start a debate. Because there just isn't one just now.

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Q: Susa Rae

Hi Robin, and Tiffany.

Do you not think we need to use new ways to encourage erstwhile no voters to see the benefits of Independence. Regurgitating and performing excessive post mortems on the last campaign will not do. Should we not be using recent happenings such as Brexit, the benefits of local (at least a bit more local) power and how we handle things differently? Appreciate what current Scottish government have done and explore how we CAN and should BUILD on and further change this? Sorry if your book covers all of this already.

A: Robin

Don't worry Susa – reading the book isn't compulsory. We need to find a balance. If you look at how the UK Labour party turned what should have been a brief, collective autopsy on their 2015 loss into a protracted blood-bath, you can see how easy and how dangerous it is to get into a situation where all you're doing is picking over old wounds. But on the other hand, look at the Tories in the 2000s, incapable of realising that they had done anything wrong, assuming that a bit more of the same dog whistle would work this time – that shows what not seriously learning what worked and what didn't can do to you. One of the problems we have is not that we don't collectively know what we could have done better, it's that we've never sat in a room and talked about it. I have a very particular take on this because this (political strategy, working out what has worked and what hasn't and so on) has been my career for 20 years.

What I think we need is people who have different interpretations of what went wrong to talk about it, to see if each of our own assumptions stands up to testing against each other's assumptions. My pet hate is people who say 'the middle class' as if something close to half the population can be categorised as one thing with one view that we can deal with in one way. Once again, I'd have liked this to start in January 2015. There is one comment I really would make though – listening is not a PR exercise. The SNP proposals to start a listening exercise are certainly better than nothing, but if these are to be meaningful they have to be done properly. That absolutely does not mean powerful people sitting on a stage asking non-powerful people why they didn't vote Yes. I can only gently suggest that right across the world there is really well developed practice for finding out what a voting group things and doesn't think about what you did – and it never (absolutely never) ends up with Hilary Clinton chairing a giant focus group meeting in a town hall in front of journalists. If we want an initiative to show we're 'doing something', then fine. But if we want to really do something, do it properly.


Q: Teresa McDermott

In a recent article you discussed how it is important to begin work towards independence now. So that when independence is back on the table we have already won the votes. This is obviously a good idea, however the question of how we do it still remains. Many people, having made a "final" decision are often reluctant to change their minds. Without actually doing the door to door canvassing and campaigning how would you suggest we engage people in a conversation and in a space where they will feel comfortable enough to really open up enough to allow the possibility of changing their opinion.

A: Robin

I kind of covered this a bit in reply to Vicky above. I think of this as three stages – preparation, communication and execution. In this period we should be doing two things – getting a really bullet-proof case together (a much shorter, much more worked-through White Paper on starting a new country), working to devise messaging and strategy, training the grassroots to be ready for battle with all the skills they need, getting IT in place etc. Then once that's ready (I've suggested a new White Paper launch in 2018) we move to a communication phase, spending two years campaigning not on a he-said-she-said contested campaign so much as a genuine communications strategy so that people gradually over two years begin to absorb the new ideas and case (this is where your door to door talks come back in). Then we get into execution mode, from the start of 2020 we begin to turn this into a much more specific campaign. That's where we move from 'OK, let me talk to you about how our new currency would work' to 'VOTE YES!'. The target would be to get into a 2021 process of election and referendum where most of the work was already done. All I can say about this is that it is not at all clear that we're not going to just conflate all this and think that we don't really need to do the work, the 'one more push' school of thought. Above all, I keep telling people to remember that long games and short games kick off at the same time (they're not 'earlier' and 'later games'). When people say 'this is a long game', I agree. So why don't we have our boots on yet?

Q: Teresa

I definitely agree that all the ground work needs done first. I'm not thinking 'one more push' I'm more meaning along the lines of planting seeds and unpicking why people voted the waythey did and what can be done to then approach them in the execution stage.

A: Robin

Ah, that's more straightforward. Any serious political campaign I've ever seen integrates what you'd call 'opinion research' into the preparation stage. That usually means the kind of range of broadly focus-group work that people do, but it can also mean door-to-door and so on. I would separate the 'sowing the seeds' from the 'finding out what people think' strands as they're quite different things. I'd probably suggest that it's a bit early to be sowing seeds unless we're really confident this is happening soon. I've seen it done too early before and you can end up sowing the wrong seeds. For example, had the oil price crash come a year or two later we could be sowing the seeds now based on 'look, the UK budget deficit isgetting worse and ours isn't'. Then come the execution stage you're fighting agains the very seeds you sowed. It's important to realise that most people continually absorb little bits of information and ideas but tend to make decisions closer to decision points. So yes, get little ideas out there and let them sink in, but make them based on real, meaningful content. That isn't really happening just now. But with my professional hat on I'd suggest that it is a mistake to divide things up into bits until you have the overall plan. So don't have one lots ofpeople seeding one lot of ideas while a different lot are producing policy that goes in the opposite direction. I'm not one for detailed, rigid, unbending plans. But nor am I that much of a fan of strategic anarchy…


Q: Stephen Dickson

Hi Robin,

Keeping in mind that GERS is upmost in the minds of those who support the union, how do we get "real" figures from the UK government (whatever they show) so that we can provide a true vision of the future of an independent Scotland. Most of Better Together's previous scaremongering (which worked) was based on nonsense. We have to have real facts and figures to prove our way forward is possible.

A: Robin

It probably won't have been too difficult to note that this is an issue right at the top of my thinking. It's become a little fashionable to identify currency as the failure in the last referendum. That's true in the symbolic sense (though I sometimes wonder if pensions didn't turn into a bigger problem). But that's not where we are now. If independence supporters can't see that the apparent deficit as shown in GERS is out biggest point of weakness I fear they aren't looking closely enough. It is absolutely right to say this can be fixed and shouldn't be seen by people as 'evidence' of Scotland not being able to be independent. But that is based on actually doing the fixing and not just saying that fixes are possible. So Gordon Brown may be making increasingly strange interventions in Scottish politics (seriously, how much would income tax in England have to go up by to meet his apparent benchmark of zero debt and zero deficit as he seems to outline in today's newspapers, unless of course his comments are utterly vacuous and don't reflect the way that he ran the country's finances when he was in charge…). But doing nothing is a mistake.

The short answer to your direct question though is that we SHOULDN'T go to Westminster for the numbers. In my opinion we will always be stuck if we take GERS as the starting point because it is specifically designed for a country like the UK with expenditure like the UK. We can improve GERS with a million tweaks but still we'll be left paying nine per cent of the cost of the London Underground or HS2 or Heathrow or the London Olympics because the base assumptions are that these are 'national' projects (unlike say the new Forth Road Bridge which is regional). This and a thousand other little assumptions make it a tortuous fix. This is a subtractive model where we take a UK number and then subtract the non-Scotland bits. I'm arguing that we should step away from this altogether and create an additive model. What we'd do in that case is basically produce a budget for the first year of independence by allocating expenditure according to what Scotland actually wants to do. So for example we don't subtract Scotland's share of UK defence spending but budget for a Scottish army. We don't try and derive conclusions from the way Westminster's tax system appears to impact on Scotland, we model a simple Scottish tax system. Build a budget from scratch (but using serious, properly sourced numbers which are easy to defend) and start from there. I cover this quite a bit in my book – and at Common Weal we're already working on all of this andhope to have something to show early next year.

A: Stephen

Hi Robin,

Thanks for the comprehensive answer. I completely agree about the subtractive model and that we should be getting away from it.

My question was really based on the fact that I would like to see a full set of figures to replace GERS. In other words Scotland treated as a country with a full balance sheet with full ins and outs. We would then see what exactly Scotland creates and how that wealth is distributed. I suspect Westminster would not want this as things like paying for HS2 etc would be up in lights.


Q: David Inglis

Hi Robin,

Bearing in mind that we now have Theresa May as the Prime Minister, how do you suggest we will be granted a second referendum in the next 5-10 years? Given that there has not been a huge surge in support, I'm not sure how we can win this. We need to answer questions regarding pensions, currency and stability. Are there any models we can actually turn to about how those would work in a transitional period?

A: Robin

I wrote on this in my book and I think people slightly misunderstood what I was driving at. I'm afraid that I see no prospect of any description of getting a referendum in the next two or three years – London is never going to allow the problems of Brexit to be compounded by the potential of Scotland leaving. So the question is what would make Westminster agree to another referendum? It's important to be clear that there is almost literally no way to compel this – Westminster is sovereign and the only way it can be forced is through a majority vote in the House of Commons. Scotland alone can't create the circumstances where that is possible. People then say that a majority at Holyrood is enough. But it's important to be clear-headed about what that means – a majority at Holyrood is enough to ASK for another referendum, but a contrary majority at Westminster is all that is needed to say No. People assume they won't do this, that they will recognise the democratic right of Holyrood. I am more sceptical – there are lots of plausible reasons for ignoring Holyrood over this. So then people say 'but if there is another election and the outcome is a majority of parties which stand on a manifesto commitment to another referendum…'. That increases the pressure, but a majority of parties standing in Westminster on a manifesto commitment NOT to have a referendum can immediately counteract that. And there is always the argument that people voted for all the other manifesto commitments and that it's impossible to know which was decisive. My suggestion (I know this is almost certain not to happen) is that if the 2021 Scottish Election was turned into a single-issue election by indy-supporting parties or coalitions calling for a referendum in October 2021, it would be very, very hard not to see that as a rock-solid democratic mandate for another vote. It's just worth noting that Westminster is still entirely free to reject that. What I'm arguing is that we may need to choreograph some means of making a refusal to grant a second referendum as as big a constitutional crisis as possible. The stronger and more unequivocal the mandate, the better. As for models to respond to the gaps in the case – have a look at the currency paper we published and the debt liability paper we'll publish probably at the end of this week. Both are full of case studies and examination of international practice and precedent. I'm just going to repeat that our frustration that no-one is doing this is precisely what has led us to just push forward and do it. (I'd very much wanted to coordinated this collectively and collegiately rather than doing it unilaterally. But things just haven't worked out that way…

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Q: Amanda Burgauer

Hi all (and Robin). Robin, How much do you feel that the EU Referendum result should push the timescales from those in your book? Are we rushing so as to have a better chance ofstaying in the EU, or should we be planning regardless of that agenda? 🙂

A: Robin

I've been trying hard not to be too vocal about this. What should change your opinions is changes in the real-world situation. I always loved the John Maynard Keynes quote "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" What he most certainly did not say is "when my opinion changes, I change my mind". If the EU referendum outcome is to change our strategy, it needs to be based on some kind of facts on the ground – an upsurge in support for independence being the obvious trigger. That didn't happen. I am not for one second dismissing the potential impact of Brexit on what is happening in Scotland, but I don't want move forward based on guessing what that impact is but rather on finding out what the impact is and acting accordingly. So far the impact is not decisive. Has the facts changed I would very, very happily have changed my opinion. So far (and yes, I know its only about two months in) I haven't come across a reason to firmly change my views. I don't think we're getting a referendum before the Brexit negotiations are complete. But the one thing that has changed is volatility – we may need to be ready to react faster than I'd previously though depending on various things that might happen. So I still think its 2021 but with an increased possibility (though still reasonably small) that it is earlier.

A: Amanda

Thanks for that. I'm not surprised that we agree. I think it could be a massive mistake to rush towards Indy2 without all our "ducks in a row" and without sincere discussions about what we really need and knowing that we've made a case. If it's before 2021, then all the better, but we must not be manipulated into insisting we go to referendum before we're ready, and know that we have a proper case. (Much as it saddens me to say it.)


Q: Vicky Swann

So following on from my question above about how to communicate beyond the indy movement. If the first step is to ensure the SNP is on board, how confident are you that that will happen? How receptive are those higher up in the party to the policy work of CommonWeal. Are positive discussions happening behind the scenes?

A: Robin

I kind of touched on this in my answer to Mary Jane – basically, there is no-one to have discussion with. At the moment there is no lead person or team (unless its secret) which is leading on independence policy or strategy. Who would we meet? My solution is the same now as it was two years ago – we need to be round a table talking together. That's the aim of the SIC, We've been told from the top but so far only informally that the SNP will indeed join, but it's not yet officially confirmed. I think its important that they do. Last time too much was done through expediency because of timescales and yes, a certain desire to control. Joseph Stiglitz is out today basically saying he never thought a Sterling Union was a good idea – feasible, but not the best solution. And yet he was cited over and over during the campaign in favour of Sterling Union. Many of us geeks who follow these things knew fine at the time that this was not the Stiglitz position but everyone was being hyper disciplined and going along with it. In fact, in private very few people with real expertise seemed to think Sterling Union was right. It was a 'political fix' precisely because there was no open discussion (I honestly think that the outcome of the expert group was predetermined). Let's not make those mistakes again. Let's make policy based on the best policy. And let's talk properly about it.


Q: David Inglis

I think it was also about what would scare people the least. And that's not good enough second time round.

Following on from my question regarding Theresa May. Would causing such a constitutional crisis not lose a lot of the many Soft Noes that we need to attract? A lot of my No voting friends said that the SNP is easy to dismiss any idea that comes from it as it is a one issue party – or so they are portrayed in the media.

I have started reading the paper about currency and it does fill a lot of holes. I think the issue is that many of us aren't economic experts and don't have access to knowledge/material that will allow us to learn.

A: Robin

So I've failed to properly explain myself in my book and now I've not managed to clarify it properly in my answer… Ideally, Westminster doesn't act idiotically and actually does give us a referendum based on a solid Scottish democratic mandate. It's just that I'm doing that chess thing of trying to think five moves ahead just in case they don't do the sensible thing and try to stonewall this. The key is for us to be as democratically reasonable as we possibly can by creating as unequivocal a mandate as we can. The more the mandate is open to debate and interpretation, the less the potential intransigence from the Westminster side looks reasonable or even acceptable. So I really don't want Scotland to be the one taking the risks here. I'd much rather we were just working in a prosaic way to create the opposite of a radical approach to GETTING the referendum. In that way we make it clear that it is Westminster and not us that is creating the constitutional crisis. I completely accept that I may well be overthinking this, but it's in a context where I'd rather that than underthink it and end up in situation we're not prepared for. If we want to make it hard for them to say NO we need to make it absolutely clear that a majority of the Scottish population are asking, democratically, for them to say Yes.

As for the No voter attitude towards the SNP – well, it's worth starting by saying that there are a world of reasons people don't like given political parties, from the personalities of people involved to history and prejudice and even what your peers think about it. Very few parties (at least in the democratic west) have very high levels of support for very long periods of time. And it is definitely worth remembering that it is almost certain that 'peak SNP' has passed – and that even then it didn't achieve enough support on its own to win a referendum. I have been as clear as I could that there is really no mechanism for winning independence without a strong SNP – but the other side of that is that there is very little chance of winning independence via the SNP alone. There are just too many people who can be won over who don't identify with the SNP (too centralising, too centrist or whatever) to assume one party alone can do it. To win over more people the SNP would need to have a really strong, really inspiring domestic agenda. I don't really see much prospect of that just now. I rather doubt that people are going to have reasons to 'look at the SNP afresh' over the next few years and I strongly contest that cautious managerialism is the way to do it. The SNP almost certainly needs to become more comfortable with a wider movement again. So a wee challenge from me – there are a set of things that the SNP might do if it wants to cement control of Scotland, set itself up as the largest political party for another decade or more, remake public life in its own image. And there is another, quite different set of things it would do if it wants to win an independence referendum. I think they are largely mutually exclusive. So which route will the SNP take?

A: David

I liked your point about playing chess with it, although I fear that some of the Unionist parties have started learning how to play chess also. An example of that is the winning of the council elections by Tories voting Labour. The SNP deputy leader debate seems to be a framing of the questions that you asked about how to appeal to people that they haven't previously attracted.



Q: Daibhidh Ceannadach

Hi Robin, I'm very much in favour of introducing a Land Value Tax as it would have multiple benefits – reducing land (and hence house) prices, reducing land banking and land neglect, and increasing tax revenue from those who can afford it. There is certainly support from Green MSPs and some SNP and probably Labour MSPs, but do you think the Scottish Government will be bold enough to propose it?

A: Robin

There are two (possibly three) problems here. First, the sense I'm getting is that there are very few 'risky' or 'big' ideas that are going to make it into the Scottish Government's programme for government. I suspect that the education agenda is going to cause so much conflict that a risk averse approach is going to become even more risk averse. The second is that this just doesn't seem to be anywhere near SNP thinking just now – they don't even seem willing to look at the Council Tax with even a moderately reformist mindset. The third is that I think there has been insufficient work done on land taxes at the moment. Andy Wightman has done some really good work but things would need to move quite a bit beyond where they are to create a properly workable scheme outside government (if the SG wanted to do this it could easily get the policy work done but if external campaigners are to push an idea it would need more shape and more detail I feel). I think land taxes are solutions to a cluster of currently intractable problems (not least economic development in rural Scotland). I don't want to get to negative here but I don't think we're looking at a period where the Scottish Government is going to be ambitious on things like this. Frankly, from where we stand just now, I'd be quite surprised if there was even any serious Parliamentary discussion of land taxes in this session. That depresses me deeply, but I think that's where we are.


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