10 Sep 2014

The grassroots groups driving the yes campaign’s success

There’s official reality and there’s reality. And right now in Scotland there are also dreams. I’ve had a taste of all three today.

The Westminster leaders have been on separate tours to Scotland. They’ve offered nothing concrete on extra tax powers for Scotland, but committed to a timetable for giving these powers, whatever they may turn out to be.

Then there’s dreams. In a small room off Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, the campaign group Common Weal, whose activists have become quietly central to the non-nationalist part of the yes campaign, were presenting its proposals for  “21 new industries for Scotland”.

The radical wing of the yes campaign is not obsessed with exploiting oil revenues. They are keen instead on what economists call the “entrepreneurial state”: a state investment bank, the creation of “national mutual” companies etc. Of the new industries proposed some were mundane – for example hydrogen powered engines and micro-engineering which already have a skills base in the country, or the diversification of Clyde shipbuilding outside of the military market.

Others were close to blue-skies thinking: massive development of the Scottish islands, or an expansion of urban farming in Glasgow, or the establishment of a container port aimed at the trans-arctic trade route that is opening up. They’d been dreamed up by a group called Lateral North, consisting of architects and designers.

There were a grand total of two journos at the press conference – me and a bloke from La Vanguardia. But here’s the reality: campaign groups like this are inspiring Scottish people in the way mainstream parties are not. Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal, tells me he’s been to 250 public meetings during the campaign.

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Unlike the no campaign, the yes campaign has been what political strategists call “stratified” – so what they say in a meeting on a council estate is not the same as what they say in a trendy bar in Glasgow.

If the yes camp wins next Thursday it will be, in large part, because in addition to the SNP, this “non-party” broad coalition has inspired people. They use a mixture of social media and old-fashioned peer to peer information: word of mouth, informal canvassing.

When I saw the no office in Kirkcaldy yesterday it was clearly set up like a Labour Party election office: street maps, computers, earnest student activists and an atmosphere so controlled that they told me, if I wanted an interview I had to ring a number in Edinburgh and press #1.

But the yes campaign, at grassroots level, is more like a movement than a hierarchy; it actually maps onto the social media lifestyle, and presumably explains why in the face of media and officialdom, yes has managed to scare the pants off Westminster. And it’s not just down to different methods.

Mr McAlpine – a former press officer to the former Labour leader George Robertson – reels off their answers to the fiscal and macro-economic objections of the no side. They have credible (albeit unpalatable to the City of London) answers on the debt, the currency, the fiscal sustainability that are very different from those of the SNP.

But because the media has calibrated all the debates and coverage in terms of parties at Westminster, this unofficial part of the yes campaign is not getting interrogated to anything like the same extent. In normal times you might think it quite pathetic for a group like Common Weal to have almost no mainstream journos at its events – but in these abnormal times it just means the ideas current among grassroots Yes voters get neither aired nor probed.

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Mr McAlpine tells me: “British investment is the worst in Europe. We would raise £5bn to create a public investment bank capable of investing £100bn in Scotland.  We’d create new kinds of company – a national mutual company in which every Scottish citizen has an untradeable share.

“We could nationalise the energy grid, and reorganize the energy producers around it so that Scotland could become an innovator in renewable energy technologies.”

I put it to him that once in the same game as Denmark, Norway, Singapore or Vancouver, you are effectively also competing with them. You can’t just “hit and hope” with strategies like these.

He says: “We would have to do smart specialization. Take the idea of a container port aimed at the trans-arctic sea routes that are opening up to Asia.  We could let Norway do this, or Scotland could do it. We would need to take an active industrial strategy – an approach Britain never takes.” “Successful economies are local,” adds Mr McAlpine.

“In the Nordic economies school get most of its food from local suppliers. A window breaks, you have to call a local craftsman. You would encourage the creation of large numbers of artisan businesses: bakers, shops etc.” For what it’s worth, this vision is totally recognisable to economic strategists.

At Westminster these ideas are often heard in the “good ideas” conferences organised by BIS. They’re associated with thinkers around National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta). A different version of them is championed by conservative thinker Philip Blond. What they all have in common is they have zero purchase in HM Treasury and no real influence on government.

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But in an independent Scotland, under pressure from global markets to pay its way even if it could make the currency union with Britain work, such ideas would have to be taken seriously. There would only really be two ways forward. First, to exploit the oil and natural resources for all they’re worth.

Second, to move to a much more state directed, Nordic kind of economy and pay for it by developing the kind of industries that for Lateral North and Common Weal are right now just bright ideas.

As a result of the grassroots campaign I think large numbers are aware that an independent Scotland would be forced to take seriously a turn away from the low-wage, high-finance model that Labour created and the Con-Lib coalition currently runs.

What nobody really knows is whether it would work. Indeed, even when you come to the non-blue-skies end of things – like 3D video and games design – the Glasgow firm I spoke to two weeks ago told me they are under constant pressure from economic incentives from other tech centres: Vancouver, Paris, San Francisco. The talent flows there and sometimes entire companies, due to tax incentives and the creation of instant “clusters” as new technologies and techniques emerge.

So once you are in this game of high stakes competition you can lose. Likewise, you would have to rip up the development-averse culture of the post-1945 period if you wanted to – as some suggest – turn the Orkneys into a connected industrial powerhouse. And you would have to find the money.

This is why the Westminster parties are right to keep on asking the tough questions about the pound, the debt and banking regulation. If you think Alistair Darling sounds like a machine, wait till the markets start – they are machine with no heart or conscience that never stops until you are on the floor, if they sense weakness.

Over the next eight days, once the Westminster leaders have done their turns here, this referendum will go to the wire: Westminster reality, financial market reality versus something else.  If you only believe that “something else” is Alex Salmond and the SNP you will never understand why it’s got so tight, and why so many of the educated young are not just voting yes but spending their waking hours dreaming of underwater high-speed trains to Orkney.

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