A better environment
When Yes Scotland launched in Edinburgh’s IMAX cinema last year it was an attempt to reach a wider group of supporters who might be pro-independence — but not necessarily supporters of the SNP.
Among the speakers, ranging from First Minister Alex Salmond, actors Alan Cumming and Brian Cox and Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead, was Stan Blackley — only recently having left his post as chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
Along with Patrick Harvie, Blackley added a distinctly ‘green’ hue to the proceedings — believing that voting for independence would mean a more environmentally-friendly Scotland.
That was in May, and while Blackley had already had informal discussions with the nascent Yes Scotland team about a role in the new grassroots campaign, it wasn’t until September that the organisation truly began to take shape and he was appointed deputy director of communities.
“There was a kind of hiatus after we stood on that stage in May. It was an early launch and I think we all recognise now it was launched early for a purpose. I think to lock in the Yes name, more than anything — to avoid the risk of losing the Yes brand to the other side.
“I don’t know that for sure, but it’s very clear to me that the launch was taken very early at short notice and very little warning by the people planning the campaign, that they wanted to be Yes Scotland. Who knows, if they’d waited another month, there might have been a ‘Yes to the UK’ campaign.”
More than two decades ago Blackley dropped out of Edinburgh University to take up a campaigning post at Greenpeace and has since worked for several environmental organisations — including running his own green communications consultancy, so he says he brings a lot of campaigning experience to Yes Scotland.
He says it may be both this and the opportunity to have a known environmentalist that was behind his appointment, but he adds: “The trick is not only to use my skills and experience the best I can, but also to make sure that I’m not just seen as a ‘green beard’ in the organisation.”
Blackley and his director, the former SNP MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville, are responsible for grounding the campaign for a Yes vote — setting up branches across the country, initially aiming for one in every local authority area in Scotland, but they’ve now seen more than 150 established in the last six months. The campaign has an aim to sign up one million people to back independence, and then get them to convince one million more.
“If each of those million people is enabled and encouraged to convince someone else who is agnostic or undecided, then we win by a two-thirds majority,” says Blackley.
He adds: “Beyond that, we understand that the best way to convince people is not necessarily seeing Alex Salmond or Blair Jenkins [head of Yes Scotland] on the TV, or me preaching to the converted at all the public meetings I do, but instead, for people to hear arguments that are relevant to them from trusted voices — friends, colleagues, family members, peers and workmates — in a language and scenario they are comfortable with.”
He bemoans the fact that in the media so far we have “not been getting the right debate” and not enough focus on the important issues. “There’s a wee bit too much of opinion has to come from experts and opinion has to be passed off as fact. We see it all the time — someone who is a professor of something, somewhere, casually mentions that in his or her opinion, something will be different in an independent Scotland.
“People are, in our experience, more open to discussing independence than they have ever been. In the end, the campaign will be won and lost by the discussions had by ordinary punters with each other over the next 18 months and that’s why I’m doing it. That’s why I’m, essentially, on sabbatical from being an environmental campaigner.”
Although a belief that independence is the way forward may be a ‘given’ when speaking to a member of the SNP, Blackley says that for him the idea that Scotland can govern itself has “always made sense”.
“I’ve never been a member of the SNP, but I’m a member of the Green Party and the Greens take a view that on big principles of things, like local democracy and bringing decision-making closer to the people that decisions affect, independence is a good thing and I agree completely.
“For me, the conversion was at the point where we gained devolution. I had already spent a dozen years of my life banging my head against the brick wall that was Westminster and getting nowhere. Then we had environment, transport, health, communities, marine issues all devolved — all the things I had worked on — and all of a sudden you had this new more open, accountable, and transparent parliament.
“The problem is now that the limitations of the devolution settlement have me hitting my head against a brick wall again.”
While many of his Yes Scotland colleagues may have ambitions to move closer to power in the event of independence, either to the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Government, Blackley says that he will just want to return to environmental campaigning and says: “Greenies like me can put as much change in place as we have over the last dozen or so years with devolution. We joke in the office that when I revert to type on the day after the referendum, I become quite the best connected of the environmental campaigners Scotland has ever had.
“We’re living in each other’s back pockets at the moment. That can only be good because it leaves me in a strong position to then lobby these people that I know very well and to have influence. Because if there are skeletons in the closet — by that time I’ll know where they are.”
In recent years the Scottish Government has won praise for environmental policies including tough targets to reduce carbon emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 and to produce the equivalent of 100 per cent electricity from renewable energy. UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey warned last month that the ambitious policies may not be able to continue under an independent Scotland — telling Holyrood that it would not be his “first priority” to buy its energy from Scotland as it was not part of the UK.
But Blackley dismisses this. “Ed Davey’s got a job to do — to cast out, to scaremonger. It’s what the No campaign do. I sat and listened to him at the Scottish Renewables Conference and it would have been nice if he had made the positive case for Scotland within the Union but he didn’t; he did this usual stuff, spreading fear and doubt.
"He can argue all he likes that England and Wales won’t buy cheap, green, affordable electricity from Scotland, but the bottom line is that they’ve just agreed to buy it from Ireland, the National Grid’s putting £7 billion of fast-tracked upgrades between Scotland and England to make sure they can take that electricity and if they don’t, frankly, they won’t meet their own renewable and climate change targets and will be locked into the spiral of despair that we currently see — volatile gas prices, massive nuclear subsidy and the lights going out. They need us.”
Blackley’s departure from Friends of the Earth Scotland, after only a year as chief executive, came as something of a surprise and while he chooses his words carefully, he admits the organisation was not in the healthy situation he had believed it to be when he took the job.
“It’s no secret that there was an awful lot of restructuring and refinancing to be done during my time, which made it very difficult to make the kind of changes to the organisation that I had expected to be able to make.” In a previous interview with Holyrood he had said he had a vision of the group having a tougher environmental voice and he still hopes this will be the case.
“I believe the environment movement in Scotland is a wee bit stagnant. One of the disbenefits of devolution is that the environmental message has been mainstreamed and watered down. That has allowed us a massive amount of influence to make positive change, but we need an environment group that is tougher to please, more willing to complain.” However, he has high praise for the new director of the group, Richard Dixon, who took over this January.
“I am utterly convinced they’ve got the right man in charge. I couldn’t be more convinced of that. Richard and I go back a long, long way. I’m still a member and still love Friends of the Earth.
It’s a great organisation and I hope it prospers under Richard — I’m sure it will.”