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.