POLITICS

Blair McDougall, The Man Who Convinced Scotland To Say 'No' To Independence, Eyes Elected Office

14/10/2014 11:45 BST | Updated 14/10/2014 12:00 BST

It was not long after the polls closed at 10pm that Blair McDougall relaxed. He and his inner-circle at the Better Together campaign had known for some time that Scotland would reject independence, but there was still a sense of impotence as Scots cast their votes. "I was convinced we were going to win all along," he says. "I knew we had won before ballot boxes started to be opened.

"It was conversations with campaigners who I trust, who a have a really good feel for their areas. All of them were saying 'we are going to win this'. There was none of the anxiety from the days before. There was no sense of anything-unexpected happening.

"You feel pride for yourself, but more a feeling of pride for the campaign team. The media pictured us in the room we had the election night party. There's only two or three of us over 35. I said to the team: 'History probably shouldn't be made by 20-somethings in a borrowed office over the Glasgow Savoy Centre'."

McDougall is speaking to The Huffington Post as the dust settles on the long campaign. He reflects on what has passed since he first accepted the job as campaign director for the pro-union cause. "I’ve actually had two children since then. I’ve got a four-month-old and a two-and-half-year old. I have been reintroducing myself to them and to friends I have barely seen in two-and-a-half years."

The initial approach came from Labour. The SNP victory in the 2011 Holyrood parliamentary elections had put the independence referendum on the table. "Everyone was talking about the pending referendum, but no one had really got a clear plan together. Eventually Alistair [Darling] had decided to try to take a grip of the emerging campaign. And he very quickly came to me.

"My only hesitation at that point was my wife," McDougall recalls. "She was 7-months pregnant, so that was the only thing in the back of my head. I knew there would be a big personal cost. On the other side of the balance was how important it was. The judgment I had made was that this would be the biggest thing I would end up doing in my time as a campaigner."

Labour is the main opposition to the SNP in Scotland. So it was perhaps a no-brainer that the director of the 'No' campaign would be a veteran Labour insider. Glasgow-born McDougall worked in the back-rooms of Westminster for work and pensions secretary James Purnell and others in the last government. Before taking on the job at the heart of Better Together, McDougall ran David Miliband's unsuccessful 2010 bid to become Labour leader. That failure now seems a long time ago.

It is unusual for a campaign manager to become a public figure. It is common in the United States, but unusual in British politics where non-elected operatives prefer to stay out of the spotlight. McDougall says the role of media personality was thrust upon him by circumstances. "In truth I didn’t sign up to be a media spokesman. I was and always had been the back-room strategist," he says. Blair Jenkins, the 'Yes' campaign's chief executive had stepped in front of the cameras. So McDougall felt he had to do the same."The reason I ended up doing it was it was a mirror of the 'Yes' side. They knew Alex Salmond was unpopular with undecided voters so they used non-party spokespeople and non-political spokespeople."

He found the public role "personally enjoyable", but it came with a price. As the campaign became increasingly bitter, he was a target. He used the 'favourite' function on Twitter to keep track of some of the more "outrageous abuse". It continues today.

"You will be held in contempt by millions of Scots not yet born," he was told by one disappointed 'Yes' supporter after the result. "It must be hard knowing that 1.6m people think you're fraudulent, lying, self-serving scumbag," added another. "You must've made a fortune in English Gold, doing this for Westminster. Bad luck with yer pieces of Silver, JUDAS" and "hope you get hit by a bus" are among the other, printable, examples.

And it was not confined to the online world.

"It was pretty bitter and aggressive at times," McDougall sighs. "The really strange thing was there were some people trolling me online who would stop me in the street and say 'oh nice to see you' and shake my hand. I couldn’t ever put together the really horrible things they would be saying online with the very friendly way they would approach you in person."

The end of the campaign has not seen the abuse stop. There is a division within Scottish society that needs to be healed. "There is a level of anger there," McDougall says. "I think the way that Alex Salmond has gone out of his way not to accept the democratic result means he does, I think, have a responsibility to march these people back down the hill in a responsible way."

Many inside the 'Yes' campaign see their defeat as merely a step on the road to independence, rather than the end. The unpredictable nature of UK politics as it stumbles towards the general election means some hope for another go as soon as 2020. McDougall, unsurprisingly, disagrees. "What we heard on 18 September was the settled will of the Scottish people. I just don’t think will buy the idea that’s this something that should come back again and again."

He adds: "Salmond did tell us it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that he would accept the result, encouraging the denial there is amongst some nationalists is unhelpful."

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Alex Salmond during the second TV debate

Better Together may have won. But many on the unionist side believe it did so despite its strategy, not because of it. The campaign, critics say, was too negative. For the opposition, Better Together was running 'Project Fear'. McDougall, Darling and co. were accused of focusing too much on the risks of independence and not enough on the positive case for the union. The wheeling out of big business, banks and warnings about the economic viability of a independent Scotland was seen as distasteful, at the least, by some. "The truth of the matter is that we couldn't have designed a worse fucking campaign," a disgruntled member of the shadow cabinet told The Huffington Post in September, despite the victory. "It was shocking." As for Scottish Labour, another shadow cabinet member concluded: "They've proved they can't organise a piss-up in a brewery."

But McDougall is unapologetic and has little time for the carping from London, especially the complaints from newspaper columnists and TV pundits. "We just ignored the commentators, we knew their understanding of the electorate was just wrong," he says. Given the eventual margin of victory, 55 per cent to 45 per cent, it is easy to see why he brushes off the attacks.

Better Together's pollsters, which included David Cameron's former strategy director Andrew Cooper, were telling McDougall that the 30 per cent of the electorate who were undecided were worried about what independence would mean financially, for them and for the country. And that became the focus. "Credit to the core team of strategists in the campaign," he says. "They did stick to what we knew would work. That sounds like it's sort of mechanical, but actually it's fundamental to what a referendum is."

"The remarkable thing about our campaign was when Alistair launched it in June 2012, his speech was 'best of both worlds'. More powers are coming so you don’t need to take the economic risk. That was the choice laid down at the very beginning. That was based on an intense amount of work to understand where the electorate were. It was properly researched. The message, it was durable. It was the message we began on and closed on."

McDougall also observes that the decision to hold a long campaign backfired on Salmond and the SNP. "Nationalism does not start from a position of the facts. It starts from a position of faith. He was saying Scotland could be the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t have its own currency. For any other politician, in any other electoral context in the developed world, that would be seen to be utterly unsustainable position. But for him, everything bounced off him because he had the protection of the absolute belief and faith that independence would work.

"He thought people would get tired of talking about the economy, and he could move on to emotion. But the electorate were so engaged in this debate, the level of knowledge and understanding of the really big issues were extraordinary.

"I’d get into taxis and the driver would talk to me about lender of last resort. As a political campaigner, when you are used to flogging dead horses, that was fantastic."

The economic argument, more specifically Westminster's rejection of a currency union with an independent Scotland, was expertly deployed by Alistair Darling in the first TV debate. Better Together's leader, not known for his passion, crushed an oddly sedate Salmond. The explanation, McDougall, argues, is that the first minister and his team knew that voters, frankly, did not like him.

"The Alex Salmond who regularly wins first ministers questions was very, very unpopular amongst undecided voters particularly women. They didn’t like the bulling aggressive style. He obviously was getting the same feedback. In the first debate he bottled that person. And tried to be a sort of different persona and it didn’t work for him.

The second debate however, was a different story. Salmond came racing out of the blocks and caught Darling on the back foot. Unionists could only watch through their fingers as the SNP leader basked in the applause of the studio audience. Again, McDougall claims he was not worried. "What he decided to do was to go for broke in that second debate. He decided to be himself. That was more effective in debating points term. But in terms of those undecided voters we knew that wasn’t popular," he says.

"If you'd given us what externally was viewed as a score draw before they happened, we would have bitten your hand off. We were the people defending a lead."

On 7 September, ten days out from the vote, the Sunday Times carried its bombshell YouGov poll that showed the 'Yes' campaign had taken the lead for the first time. It electrified the referendum debate. It was greeted with horror in Westminster and with glee by the SNP in equal measure. For McDougall, the professional campaigner, the reaction of the 'Yes' camp typified where they went wrong.

"What the nationalist did, and the reason they lost, was they had a campaign that was speaking to themselves rather than undecided voters," he says. "Our core team, we weren't really worried. The really telling thing from that moment in the campaign was the way the two campaigns reacted to the poll.

"It allowed us to shake any sense of complacency from amongst our own campaign and those voters," he says. "On the other side, because the entire campaign had been built on trying to manufacture a sense of momentum that was not there. Their whole strategic focus was on generating that sense of emotional momentum. Their reaction to the poll was a complete strategic error.

"What they did, they had a ten-day street party.

"I was watching 10,000 people in George Square dancing and celebrating a week out from the vote! If I was the campaign manager I would been tearing my hair out. If they were 'No' voters I would have been down there saying 'get out and knock doors'.

The inner-circle of the Better Together campaign in Glasgow may have reacted to the YouGov poll calmly. But it caused panic in Westminster. "Oh, sure it did," McDougall agrees almost conspiratorially. "I wasn’t in any way worried. I'm not saying other people weren’t. We used it to mobilise campaigners to drive home our message. Across the board we managed to harness the reaction to that poll to our advantage. It came at exactly the right moment for us."

McDougall also rejects the suggestion that the promise of more powers for Scotland was hastily cobbled together by terrified politicians in London at the last minute. "That was the choice laid down at the very beginning," he insists. Gordon Brown, he says, had been out there giving "Gladstonian-style speeches" for ages before the UK media decided to turn up on the campaign trail. "What was really useful was attaching his personality to the timetable for more powers."

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McDougall defends David Cameron's interventions

Salmond and the 'Yes' campaign frequently made David Cameron and the English Conservatives the target. A vote for independence was a vote for no more Tory governments, they said. The anti-Tory message was seen by Downing Street for the potent campaign tool it was. It led Cameron to plead with Scots not to break-up the UK just to give the "f-ing Tories" a kicking. The mere presence of Tories on the pro-union side seemed to many to do more harm than good. But McDougall disagrees.

"I come from a Labour background. The interventions from the prime minister, when they came, were very well pitched. The Scottish staffers in No.10 deserve a huge amount of credit for that. It was always respectful but using the authority of the British government to talk about powers. I thought Cameron was fairly self aware during the referendum. So were Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. People from the rest of the UK when they entered the debate, struck the right tone."

He also sidesteps the politics of the prime minister's immediate reaction to the referendum result, in which he made a play for English votes for English laws - a shake-up of the constitution and Commons that Labour suspect is a simple Tory power grab. "We in Scotland have had this great debate. The other parts of the UK need to have that as well. It would be churlish of us in Scotland to complain about that," McDougall says, conscious that he is still nominally an employee of a cross-party organisation.

McDougall was not the only man convinced he was on the winning side on the evening of 18 September. Salmond was too. According to reports, internal polling had convinced the Scottish first minister that he would win independence for Scotland by 54 per cent to 46 per cent, almost the exact reverse of the eventual 55 per cent to 45 per cent victory secured by the 'No' campaign. McDougall is genuinely surprised that Salmond thought he was going to win right up until the results came in. "I always thought that what was happening was that people in the centre of the 'Yes' campaign were being disingenuous to their activists by saying they were going to win," he says.

"I wonder whether the psychology of their campaign that approached everything from door knocking to polling that they wanted to believe it so much they convinced themselves. I’ve never seen an election where one side was so far out of the expectations of what happened. I thought that was very odd."

So convinced was Salmond that he was going to win, he had scheduled a 10am victory press conference at the 'Yes' campaign's Edinburgh election night HQ. But as it became clear he had lost, it was pushed back, and back again. When Salmond finally emerged it was to resign as first minister rather than celebrate the birth of his new nation. "I was surprised," McDougall says. "I would have expected him to tough it out and claim victory from defeat. Whether he was forced out I don’t know."

While Salmond decided to quit. The future of Better Together's Alistair Darling is unclear. The former chancellor, who is still a Westminster MP, always deftly deflected questions about his post-referendum future. But now it's come, McDougall hopes his Better Together colleague sticks around. "I think he has shown an incredible sort of calmness and strategic steadfastness over the last two and half years," he says. "I know he will want to continue to contribute to Scottish life whatever he does. I think would be a great pity if we lost him entirely, I don’t think we will. Whether it's in the parliament or outside will be up to him."

But what next for the McDougall who, alongside Darling and others, convinced Scotland to say 'No thanks'? He reveals that his experience of the spotlight had tempted him to step fully out of the back-room. "I have always thought I'd like to stand for elected office at some point," he admits. "Its' not the only way to make a difference though. I’m not an obsessive career politician in that sense."

"The referendum is probably the biggest thing I’ll ever do. As much has it has been a very long and gruelling campaign, with all the personal costs that come with that, it has been an enormous privilege. What I do next? The honest answer is I don’t know. What could possibly follow this?"