Article: The curious case of Cambridge Analytica

Article: The curious case of Cambridge Analytica

This article was originally published in the Scotland on Sunday on 25th March 2018.

The global political order has once again been rocked. This time digitally. Former Cambridge Analytica employee and now whistle-blower Christopher Wylie has disclosed, or at least strongly alleged, that the company illegally scraped data from Facebook in order to influence election outcomes.

Wylie has also stated that researchers developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. And that researchers paid users a small amount of money to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would then scrape some private information from their profiles and those of their friends, the latter being without their explicit permission.

The SNP takes a responsible approach to using personal information shared by our supporters both online and offline. We use some relevant contact information that people have opted to provide us with to keep them informed about our latest news, policy updates, broadcasts, volunteer opportunities, and events.

Around 1 in 34 people of voting age in Scotland are members of the SNP. Each member can help to drive political engagement and amplify our message to help it to reach people online across Scotland. Our digital strategy is designed to support and complement our ground campaigns. This strategy has worked well for us and we remain committed to staying ahead of the curve on this.

Like all political parties, during campaigns the SNP creates tailored targeted adverts to reach those outside of our organic reach on various website and social media platforms. Buying advertising space like this means our messages can be seen by those that are not following our supporters and the content they share. Nothing untoward here, it’s just like the adverts we see in newspapers or television.

What Cambridge Analytica are alleged to have got up to is a million miles away from this. With numerous strands of this story leading to the Oval Office, all the focus at present is on questions needing answered and links needing to be understood across the pond.

In time though, the focus needs to and must come home. Was the Brexit referendum won by those very practices which Cambridge Analytica deployed?

The scandal raises fresh questions about the role of a secretive Scottish Tory-linked organisation, the Constitutional Research Council. Richard Cook’s firm was responsible for a £425,000 donation to the DUP’s Brexit campaign – £32,000 of which was spent on the Canadian firm AggregateIQ, that is reportedly linked to Cambridge Analytica.

There is also the curious case of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories. Its founding Chairman was a former Conservative MP and it has been run by the Chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association. A former Tory party treasurer is a shareholder and a director have donated over £700,000 to Tory party. The links to the Conservative party seem to go on and on.

Number 10 said on Wednesday that the UK government had stopped working with SCL Group, in 2015. However, it appears that the Ministry of Defence paid £42,000 to a branch of the company for “data analytics” between December and February.

It remains to be seen how this plays out. Only time, further excellent journalism - like we have seen from the Guardian, Channel 4 News and numerous independent investigative journalists in the past week – and perhaps the courts – will tell.

Research: People power

Research: People power

A survey of the UK’s political party members by Queen Mary University London has revealed glaring contrasts between rank and file of the SNP, Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats.

In 2014, the SNP had an extraordinary increase in party membership, with the total increasing from around 25,000 to over 100,000 in a matter of months. Inspired by Scotland's Referendum, we wanted to create a party powered by its mass membership, so we decided to put political engagement at the heart of our strategy. The results can be found below.

SNP members have the highest satisfaction rates out of any UK political party


SNP members are the most likely out of any UK political party to feel that their party encourages its members to get involved in activities


SNP members are the most likely to say they have increased the amount they have done for their party in the last five years out of any UK political party


SNP members are the most likely to have had contact with their parties over the last year via email, social media and face to face out of any UK political party


SNP members are the most likely to say out of any UK political party that local party meetings are interesting, friendly, united, easy to understand and modern


SNP members are the most likely to say out of any UK political party that party membership can change the community/country and that it is a good way to meet interesting people


Article: The politics of the possible

Article: The politics of the possible

In the run up to 18th September 2014 many of us living in the country experienced what it was like to imagine a better Scotland.

Many promises that were made by the No campaign during that period have been broken. Perhaps the starkest of these being the promise that ‘the only way for Scotland to stay in the EU was to vote No’.

It is sometimes the case that the range of visions within the Yes movement are portrayed as a weakness. But the opposite is true. Politics is about ideas and the plurality and vibrancy of the different groups that make up the movement are its greatest strength. What unites us is our belief that decisions made by us, not for us, offer the best future for Scotland.

And can you blame us? Look at the current state of the UK.

The Tories have forcefully taken the UK to the Brexit cliff edge, after former Prime Minister David Cameron called an EU referendum to tackle UKIP and to stave off internal division. He resigned and then the new Tory Prime Minister Theresa May called a cynical General Election to strengthen her hand. ‘Strong and stable’ quickly became ‘weak and wobbly’ and she almost lost, at a time when she should have been focusing on complex Brexit negotiations. Only a grubby deal with the DUP, costing the public an extraordinary £1 billlion, has kept them clinging on to power.

Labour, who fell short at the General Election, have undergone a grassroots mobilisation in England that in ways tried to replicate the Yes movement. However, under their leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour have now totally endorsed the Tories’ hard Brexit position. This should give progressives across the UK food for thought. It is ironic that Labour rode on a wave of youthful enthusiasm at the General Election 2017 and that now they are trashing the dreams of those very same young people by embracing a hard Brexit that will affect their jobs, living standards and their ability to work in Europe.

We’re now left with a zombie Tory Prime Minister lacking any credibility and the two main UK parties who are stuck between a rock and a hard Brexit, with neither of them putting the national interest first. This is why it is important that Scotland should have a choice about our future direction as a country at the end of the Brexit process.

The Tories have attempted to block Scotland having that choice by stating that they would stand in the way of Scotland’s Referendum. By doing so they have temporarily managed to confine debate to uninspiring process, rather than inspiring vision. To change this, we must build and win the case that governing ourselves is the best way to tackle the challenges we face as country - from building a better balanced and more sustainable economy, to growing our population, strengthening our democracy, and tackling deep seated problems of poverty and inequality. We must build a better Scotland.

While the Scottish Government focuses on its Programme for Government and its budget for the year ahead, Nicola Sturgeon has announced that the SNP will ‘engage openly and inclusively with, and work as part of, the wider independence movement’. I can confirm that this is in progress.

If you look beyond the sneering, the reality is that many unionist politicians are terrified of another wave of grassroots energy in favour of Scottish independence. The politics of the possible are intoxicating, and they know it.

We witnessed first-hand people doing extraordinary things in 2014, the many activists and groups across Scotland who contributed their time voluntarily for a cause they believed in, the random acts of kindness, generosity and camaraderie. The creativity, the determination, and the vision. It is this spirit, aspiration and ingenuity that will deliver independence for Scotland.

So let’s get to work.

It’s over to you. Only you can make it happen.

Sign up at

Photograph by Peter McNally.

Research: SNP is trusted online

Research: SNP is trusted online

A new study by a team of Scottish academics at London School of Economics has shown that the SNP is more trusted that the Liberal Democrats and Labour, on the reliability of facts they present on the internet and social media, while the Scottish Conservatives are the least trusted.


Article: How the SNP is transforming political campaigning

Article: How the SNP is transforming political campaigning

How the SNP's digital team is transforming the conversation between party and the public and keeping the party at the forefront of modern political campaigning. 

In the Summer of 2014, against the backdrop of Govanhill’s rejuvenated Edwardian public bathhouse, hundreds of people gathered in a celebration - a confident, positive declaration of the sort of Scotland they wanted to live in. The event was held in support of a Yes vote in the Scotland’s Referendum, but this was far from a typical political rally. It was a genuine grassroots movement, organised entirely by volunteers through social media and independent of the usual campaign machinery.

Fast forward to November 2014 and, in the wake of Scotland’s Referendum when the SNP's membership started rocketing towards its current total of 115,102, more than 12,000 people attended the largest indoor political event in British political history at the SSE Hydro. The mixture of speeches, music and film was broadcasted live on YouTube, photographed, videoed, Facebooked and Tweeted by anyone with a mobile phone or a camera.

Each moment captured in its own way the power and influence of digital in modern politics. With its immediacy, accessibility and interactivity, online campaigning is transforming the political landscape and the SNP is at the forefront of this movement.

“Digital is the fastest growing area of political communications,” says Ross Colquhoun, the SNP’s Digital and Political Engagement Strategist. “It can help shape the political agenda faster than any other channel when it is used to publish accessible content and provide instant rebuttals. It’s an unfiltered platform that enables us to have two way communication with party members, supporters and the wider public. In that respect it’s really powerful.”

Ross believes the referendum campaign was undoubtedly a turning point for political campaigning. “It made people think about how campaigning is conducted. There are a lot of different techniques that arrived during the referendum that hadn’t been seen in politics before, predominantly involving social media and types of subversive activism. You now see political parties embracing those types of techniques.

“So, we have the ability to organise in a way we never could have before. We can keep our members informed, hopefully engage them and develop them as activists. But it’s not just about meeting the demands of the party, I see digital as a fundamental platform for encouraging greater participation in politics and providing accessible and accountable governance.

“When Nicola became First Minister, she set out to be the most accessible government Scotland had ever seen. As part of that we’ve run a series of Facebook Q&As where any member of the public can submit their questions and Nicola will reply. They’ve been incredible, she’ll get questions covering everything from her favourite biscuit to the party’s stance on Trident.”

Ross heads a young, enthusiastic digital team based at the party headquarters. The five-strong team comes from a mixture of creative, political, artistic and technical backgrounds. They create ideas, content and projects for the various digital channels to encourage people to join the party and play their part in creating a better Scotland. 

Alex Aitchison, SNP Digital Content Administrator, says: “The team works collaboratively in different areas, ranging from overall direction, to creating content, to analytics. We’ve each grown up as part of the digital generation and we keep on top of how things are developing because that’s where our interests lie. So we’ll often see something new, show it to the rest of the team and then think about how we could make use of it.”

The main channels the team are using include the new website and campaigning platform, NationBuilder, social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Periscope and Vine), infographics, videos, photography and a weekly email update.

The SNP’s website outlines the party’s vision for a fairer and more prosperous Scotland and helps supporter stay informed with the latest news and updates, which can be tailored to their particular interests. Within the site, Policy Base provides a searchable archive of party policies and an events section enables members to organise their own events for supporters, members and the public. There are now two ways that people can sign up to the party – by registering as a supporter they receive latest updates, and by becoming a member they can influence party policy, attend branch meetings and volunteer to help.

Alex says: “The number of people who are using digital as their first point of accessing news is rising. The 16-34 age group is most active on our social media platforms, but the new website is being used by members from across the generations to access the latest updates and policy information in a clear, easily digestible, printable format. Everyone’s excited that they have a new campaign tool, it’s not just younger people.”  

And messages that capture the imagination on social media don’t stop there, as people take them offline and continue to spread the word. “There's a common mistake that people think social media is a bubble, says Ross. “It's an error some political parties and journalists make. Actually social media is just a communications channel like any other. You’ll share something on social media and your followers can share it with theirs, and take that message on to friends and family members offline.” 

The SNP has developed a reputation for really pushing campaigning forward and being innovative in its approach. Ross says: “We’re lucky to have a large and engaged membership and that means we can be a bit more creative online. There’s a great working culture in the party which means that an idea can come from anywhere within the organisation and we want members to submit their ideas and play their part in digital campaigning I’d encourage anyone who thinks they have a new or better way of doing things to get in touch. If it’s the right idea we'll run with it. We have all seen just how big an impact digital can have.” 

Result: Scottish Election 2016

Result: Scottish Election 2016

We won a historic third term in government at the Scottish Elections. The SNP surpassed 2011 constituency vote share and achieved the largest ever popular vote at 1,059,897.

GIFs: Scottish Election 2016

GIFs: Scottish Election 2016

Event: SNP Manifesto 2016 Launch

Event: SNP Manifesto 2016 Launch

Over 1,400 people joined Nicola Sturgeon at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the SNP's Manifesto 2016 launch. It was the biggest manifesto launch in Scottish political history.

Research: Powering Scotland's Referendum

Research: Powering Scotland's Referendum


Despite being a sectoral campaign, research by Heriot Watt University found that 30.8% of pro-independence campaigners were active in National Collective's campaign during Scotland's Referendum.

A conversation with my Grandfather

A conversation with my Grandfather

 Processed with VSCOcam with x1 preset

On Saturday night my 86 year old Grandpa was rushed into hospital for the first time in his life with acute stomach pains. After major surgery he was taken into intensive care in a critical condition and we were told to be realistic about our expectations.

24 hours later I received a message from my Mum to say that he had woken up and was off his life support machine. The following is a sample of the conversation I had with him when I arrived at the hospital...

R: *Holding his hand* Grandpa, you don't know how happy I am to see you're awake. How are you feeling?

G: You're not getting rid of me that easily. 

R: I told you yesterday that I wanted to see you awake today, and look, you are!

G: I must have heard you... Your hands are really warm. Do you have a temperature? You sure you don't want to grab a bed? You could stick your feet up. Relax.

G: *points at my Mum*

G: You've been here twice today. You should get a bed too. It's comfy here.

G: Do you know the food in here is free?

R: No, but I must try it sometime. 

R: Granny said you've to avoid tap dancing as you might wake up the other patients.

G: *laughs*

R: Do you know you've had an operation?

G: I've had an operation? Where?

R: *explains*

G: Those surgeons are quick. I didn't notice.

G: Oh wait, he did say that he had given me a 10 year guarantee.

R: Is there a message you want me to give to Granny?

G: Kiss, kiss, kiss and tell her to not sleep on my side of the bed.

R: She misses you, you know?

G: She's always had odd tastes. I miss her too.

R: All our friends and family, and even Nicola and Peter, have said to send you their best wishes.

G: Tell her she's already got my vote. But that's nice of everyone. Tell them I say hello and thanks for their wishes.

J: Are you being fed through that tube?

G: Yes, I'm on the SlimFast diet.

G: What day is it?

R: Monday.

G: It's not Sunday? I've not had a missing day since 1951.

R: *laughs*

R: You need to focus on getting better we want you planting flowers in your garden in Spring.

G: That would be nice. I'll try my best.

I wanted to share this for some of the people that know him as it's a happy story in what has been a horrific few days. He's still very weak and has a long way to go but he's heading in the right direction.

Petition: Don't bomb Syria

Petition: Don't bomb Syria

Despite all SNP MPs voting against air strikes on Syria, the House of Commons has agreed to back the UK Government’s call for military action.

The SNP believes that the UK should not repeat the mistakes of the past, and engage in military action without a comprehensive and credible plan to win the peace.

Over 100,000 people signed the 'Don't bomb Syria' petition.

Website: The SNP

Website: The SNP

Scotland’s Referendum energised politics in Scotland, leaving a legacy of increased political engagement with tens of thousands of people, from all walks of life, joining the SNP. Then, during the General Election of 2015, we asked you to vote for the SNP for a strong voice at Westminster, and you did.

When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister, she vowed to create the most open and accessible Government Scotland has ever had. Embracing social media we’ve organised live Q&A sessions on Facebook, Twitter and in communities across Scotland. But we want to build on this work even further.

The internet and new technologies enable activists to be informed, organised and to collaborate with like-minded people in ways like never before. And so, to support your activism, we’ve created a new SNP website and campaigning platform.

 Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

So how does it work?

We want to continue to build a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. In the our vision section of our website we outline our desire for a fairer Scotland and our vision for education, health, the environment, economy and the constitution. We want to live in a Scotland that is more prosperous; where the NHS remains a publicly funded service, free at the point of use and where every child has the chance to succeed.

You can stay informed by checking out our latest updates. Click on the ‘Your SNP’ tab for tailored content based on your ‘Interests’ and the ‘Groups’ that you have joined.

The Policy Base provides a searchable archive of party policies. And Frequently Asked Questions. Here you will find our most commonly asked questions about membership and our website.

There are now two ways that you can sign up to the SNP. Register your support means you will receive our latest updates. Becoming a member enables you to influence party policy and attend branch meetings. You could even volunteer to help.

The events section of our website enables members to organise events that supporters, members and the wider public can attend, such as street stalls, coffee mornings or social events.

By joining Groups you can connect with like-minded people across Scotland and receive updates and information about events that interest you:

You can find out more about our party, including information about your elected representatives and your local branch. And you can donate and buy SNP goodies to help support our work.

The future of our party is defined by the extent to which you want to get involved.

So what are you waiting for?

Make your voice heard.

Help us to build a better Scotland by joining us at

Interview: Sunday Herald

Interview: Sunday Herald

This interview is a follow up to my Sunday Herald 'Referendum Special Edition' article on September 14th 2014. It was written for the Sunday Herald 'Referendum Anniversary Edition' on Sunday 13th September 2015.

Could you fill in a bit of background on how the National Collective came about and what its aims were?

In 2011 the Scottish National Party had just secured a landslide victory and they had a mandate to deliver a referendum on Scottish independence within five years. At this time, support for the proposition was at around 25% and it was clear that something special would be required if the Yes movement was to succeed against the No campaign.

Artists have often been at the vanguard of social change that defined new paradigms of thinking for society in the twentieth century, and in twenty-first century Scotland it is no different. In December of that year I met up with friends Euan Campbell and Andrew Redmond Barr in Edinburgh to discuss an idea that I’d had to create a platform for a collective of artists, writers and activists campaigning for a Yes vote. 

After agreeing to create the group we bounced some ideas off each other and came up with the name ‘National Collective’. We decided we would campaign with the mission statement of ‘Imagining a better Scotland’. Our aims were simple; we hoped to inspire, inform and engage people from all walks of life. To achieve this, we utilised social media to put unheard and disenfranchised voices front and centre of our campaign, at a time when much of the mainstream media and fledgling alternative media outlets tended to publish regular established voices. We ran inclusive engagement projects that made politics accessible for all. And we organised creative political events in communities across Scotland that brought a new audience to the Yes movement.

What were the achievements of National Collective? As a founder, did you ever think it would grow to have such prominence?

Although the Yes movement didn’t achieve its primary goal of Scottish independence, we made substantial progress against all of the odds. It’s not really for me to say what our achievements were, but National Collective has been credited with contributing towards the referendum’s legacy of high levels of political engagement and creating innovative forms of political campaigning.

When we launched National Collective we had no idea that it would grow to have such prominence. Where I think we succeeded was by offering a form of participation in politics that was accessible to all. We didn’t seek permission to organise, we simply identified exactly where the Yes movement needed support and responded.

On a personal level, what were the highlights of the referendum? And the low moments?

What inspired me the most during the referendum was witnessing normal people doing extraordinary things, the many activists and groups across Scotland who contributed their time voluntarily for a cause they believed in, the random acts of kindness, generosity and camaraderie, and finding out about people’s hopes and dreams for a better and fairer Scotland; whether they be written on a wish tree tag or performed through spoken word.

Online and social media activism flourished and it has become a case study for how social movements can utilise the medium to hold power to account. Hashtags such as #DonorGate, #500Questions, #IndyRefsky, #PatronisingBTLady and #YesBecause injected humour, wit and energy into the debate. What became clear to me is that the potential for digital in future political campaigns is vast, its reach is only limited by a our ability to use it.

I’d say my lowest moment was our referendum results night at National Collective’s subterranean HQ in Leith. I’d sensed a retraction of support from some of the softer former No voters after the barrage of hostile rolling news coverage. Our gathering of largely younger activists started in good spirits, however as the results came in the mood became much more sombre. Having been inspired by their dedication and bravery during the referendum it was heartbreaking to watch.

Could you explain a bit about why the decision was taken to end National Collective? Could it ever re-emerge if there was another referendum and are you hopeful another referendum will happen?

The decision for National Collective to cease activities came about because the organisers felt that the moment had passed. The referendum had been a mighty adventure and it is a period that I will never forget. I have absolutely no doubt that individually our members will continue to make their mark by using their skills and experience to help shape Scotland in their own way.

I do think there will be another referendum. Unless something dramatically changes at Westminster it looks like there will be another Tory government in 2020. I’d imagine that questions over our membership of the EU and the potential for indefinite Tory rule might sharpen the focus on Scotland’s future somewhat. However, I would stress that the Yes movement must learn from the past and work constructively towards the future. The time for building a better Scotland is now. I see my role at the SNP as one way of helping to facilitate that. I think that the energy that inspired the referendum can be used to transform Scotland in the years ahead. 

Would National Collective re-emerge if there was another referendum? Well, can you imagine another referendum without National Collective?

Could you explain a bit about your involvement in politics and the SNP since?

A couple of days following the referendum I took a bus up to Ullapool. I had no idea what my next steps were going to be as I was technically unemployed. I just needed some space to reflect on the result and the last 3 years.

Like many other people during this period, I made sacrifices so that I could dedicate enough time to campaign. And as National Collective rapidly grew in prominence and size, it began to take over my life. In my case the sacrifice I had to make was my social life and my small graphic design business, which I’d built up over 3 years. Every penny I had left and every hour of my time was dedicated to directing our campaign during 2014. It wasn’t easy as we didn’t have the vast war chest of the Better Together campaign.

On my return from Ullapool, I wrote a statement with another member of National Collective in a cafe titled, ‘How we won and how we will win’. It was a cathartic piece designed to highlight the successes of the Yes movement against the full might of the No campaign. The idea was that it would restore the hope that was so valuable to our movement. It seemed to resonate with many Yes voters as it was shared over 28,000 times on social media and read by over 200,000 people. It was around that time that the SNP’s membership was increasing dramatically.

Shortly after I received an email from Shirley-Anne Somerville, Deputy Chief Executive of the SNP, asking me to meet her for a coffee, so I did. We talked about some of the incredible moments we’d witnessed during the campaign and eventually we got onto the subject of my future plans. If I’m honest, it started with me saying that I didn’t have any.

The following day she dropped me an email to ask if I would consider working for the SNP. As a graduate of Visual Communication at Edinburgh College of Art I had never previously considered working in politics. After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I accepted the offer as I saw it as the best way to use my campaign experience, build on my work for the Yes movement and encourage further political engagement.

Working behind the scenes at a political party means that you get to see first hand how hard all staff work, alongside grassroots activists and politicians, to help produce electoral success. I’ve been massively impressed by the relatively small team at SNP HQ and their openness to new ideas.

My role can be quite varied, it can range from political engagement and digital campaign strategy, to helping to organise events, such as the SNP’s sold out extravaganza at the Hydro. It really depends on what is needed at any given time. General Election 2015 was a fantastic experience and it’s been refreshing to have some time over the summer to prepare for the Scottish Parliamentary Election 2016.

When Nicola Sturgeon became leader of the SNP she vowed to be the most accessible First Minister ever. We've been helping to make this happen through events and our use of digital.

I enjoy working with digital as it’s an unfiltered platform that enables you to have two way communication with party members, supporters and the wider public. A good example of the way that digital has changed how political parties now operate was when the Telegraph’s #FrenchGate story broke. When it happened I was relaxing on a Friday night in a pub in Leith with friends. Although it was clearly untrue, we realised that it had the potential to be a damaging story if it were to gain traction in the UK media. Alongside one of my colleagues, we created a Storify, assisted by the First Minister’s tweeted rebuttal and by tweets by journalists who had contacted the French Consul to find out what had actually happened. It was read by over 62,000 people within 8 hours and the story was completely discredited by the morning. The hunt for the person who had leaked the story then begun.

Aside from meeting the day-to-day demands of a political party, I see digital as a fundamental platform for encouraging greater participation in politics and providing accessible and accountable governance.



Extract: Tsunami: Scotland's Democratic Revolution

Extract: Tsunami: Scotland's Democratic Revolution


An extract from Iain Macwhirter's latest book Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution.

It seemed that a class divide had begun to emerge in what had loosely been called the continuing ‘Yes Alliance’, the various non-SNP groups that had campaigned for independence in the referendum. The reference to an ‘art school clique’ related to criticism that National Collective, the acclaimed arts-based #IndyRef initiative, tended to exclude working class people.

Co-founded by the graphic designer Ross Colquhoun in 2012, the National Collective had mobilised some 4,000 writers, artists, poets, and designers, and organised a series of festivals, including a Yestival, of music, poetry and comedy which lent much-needed colour and energy to the Yes campaign. However, some in the wider independence movement felt that its art was rather conservative, inward-looking, and middle class. As McAlpine himself put it: ‘[working class supporters of Hope over Fear] don’t really do wish trees and coffee mornings and performance poetry and deliberative conferences.’

The rapper Loki, real name Darren McGarvey, inspired a vivid debate on the Nationalist left when he posted a series of video blogs in March 2015 saying that he and working class artists felt excluded from National Collective. In one memorable rant worthy of Malcolm Tucker, he said that National Collective existed only to ‘suck Ross Colquhoun’s big rugby cock’. He later apologised for that remark. For their part, National Collective insisted that there had been no attempt to exclude anybody from the organisation. In fact, they say that they discussed a funding project with him to engage young working class people. The whole point of National Collective was that anyone could participate and there was no attempt to curate any of the material it published or staged.

More seriously, however, Loki also criticised National Collective for being too close to government after it emerged in March 2015 that Ross Colquhoun had joined the SNP payroll as an ‘engagement strategist’. ‘His appointment by Scotland’s ruling party,’ said Loki, ‘is sure to raise questions regarding National Collective’s authenticity as the artistic voice of the Yes movement.’ Loki was joined in the assault on National Collective’s integrity by the Yes-supporting journalist Andrew Eaton Lewis, the former Arts Editor of the Scotsman. While he paid tribute to its member’s creative work and energy, he criticised the Collective for lacking any kind of internal accountability, membership rights, or constitution. It had, he said, a ‘democratic deficit’. 

The truth is National Collective was never a democracy. It was an association of like-minded individuals who came together in an ad hoc way to try to inject some colour into the Yes Scotland campaign, which was, by common agreement, too preoccupied with dry statistics and abstract arguments about currency. Initially the Collective was arguably more like a writing group than a political or arts organisation. But the initiative simply struck the right note at the right time, gathered hundreds of volunteers, and unleashed a huge amount of anarchic creative energy. True, it wasn’t Turner Prize stuff, but they weren’t interested in selling to the arts market or being placed in galleries.

National Collective’s relationship to the SNP was always close since a number of founder members were SNP supporters, but it kept the other organisations, including Yes Scotland, very much at arm's length. It is unfair on the artists, musicians, comedians, writers, fashion designers, and others who gave their time for free to the Yestivals and other events to complain that it was a nationalist front. It wasn’t. Political parties simply aren’t capable of having that much fun for a start. There was perhaps an element of naiveté in believing that the Collective could continue as a free-form, come-as-you-are ‘happening’ when it started raising significant sums of money and had become a national movement. But it never pretended to be a political party. As Christopher Silver, one of National Collective’s prominent members put it on Twitter: ‘The lesson I took from #IndyRef is that it’s better to start your own revolution than wait around for one with an AGM.’

The debate raging in Bella Caledonia soon attracted the attention of political journalists from the mainstream press. Many had never rated National Collective and had been waiting for an opportunity to have a go at it: ‘I don’t care whether National Collective are democrats,’ wrote the Spectator columnist Alex Massie in the Scotsman, ‘I’d just prefer them to be artists.’ He quoted sections of bad poetry that had been published on the website. He might equally have quoted the celebrated Scottish poet Liz Lochhead or the Booker prize-winning novelist James Kelman who contributed to the hardback almanac Inspired by Independence. Or one of Scotland’s leading playwrights, David Greig, who said that National Collective had brought inspiration to the independence debate. 

But for my money the success of National Collective had nothing to do with the arts-world names that it attracted. Any campaign can do that. It wasn’t trying to appeal to the arts establishment or bid for Arts Council grants. What was endearing and new about National Collective was the involvement of unimportant people who were invited to contribute their poetry, thoughts, art, photography, humour, knitting, or whatever, without being subjected to withering criticism. National Collective set itself the task of ‘imagining a better Scotland’, and even the much-derided wish trees did exactly that.

Unfortunately the scorn, accusations of class bias, and political selling out seemed to undermine the confidence of those still involved in the Collective in late 2014/15. It was always on shifting sands based on voluntary effort and changing personnel. Despite its communication skills it seemed to lack the will to mount an effective defence of its work in political or artistic terms, even though its success was never in doubt. It is one of those occasions when some old media PR might have helped. Perhaps even a press conference to address some of the political accusations formally. But it didn’t happen, and within a month, National Collective effectively shut up shop.

The criticism that it was a clique of middle class 'luvvies' was probably the killing blow. Middle-class radicals in Scotland tend to be insecure of their class background. There is no obvious reason for this sensitivity since revolutionaries from Karl Marx to Nelson Mandela have invariably emerged from the middle classes. It’s what you say that matters, not where you come from. But in Scotland there is a degree of class hostility that can be very difficult to manage if you are on the sharp end of it. The dark side of Scotland’s literary strand of proletarian romanticism is a cultural animosity toward people who didn’t grow up on housing estates. Or who don’t sound as if they do. The final irony of the National Collective class row is that Ross Colquhoun was brought up in a single parent household in Edinburgh’s Drylaw estate.

On May 1st 2015, a statement on National Collective laid the movement to rest. ‘To be part of it was exciting, energising, inspiring and beautiful. National Collective belongs to a time and a place and that moment has passed.’ If the implication there was that National Collective had always been time-limited, that wasn’t entirely true. It had never been the Collective’s intention to liquidate itself after the referendum and initially it had ambitious plans to become a permanent non-aligned arts-based organisation. Aware that it had been too urban and lowland-centred, the organisers had planned to develop its network of local groups across Scotland and publish a series of arts-based journals in each of these areas. It sent out questionnaires to its 4,000 odd members and was seeking crowdfunding for this purpose. But, as the controversy surrounding the organisation mounted, these ideas faded. The energy had drained out of the Collective and an organisation that had been built on nothing had to eventually recognise that it had no visible means of support. It is worth however considering its last will and testament:

"National Collective offered a form of participation in politics that was thoroughly imaginative, but also accessible to all. National Collective tapped into the consciousness of a generation for whom the restrictions of ideological and party loyalties can often seem stifling and archaic. National Collective’s central aim, to ‘imagine a better Scotland’, remains just as relevant now that the referendum campaign is over. Its early success was just one example of a wider upsurge in grassroots activity in support of Scottish independence.

However the group was also tapping another seam, namely, the rise of what has been described as the ‘precariat’. The young, often highly educated post-industrial workforce that has become an ever more significant feature of neoliberal economies everywhere. National Collective is what a political campaign looks like when it is instigated and sustained by such people." 

That was a remarkable statement in many ways, both in its maturity and its political wisdom. It was fully aware of its limitations but also confident about its strengths. Of course, it was unreasonable to expect young people with careers to build to give endlessly of their time for nothing. It probably couldn’t have continued without proper funding and some kind of permanent secretariat. And there is much good work continuing by people involved in the venture. Nevertheless, when National Collective was extinguished, a light went out in the independence movement. I wasn’t involved in National Collective in any way and hope someone who was closer than I was to National Collective writes a proper assessment of its achievements. If Scotland is in the middle of a democratic revolution, then National Collective deserves a lot more than a footnote.

The demise of National Collective seemed to epitomise the failure of the continuing Yes movement or alliance to find a collective way forward in the post-referendum era. In place of the infectious enthusiasm and optimism of the referendum, there was now an element of division, rancour, and disillusion. 

Perhaps this is just what always happens to radical movements. Yet it was a strange moment for cultural defeatism. The day National Collective folded the opinion polls were indicating that the SNP was on course to win every seat in Scotland. That, you might think, was an eloquent rebuff to Alex Massie who had said that National Collective’s radicalism was about ‘as subversive as a flat white in Finnieston’. Finnieston is in Glasgow which was the prime focus of the nationalist electoral revolution on May 7th 2015. History may judge that the ‘hipster unco guid’ as he called them, played a not insignificant role in turning the young people of that city to the SNP. 

Purchase the full book here.


Artwork by Jim Arcola and Vonny Moyes.