Jenkins won’t be missed by serious Yes campaigners

Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the Yes Scotland campaign. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the Yes Scotland campaign. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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AS THE clock ticked down to Christmas Day last year, the chief executive of the Yes Scotland campaign released a festive message.

In a brief video, Blair Jenkins explained that 2012 had been a great launch year, filled with achievements. There were already more than 100 local Yes groups, there had been more than 300 events, and there were thousands of volunteers signed up to help.

So, said Jenkins, all of the signs were that Yes Scotland was getting that momentum – that groundswell of support – needed to build a winning campaign.

One year on, Jenkins’ enthusiasm sounds faintly ridiculous; a sermon from the Reverend IM Hopeless. A new poll from TNS BRMB puts support for independence at 27 per cent. Despite Yes Scotland’s efforts, such as they are, support for the break-up of the UK refuses to grow.

The catastrophe of Yes Scotland was the most striking aspect of Scottish politics during 2013. I’m not alone in thinking so. A number of senior SNP figures are exasperated by an organisation that’s lurched from crisis to crisis. As September’s referendum looms ever closer, Jenkins is considered a liability, his organisation something of an embarrassment to be lumped rather than liked.

There have been staffing crises. In its infancy, Yes Scotland proudly boasted of the number of senior women within the organisation. Three of its four founding directors were women, apparently a sign that Yes understood the importance of winning round female voters who, polls tell us, are less likely than men to support Scottish independence.

But one by one those women departed the organisation’s headquarters on Hope Street in Glasgow. First, operations director Jacqueline Caldwell resigned. She handed in her notice in March, though this was kept secret until July when politically experienced communications director Susan Stewart was ousted by Jenkins and replaced by an expensive private public relations company.

Communities director Shirley-Anne Somerville was next. She stepped aside from her role in order to fight October’s Dunfermline by-election for the SNP. ­Having failed to win that seat, Somerville announced she would not be returning to Yes Scotland.

The departure of all three women came as little surprise to campaign insiders. SNP members who have had access to Yes Scotland’s internal communications report on damaging personality clashes and petty empire building by staff, all at the expense of a clear campaign strategy.

But nobody is indispensable and those high profile departures from the organisation might have been less significant had the Yes Scotland campaign been otherwise successful, had it helped deliver substantial new support for independence.

At the root of that failure, say SNP insiders, is a failure to deliver a coherent message. Yes Scotland – although set up by the Scottish Nationalists and, largely, funded by the party – styles itself as a grassroots campaign involving members of a number of parties and none. This has created its own problems, most recently when Yes’s director of communities Stan Blackley, a Green, suggested it would be a great idea if supermarkets were to leave an independent Scotland. There is still considerable anger in the SNP over the rash of negative headlines this caused. Supermarkets employ around 130,000 Scots, and Scottish Nationalists would very much like those jobs to remain.

This all-inclusive campaign has seen the formation of a number of Yes Scotland ­affiliated groups which, in their own ways, have failed to help the cause.

There’s Labour for Independence, for example, which purported to be home to Labour Party members who’d seen the light before being exposed as a group sustained and supported by SNP activists.

Then there’s Women for Independence, set up to address that female hesitancy. It has held meetings of a mid-1980s nature, discussing radical (and undoubtedly important) issues. But a discussion of gender politics in a community hall in Castle­milk will make little impact on the female voters Yes has to reach: those politically engaged women of Bearsden or Morningside, the “middle Scots” certain to turn out on referendum day.

Yes Scotland officials have also taken comfort from a rally on Calton Hill, where some 15,000 Scots gathered to show support for independence, and a Radical Independence Conference which saw 1,000 campaigners meet for a day of informative sessions and – saints preserve us – workshops in a Glasgow hotel.

While these events were undoubtedly fun for the participants, who got to raise their clenched fists while agreeing the Yes campaign was motoring, they didn’t reach out beyond groups which have already decided to back independence. Away from the hill there were millions of Scots going about their business, shopping, and watching football, and going to the pub, and generally not giving a hoot.

Certain Yes campaigners might do well to observe the campaigning of Green Party leader and Glasgow MSP Patrick Harvie, who has been a model team player, pragmatically setting aside a number of ideological differences to present, in public, a united front with key SNP figures such as Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

As we go into 2014, Jenkins will be absent from the frontline. His leadership of Yes has been judged a disaster by the SNP, which will depend on the campaigning brilliance of Sturgeon and Alex Salmond and the proven effectiveness of a party machine that knows how to win elections.

A year ago, Jenkins said all the signs were that Yes Scotland was building momentum towards referendum victory. It was not. Victory for Yes depends, now, on the SNP. Those who support its key aim should get in line behind the party. 
The Yes Scotland project has failed to ­deliver.

Twitter: @euanmccolm