Big Grassroots Conversation: The Report.

Yes Edinburgh and Lothians

Event Report – The Big Grassroots Conversation

29th September 2019, Nelson Hall, Edinburgh


Recognising that there was a feeling of disconnection and lack of communication between grassroots activists and the pro-independence parties, Yes Edinburgh and Lothians decided to hold an event. A steering group was formed with the objective that this event would look at ways of resolving this issue and of how pro-independence parties and grassroots groups could work closer together in preparation for the next independence referendum.

Planning the Event

It was decided to follow the format of the successful event held in February of 2018, where a series of workshops had examined various topics and had, more importantly, identified action plans to take forward. This last part was crucial. The steering group agreed that the best forum to highlight important points raised during the workshops to the pro-independence party representatives would be with an afternoon conversation panel rather than debate or speeches.

A list of speakers was identified, from each of the pro-independence parties, it was also agreed to include a speaker from the “grassroots” side as well as from the pro-independence organisations. Invitations were sent out, a location in central Edinburgh identified and a discussion on appropriate workshop topics took place over several steering group meetings. It was also decided to have a keynote speaker at the beginning of the day, before the workshops, and one just before the afternoon conversation took place.

Independent media outlets were asked if they were interested in covering the day. Unchained Media Scotland put forward a professional proposal that was accepted and they were present throughout the day filming and interviewing participants. Fully edited films are available for sharing for all Yes groups from their website, Facebook page and Twitter account as they become available. Yes Edinburgh and Lothians will be making a donation to the group to enable them to continue providing these services.

The Indy Choir offered to provide a lunchtime concert which was gladly accepted (this was also filmed and can be shared or simply enjoy the rousing singing.)

Yes Edinburgh and Lothians were given funding by the Scottish Independence Foundation who felt that this was an important event that needed to happen. This allowed the steering group to hire the hall, keep the ticket price as low as we could (these were sold via Eventbrite with free tickets available on request), as well as buying supplies as required.

Without the support from the Scottish Independence Foundation many events would not happen at all, we take this opportunity to thank them and to encourage all to support their vital work.

All the planning came to fruition on Sunday 29th September 2019 with The Big Grassroots Conversation – A Way Forward, a full day of workshops and discussion at the Nelson Hall, Edinburgh.


The feedback forms handed out indicated that the day was greatly enjoyed by all who participated (apart from the chilled temperature of the Nelson Hall!) Activists appreciated the opportunity to voice their opinions and to hear what the panel had to say.

Information was sent to The National about the day but hasn’t yet been published.

Yes Edinburgh and Lothians would like to thank everyone who helped make the day such a success. From our excellent speakers and conversation panel, to the facilitators who ran the workshops, to those who helped organise and saw to the running of the day, to Unchained Media Scotland for filming the event, to the Indy Choir for their moving entertainment, to the Scottish Independence Foundation for helping with funds and to all who participated in the workshops and discussion.

Our Next Step

This full report will be sent to contacts in the pro-independence parties and organisations along with a letter highlighting the points of action, as well as being made available to all Yes groups. It has been identified and made clear now that open lines of communication are necessary for the independence movement to succeed. Not just within the parties but with the grassroots activists who are doing the groundwork and have been since before the previous independence referendum.

Several points of action were identified for grassroots, for pro-independence parties and jointly:

  • The parties and organisations need to work together, cross-party and beyond party lines. Steps are already underway to do this.
  • Information needs to be forthcoming through better lines of communication and sharing.
  • A schedule of events, to avoid clashes, collated on one website or forum.
  • There needs to be clear messaging that everyone can get behind.
  • Local groups need to work better alongside each other, neighbouring towns as well as regional cooperatives.
  • Individuals from the campaign need to get involved with the voting process, as counting agents etc.
  • Look at further events within a reasonable timescale for sharing ideas, information and knowledge – policy conference with pro-independence parties, organisations and wider Yes movement.
  • Shared resource platform (website, forum, app?)

Morning Sessions

Speech followed by two morning workshop sessions; participants were given the option to change workshop topic at the break. This allowed for wider discussion and views to be heard on the various subjects. All workshop notes were taken from these sessions.

Iain Black, vice-convenor of the Scottish Independence Convention, chaired the workshops and introduced the keynote speaker.

Michelle Thomson, our keynote speaker for the morning, came to prominence as the voice of business during the independence referendum of 2014. She is the co-founder of Momentous Change, a consultancy she set up with Professor Roger Mullin in 2017 to help organisations manage change. A former SNP MP, she has since been nominated for the East Lothian SNP candidacy for the upcoming General Election.

Michelle started off the day with an energising speech and gave some inspiration for future events. She suggested that every event should begin with a rousing anthem, music brings people together. This might be an opportunity for a competition to create an anthem by inspiring musicians!

She felt that ideas from activists were important, that we shouldn’t need to ask permission to be ambitious, especially in the current circumstances where democracy was under assault. There was a need to take control and ownership.

Looking back at 2014, Michelle acknowledged that it was chaotic, disparate with different messages but that it was also fun, hopeful, forward looking and outward looking. That time normalised independence and we should keep that optimism and vibrant energy. She pointed out the strength in our diversity, that there must be a recognition that independence parties need the Yes movement and vice versa. Dialogue needs to happen. Michelle believed that it was necessary to pay for the privilege in driving your country forward and that there was a blossoming of creative material.

In conclusion, she said that there has never been a more important time than now and while there was much to disagree on, we all agreed on the need for self-determination.

Iain Black briefly discussed his experiences at the Yes Cymru march in Merthyr Tydfil, how refreshing it was with great energy and how Scotland had led the way.

The participants then chose which workshop roundtable to join.



Discussion Summary

How would you measure the characteristics of trust? There were factors effecting levels of trust not only in the direction of the grassroots to the political arena but vice versa.

Political parties were, perhaps, constrained by rules in their readiness for an independence campaign. Individuals would overlap, being both grassroots activist and party member, this gives an opportunity to open communications between the two but could lead to inconsistencies.

Is lack of spokesperson or hierarchy a problem for communications? Look to other grassroots organisations such as Extinction Rebellion as possible models.

Keeping it local was good for establishing trust.


  • Trust is built through dialogue, through a common goal, by meeting expectations (e.g. date!)
  • Campaign message
  • Need agreed working assumptions – i.e. Brexit is not required to trigger an independence referendum



Discussion Summary

The Indy App is still to deliver which leaves a need for some sort of central noticeboard.

Within the movement there needs to be good, simple communication.

When sharing information, best practices should be followed regarding data and resources. Sharing databases, resources with Yes groups (joint events) but SNP are first port of call for pro-independence questions which is unhelpful. There has been a lack of a noticeable campaign launch for non-party organisations like Business for Scotland.

It is important to use social media for proper purpose, too much irrelevant stuff.

There is a need to identify issues and fears that make no voters vote that way (especially older voters) and the best way to communicate with them – targeted leaflets sent to addresses, billboards with Indy Poster Boy. Positive messages about Scotland. Simple facts.

Bringing fun to the movement with things like Yes Stones.


  • Central resources were needed but not a central organisation
  • Training in technology for the grassroots
  • Good simple, regular communication flow between the grassroots activists and pro-independence parties.
  • A “library” of leaflets, Aye Mail postcards for stalls etc. would be useful.
  • Need to avoid an echo chamber to attract no voters to the discussion
  • Scotland The Facts website required
  • Indy App update should meet the need for a noticeboard as a central noticeboard is necessary.



Discussion Summary

Fundraising – Yes group members contribute through setting up direct debits or standing orders, raffles, collecting stall donations, 50/50, fundraising websites, SIF.

Utilising social media to promote activities and events. Cross-referencing activities, there is an SNP presence in Stockbridge.

How do you encourage things like crowdfunding?


  • Can use fundraising websites like Easyfundraising, identify which ones have no/low fees
  • Yes groups making their own merchandise like t-shirts, badges, tablet/cakes to sell are good at bringing the group together
  • Sharing resources with parties, such as the SNP club, gazebos, stall tables

Central Bank – Understanding of what this was within the group was mixed. Did it need rebranding?

Important to recognise and promote what this could mean for Scotland, the difference in standards and ethics, social justice and taxation, Green New Deal.

Also important to acknowledge the deep held concerns over pensions, mortgages.


  • Need to inform on what this is and what it can mean for an independent Scotland amongst ourselves first before sharing the message
  • Too many believe the “household budget” analogy
  • Utilise information resources such as MMT Scotland, Prof. Richard Murphy, Business for Scotland – organise events to discuss the concerns over economy



Discussion Summary

Not enough activists willing to step up and help. Last referendum was exhausting, many are keeping the energy for when the next referendum date is called.

Local voices need to be heard, best people to identify what messages would work are people who live there but limited in what information we can have on electorate due to GDPR.

Direction and focus were needed to bring people out. There is no hierarchy to feedback local intelligence to and no way to move that information forward productively. Local groups could go to Yes Edinburgh and Lothians but then where – SIC? Parties? Voices for Scotland?

Grassroots should not rely on outside help. We need to be careful of who is shaping the message and who is delivering it and the language used (not “no but” instead “yes and”)– what protocols are in place to check who activists are.

Engaging young people needs to come from peers and be led by the young. Look to the climate change march, the numbers of young people who are involved.


  • Need to support each other and other groups, needs to be common courtesy and respect
  • A coordinating app or website
  • Cooperate with local pro-independence parties
  • Must start encouraging voter registration now
  • Regional groups such as Yes Edinburgh and Lothians could help facilitate
  • Local activists should become involved in other local groups such as Community Councils
  • Encourage young group members to hold concerts – Battle of the Indy Bands, the music anthem competition as suggested by Michelle Thomson or have indy discussion podcasts
  • Stalls and events avoiding political party alignment reach more people, stop association that independence automatically means SNP

Workshop Topic – REBUTTAL and REFRAMING


Discussion Summary

Positive messages on what independence is for – look at what an independent Scotland will look like – quality of opportunity and realising potential for individual, community and nation. For example – better public transport, higher wages, fair rents, public housing, better childcare facilities, equal pay, safer community, a more welcoming society.

Repeating the messages of the opposing side simply reinforces it.

Guidelines are needed for rebuttal – what to ignore, how to reframe/rebut effectively, what *not* to do.

It’s important to stop talking about Brexit and Westminster, focus on the positive, on certainty – your vote counts, Holyrood consensus, trade, resources, tax, Green New Deal, pensions, currency, Scottish NHS.

Don’t compare with UK! Instead talk about what Scotland could be – do we need a White Paper for policies?


  • Promote the “Power to Make Your Own Choices” positive messages – talk up Scotland
  • Don’t mirror language of the opponent, don’t repeat their message and don’t say they are wrong.
  • Triage who you engage with while campaigning
  • Don’t fight or be adversarial, empathise with who you are speaking too
  • Target messages
  • Follow Reframing guidance – perhaps more training events on how to overcome objections.
  • Should our default position be – don’t rebut?
  • Talk about what Scotland could be.



Discussion Summary

Is there a need for a new party at this stage? Once independent, parties may develop in different directions with different focuses necessary for rebuilding an independent nation.

Parties based on one figure are not a good idea – look at Brexit party with Farage, the comparison would be made.

Possibility they may focus entirely on more local issues. They would give the opportunity to disrupt the status quo. Post-independence new parties will evolve.

What is reason for voting? Barriers such as the need for an address, I.D. card, voter registration cards. Do we trust the system? Counts, missing voters, pencil/ink.

Need for electoral reform and for International Observers to give legitimacy.

Postal votes – concerns over vulnerable people such as elderly in care homes. Should vulnerable people be allowed to vote if they are going to be exploited.

Empowering 16 year olds by giving them the vote.

Compulsory voting might make people engage but there would need to be a “none of the above” option. There is a deep mistrust in technology. It would also require a non-biased media allowing different opinions and choices to be discussed properly.


  • New parties would dissipate the vote, how would they be financed
  • Offer an alternative for pro-independence supporters who don’t like the current parties
  • How would they get their message across, what the party stands for?
  • Is there a case for compulsory voting? Electronic voting?
  • There must be equitable media coverage
  • Polling day transportation – concern over vulnerable adults being influenced by those accompanying them.
  • Transparency and security over postal voting must be ensured. Procedures need to be rigorous.

Afternoon Session

Speech followed by a panel discussion based on questions arising from the earlier workshop topics.

Jon Drummond introduced Keith Brown MSP, keynote speaker for the afternoon and who also took part on the panel. Currently Depute Leader and campaign manager of the SNP, Keith Brown is also involved with the Scottish Independence Convention and will be coordinating with the independence movement.

Keith began his speech by reminiscing about his first referendum experience, in 1979 and the subsequent campaign throughout the 1980s for a Scottish Assembly. He noted that the main objective for this coming campaign was not to question anyone’s commitment to the cause through seniority but simply to convince those who voted no last time. He senses a change, that people are now considering independence who would not have before and that we must listen to their worries. We needed to find that common ground.

On the timing of the next referendum, a subject many have strong views on, Keith said the approach taken by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had borne fruit. That resolving Brexit first – and just look at developments in the last year alone – opens conversations to independence. He did state a preference that the next referendum is held before 2021 as beyond that, he feared Brexit would become normalised in people’s lives.

He pointed out that faith in the UK institutions, a reason many voted no last time, has been shaken. That the UK government is a laughing stock around the world. People are attuned now to constitutional politics.

On another subject with many views, the Section 30 order, Keith stated that the world wanted to see that a fair referendum was being done properly and that if the UK government said no then the Scottish Government should not stop asking. An agreed referendum result would be honoured and recognised worldwide. He added that the position of the Better Together parties was unsustainable.

He finished by saying that a core position with all pro-independence parties was needed, a vision of what an independent Scotland will look like.

Joining Keith Brown on the panel –

Róisín McLaren, SSP – national co-spokesperson of the Scottish Socialist Party. Róisín also leads the SSP climate action change group and in 2014 was a prominent organiser of the Yes campaign on Edinburgh University campus. In late 2017 she wrote a joint article with the current SSP National Secretary Hugh Cullen, on radical pro-independence blog Conter which emphasised the need for an organised pro-independence socialist party.

Claire Miller, Scottish Greens – councillor for Edinburgh Central ward at Edinburgh City Council where she is on the Housing, Homelessness and Fair Work Committee and Transport and Environment Committee amongst others. She is also a candidate for Edinburgh East.

Peter A Bellprominent blogger in the independence movement, Peter is a well-known through not only his blog opinion pieces but via Twitter, as well as this he has given speeches at many of the marches and held speaking events with Yes groups.

Greg McCarra – formerly an SNP councillor in West Lothian, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University and trade unionist, Greg is now an executive committee member with the Scottish Independence Convention, chief executive at the Scottish Independence Foundation. He has been one of the main voices for independence in West Lothian since before the last referendum.

The panel was chaired by Andy Paterson. After a varied career as a journalist, editor, creative director of a design consultancy, Andy studied with the RSC and now performs as well as creating, and appearing in, many original pieces of theatre.

The following is a summary of the discussion for reference, film clips of the questions and answers will be available from Unchained Media Scotland and shared via the Yes groups affiliated with Yes Edinburgh and Lothians.

First question was on the possible need for international observers at the next referendum

All the panellists agreed that from their experiences and knowledge the current system was hard to corrupt but that there were concerns from the public regarding postal vote issues. Keith Brown stated that we needed to trust the process while Claire Miller suggested individuals become involved (as counting agents etc.) to help understand and see how it works first-hand. Greg McCarra pointed out that having said it was flawed when we lost, others could say it was flawed when we win.

Do we need an updated White Paper?

Keith Brown pointed out that any document must be jointly done with the Yes movement.

Róisín McLaren raised a concern about the tone of the Growth Commission, that it was trying to appeal more to the middle ground than working class people and that there needed to be a Green New Deal and end to austerity for SSP to share a platform.

Claire Miller said that there were questions not answered by the previous white paper, there needed to be a framework of how we go forward and timescales needed to be clear.

Peter Bell noted how few lessons were learned from 2014, that referendum differ from general election and it would be impossible to get a unified policy with a diverse Yes movement.

Greg McCarra reasoned that while parties couldn’t put aside policy and principle there could be broad messages shared, a platform we can all get behind.

On the concept of currency, should Scotland have its own, what of austerity and the habit of likening the finances of a country with a household budget?

Róisín McLaren observed that on day one of independence we don’t need fully fleshed out answers, choose anti-austerity policies and highlight the fairer economy in contrast with Brexit, Tory-led UK.

Claire Miller felt it important that people understood how government budgets work and that the media pushed the household budget analogy. The subject needed reframing to communicate the intricacies better with people. She suggested a policy conference.

Keith Brown stated that SNP was looking at own currency and did not want to continue austerity.

Greg McCarra was succinct in agreeing with the previous points.

Peter Bell said there wasn’t enough time for a policy conference that it was a constitutional not economic issue and that we should be querying why the opposition are asking that question (on currency).

What can the parties do to help local Yes groups? What should they be doing?

Róisín McLaren said that the SSP is on the streets constantly with stalls, campaigning on issues and this meant they could provide strategy, activists, resources. She offered that they have graphic designers, would happily train activists on how to do things and were open to all, not just SSP members. A shared resource platform was needed, and activists should be valued.

Claire Miller added that feeding back what (grassroots and party) activists are hearing could be powerful in tailoring messages across and beyond party lines, skill sharing and signposting people to where they could find information or help was also important.

Greg McCarra pointed out that parties have their own agenda but are streetwise on campaigning. SIF believes grassroots are vital to win independence but need funding, which they can provide.

Peter Bell felt that political parties treat campaigns for referendum and elections the same. Where the parties are structured, focused, disciplined, the grassroots is non-hierarchal.

Keith Brown thought there needed to be more joint Yes/pro-independence events. Agreed that while parties have own agenda, they should be open to collaborating, producing non-branded leaflets/materials.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated that we should go out and campaign for independence. While SIF have helped financially there was a need for parties to give a combined statement as soon as possible – would they do this?

Claire Miller approved of the idea of a statement as soon as possible. While the Scottish Greens focus had been on the climate crisis there were many SGP independence activists who would be happy to get involved and SGP were ready to come to the table.

Róisín McLaren had heard so many times that the campaign was starting “now” but that Yes groups deserved backing. There was an assumption the public would make a link between Brexit and the need for independence and this would miss the point of what independence could mean, she was keen to shift the conversation back to independence. SSP ready and willing to accept any invite to work together.

Keith Brown said not to wait for an invitation from the SNP and he was the contact point for anyone wanting to begin the conversation.

We have been fighting on the enemy’s battleground – how do we stop being on the backfoot and start leading?

Keith Brown pointed out that Dominic Cummings had studied The Art of War by Sun Tzu and based his strategies from what he learned. While we can’t uninvent political dialogue, we should be reframing it when answering the questions people ask us.

Greg McCarra believed that the majority of people in Scotland were their own party. Look at the Vow, written on behalf of the establishment and it had made a difference in 2014. We should put forward out own Vow, from all parties.

Peter Bell said he heard all about reframing but didn’t see it happening. The campaign needs to be focussed on independence only.

Claire Miller noted that we needed to accept different viewpoints and to recognise that they all had a place in the independence debate. What is our language? How do we take all these experiences and refresh it for the campaign?

Róisín McLaren acknowledged that the independence movement is a broad spectrum. She grew up supporting independence but not everyone has had the same journey so we should try to see all perspectives. There was a need to make the argument to move people from no to yes, not for fellow Yes supporters.

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