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Nicola Sturgeon’s Referendum Announcement Tactics Explained

I spent a great deal of yesterday suggesting to independence supporters that they lower their expectations. The Scottish First Minister does not yet have a free hand to call and then win a referendum on Scottish Independence. Nicola Sturgeon and her government are between a rock and a hard place and there is a lot of political manoeuvring still to be done before she will be able to make the announcement that committed independence supporters really want. 

If you listened to me, you will have been pleasantly surprised. However, if you listened to a lot of experienced and highly committed campaigners on Facebook you might be a little disappointed. 

The FM is looking to make Boris Johnson say NO to a referendum on Brexit day. She was very deliberately making Brexit day about independence and raining on his parade big style. To those that thought she should have responded the day after they said No to the referendum, then today and tomorrow’s media would be all about Union Jacks, and independence would be an afterthought. Her message of hope of a different and better future for Scotland will contrast starkly with the feelings of disappointment felt by the Scottish people at being forced out of the EU against its will. 

I did not expect the FM to make Johnson say NO to a specific date but rather predicted an ultimatum to agree to a referendum with a later date of Autumn 2020. This means that she can have another bite of the cherry later on in the year, by demanding a specific date when polls show support for independence rising following the break down of the trade deal negotiations with the EU.  The SNP clearly feels that winning the battle on a democratic choice of holding a referendum is the battle they want to fight for now. As she pointed out  “If they had any confidence in the argument for the Westminster union, they would have no problem with the people of Scotland having the right to choose”.  She is right but if independence support was already at 60% she would have named a date.

She also announced preparations to make a new political and economic case, as expected. She announced the “New Scotland” series of papers” She was always going to have do this anyway, but make no mistake, Business for Scotland’s new book, Scotland the Brief (see link below), will force the SNP away from the most conservative bits of the Sustainable Growth Commission. The SNP won’t want anyone outside of the party making the running on a far-more positive economic case.  

Today was about ramping up the pressure, getting Westminster to say NO, then calling on the movement to start campaigning now and start to get support up to a clearly winning position. The FM will not call a referendum until it has already been won and 51% in yesterday’s YouGov poll isn’t evidence of that.  Yes, I know that the polls won’t move seismically until people have to focus on the issues in a referendum. However, there is a way to move support to 55% by the end of 2020, and that is the grassroots focused campaign which has already been launched and has had a very strong first week – it’s called Believe in Scotland. If you do nothing else today, go like this Facebook page and share our Scotland’s wealth video, which has had 19,000 views in two days on our Facebook page alone.

Anything more from the FM today would have surprised me. Westminster will say No, and a more radical stance or even a referendum in 2020 could only happen if there is an early breakdown in the trade talks and a hardest of hard no-trade deal Brexit at the end of the 2020 transition period.

There is a reason Believe in Scotland launched a new independence campaign last week and why 65 local Yes Groups are already campaigning with our materials. We need to get to 55% to keep the pressure on the SNP, to push forward with independence, not just Westminster. If the polls don’t move, the SNP will continue to soft shoe shuffle and play the odds. Let’s give them some poll numbers to bet on. 

About the author

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the Founder and Chief Executive of Business for Scotland. Before becoming CEO of Business for Scotland Gordon ran a business strategy and social media, sales & marketing consultancy.

With a degree in business, marketing and economics, Gordon has worked as an economic development planning professional, and in marketing roles specialising in pricing modelling and promotional evaluation for global companies (including P&G).

Gordon benefits (not suffers) from dyslexia, and is a proponent of the emerging New Economics School. Gordon contributes articles to Business for Scotland, The National and Believe in Scotland.


  • We need simplicity,clarity and unity.

    The clarity is that priority is to persuade undecided and no voters that :
    It is Better 2 B Independent (IB2BI)

    Therefore energy needs to be directed in engaging face to face with our fellow citizens to understand and allay their fears and objections to being pro independence.

    A referendum before Independence is the settled will of our people ( i.e. by 2 to 1 in favour) will not lead to unlocking the potential of our country and a better everyday life for the many.

    To chanbel the energy of YES supporters / campaigners / ambassadors, and to meet our fellow (unpersuaded) citizens in a good way we need unity and purpose.

    Our leaders across all organisations who hold Independence as their priority ( as the means to a fairer society and even better country to live and work in) need to collaborate and promote a co- ordinated campaign.

    Also to give purpose to the campaign there needs to be a target and measures.
    There needs to be a timeline for the campaign to work towards and progress results along the way.

    The 2021 election should be the first milestone and target – with a declaration that a pro- Independence majority will trigger a subsequent referendum in Sept 2021. Planned bi-monthly polls during this period should be published to show the positive effect of campaign activities.

    This would clarify where we are and what everyone needs to do together to achieve our common aim of Independence.

    Agreement should be reached on using common resources and tactics to achieve a strong and consistent approach and avoid duplication of effort e g. YES website, IndyApp, Believe in Scotland materials, The National.

    So ….let’s be calm, let’s be prepared and let’s create opportunities to meet, engage, listen and persuade one more person each to believe in and support Independence for Scotland.

    From 1,700,000 YES (45%) @2014
    To 3,000,000 YES (67%) @ 2021

    06/05/21 Scotland General Election
    16/09/21 Independence Referendum
    02/04/24 Independence Day

    Not committing to a timeline with this degree of urgency will diminish our potential on becoming Independent as our assets and freedoms to engage globally will be eroded by Westminster and Unionist actions.

  • There has been a lot of criticism of Nicola Sturgeon over her cautious approach, and it may be that history will show that she was over cautious.
    Whenever I read such criticism, however, I am reminded of Churchill’s description of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. After the battle of Jutland, Jellicoe was condemned by many for “allowing” the German high seas fleet to escape.
    Churchill countered by describing Jellicoe as “the one man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon”.
    The same could arguably be said of Nicola.
    Like many, I chafe at the time being taken to achieve independence, but I am very glad that I do not have to make the judgements that she does!

  • Already read half of the book Scotland the Brief and very impressed. I was very angry after Fridays speech and commented some anary posts but now that Imy reading the book I feel a lot more confident. We needed something or someone to fully explain to the people why the cause for independence is the right one, something that has been lacking in the last 5 years….Thankyou

  • Gordon
    Can you explain, or perhaps you have contacts that know the answer to this question.

    It would appear to me that the EU Withdrawal Agreement and in particular the Northern ireland protocol strikes at the terms of the 1707 Treaty of Union, breaching it. If that is the case then Nicola should have announced that the Treaty was broken, with the obvious consequence that the United Kingdom was dissolved by action of the UK Parliament itself.

    • I believe you are right but that would have to be tested in a court of law and the SNP thinking is that if go to court and win that case at 51% polls you have to hold a referendum and she wants the polls to be at 55% + before they will go for this as they know given the massive majority for Yes in younger age groups that it’s just a matter of time before Scotland becomes independent – unless you lose a referendum now. Get yes to 55% and they will pursue. You may disagree with them on that but they get to decide, all the Yes movement can do is convert people and get it to 55%+ and then demand action.

      • Interesting that you agree with my analysis. I understand the thinking that a referendum would then have to be held, but the difference would be that the Treaty was broken and the UK dissolved. The Unionists would have had to argue a positive case for Scotland to continue to be shackled with Westminster control. The referendum question could have been delayed until after December and the trade deal information known. It could have been something like “Should the Scottish Government enter negotiations with England on a new Treaty which better reflects Scotlands needs”.

  • Even though I am just a wee bit frustrated with delays, at no time in my 83 years would I not support my y SNP

    • Joe Gibson, I too have been waiting for independence for 83 years!. I was an active teen member of the SNP (and a personal friend of the SNP National Secretary) when our efforts to save our demonstrators being confronted by Cadet guns caused us to have to leave the country (read about that in RETIRED TERRORIST). The SNP didn’t follow up things then … and despite the people’s increasing support for the cause, it isn’t likely to get the party more likely to do something worthwhile!

  • I like your content usually but this is just nonsense.

    All she had to do was threaten to hold an indyref using the newly enacted Referendums Act in 2020, since WM were refusing Scottish democracy by witholding a S.30 agreement, and Johnson would have had his hand forced, agree to a S.30 INDYREF or watch as we pressed on without one, using what is now 100% LEGAL MEANS (to gain Royal Assent, without WM objection makes it legally sound, which in turn makes it an acceptable means to indy for the international community, particularly the EU).

    Instead she basically stated the new Referendum Act was not worth the paper it is written on.

    As for 60% support, so what if she only wants a S.30 indyref ?

    All WM has to do is keep saying no and Sturgeon will shrug and go “ah well, am trying”.

    If she cannae hack it, step aside for someone who can.

    • Answer the following:
      1) Hold a referendum that is not legally recognised by EU/UN/WTO etc and what happens. A) if you win it and b) if unionists boycott it
      2) Launching a referendum now before the fall-out of Brexit has happened and people are still confused about what trade deals we will have at the end of the 20201 transition period and how do you offer clarity when for those we need to convince there is none.
      3) What’s your media strategy for handling the media feeding frenzy around the former first minster just after you have announced a new referendum
      4) The advantage of going before the end of the transition period was supposed to be that we could stay in the EU -but the EU has made it clear we are going to be welcome anyway – so why go sooner.
      5) Before you have any detail on the trade deal – tell us what the borders situation will be, tell us what the impact on trade Scotland rejoining the EU would have, what would the different trade scenarios require in terms of currency policy flexibility. Can you give me clarity on financial passporting between UK and EU member Scotland or event EFTA member Scotland – you know so we can say what happens to peoples mortgages and life assurances held with English HQ companies.

      I have in the article explained the FMs tactics I do not say whether I support them or not, its a tactical anlyisis piece. I would have done things differently myself but I wouldn’t have wanted a referendum before now and if it is to be 2020 then id want it to be October and only if the trade deals fall apart and yes support hits 55%. Before you ask I am running a campaign aimed at hitting 55% this year and that will push the SNP into action. If she called a referendum now we could lose.

  • Thank you Gordon for my maxi version of Scotland the Brief. I think it will be pivotal in convincing the doubters about the true potential of Scotland. I am likewise willing to wait on Nicola’ s time lines in respect of the referendum. I noticed that she referred a couple of times to the prospect of legal action and she included in that third party action. I hope and trust that that can take place with Aidan O’Neill as the advocate. If it gets to the Inner House of the Court of Session, they will put a team of judges on the case and if it wins then an appeal to the Supreme Court or even The European Court of Justice if asked for will surely seal the deal for us.

  • Great stuff, Gordon. It’s too easy in the heat of frustration to say nothing is happening, when the back room is 24-hour hands-on working on strategies to make it easier for people to understand Scotland’s potential. We have over 300 years of abuse and subjugation to counter, and over 70% of voters over 65 are not yet persuaded, going by that YouGov poll.

    The unionists would love to see the Yes movement fragment and turn on itself, and as sure as eggs are eggs there are disruptors worming their way in.

  • I think I understand the strategy, but nevertheless I would have preferred a statement with more emphasis on Scotland’s sovereignty, more anger than mere regret over Westminster behaviour. I’m all for calling a spade a spade and describing Scotland’s current status as a de facto colony! All very well to ask for continued patience, but the troops need more of a rallying cry to maintain motivation.

    • I agree, leadership is difficult but to be truly successful you must pay heed to the emotions of the people you lead and not take them for granted. The speech is basically a rehash of much of Nicola’s previous speeches and like you I understand the reasoning behind it, it was a speech to the media, undecideds etc but today of all days we as a movement are hurting. When your troops are emotionally having a difficult time you need to rally them, to empathise with them, show passion and a degree of controlled anger at the injustices happening. You need to speak to them, the same message could be got across but at the same time you can’t just expect supporters to fall in unless they feel you empathise with them and today I think Nicola got the mood of the Independence movement very wrong indeed.

      • I understand and don’t disagree, but she would say the people she leads are the people of Scotland and gently shepherding them to independence is more of a priority for her than delivering a message just to her supporters. Rightly or wrongly, I will leave that to others to discuss. I am just pointing out the thinking, not saying that I support the strategy or would do things the same way if I were her.

        • Thanks for the reply. I would add that it wasn’t only Independence supporters who were hurting and angry yesterday, many No voters were too. To reflect the anger they were feeling too may have made them feel more connected with the Yes movement. Humans are emotional animals and whilst it is more often than not best not to let emotion rule the head sometimes there are occasions which are so significant that expressing that emotion actually connects you with people who otherwise wouldn’t listen to you.

          Thanks for all the work you are doing, the Scotland the Brief booklets will be an extremely useful resource.

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