Advan Ed Castle 1

‘Saddle the dogs’ – how Scotland Matters changed unionist campaigning


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“Denying the SNP an overall majority was, indeed, a collective effort – at least on the part of Unionist voters, who on the constituency ballot demonstrated a remarkable willingness to back whichever pro-union party appeared to be best placed locally to defeat the SNP.” 

SO SAID Sir John Curtice in the National last week… and a lot of it was down to a campaign by Scotland Matters.

In the mid-80’s I worked for NCR selling computers across the Arabian Gulf. The Arabs have some great sayings, and one of them is, “in the absence of horses, saddle the dogs”.

The Scottish pro-UK political and broadcast media stables are full of stayers and platers but very few Arkles, Nijinskys or Red Rums. For the past 14 years the former has failed to provide any successful focus on the SNP’s domestic record and the solutions that an alternative government might provide. And the latter – namely BBC Scotland and STV – have shamefully and increasingly refused to report or question deeply what is really going on in Scotland.

It was this depressing situation that caused campaigns by the “dogs” to emerge, register with the Electoral Commission,  take the fight to the SNP, promote tactical voting and engage voters in the Holyrood election.

Scotland Matters seems to be regarded as the most notable of the “dogs”, but we weren’t alone. Others had joined the fray too. The Majority and George Galloway’s All 4 Unity deserve credit for shaking things up, especially George Galloway for deploying his star quality and huge audience to promote the Clarity Act and the need for, and methodology of, tactical voting. Thousands of others, individually and in groups, not forgetting itself, used social media to spread the message.

The uninspiring domestic situation also saw ex-pat big beasts from “down south” – wading in with a can-do openness to ideas that, had the parties been willing to work together and leverage this support, we would not just have prevented the landslide, the SNP could have been defeated.

They included Fraser Nelson, Liam Fox, Andrew Neil and Mike Graham who challenged the status quo thinking – and a few donors who nationalists love to label as “dark money” but in fact easily pass all Electoral Commission scrutiny.

There are good reasons for people saying we had the most effective campaign. We were the most creative, most agile, were most willing to collaborate – and we knew our limits.

The bottom line is during the campaign our social media paid boosts were seen by around 500,000 Scottish Facebook users previously unaware of regular pro-UK material. This means we doubled the normal pro-UK ‘bubble’.

The vivid memes used in our billboards, ad-vans and press adverts were seen by thousands as they drove, cycled or walked by, browsed the papers or scanned their phones and laptops.

The 450 newspaper letters that our supporters wrote entirely spontaneously also had an audience of millions, our website views went up by 70K – and all this effort to highlight the SNP’s lamentable record and the need for tactical voting is widely credited with having stopped the Sturgeon majority in its tracks.

Scotland Matters was formed in May 2019. The opening slide of our launch presentation was stark and prescient: unless we could get the pro-UK, anti-SNP message beyond the bubble of around 300K informed voters and the pro-UK parties started to work together to look like an alternative government – the SNP were set to win an outright majority again in the 2021 elections.

In our first year our main activities were building a website that would be a repository of interesting, evidenced information, holding public meetings around the country, sending weekly emails to a list of people that grew quickly from a few hundred to more than three thousand in which we encouraged the recipients to share to beyond their own bubble.

We don’t have a Facebook page or Twitter account, the pro-UK side is well served by very active individuals and group sites, especially our partners UK Union Voice which is the biggest and has an audience of one million each month.

We were bowling along nicely until last summer.

Lockdown forced us to do a series of video interviews (rather than public meetings) with Brian Monteith and Brian Wilson on the quality of the Scottish opposition and what needed to be done; then on the SNP’s handling of Covid with Professor Hugh Pennington; and with Robert Kilgour, care homeowner and founder of Scottish Business UK. You can watch them on our Youtube channel.

Then in October we commissioned a YOUGOV poll which reported that 50% of Conservative voters, 15% of Labour and 31% of Lib Dems would vote tactically in the May election.  It attracted some media interest.

We were beginning to get noticed and were approached by a group in Inverclyde, ex-Labour MP Iain McKenzie, Graeme Brookes, Andrew Morrison and George Dyer who had raised money to put up a billboard and wanted us to promote it.

None of us had done this before and I’m not ashamed to say our first thought was an all too common fear of how the SNP might react, especially since we would be required to give our organisation’s name and contact details – and the billboard owner risked getting his site trashed.

The billboard was booked for early February. Then, over Christmas, we were approached by a donor who felt we were the only people doing anything really effective to galvanise our side and take the fight to the SNP. It said a lot about the ineffectiveness of the opposition. The amount he gave us put us over the £10k limit you can spend during an election campaign without being registered with the Electoral Commission.

Mark Openshaw bravely took on the job of getting us registered as a non-Party Campaign Group, a task made much easier by the helpfulness and patience of the EC to guide us rookies. We were the first like-minded group to do this and it meant our “regulated spend” limit was now £75K.

Our first billboard “Vaccination not Separation”, featuring a syringe in a bottle and Nicola Sturgeon’s image, created a Twitter and Facebook storm.

It greatly cheered up our side and made the papers across the UK and abroad. It provoked a series of letters in the local Greenock paper and even made it to The National where journalist and TV pundit Shona Craven wrote an article entitled “Yes, Scotland Matters, so put a Billboard in London, not Greenock”.

The billboard and media coverage like Shona’s attracted a wave of donations and we took up her idea last week when we organised an ad-van to tour central London pointing out that only one-in-three Scottish voters voted SNP – so how can that possibly be a mandate for a referendum? It got more coverage and offers of help and money for us to continue our campaign after the election. Shona, yer a wee star!

The final four weeks of the election campaign were a blur as we worked out how to spend the money in a way that maximised exposure of the tactical voting message in key seats.

We had billboards saying “resign Sturgeon” and other graphics saying Education / Recovery / Job Creation – Not Separation used as memes and on billboards in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Perth, Kirkcaldy and some fields on Fife.

Then we had the idea of getting cartoons done. We found the “blazing pencil” Rob Hooper, who created a series of unmissable, hard-hitting, satirical, funny images lampooning the SNP, their leaders and Patrick Harvie. You can see them all on the Billboard page of our website.

I can’t claim that Scotland Matters turned a forecast SNP “supermajority” into a morale boosting score draw, the political parties and 1.3m voters did the heavy lifting, but we definitely changed the face of pro-UK non-party campaigning, and I’m glad to see Scotland In Union and Scottish Business UK now erecting billboards with similarly direct messages.

All of this contributed to the result.

One thing we learned is you may be hard working, creative and right but as long as the politicians and broadcast media aren’t doing their job the only way to reach the millions who are blissfully unaware of what is really going is to buy their attention in the ways I’ve described above. This needs money – a lot of it.

Our next priority is to raise more funds for a sustained campaign to remove the SNP from councils in the 2022 election, exposing their Indyref2 plans as fantasy, and gradually convincing another 1m people that an independent Scotland can’t survive on water exports; that there WILL be a border; there is no UK Bank of Mum and Dad to pick up the GERS deficit tab; and, the SNP isn’t one-tenth as good as any of its politicians say they are at running the country.

One final note: We at Scotland Matters pride ourselves on providing evidence for our claims, so I’ll close this article with one of the more erudite “The National” readers commenting on the Curtice quote at the start of this article:

“Look if it wasn’t for the unionists tactical voting the SNP would of easily had at least a plus 12 majority over the union jackers making the list null and void and green support null and void as Jackie Baillie, Jackson Carlaw, Willie Rennie and Alex Cole Hamilton, even Mundell Jr would of lost to the SNP in the constituency vote, but the SNP out-number them by plus 7 hence once again they are a majority government while being a minority and I doubt the greens will support the English-rule factions on anything this term.”

I’ll leave you with our latest cartoon on the issue of the hard border Nicola Sturgeon is ambivalent about.

Nicola Sturgeon is building a hard wall whilst the Scots are leaving behind her back


Clarity Act -John Lloyd


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