Yes Scotland boss says referendum victory 'achievable' as his troops hit the streets
It is too early to put much weight on opinion polls showing a 20% shortfall in support for independence, as voters are still open-minded and listening to the case for 'yes', says Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland
Ask Blair Jenkins, the director of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, for one word to describe the uphill task he faces to get a majority 'yes' vote in next year's referendum, and he replies: "achievable".
Despite a slew of opinion polls which continue to show a gulf of 15% or more between support for leaving the UK and remaining within it, and each passing month cutting down the time to close that gap, Jenkins is adamant that the real contest has not yet begun.
The recent polls, particularly last month's Scottish Social Attitudes survey putting support for independence at 23%, are misleading. Its figures were based on seven different constitutional scenarios, not the single "yes, no" question being posed next autumn.
Last week's Ipsos Mori poll in the Times asked that newly agreed "Should Scotland be an independent country" question, and found that (amongst those certain to vote) support for independence was up four points to 34% while support for the UK fell 3 points to 55%.
Public views on independence versus devolution are "much more fluid" than the polls suggest, Jenkins says, in an interview at his campaign headquarters:
What we're getting from our own work is very high numbers of undecideds. That could be as much as half the population will tell you they haven't decided how to vote.
I believe the polls will tighten this year. I certainly take the point we would need to see the gap narrowing and I think that the gap will narrow in the course of this year but this is a completely different phase of the constitutional debate which has gone before... I think people are tuning into the debate.
The phrase time is running out is misleading. In any normal political timespan this is a long referendum process; it's a long debate. We've never had this opportunity in Scotland before.
What we have is a long period of time with an intense focus on these issues; there has never been an intense focus on independence as a concept or on what Scotland could do with the powers of independence.
Our experience is that as we explain to people why independence matters and what the additional powers would be, and what we can do with them, then people move towards 'yes'.
Blair Jenkins Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland
Jenkins, a former BBC and STV news executive, believes his confidence is justified: private conversations with senior business leaders, sports personalities and cultural figures, even Labour politicians, suggests support for independence is more widespread – or at the very least gaining more interest - than the headlline polling data allows.
He notes that many public figures resist pressure to publicly declare themselves before they are ready but agrees that some who privately support independence may not do so publicly if the polls show tepid support. Even so, he is confident that Yes Scotland will produce some surprising names:
All we can say is that whether you're looking at business or sport or politicians from non-SNP traditions or people from academia or other parts of Scottish life, there will be a significant volume of significant endorsements for 'yes' between now and the point at which people go to the polls.
Working from an open plan office suite on Hope Street in central Glasgow – where the reception area with its Yes-emblazoned merchandising shelves is fitted out with iPad minis, hip over-sized bulbs, blonde wood veneer, yellow blocks serving as side tables and mod-ish black and red stools, Jenkins is directing a large team which runs scores of local activist groups around the country.
When he launched Yes Scotland in May 2012, amid acrimony and criticism for rushing that launch, Alex Salmond set the new movement a target: to get 1 million signatures on its Yes Declaration by autumn 2014. Progress was slow but last November, they announced 143,000 people had signed it.
Jenkins is planning to disclose a further milestone figure this spring. He won't discuss it now but says:
It will have moved on significantly. I'm happy with where we are.
Yes Scotland has a battle plan. Starting tomorrow with a new initiative on social justice (others will follow), Yes Scotland is preparing for an all-out campaign to establish a simple narrative: no modern Westminster government has properly reflected Scotland's wishes or met its needs, and only independence can fix that.
There are lots of people within the broad church which is Yes: there are people who don't necessarily want Scotland to be in Nato or in some cases don't want Scotland to be in the European Union or in some cases don't want a continuation of the monarchy.
But all these different parties and different strands of opinion accept that the vote in 2014 is on the framework of independence [and] if they want to make changes thereafter, they've to do the normal democratic thing of getting it into a manifesto and getting elected.
But that positioning raises its own questions. Does Yes Scotland and its centre-left positions on social issues or environmental activism actually reflect enough of Scotland's diverse electorate to persuade the mainstream middle of the road voter who is pro-Nato, pro-welfare cuts and pro-EU reform, who make up, at least in part, the other 20% of voters Jenkins needs to vote 'yes' in little over 18 months?
Where are the Tory or business figures, or the prominent, influential Labour and trade union leaders active within Yes Scotland's ranks or on its board?
Drawn by the Scandinavian model touted by some independence campaigners, Jenkins recently favoured Scandinavian-style high tax rates to fund welfare spending and public services – a position not many on the right would support.
After all, to win his landslide Holyrood electoral victory in 2011, Alex Salmond erected a remarkably broad tent, attracting endorsements from the Solidarity leader Tommy Sheridan (then in jail after being convicted of perjury) Tommy Sheridan and the arch-capitalist head of the hedge fund and investments firm Aberdeen Asset Management, Martin Gilbert, then holder of the Scottish CEO of the year crown.
Within Yes Scotland, alongside several unaligned figures such as the musician Pat Kane and the Scottish National party itself – the most powerful architect of independence proposition – are two fringe leftwing parties, the Scottish Socialist party and Solidarity, which no longer have any MSPs at Holyrood, and the more visible and electorally successful Scottish Green party, which has two MSPs and councillors in several local authorities.
All Jenkins can point to at present publicly is the dissident former Tory councillor in Midlothian Peter de Vink, who now sits as an independent. He is rarely heard of. The prominent Scottish Tory-leaning historian and writer Michael Fry briefly appeared on the fringes, attending last year's Yes Scotland launch.
Pointing to the Monaco-domiciled Scottish enterpreneur Jim McColl's qualified support for independence, Jenkins urges patience:
[A] large number of people who do support Scottish independence come from what I would broadly call a social democratic tradition... it's a centre left interpretation of society's needs and how the economy works, I would accept that. But there are equally people who come from a business and low tax perspective. As we move further into this debate I think more and more people will declare their support, coming from all points of the political spectrum.
I certainly talk to a lot of business people who support independence but who's economic model for Scotland would be a low tax model. And that's a view they're entitled to hold... We're talking to major employers. I spend a lot of my time talking to senior business people...
I think some will [declare their hand], I think some will stay out of it.
There is a strong belief in Holyrood political circles, acknowledged within the SNP and Scottish government itself, that senior figures in the SNP – particularly Salmond – are keeping a careful distance from Yes Scotland.
There are two reasons for that: firstly to avoid the clear political risk that SNP is seen to overshadow the independence movement but secondly, there's a more subtle issue: Salmond wants to watch and wait, to keep his government and party a little distant til either the stakes get higher or support for independence climbs in the polls.
Salmond is said to be cautious about getting too close to Yes Scotland's centre-left agenda, such as on welfare or perhaps its stress on inequality rather than wealth creation, and wants to be convinced it is succeeding to capture support across a broader political spectrum.
The Sunday Herald's political editor Tom Gordon recently reported that the SNP had withheld much of their warchest, fattened by nearly £2m in donations from the Euromillions winner Chris and Colin Weir and the bequest from the poet Edwin Morgan, from Yes Scotland.
Gordon was told the SNP wanted to retain that for their own campaign; after all, the Electoral Commission has given the SNP up to £1.34m to spend in just 16 weeks next summer. It will need those millions for itself.
Jenkins does not dispute Gordon's story, instead insisting that, for good reasons, he never sought to rely heavily on the SNP's cash:
I said when I started this job I wanted Yes Scotland to be self-financing and within about four to six weeks after starting, Yes Scotland was self-financing.
[It's] very important to me that there's a distinction made between the SNP and Yes Scotland.
They're a major stakeholder, a major part of the independence campaign, but the reason why the campaign has to be self-financing is so it's seen as a national movement which now embraces a far wider range of people than just the SNP, important though they are to the campaign.
That fund-raising – which does include SNP backing – has clearly been successful: Yes Scotland now employs 17 people full-time, including two of the country's most experienced political media consultants, Ian McKerron and Gordon Hay. In 2011, that duo were the spin-doctors who helped Ruth Davidson win the Scottish Tory leadership contest.
Trying to pin down the source of that funding is tricky. Jenkins states that Yes Scotland will not accept donations above £500 from anyone not a resident Scottish voter (his team checks each donation) and tells anyone donating over £7500 their name will be published.
But asked about when and how those names will be disclosed, he says he will only do so when the rival, anti-independence campaign Better Together does so. In January Jenkins wrote to Alistair Darling, Better Together's chairman, recently, asking for a joint policy on when and what to publish details of their funding. Darling has not replied.
As it does claim to be genuinely community-based and self-reliant on funding, Yes Scotland arguably has a better story to tell here. Better Together, after all, is a coalition most likely to attract corporate and business support. Jenkins offers this convoluted position:
We will be open and transparent about our funding irrespective of what Better Together does but we think the pressure is on them, to do what I have suggested, which is to reach agreement on what we disclose and when we're going to disclose it.
From our side, why would we release information which they're not prepared to release? It's a question of why show your hand if the other side don't. We will absolutely publish the figures and be transparent.
Better Together said Darling had no intention of a deal with its opponent on announcing donors. It plans to publish its first figures on 31 March. It said:
We are committed to releasing details of our donors by the end of the first quarter of this year. We will put full details on our website so that the public can see exactly who is backing the campaign.
But then, even if both official campaigns have to raise £1.5m each for the last 16 weeks of campaigning, Yes Scotland's activists never get asked questions about funding on the doorstep.
What they do get, says Jenkins, is genuine curiosity. He is adamant that, despite a jaded media and political classes, these questions remain remarkably novel to most voters. His closing remark is this:
For most people in Scotland, this is a new debate: for the first time, they're asking questions they haven't asked before. For most people outside the political bubble, this is new to them. There's a freshness to this. However stale people in politics and the media feel about this, that's not how people feel on the streets.
Jenkins says this fact, and not the current polls nor pundits assumptions about what Scotland's voters actually think, which is the most telling factor of all.