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Angus Robertson: Brexit result showed 'we had been lied to' during indyref

Angus Robertson became the constitution secretary after the 2021 election | photography by Anna Moffat

Angus Robertson: Brexit result showed 'we had been lied to' during indyref

When the history of the SNP comes to be written, it will heavily feature an imposing hotel that sits on the banks of River Spey and three men who are the heroes of a David and Goliath political battle that saw Labour in Scotland swept aside by a party that had been relegated to the fringes for too long.

And the names Angus Robertson, Peter Murrell and Kevin Pringle will be etched for evermore on the furrowed foreheads of Labour’s slick-suited strategists, as the unlikely trio of homegrown Scots who out-manoeuvred the original kings of spin with a simple plan – to win.

The story, as told by Angus Robertson, the half German, half Scottish SNP MSP, former MP, former party depute, and now Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution in the Scottish Government, is a straightforward one: “We wanted to win and just needed to work out how.”

It must be near incomprehensible for the current generation of SNP members that there was a time when they were on the wrong side of victory. Few of its younger supporters will even remember that up until 2007, the SNP was a party of serial electoral failure.

Robertson and Nicola Sturgeon shortly after the 2015 election

But galvanised by having lost eight seats in the 2003 Scottish elections, which saw the SNP down to just 27 MSPs, and which ultimately led to then leader John Swinney standing down the following year, and after various twists and turns (a story for another time), the return of Alex Salmond as leader, Robertson started work on a master plan.

And although he will always insist it was a team effort, it was Robertson who booked the meeting rooms at the Craigellachie Hotel in his constituency in 2006 and drew up an invitation list that included the best and the brightest of the party’s “next generation”, the hungry twenty and thirtysomethings who have subsequently gone on to become household names.

They included Kevin Pringle, former advisor to Alex Salmond when he became first minister; then party secretary Alasdair Allan – now MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and a former minister; Stephen Noon, now an academic but who was a special advisor in the SNP’s first term in office; John Fellows, who was then head of party communications but now works in the third sector; the then newly elected MP for the Western Isles, Angus MacNeil, who went on to initiate the cash-for-honours inquiry that so fundamentally damaged the Labour brand; Richard Lochhead MSP who is now minister for just transition; Shirley-Anne Somerville, then a party researcher and now education secretary; Alyn Smith, then an MEP and now an MP; Richard Thomson, then a policy advisor and now an MP; and the American strategist Jennifer Erickson, who went on to form Salmond’s innovative Council of Economic Advisers before returning to the States.

Other group members included academics, marketing professionals, businesspeople and policy experts. Salmond, and his then deputy Nicola Sturgeon, were left out of the mix to encourage free speaking.

We should seek to persuade everybody that it’s normal to be independent and it’s the best thing

This meeting was to neatly dovetail with a process of reform already happening at SNP HQ, then situated in McDonald Road in Edinburgh, at the instigation of party chief executive and long-time friend of Robertson, Peter Murrell, now the husband of Sturgeon, which crucially included the development of the then cutting-edge ‘Activate’ computer-based campaigning data management system.

The way Robertson tells it, this was an evolving process rather than there being one specific moment in time that prompted the gathering, but there is no doubt that the fact that Robertson, Murrell and Pringle were close confidantes – Murrell and Robertson met when they were 16 and sat on the NEC of the party, and Pringle was two years above Robertson at Aberdeen University and also knew Murrell, who was working for the party in Peterhead at the time – helped the exercise gather pace. Murrell, although not present at Craigellachie, was integral to all the recommendations that came from the summit.

“There was a growing sense amongst a group of us that Alex Salmond coming back, the political circumstances being what they were, all of us being of an age where we all wanted to go on to do things with our lives once we had achieved the things we wanted to achieve politically, and the fact that we have, unlike certain other parties, an achievable goal as opposed to a process of improvement or whatever, all combined to make the time ripe for change. So, there was this sense that this was the chance, and we called it simply Conference 2007 and it was absolutely, clearly focused on what we needed to do to win.”

The idea of campaigning on a ticket of ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’, which proved to be controversial but within the rules, also goes back to Craigellachie and Robertson describes it as one of those eureka moments when the group realised that “yes, we can do that”. That clear and single-minded approach to campaigning arguably resulted in the SNP forming a minority government in 2007, winning a mandate to form a majority government in 2011, and then on to hold a referendum in 2014.

Robertson concedes that after the referendum, where the SNP was on the losing side, no one within the party had prepared or planned for what happened next in terms of the massive membership boost and then the party winning 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats in the general election eight months later. But he says that by that time, the party had the infrastructure, manpower, talent and strategic intelligence based on past campaigns to harness and ride what he calls “the Big Mo” – the all-important, momentum.

“To be clear, there was no inevitability of any of this happening. But I think the commitment of people to take that next step, and which we should never forget that was made possible because of previous generations who had built up the SNP and the idea of Scottish independence over decades without any prospect of success, that gave us the foundations to build on. 

"And here we are now with opinion polls regularly showing a majority of those who have an opinion on the subject supporting Scottish independence. And if one looks at the next generations of voters, an overwhelming level of support for independence amongst the younger people in Scotland, running at between 60 and 70 per cent.

"That should make all supporters of independence hugely encouraged. It is hugely encouraging. But we should seek to persuade everybody that it’s normal to be independent and it’s the best thing. It’s the best future for Scotland, the best thing for everybody.

Who could have predicted the SNP winning in 2007 by a single seat?

“I am probably jumping ahead here but I just think that cultural change in the party was the biggest single factor in what followed. The SNP is unlike other mainstream political parties that I know. And I have friends in all mainstream political parties and I think no less of people because they have different views to my own, or are not in my party, but when one has such a tangible constitutional aim driving the wish for change in the country, and you also have a largely shared experience among those who joined the SNP in my generation in the 1980s, then going on to decide that we really wanted, to make sure that the opportunity to win was fully grasped, and then did so, and then were re-elected, and were then re-elected, and then re-elected, there’s quite an unusual dynamic there which the other political parties find very difficult to understand. Because they don’t have it, which is a shared sense of purpose which the SNP has in a different order compared to other parties, and a clear drive and purpose, which is to empower Scotland to be able to make the decisions in a way that all our neighbouring countries do – and as a result, benefit from greater wealth, greater equality, greater productivity, greater happiness, and a long list of further metrics that should make anybody aspire to do what they do. And I do.”

I ask him now, almost 17 years on from that seminal meeting at Craigellachie, whether he could have ever predicted the mind-blowing events that followed? That the SNP would have been in power in Scotland for 15 years? That he would be in government and leading on the next constitional step for the country? That we would have a pro-independence majority within the Scottish Parliament? That support for independence would be sitting at around the 50 per cent mark despite losing the referendum back in 2014? That the UK would be out of the EU? That he would have lost his Westminster seat? And that his party was now on the brink of voting on whether the next general election or the next Scottish parliamentary election should be seen as a so-called de facto referendum in light of the Supreme Court’s decision that Holyrood does not have powers to hold a legally binding referendum and in the absence of a UK prime minister willing to grant a Section 30 to allow one?

“In a word, ‘no’. But I think one of the important factors from that time that we can take forward was changing the mindset of a political party that had never won a national election before and so it was impossible to be able to predict how things would go after that.

"Who could have predicted the SNP winning in 2007 by a single seat, and that single seat, from memory, having a majority of less than 50 votes? And then who could have predicted a minority government, that most observers and most people in the government itself, expected not to last, lasting the full term? And who could have predicted Scottish politics becoming, I think, much more reflective of a growing ambition in Scotland for something better?

"And so, I think the SNP grew into that role. I think the Scottish Government grew into that role. And I think the Scottish electorate has been growing through a heightened national debate about who we are, and where we want to go, which was most exemplified by the 2014 independence referendum campaign, which basically began with the SNP winning a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011 when, let’s not forget, support for Scottish independence was sitting somewhere in the 20 per cent area.

"So ironically, Scotland was granted a referendum using a section 30 order following the 2011 Scottish Parliament election even though the polls suggested at the time a big distance from victory in terms of public opinion and yet now, when there’s a majority elected to the parliament, again, with a mandate for independence, and the opinion polls are also showing a majority for independence, that is somehow now being used as an invalid reason for people being able to reconsider their vote in a second independence referendum…”

Robertson with Douglas Ross, to whom he lost his Moray seat in the 2017 election

The other thing that Robertson could never have predicted was for the UK to vote to leave the EU in 2016. On a personal level, that hit him hard, not least because it undoubtedly led to him losing his Westminster seat – home to one of the highest Leave votes in Scotland – in 2017.

“Look, the result across the UK was massively disappointing. I had done my best throughout the campaign to try and make sure the strongest possible case could be made not to the voters in Scotland where, remember, 62 per cent of people voted to remain, but also to play a part in allowing others to make the strongest case elsewhere.

"I spoke with David Cameron in the weeks before the referendum and made sure that where it was possible to do so, I would make the strongest case for people to exercise the Remain vote in Scotland and he would do the same at Prime Minister’s Questions and in his constituency in England and more, but after decades of anti-Brussels, anti-European, engrained sentiment, and a shameless populist campaign based on lies led by Boris Johnson, conning so many people into believing that a Leave vote would help the NHS, bring economic benefit, and so on, which we all now know to be total hokum, it was too late to effect change across the rest of the UK.

We had been lied to... we knew – we knew then and we know now – that a great many people voted no because of that

“I think it’s profoundly bad for all of the nations of the UK. But even in the television studio, on the night of the referendum itself, it was obvious from the minute it was understood that Scotland was going to vote remain, but the rest of the UK was going to vote leave, that this totally changed the nature of Scotland’s constitutional position.

“I remember looking over towards the other panellists with wide eyes when that became clear, because the powerful reality of what that meant was that we had been lied to. That from Ruth Davidson downwards in Scottish politics, from the Unionist side of the argument, we were told to vote no to Scottish independence to guarantee Scotland’s membership of the European Union. And we knew – we knew then and we know now – that a great many people voted no because of that.

“I’m talking about the context of a Scotland where 62 per cent of people voted to remain in the European Union, and I’m simply making the point that the Brexit result with Scotland voting to remain, and England voting leave, and that those differences in a multinational state would then be so disregarded by the Westminster political leadership in the first instance by the Conservatives, but now by the Labour Party as well who have adopted the same hard Brexit approach, the same disregard for the fact that people in Scotland voted to remain, that just profoundly changed the nature of the settlement, if you want to call it that, made after the 2014 independence referendum.”

And did that offer an opportunity for the independence movement? He denies he has ever seen it that way. “I’ve never seen it as an opportunity,” he says. “I think Brexit is so counterproductive and impoverishing in so many ways that I wouldn’t wish it on anybody to further any political agenda.

"However, it is what it is, namely, that Scotland, 50 years on from having joined the then European Economic Community, has now endured two years of being outside the European Union, to the disbenefit of our public sector, our private sector, and our relations with our European neighbours and friends, and I think it makes Scotland’s choice very clear, which is it is either as an independent, sovereign European Union member state with the restoration of all of the rights of citizenship that go with the right to live, work, study, trade, and much else besides, to restore that and to work with our friends elsewhere on these islands as equals, or signing up to a Brexit Britain led by the Tories, or with a now pro-Brexit Labour Party.

"And some people might not like that choice. But there is only one way in which all of us who live in Scotland can guarantee the restoration of our European Union membership, our citizenship rights, and the economic and social benefits that will come from being back in the EU and ending the dependency on a British political culture which is totally broken, and that is with independence.”

I ask him whether, if Scotland voted yes to independence, there would then need to be a second referendum on re-joining the EU, remembering that almost 40 per cent of Scots voted to Leave and it is estimated that at least a third of them were SNP supporters.

Robertson is adamant that there would not and a vote for independence will be a vote to re-join the EU. “No, the referendum case will be for Scottish independence within the European Union as a member state.”

And if it had not been for Brexit, what would the argument now be for another independence referendum? “I don’t know, is the honest answer. It is such a profound event in terms of the governments of Scotland and the UK that it would be difficult to imagine anything as profound as that. But it’s impossible to second guess, and you know, one would have to be in a parallel universe to be able to answer that question with absolute certainty. All I know is it’s happened. It’s really bad. We voted for it not to happen, but it’s happening to us anyway because others decided. That’s not normal.”

But despite the strong feelings, Brexit has hardly shifted the dial on support for independence, so I wonder if that is a surprise to Robertson.

“No. Why? We have been through a protracted national discussion about Scotland’s constitutional future, which in 2014 involved effectively a total turnout of the electorate. The people decided on a binary question of yes or no, and for most people that then involved a degree of reflection and for some people, real soul searching. And for a proportion of the electorate who had begun to question whether they had made the right decision in 2014 or felt circumstances had changed to such an extent that they saw things from a different perspective now, that has led to growth in the level of support from 2014, from 45 per cent to at least 50-plus per cent, and in recent polls to as high as 56 and 57 per cent.

"There are other factors at play in this as well. There are half a million voters in Scotland who were too young or were not enfranchised in 2014, who would now be able to cast their votes. The electorate is constantly changing.

"But I think at the moment, there’s a lot of discussion about the how, rather than the why. And when it’s clear that a referendum is happening, I think people who are having to deal with a lot of things in their daily lives will think anew about where are we now compared to where we were in the run up to 2014, and I think that’s when people will engage with the question in the same seriousness as they did in the run up to 2014 and I’m confident that that part of the electorate which is open-minded, undecided or previously was too young or not enfranchised, are eminently persuadable, and would play a large part in securing a yes majority this time around.”

And in terms of a so-called de facto referendum, will that be at a general election or a Holyrood election?

“Scotland’s future will only ever be decided at the ballot box and given the number of elections we have won [with a referendum in the manifesto], there is an obvious question about how many times do people in Scotland need to vote for something for it to happen? This is not normal. In normal countries, people vote for a government to do what it has been elected to do. That has been denied to the Scottish electorate. It has been denied to the Scottish Parliament. It has been denied to the Scottish Government. That is democracy denial, pure and simple.”

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