Days 13, 14, 15
2-4th March 2023
The morning of the 2nd started with the news that John Swinney wouldn’t be in a future cabinet, his time was done and his shift was over. However, we’d been tipped by a few journalists that there was about to be scandalous news emerging on the SNP.
We had a rule early on in the campaign to stick to our media grid and not get dragged into whatever was leading the day’s press – as it wasn’t usually ever that useful. You can only do so much while reacting and having a unique angle. It’s always far better to be charting your own destiny and setting out something people can come behind. However in we all got sucked.
There was a great sense – the secret SNP emails were about to be made public – however, I don’t think to this day Stewart McDonald’s phished phone information has actually surfaced, probably on account of him being dreadfully boring.
After a few false pulses of timings of breaking news. Ash began to get ready in case we had to make a statement, the team sat ready to verify, respond and promulgate. Alas, nothing of any value came and the journalists leading the charge were moved to the naughty step. This a firm reminder to stick to your own message and grid and ignore the nonsense.
We referred to it as ‘the great ambulance chase’ – and agreed not to do it again. We started work on our next item on the list – the SNP Activist Academy – a program of getting members fighting fit to be leaders and organisers of the future.
We liked the idea of Duolingo, with TED talks, and Khan Academy-style lessons all smashed together. We envisioned seasoned activists and Parliamentarians leading the talks about how they’d made their way up and how others could follow. Talent planning is sorely missing in the SNP and this was our crack at that.
Currency was our next big media set piece, we’d taken photos at the launch with Tim Rideout on behalf of the Scottish Currency Group. In truth this is exactly the sort of work that needs to be adopted throughout the movement, it’s incredibly detailed and quite robust. This took over the team’s work for the day for the Sunday papers.
Moments after launching it as our next big article – we were branded Indy Extremists – consider that for a moment, the idea you have your own currency is now extreme. There was a lot of media hatred towards Megan and Harry regarding the coronation lingering around this time – we suggested in our chat maybe having a King Harry and Queen Meghan – just to gauge the level of froth, but we decided to leave our trolling in the planning stages only.
The great coronation stone was up next – our first real disagreement in the core team chat. I felt we should have rolled our collective eyes and ignored the whole argument. I’m not convinced the stone resonates with modern Scots on matters of statehood and the pageantry should be ignored. However, we went in another direction and suggested a compromise position. The media had a field day.
Usefully Kate’s husband had been spotted in some prior Tory hustings and the media storm went away as quickly as it arrived. We were repeatedly asked for comment – however, we all agreed we would not negatively campaign. Likewise, it would be a bit mental to go negative after having called for less mudslinging.
Key theme: stay out of reactive and back into formative. Set the agenda, don’t become the agenda.
We’d been discussing and reviewing a lot of the analysis of the media output and hustings so far, a meeting was set up with Robin McAlpine ahead of the second hustings in Fife to provide a bit of media prep and some core messaging that he felt needed to be conveyed in particular around independence readiness planning.
Around 6 pm Mrs O and Bailey arrived at the venue to prepare. Again the same pattern had emerged – but this time Jenny Gilruth was outside setting up the Humza arrival gang and photo – and again many of the members then immediately left. This stunt appears to be right out of the playbook.
The sound and lighting were worse than the first event. The lighting was atrocious and looked very dark. The audience was not receptive to the message, it had a particularly large showing of the ‘gender above everything else’ crowd and was stuffed with councillors openly hostile to Kate and Ash while whooping for Humza. It did not help that we were not having a good night – Ash was very clearly exhausted due to the schedule the few days prior and the answers were not landing correctly.
However, it was not dark enough to cover what happened next. Independence Thermometer.
We’ll publish the thinking behind it soon 😉
Responding to a question on progress toward independence, Ash told a story of how she’d met with people that day and one of them suggested perhaps making a big public progress meter – an independence thermometer if you will, where people could easily see what progress and checkpoints on the way to independence had been delivered.
It’s worth noting – the idea of transparency in government on large projects should always be welcomed. The theory of working in the light and showing iterative steps is a good one. However, in time-limited hustings answers, it’s not a great time to introduce something new and complex so the imagery of a large bulbous protruding thermometer in George Square was the takeaway and that was a step too far – for even the indy converted.
Well, we didn’t need to do sentiment analysis to understand how this had gone down. It got laughed at in the room. Social media lit up like a Christmas tree. Memes appeared everywhere. Questions on if we were trolling were appearing. Journalists were having an absolute field day.
As a presenter, you don’t always know how you’re doing, although Ash had a clue it had really not gone well. The post-match was carried out in a nearby venue. Mrs O and Bailey had the short straw to deliver the bad news. They’d already spoken to the rest of us on the phone. It was our worst day in the campaign, it had been our worst day so far, but on reflection, it was our worst day for the whole campaign.
At around 1 am. I started a little ‘pick up and dust off’ chat in our core team. I’ll not copy the whole thing here but grab the start.
“Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve gathered round the fire, feeling the warmth on our skin, telling stories beside old friends and new. Stories are who people are, and what motivates us, they cause us great sadness, anxiety and fear. They have the power to make you dream and the power to make you cry. We don’t remember every word of the story we tell, but we remember the feelings and the thoughts we have during them. We ask ourselves questions and imagine ourselves the heroes. For every story we share, we add our own touch, our own sparkle and our own light and no story is ever told the same twice.
Stories move us from strangers to friends, they move us from firm ground to daring to dream. They are the powerhouse of every thought and every imagination. They’re unbreakable in your mind because they are the culmination of what you think and feel, they’re compelling and entertaining because they inspire others. Stories are what we are. Let’s go tell our story”
At around 8 am, a new plan was devised and moved into action. If you’ve seen the ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ scene in the West Wing – this was plan ‘Let Ash be Ash’. We’d banned gimmicks, binned the prep sheets, we’d binned the folder of answers, and we locked down any debate prep or further inputs.
It was a long road up the A9 to Inverness, but Mrs O and I got into the car and shot up. Today there would be only one input – a can of Red Bull and raw Ash – unleashed.
We got to the venue and carried out check-in. I advised Ash was running a bit late due to traffic following a car fire on the way in. SNP HQ informed me they’d not be waiting for anyone and that it would start on time. Only after it was apparent Humza and Kate would also be late – was it suddenly not an issue. All three candidates arrived just minutes before showtime.
The Eden Court Theatre was possibly one of the nicest venues for the hustings, the lighting was much better, with massively improved audio. It felt good.
I don’t know if you will have watched the Inverness Hustings – however, it was night and day, from tragic the day before to First Ministerial the day after. A new Ash appeared and moved into a whole new groove. She commanded her opening, her questioning and close. She got rapturous applause and stole many of the key lines. Humza and Kate looked on in apparent surprise.
Our sentiment analysis was looking good and our media appraisals looked favourable! We’d gone from the worst performance to the best, in one night – with nothing more than a Red Bull to unleash the fire we knew Ash had within her.
Ash’s partner was so impressed – he promised us all a curry night on his return! (He kept that promise and we’ll cover it later).
Plenty of fire emojis were used in the chat 🔥, along with hearts ❤️, and saltires 🏴. A newfound energy was formed and the team started hammering out the post-game messaging.
Following the hustings – we dropped into the fabulous InverYess Indy Hub, which was hosting events that day. They absolutely loved the hustings and had a lot of input on how it went. It was really nice to do this after a good day. While Ash had done a metric ton of media interviews – it was always nice to see she seemed much more comfortable and at home with fellow Yes campaigners. They shared soup and stories of campaigns.