All posts by williamthomson

The HOOP event in Edinburgh grass roots at its best and worst

March’s #HandsOffOurParliament demonstration will show everything that is great about the YES movement, and at the same time will expose some of the handicaps that we carry with us. I have a few suggestions that will make the most of the event.

A beautiful thing will happen in Edinburgh on the 23rd March, something that shows the best of the YES movement.  A few months ago it was nothing more than a conversation topic between a few Scottish independence activists on a bridge.  Three months later a few thousand people will create a human “hoop” around the Scottish Parliament. If anything sums up the YES movement’s power and passion it is this ability to turn words into actions.

I suggested this human chain idea in a piece in CommonSpace (full article here) back in June 2017:

"Democracy is under threat in Scotland. However, Westminster politicians are building their case on exceptionally shaky ground, and they know it: but they can easily ignore, and fend off other politicians. They can bin newspapers and ignore partisan news reports. What they are unable to do is to show the same intransigence in the face of a seriously determined street movement. Just imagine 50,000-plus linking arms around Holyrood to "protect" democracy."

I am certainly not claiming any credit. It’s easy to have an idea (this post has a few more) it’s much harder to actually get out there and do it. The credit must fall to those putting these ideas in to action (my thanks to one of them in particular, Cliff Serbie who was frank with me in answering my questions)

I currently live in Barcelona and this has its disadvantages when trying to do what you can for the YES movement but it also has advantages. Being up close and personal with the Catalan independence movement offers me a very different perspective on political events in Scotland. If you are going to pass on some tips you may as well learn from the undeniable masters of mass movement street politics: the Catalans.

My suggestions and observations are based on my twenty years organising events and my experience of the dynamic fight for self-determination here in Catalonia.

Before I get into the details here are two links that will provide useful background to my suggestions. Here are the ten things that I believe make the Catalan movement so strong and an article looking behind the scenes at the organisation that manages HOOP style events in Catalonia: Assemblea Nacional Catalana.

I know Scotland and Catalonia are in many ways similar however they are also  very different. I have taken those differences into consideration when making my suggestions in this post. I am not going to suggest that we should aim for 250,000 taking part next time! That would just be daft, but there are things we can do. Starting now, with over a week to go until the HOOP event.

Attend the Hoop Event on the 23rd March if you can!

March’s event should be the first but not the last HOOP 

Before jumping to conclusions I contacted the organisers via their Facebook page (and they have seen and “signed off” this post) to find out a bit more about their plans. As you would expect they are but a group of dedicated activists with little time and even fewer resources for such a big event. It’s typical of our movement, and I covered some of the issues with this volunteer approach last year when I looked at the All Under One Banner rally.

Where I see issues with this DIY approach, many in the movement see beauty. The idea of the true grassroots, scrimping and saving and “doing the best they can” is romantic to many Yessers. I don’t share that opinion: we have a few hundred thousand minds to change and I think a professional approach to all that we do will ultimately be more successful. I truly believe that our events can have a big positive impact on many potential YES voters.

So with my total respect for the people who are doing it and my belief that some professional support would make things even more powerful I present my suggestions.

1. Limit expectations and the size of this HOOP event

The organisers have done everything you could expect of a volunteer team. They have had coverage in The National and The Scotsman and are increasing the awareness daily on social media. A  couple of thousand taking part would be an amazing achievement. However, as we all know to our chagrin, demonstrations numbering in the few thousands are unlikely to make an impact on the MSM. I know that we will all see the usual Tweets: “where are you BBC”, but the organisers shouldn’t be distracted by that. The main objective should be to galvanise the YES movement and make this event a catalyst for a similar event that is much bigger and bolder. 

2. Start raising funds by selling a badge

At the moment there are no plans to collect funds (the organisers asked me to make this VERY clear) at the event. This approach is of course very grassroots, the idea that people pay for things! It’s a romantic notion but campaigns that are not directly supported by private funds or political parties need to raise money from those passionate about the cause.

If the organisers are really to do anything that breaks outside our of YES leaning networks we have to raise money.

My suggestion is to come up with something similar to the Catalan Yellow Ribbon that many of you may know about. The ribbon signifies support for the Catalan political prisoners currently held without trial in prisons hundreds of miles from their families.

Selling this for a few Euros  is a simple and effective way to raise funds. I am sure with a week or more to go the organisers could source or make something that they could sell for a coupe of quid at the event. Or perhaps someone reading this post could do it for them? The organisers need to sell them, account for the sales and hold on to the money for a while.

Why is money so important when fighting a campaign? The Catalan National Assembly organise the massive La Diada events every September 11th. They spend €300,000 on advertising. Yes, that’s what you have to spend to get a crowd in a country as likely to demonstrate on the street as they are to buy a beer! Money talks and we really have to make our voices heard. This event is a wonderful opportunity to start to raise funds for an upcoming campaign.

Following the event these little lapel badges (whatever they look like) could be either sourced directly from the official supplier, as the official ones are here, or made by groups and sold across Scotland, with funds being sent to the HOOP Foundation (which of course at the moment is a figment of my imagination). Slowly a fighting fund on this specific issue could be built.

The uniqueness of the power grab, as this clear democratic deficit, is that it is something that unites political parties and many voters, even some unionists. In Catalonia many a Yellow Ribbon wearer is no independentista; however the idea that you can be in prison for your views is an anathema to many. There are issues that transcend party politics and the power grab issue is one.  It is a unique opportunity.

I hope you don’t feel grubby thinking about money. But if you do, you are probably about to feel worse. I am suggesting that the event is used to start a database for those who feel passionate about the power grab.

3. Collect email addresses and then collect more data

I asked the head of press at the ANC what was the secret that brings 1 million people on to the streets. The answer was  data. Boring, but true.

Every effort should be made to collect email addresses of those attending HOOP and who are interested in the impending doom of a Westminster government using Brexit as an excuse to erode democracy in Scotland.  At the end of the event the organisers should have a list of email addresses of people who WANT to be contacted about issues relating to the Westminster power grab including events and merchandising.

So to summarise my advice:

  1. We should have another similar event later this year run on a much more professional basis that has grander and achievable objectives.
  2. We should have a fund set up and run by a grass roots movement.
  3. We should have the beginning of a powerful database.

If these three things take root in March we have a very good chance of building something that is even more beautiful. But that’s not the way things will pan out.

But of course, we are grass roots, so none of this is going to happen.

Maybe someday and somehow political activists in Scotland will take a different, less romantic approach and try and organise events that really make a difference. 

If you are interested in attending the  HOOP event visit their Facebook page. If you are interested in running a different type of event along the lines I’ve suggested, get in touch.

Attracting a Younger Audience to Scottish Independence Events

I have to ask the general YES movement: does the audience at our events give a fair reflection of our movement? It certainly doesn’t reflect those who, after being enthused, voted for Scottish independence in 2014. We therefore should be worried.

It is fantastic to see so many YES groups “getting the band back together”. Last weekend Twitter was full of news and images of YES events across the country. It’s like we are all getting ready for something eh?

Here’s a couple of images:

attracting a younger audience
A typical audience at a YES event?
Another typical audience at a YES event

Notice anything? Well, the first thing that sprang to mind for me was the lack of age diversity. It’s actually really striking. Putting it in terms of a question, “where are the young folk?”

I asked Indy Blogger William Duguid, who was at another YES event over the weekend, what the age range was like there: “Anywhere between 55 and 65, though it wasn’t uniform”

It’s fair to say that although not uniform, it is very common for our indy events to be made up of an older audience.  The images are from a couple of small regional events, however the same pattern is found at the larger ones too.

After the first build conference in 2017, I was asked to do a short post event questionnaire. Watching online I had an inclining that it was an older audience. So I included a question in the responses: “Your age range?”

Number of respondents on the left. Along the bottom the age rage (sample 10% of attendees)

Our audiences are starting to look very similar

I ask again,  does the audience at our events give a fair reflection of our movement? No matter the answer, it certainly doesn’t reflect those who voted in 2014.

It’s clear younger voters are not attending any of our events in any significant number (putting it mildly) and I think we should be concerned. Is anyone else worried or bothered about this?

Attracting a younger audience to Scottish independence events

As many more YES groups will be formulating their events over the coming months I hope they take the opportunity to ask how their events can appeal to a younger audience. I am sure everyone agrees that it is absolutely crucial that if we want to win a second referendum campaign, we must engage, excite and energise a younger audience.

Our movement has to be supported by the vigour of youth. Using live experiences (what we are currently calling events) should be one of the most obvious ways to engage a wider audience. Events are viewed by many as the best way to reach the audiences that other means can’t reach.

What millennials want from experiences

Instead of young folk I may as well get with it, and use the word millennial to represent those around 30 year old. There’s a growing amount of research to show that “millennials want experiences more than anything” this is from EventBrite (a ticketing platform) and this is from Forbes magazine “millennials value experiences over other things”, so if we want to attract a younger audience to our events, we have to start to think about creating “experiences” rather than just events.

The Big Sleep Out. 8000 camped out to end Homelessness and rough sleeping. This was no event, this was an experience.

Even as an events professional for over twenty years it is a challenge for me to put this transformation from event to experience into practice, so I know it’s not going to be easy for the army of YES volunteers.

With that in mind I’ve thought about a few simple things (shortcuts to creating experiences) that every YES group can consider as they plan their next event. Here’s how to attract a younger audience to your YES event:

1. Conferences are regarded as boring (and almost ALL of them are)

If your next event is called a “conference” strongly consider changing the name of the event. Nothing is likely to turn off a younger attendee than the belief they are going to attend a boring conference. Perhaps it’s not just the name you can change but the overall format. Have you ever considered running a Pecha-Kucha rapid fire event or a Hackathon or a BarCamp style event? There are a whole host of types of events that can remove you from the “do not attend” list.

2. How the event is perceived before is very important

The name of the event as well as the logo, images you use, and how the event is promoted will go along way to attracting a younger audience. Just taking the time to think about how the event will be perceived by a younger audience is likely to attract them. You may hate the idea of creating a “brand” for your events but this will help it stand out in a sea of time sapping events that young people attend.

3. Set a target for attracting millennials, perhaps 10% – 20% of your next audience

One of the objectives for your events should be to use them to recruit people to the movement. That objective should be widened to attract a specific number of younger attendees. Just having this in mind will help you achieve it.

4. Don’t spend the whole time talking to the audience

Look at your programme. What percentage of it is people speaking to the audience, compared to time spent listening to the audience or having the audience engage with each other? Millennials like to comment and feedback and they like to hear from, and speak to their peers.

Your sessions should have interaction. Speakers should be responding to the audience and tailoring their content according to their responses. Think of your attendees as “participants” rather than an audience. This is a sure fire way to engage a younger audience.

5. You have to mash-up the format

The technical events terms is Meeting Design (here’s a link to a whole host of articles on how to do this from my Gallus Events website) but in short, if you have an event that lasts any longer than a couple of hours, you need a variety of session formats to keep people interested.

6. Remove some things

Don’t have a top table. If you have speakers ask them to join from, and then return to the audience. If you have a chairperson ask them to move around the room or certainly, spend more time on the same level as the attendees. Don’t have trestle tables at any exhibition stands.

The idea underpinning these few suggestions is to make the event less formal and traditional. If you remove these traditional barriers you are likely to foster an environment that encourages much more interaction.

7. Choose your venue wisely

No event attendee really wants to spend time in a cold, drafty church hall. I totally understand that it may well be the cheapest option, but the venue is exceptionally important for all your attendees and younger folk just won’t turn up if you have the wrong venue. Take some time looking for the venue and choose one that will likely support the type of event you are trying to create: an open, informal and engaging experience.

8. Use technology

There are loads of free apps that will help you run a better event. Whether it’s an app that helps you check in the attendees, helps you collect their ideas or makes it easy for them to vote.

As well as making your event easier to run, your audience is used to apps and technology.  Your attendees have a smartphone and you have to take advantage of this bit of equipment.

Oh, and using an overhead projector as one indy event organiser is planning to use doesn’t count as technology:

“This is just a wee heads up to ask ye if you know where I can get a cheap overhead projector I can use for a new pro-INDY group/project” This was a Tweet from last weekend.

I lasted used an OHP at an event in 1998. Most millennials wouldn’t know one if they bumped into it (which given its size is likely to happen)

9. Have some younger speakers 

A younger audience will be interested in seeing speakers that they identify with. This is of course the same for any audience, the speakers should in the most part, reflect the movement while encouraging those who are currently not engaged in that movement to attend.

10. Follow up with attendees after your events

Millennials (and don’t we all) hate thinking that our time was wasted. If your event doesn’t lead to anything then really consider if it is worth running at all? No one likes a talking shop. Events have to lead to action.

An absolute must for any event that wants to bring attendees back is to follow-up and demonstrate what was achieved by or at the meeting. It is a little more work for the organisers but it will be worth it. The added bonus is that every idea, not only engages a younger audience, but will engage all of your attendees.

All of these ideas lead to events which can slowly become more experiential and I would suggest that YES groups focus on no more than two of the ideas at a time. Gradually we can and we must improve our events to attract a younger audience.

Judging by a few hours on Twitter over the weekend we clearly have a long way to go if we are to have events that attract a younger audience. Younger voters did vote for Scottish independence and still want to vote for a better Scotland. We have to show younger voters that we have a dynamic independence movement: one that will listen and adapt.  The future becomes clearer at the events the YES movement run.

If you are interested in contributing to my work on a live engagement strategy for the YES movement please get in touch.

What makes the Catalan independence movement so strong

What are the major factors in 90% voting YES in the referendum in October and a pro independence majority being returned in the last elections in December? What makes the Catalan independence movement so strong?

Within every movement there are a whole host of factors that give it strength or sap it’s power and the Catalan independence movement is no different.

I’ve decided to look at what I consider to be the ten most important and powerful factors which support the Catalan independence movement. My hope is that looking at Catalonia will provide independence minded Scots, not with a template, but at least a hazy picture, of what, in my view, is a better structured and more secure independence movement.

The Catalan independence movement is built on the following ten areas.

  1. Catalans act, feel and even look different from the majority of Spaniards

Most Catalans do not feel at all Spanish, and this disassociation with the Spanish state is at the heart of the independence movement in Catalonia. Your average Catalan can, and will outline exactly how and why they feel Catalan. We know the power of “feeling different” and in Catalonia this feeling gives a strong undercurrent to the Catalan independence movement.

2. The strength of the Catalan culture

By defining culture in the traditional sense of traditions passed down the generations, Catalonia has a culture which is very peculiar and particular. For example, in the Caganer, they have a figure who sits in the nativity and defecates in the corner. They also have a log that defecates your christmas present. They have human towers and gigantic paper mashy figures. They have a dragon that collects kids dummies when it’s time to give them up. In fact, fire breathing dragons light up the streets at various points across the year with the lack of ‘elf and safety  scaring the bejeebies out of  the tourists. They share their patron saint with England but their St. George’s day could not be more different, as lovers exchange roses and books.  The sense of cultural identity is incredible strong and powerful.

3. It is not a passive culture

A huge number of kids and adults take active part in the groups and clubs that propagate the Catalan culture. From Sardana dancing (they don’t do Flamenco up here), playing the Shawm or participating in the barrio festivals, taking part in cultural activities, is, well, part of the culture.

I remember being shocked to see the coolest barman in our barrio slipping into his Casteller outfit to build human castles with his friends and family. So, the “cool kids” here, do terribly uncool things. But culture is beyond cool. Or perhaps, culture is the epitome of cool. This physical connection to what makes Catalonia and Catalans different, supports the independence movement in a very visual sense.

4. They have their own language which everyone speaks

Catalan pride themselves in being bi-lingual. There are two official languages in Catalonia, Castilian and Catalan. However, Catalan is really the official language. You can get by in Catalonia knowing only Castilian, but you can’t really get on if you don’t know Catalan. During the recent clashes between Puigimont and Rajoy the sense of imperialism seemed stronger when a foreign tongue answered the Catalan President. Many Catalans vote for independence to ensure their language is fully protected.

5. Catalans and Catalonia were never integrated into Spain in the way that, for example, Scotland and Scots were integrated into the Union

It won’t take you long to find a Scottish Ambassador, or Editor of a London based newspaper or a High Court Judge, however if we look at Catalonia and Spain this just isn’t the case. Despite a large Judiciary and Foreign Office in Spain, there are only two Catalan ambassadors and only two senior judges.

The idea of a Catalan Prime Minster ruling Spain would have Catalans and Spaniards alike falling off their bar stools. Catalans have always felt that they have been kept at arms length from the “successes and spoils” of Imperial Spain.  This distance and lack of entanglement provides an easy get out of their particular union.

6. Teenagers have a grandparent who can tell them about the civil war when Spain ripped itself apart, with many Catalans on the losing side.

Many Catalans have a parent who can remember a dictatorship under Franco. They only have to go back a couple of generations to find real suppression of their culture, murder of relatives and dark secrets; unlikely to be unearthed until Catalonia is independent. The scars run deep and the pain is visceral. Spain crushed Catalonia for forty years, just over forty years ago. This alone, for many Catalans, is the key to their belief in the need for independence.

7. The participative nature of politics – the barrio culture: local democracy in action.

Barely a month goes by without one of the community groups in our neighbourhood organising a meeting, rally or march. In 2017 we saw local campaigns against the number of new hotels; the construction of new flats for off plan sales; the changing of the bus routes; the increasing number of BnB rental flats and opposition to the trail “superilla“, a huge traffic free block in the middle of the barrio.

In Catalonia politics is not something that happens to you, and it’s not just a job for politicians. Being engaged in neighbourhood affairs prepares the entire population for life of activism. It is also a training ground for future politicians like Ada Colau, the current left wing Mayor of Barcelona, who cut her teeth dressing up as a Super Hero at housing repossessions.

An interest and engagement in the largest political issues come easily to those brought up to campaign against the closure of nurseries and the cancelation of bin collections.

8. The role of the media

The quality and the quantity of media outlets – including their national broadcaster – which supports independence, is certainly a major factor in the strength of the Catalan movement.

Catalonia’s National Broadcaster providing truly balanced coverage of Catalan politics.

9. The role of the cultural organisations the ANC & Omnium

Nothing can demonstrate the power of these organisations more than the fact that both of their leaders were arrested by Spanish authorities a few days after the 1st October constitutional vote. If you go behind the scenes of the ANC you will see a professional organisation created to: win, peacefully and democratically, Catalan independence. Òmnium, the much older society, compared to the ANC, is a multi facetted civic society that seeks to support the Catalan language and culture. Both these organisations boast more than 50,000 individual members and can organise demonstrations of more than a million people.

The Leaders of the ANC and Ómnium are still detained without trial in a Spanish prison.

10. Taking politics to the street – successful massive demonstrations

The mass gatherings of pro independence supporters, which have taken place in Catalonia since 2012, have had a measurably large impact on the political process in Spain. La Diada celebrations, which take place in September each year, bring on average close to a million supporters on to the streets. These mass demonstrations, supported by every pro independence party and both Ómnium and the ANC are the largest events in the pro independence calendar. They show both the strength of the movement and a united front against the current constitutional process in Spain.

A new Scottish Government communications strategy

When no one is listening you need to think about what you are saying and how you are saying it. A new Scottish Government communications strategy based on a more experience led live engagement strategy could be the answer.

Like other independence minded voters who are worried about the impact of Brexit, I watched the Scottish Government’s live broadcast on YouTube yesterday morning. For just over 30mins, the First Minister outlined the impact of three different Brexit scenarios on Scotland. The information is contained in Scotland´s place in Europe, an in-depth analysis and modelling of three possible scenarios. The “headline” figure from the paper being a potential £12bn hit to Scotland´s economy.

I highlight “headline” because none of the Scottish daily newspapers went with any headline at all from the paper. This is remember, the first and only, detailed Government analysis of Brexit on the Scottish (or wider UK economy). Can you think of anything more newsworthy?

Commenting on the lack of coverage: “That isn’t news reporting, it’s confirmation of a top level ownership agenda?” tweeted @scottishpoliticsnews

When no one is listening you need a new strategy.

The agenda of the MSM printed press (and wider across TV) is one of the most important issues affecting democracy in Scotland. The anti SNP bias – via the agenda supporting approach of papers,  rather than old fashioned news hunting – is now undeniable.  As the above tweet continues, the lack of front page coverage is “incredible but not unexpected” and very few of us, including the Scottish Government would disagree. But here is the crux of the matter, information like this has to make a wider and deeper impact; this is not only crucial for the Scottish Government but for democracy in Scotland. 

So how can the Scottish Government make more of an impact?

How can they extend the amplification wider than the #ScotRef online fraternity, retweeting it in that echo chamber? The answer is to update the Scottish Government’s communications strategy to embrace live communications in a more creative and daring manner.

A very traditional launch of the Scotland in Europe paper

The paper was launched yesterday at an event. Like any event a Press Briefing should have objectives. One objective of any press briefing is to have the information covered by the press. Obvious eh? But when you can expect the press to either ignore it, spin it or use it to attack you, don’t you have to question the event itself? As an events professional that’s what I would be doing today. My question is:

Is it time that the Scottish Government ditch this as the default way to launch a significant paper? 

It would be great if we could see the objectives of this event and then measure the success or otherwise. I would expect some fairly glum faces in the Scottish Government press office this morning as they search for positive stories. So would a different type of launch event have more of a positive impact?

YouTube Live Streaming

As someone based in Barcelona I had little chance of seeing any traditional TV broadcast, so I missed the extensive 2min to 3min coverage on Sky News (apparently the only broadcaster to show it) so I was very happy to be able to watch it on YouTube. As you may or not be aware, The Scottish Government has a dedicated YouTube channel.

It’s no surprise to see the Scottish Government using YouTube. They rightly consider themselves at the forefront of modern communications in the UK and are keen to promote their position: this is from the Scot Govt website: “The Ministerial Support Directorate has become a centre of excellence as digital has become an increasingly mainstream part of all Scottish Government business. Social media is a key way for the Scottish Government to communicate and engage with its audiences.”  The SNP (not the Scottish Government during election campaigns) have been dominating this space since 2011.

However, considering the amount of traditional (MSM) coverage the other main political parties can rely on, the gap between the SNP and others online has to be incredibly large to even start to level the playing field. So, despite the SNP winning the online war during election campaigns, it is sobering to see the Scot Govt YouTube channel has less than 6000 subscribers. To crudely benchmark, the Celtic FC channel has 63,000 and the Rangers one 42,000. The Scottish Government has a few hundred more subscribers than Aberdeen FC.

For YouTube and other social media channels to be effective, they need people to subscribe / follow; in short to have more active engagement. You do this by having interesting content.

Subscribers and followers grow when those online are able to actually engage. Using the launch of the Scotland´s place in Europe event as an example, the only people able to ask a question were those in the room. And most of them were not listening to the answer! The majority of the press aren’t listening, so are they really worth talking to? Online, there was no way to engage. Those who wanted answers had to rely on the press to ask the right questions.

It’s not just the level of engagement that is important at an event but also what type of content is on show. Showing the First Minister talking in front of a lectern answering daft (often inaudible) questions is not gripping content. The Scottish Government, via YouTube and Facebook has a vehicle for delivering innovative content they just need to create “experiences” rater than events.

I have used this example as I believe it demonstrates a live engagement strategy that is too traditional and does not take advantage of the space where the SNP has leverage. I covered this idea in a bit more depth here: General Election 2017 the SNP´s live engagement strategy.

Ditching the traditional press briefing and replacing it with a content heavy, engagement focussed, event would allow the Scottish Government to start to amplify their message outside of their base and beyond the news gatekeepers, who are all too keen to slam the door shut on anything positive.

If you are interested in contributing to my work on a live engagement strategy for the YES movement please get in touch.

Balanced panels at Independence Events

How we organise our independence events is crucial to the success of the next independence referendum. Balanced panels at independence events are important but so are many other aspects. 

Over the last couple of weeks it seems like everyone has been chipping into a debate about who should or shouldn’t have appeared on a panel at one Yes event in East Kilbride. The extent to which this has escalated proves two things. Twitter is a really awful medium, as it’s impossible to truly get across what you mean most of the time, and secondly events are crucial to how the movement is seen and how it sees itself. As an events professional I will concentrate on the latter in this short post.

Firstly, I suppose I should comment. My everyday job is to advise event organisers on how to run better events. My advice for every organiser, no matter the topic/theme/industry/sector is to ensure that the people on stage reflect their audience and to bare in mind the important role event organisers have on promoting equality and opportunity. It can be difficult to do that for every event, especially when you are an organiser working under the whip of a demanding boss, or you are organising the event as a volunteer. So, if you run a few events ensure that, when you look at them in the round, you have a good balance.

It is worth stressing, having a balanced panel is an additional benefit, not a burden. Without doubt having had the pleasure of seeing 10,000 speakers at my events, woman are every bit as good as men.

To cancel or not to cancel?

Events are complicated and difficult, time consuming and costly so organisers should do all they can to avoid cancelling them (unless no one is turing up). Being unable to find a woman to fill a space on the programme is not reason enough to cancel any event, unless, of course, it is on gender equality.

Last year I wrote a post on my Gallus Events blog and it includes ten tips on supporting organisers who want to have more balanced panels. I stayed away from the “why you should have balanced panels” on that article, but it seems important to cover that here.

Having run over 700 events and been to a few hundred more, it is easy to say that white men in their 40s-60s are over represented. Looking at indy events (should someone do some research) you will find the same situation. To ensure a more balanced representation, organisers should find speakers who are different. In the case of independence events in Scotland, it seems bizarre to be explaining the need to reflect the electorate on the stage at indy events.

Events which are promoting Scottish independence must have a positive message if they are going to promote the ideas of independence. They have to inspire as much as inform. They have to entertain as much as educate, and event organisers have to have an understanding of the wider impact that their decisions will have.

Events are as difficult as they are important to our movement. I continue to work on my Guide For Indy Ref Events as I believe guidance, advice, support and to a shared vision that the movement an sign up to would be extremely worthwhile for the movement. If you think this would be useful or would like to contribute please comment and get in touch.

Catalan Independent Republic Referendum FIVE days to go

It’s only six days until the date set for the Catalan independent republic referendum. It allows a moment for reflection on the campaign so far. As a Scot who witnessed the campaign in Scotland the difference is striking. Where are the hoards of people saying Catalonia will be a financial basket case?

Over the last few months the coverage of the referendum in Spain has had two distinct phases. Since a coalition of YES supporting parties won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament in late 2015, the vast majority of coverage around this referendum has been its legality. Since the La Diada celebrations on the 11th September, the narrative has been around Spain’s actions to enforce the law, and Catalonia’s desire to place democracy above the law.

The debate has of course touched on many other issues but the legality and the right to vote have been the most prominent. The recent Observer editorial covered a lack of debate around the financial implications of becoming an independent nation as “Brexit” like / light. Suggesting that a simple blood and soil “SÍ” was enough to start or end any serious conversation. (The whole Observer piece was beautifully and forensically debunked by Alistair Spearing) The truth is completely different. The simple fact is that holding the view that Catalonia wouldn’t continue to thrive outside of the Spanish state is insulting, not only to the intelligence of Catalans but to the Catalans themselves. Catalans are immune to this nonsense, initially despite Madrid’s actions and now because of them.

Voting forms printed out and posted along the Rambla Poblenou

Project fear

The Madrid supporting press and the Spanish Government have been peddling the cliff edge financial disaster over the last few weeks. It’s clearly a Spanish version of “Project Fear” as experienced by Scotland in 2014. However it has three large differences.

The role of the media

The power of Madrid’s media is nowhere near as strong as the voice of London in Scotland. As James Kelly noted in an excellent piece, Catalonia is served by a truly national TV broadcaster which is, understandably, sympathetic to a majority who wish to hold a referendum. Radio and print media has strong independent supporters too. Back in Scotland, turn on the radio or tv or pick up a newspaper and you are almost guaranteed to hear London’s voice; perhaps with a Scottish accent. The Scottish titles are all still owned by London based media conglomerates; not so here in Catalonia. And of course the failings of BBC Scotland and STV are now becoming clear for all to see.

Catalonia’s National Broadcaster providing truly balanced coverage of Catalan politics.

El Periódico (a Catalan newspaper with strong ties to Madrid, which was initially financed by Silvio Berlusconi ) has been embroiled in a smear campaign against the Mosses d’Esquadra the Catalan police force, after the publication of  a false memo, supposedly, from CIA warning of an attack on Las Ramblas. Madrid based titles such as El País have been dishing out the classic fear tactics for weeks: “The myths and lies of the Catalan independence movement” is a headline in today’s edition and is copy book Scotland Circa 2014.

The Madrid based media speaks from and for Madrid. They are camouflaged government messages sent north to undermine the belief of a nation in waiting. Confidence and self believe allows Catalans to see the half truths and thin promises.

The lack of respect felt for the Government in Madrid

Catalonia looks at the weak minority Government of Rajoy in Madrid with scorn, distaste and an increasing discomfort as it tramples on civil liberties and democratic institutions. Dialogue on a referendum has never been possible and the intransigence of the PP led Government is still the best PR vehicle and recruiter for the movement in Catalonia.

This was of course very different in Scotland in 2014. The SNP faced a strong majority government in London and its strength and relative unity gave it credence in Scotland. Its desire to see Scotland remain in the union was for many, heart felt and honest. Scotland had been respected and the Edinburgh Agreement was a work of two nations. No one in Catalonia thinks Madrid looks north with any love and affection.

The third and perhaps the most important difference is that there are very, very few native doubters. Catalonia is not ladened down with home grown nae sayers that seem to dominate the media and the airwaves in Scotland.  Many Scots still bemusingly wonder exactly how could one of the 10 richest nations on earth look after it’s own affairs?

The “too wee, too poor” argument that circled above the YES movement in 2014 should easily be blown out of the water. And we should look to Catalonia for that strength. Catalan politicians, its media and its citizens would not pore over something like GERS – with every mention giving its spurious claims more coverage – they would simply dismiss it and move on. Scots must do the same. 

There are of course many Catalans who have serious concerns and issues with independence, however even the most ardent unionist would not consider Catalonia to be “too wee or too poor”. To proffer this view in a “wealthy region in the north” as BBC World recently chose to describe Catalonia, would be to insult yourself, as well as your neighbours. In Scotland this attitude just guarantees you column inches.

These three major differences come together to totally undermine “project fear”. Last week, for example, using the Madrid based media, the Spanish Finance Minister warned of 30% fall in Catalan GDP if Catalonia sat outside Spain. The message fell flat. It’s clear that Spanish politicians can’t be trusted, or as they say in Castilian: “este tío no es trigo limpio”

The Spanish relationship

For many in Catalonia, Spain has been seen to constrict the development of Catalonia not to further it. Infrastructure spending in Madrid and its surroundings dwarf the Catalan capital. Billions of Euros flow south every year never to return. Political corruption is much more prevalent in the south of Spain compared to Catalonia, and only this July, Rajoy become the first sitting PM to testify during a criminal trial, where he denied any knowledge of the massive corruption scandal that has stained his PP party’s already blotted copy book.

Every Catalan knows that Madrid stifles the language and the culture of Catalonia. During an interview with the Catalan National Assembly, I was struck by the outsider position that Catalans play in a “united” Spain. “Unlike Scots, Catalans have never embedded into the establishment. There are two Catalan Ambassadors in the whole of the Spanish diplomacy. The same with the Judiciary” said the ANC head of press.

Is Westminster ready to play the same hand?

As we look ahead to the Catalan referendum on the 1st October we will of course be thinking about the next Scottish referendum. We have to be skeptical that the YES movement will be able to reduce the power of the London media in Scotland; but we must try.

We are also unlikely to shake the Scottish doom mungers; but we must try.

However, we have to be confident that the May led Westminster Government will continue to deal from the same pack of cards as Rajoy.

As May pushes ahead with Brexit, the power grab and dismisses democratically elected Scottish institutions, Westminster is mirroring all of the mistakes made by Madrid over the last few years. It would of course be much better for every side if another Edinburgh Agreement could be signed, however, it this proves impossible, May and whoever replaces her, will push many soft No’s to the cause, as has undoubtedly happened in Catalonia.

With every passing week the Westminster Government and the mess of an opposition party in Labour, continue to undermine the “good will” that underpinned both the Edinburgh Agreement and gave credence to the messages we framed as Project Fear.

This week is monumental for Catalonia and it is a big one for Scotland too.

Catalunya and Spain in deadlock the last 48 hours

You have no doubt been struggling to keep up with what’s happening in the saga that is the Catalan referendum build up. So here’s what’s happened in just the last 48 hrs (Monday 5.14pm to 5.14pm Wednesday)

Monday 5.14pm

A million people demonstrate in favour of a referendum being held on the 1st October. The question on the ballot paper will ask Catalans and Spanish citizens resident in Catalunya, if they want Catalunya to be an independent republic. At 17:14 (which is chosen to commemorate the fall of Barcelona to troops loyal to Madrid over 300 years ago) demonstrators reveal their Day of Yes, luminous yellow t-shirts. The city streets explode in colour.

Around one million people joined the La Diada celebrations

Tuesday morning

–  To coincide and to distract from the national and international coverage of the mass demonstrations, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspends a Catalan law that drafted a legal framework for an independent state. The Spanish establishment moves up a notch in its attack on democracy.

– Julian Assange tweets:

“This Catalan government ad is now banned in Spain as the war against Catalonia’s independence referendum heats up”

Banned. Anything that promotes the “illegal” referendum

– The President of the Government of Catalunya reiterates his desire to negotiate with the Spanish Prime Minster. “There is time for dialogue until the last moment” says Carles Puigdemont.

– Madrid based, New York Times correspondent, tweets that a Spanish judge suspends s a meeting for Catalan independence set to take place on Sunday. Raphael Minder asks is this now becoming a “freedom of expression” issue. Spain’s Government is being seen, both nationally and internationally, to be acting in an ever more dictatorial fashion.

Tuesday afternoon

– Prosecutors in Catalonia order police to seize ballot boxes, election flyers and any specific item (like printers, envelopes, stamps, paper clips, etc.) that could be used in support of an independence referendum.

Only a few weeks after the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils and with a raised terrorist level across Europe, the Spanish Government has ordered Police to chase stationary, rather than terrorists.

Wednesday morning

– The Prosecutors are busy. They order an investigation of the 712 Catalan mayors who have officially supported the Catalan referendum.  It’s now only 19 days before the referendum: is that long enough for a fair and balanced investigation?

Wednesday afternoon

– Catalan News report that “Sources from the National Police corps” say that there will be an increase in the number of Guardia Civil officers in Catalunya in the lead up to the planned vote.

– Reacting to the news of a cancelled pro independence event: “We can’t debate, we can’t vote, we can’t inform, and now we can’t hold a public event. What’s next?” Asks Carme Forcadell, Catalan Parliament President.

– Spanish PM warns anyone helping out at a polling station that they will be acting illegally and will be arrested.

Where will it end? Will everyone who votes face being behind bars?

It’s early evening now. Who knows what will happen in the next 48 hours?

It’s getting more tense by the day in Catalunya. 19 days and counting. But counting down to what is anyone’s guess.

La Diada 2017

It was sunny yesterday. Baking hot, sweaty, sunshine. That kind of weather is far from ideal for standing in the streets without shade for a few hours, however the million people who did so yesterday didn’t seem to bother. In fact the bright sunshine reflected the mood of La Diada 2017.

The official Catalan National Assembly led La Diada celebrations are now in their sixth year. Since 2012 a million or more people have celebrated the day by calling for the independence of Catalunya. With hundred of thousands of yellow and red Catalan flags, most with the addition of the white star on a blue background – favoured by those seeking Catalan independence, it is always an exceptionally colourful event. This year the event went luminous as every person who had packed the streets revealed a shocking yellow t-shirt as the count down to the “reveal” approached.

Around one million people joined the La Diada celebrations

At 17:14 the t-shirts came on and the banners floated above the crowd. This was the day of YES. The Catalan national anthem rang out; there were cheers as every new image appeared on the giant screens. People cried as a human tower was “topped” by a young girl raising her hand, and then producing a catalan flag. This will be the last La Diada demonstration. Next year it will be a celebration!

It’s the 12th September. It’s raining. The holiday is over. The headlines on the Madrid based media focus on the lower numbers of demonstrators than in a couple of previous years. There’s a realisation, a million people demonstrated, but a few million more need to vote YES for the referendum to lead to a new independent country. Perhaps the elation of yesterday was hope more than expectation?

Today will see Spain ramp up it’s efforts to delegitimise the referendum. Hot on the heals of the announcement of  the Spanish police to search and seize ballot papers and ballot boxes, many more moves will be played in this constitutional game of chess. Spain says this referendum, schedule to take place in less than three weeks, is illegal.

The Generalitat of Catalunya maintain that the referendum will be binding, and the Government has already put in place a law to supplant the Spanish constitution. It is an impossible impasse with an impossible timeframe. Today the weather reflects the mood of many independence supporters. But tomorrow, we know there will be sunshine.

Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks

Barcelona has quickly returned to normality after the appalling terrorist attack on Las Ramblas. Anyone who knows this city and its people will not be surprised. 

August is the strangest of months in Barcelona. The Catalan capital is vacated by the locals for much of the month. Shops, bars and restaurants close for a couple of weeks, with the most popular ones shutting down for the full 31 days. Kids are only half way through their 12 week summer break, so schools and nurseries sit empty. During the sweltering August heat, streets that swell throughout June and July find some relief; as if  a pressure value has been released.

I am one of those residents that heads off to avoid the heat. And where better than Scotland for that? An increasing number of Spanish people are finding Scotland a rainy, mild, cultural heaven. Thousands of Spaniards flock to Edinburgh for the festival and the flights between Scotland and Barcelona seem especially packed during Edinburgh festival time.

Sat in a bar in during this years early August trip to Edinburgh I overheard a Scottish waitress apologising to a Spanish family. It was “raining again” and she was truly sorry – apologising as if it was her fault. I could tell that the waitress couldn’t quite work out why the family were all smiling as they looked out into the thin, grey, drizzle outside.  It’s 30 degrees in Barcelona today and most of central and southern Spain has seen 40+ degrees over the summer.  Spaniards visit, not despite the cold and the rain, but because of it.

I was only partly back in Scotland for the break from the heat, as I had a few meetings about our Homeless Hackathon. I happened to arrive in Edinburgh only a few hours before the attack on Las Ramblas and I saw the story unfold on the BBC news channel from the lobby of my hotel, and via social media.

During that evening, my phone pinged constantly with people asking about me and the family. Nice to know people care, but it did take me longer than usual to eat a curry in Mother India in Glasgow. A few friends knew we lived on a Rambla (there are several across the city, we live about two miles away from Las Rambals) and they seemed especially concerned. We hadn’t let anyone know we were OK because, really, why should we? We don’t contact people every week to say we haven’t been one of the 21 people who’ve been killed on a Spanish road. However, as we were still kind of travelling, we had a less controversial reason not to update family and friends.

It is a strange feeling to be away from home when an incident like this occurs. Your heart and stomach seem to merge and an uneasy dull pain takes hold. There’s relief at being far away during any incident, but a need to be close to others at a time of shared grief. Its surprising how long that awkward feeling persists.

Barcelona reacts

Less than 24hours after the attack Barcelona was, amazingly, able to organise a vigil on Plaça Catalunya, the square that sits at the top of Las Ramblas. It was a solemn and quiet affair. There were no political banners, placards or national flags. The only message: “No tinc por!” (I am not afraid – in Catalan). In the crowd of a few thousand, the Prime Minister of Spain, the President of the Generalitat of Catalunya and King Felipe VI stood, for once, united in silence and shared respect.

A few hundred yards from the square, towards the sea, Las Ramblas, that narrow, famous strip, was full of people – including those who rarely visit: most Catalans give the area a wide berth. However typically, the world over, locals show their strength and determination not to be bullied, by returning to the scene of an incident, even if they never normally go there.

Las Ramblas – Busy as usual

Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks

During the days that followed other smaller vigils were held across Catalunya and Spain. Perhaps the most emotional took place in the town of Rubi, near Barcelona when the father of the youngest victim embraced an Imam.

On Saturday 26th August the largest demonstration took place in Barcelona, with an estimated 500,000 taking to the streets. Ostensively an anti terrorist demonstration, many Catalans took the opportunity to provide a wider context for the attacks. But you can look at it another way: here’s one view of the demonstration, as a takeover by separatists a theme echoed by other UK outlets. And in a similar vain, here’s an article from a Spanish based commentator in Politico which seemed to deliberately stir up Catalan emotions.

These simplistic views are a typical establishment response to the complex issues in Catalunya. They are devoid of context and seek unity on every issue, were in fact there are large divides. It’s a view that sees people as some kind of shallow cup, easily over filled by emotion, able to only concentrate on one thing at a time. Thankfully, Catalans are normal educated citizens of the world and are able to see the connection and highlight the link between supporting brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and an act of sickening violence on the streets of Barcelona.

With the attack taking place only six weeks before the Catalan independence referendum, an incident like this was always going to be politicised. To think otherwise is to ignore the after affects of recent terror attacks throughout Europe.

In the immediate aftermath it was highlighted that Mossos d’Esquadrathe Catalan police force that dealt so effective and swiftly with the attacks, did not see free flowing, terrorist intelligence, as it had been denied access by the Spanish Government. Many supporters of independence see this as yet another example of the Spanish Government trying to stymia Catalunya’s attempts to play a fuller, more meaningful role on the world stage.

With a large contingent of Madrid based politicians (who are flatly refusing to recognise the referendum on the 1st October – a massive slight to the democratic process in Catalunya) taking part in the anti terror demonstration, there was always going to be a political reaction from those seeking Catalan independence.

The Monarchy was also a target. Considering the question which will be asked on the 1st October referendum paper is: “Do you want Catalunya to be an independent state in the form of a republic?”, the presence of the King was not going to be unnoticed.

Removing the floral tributes started 11 days after the attack.

Only eight days separated the attack on Las Ramblas and the massive demonstration in Barcelona. A week is not long enough for feelings to heal or the pain to disappear. However, in Catalan politics it is long enough for people to  see through the haze of emotion and pain, and start to piece together cause and affect.

Turismofobia in Barcelona

Most people in Spain aren’t surprised that “turismofobia” has had a shot in the arm in August. It’s hot and stuff. Many Spanish are on holiday. And there are millions of tourists currently holidaying in Spain. Turismofobia in Barcelona is growing. 

The tourism industry is booming, but at what cost?

Phrases such as “Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods” or “Tourists go home, you are not wanted” have been popping up all across Barcelona over the last few years. I’ve seen these, or similar phrases, scrawled on walls and printed on posters and flyers. There’s even a white bed sheet, with “Tourists Go Home” written in defiant red, that’s hung from the same balcony in the barrio of Barceloneta every summer. (link in Spanish)

As the third most popular city in Europe for tourists (behind London and Paris) the relatively small city of Barcelona clearly has issues dealing with this level of  tourists. I have covered the background to the issues in detail previously. In summary, the price of property is being pushed up by short term tourist lets; traditional shops are being replaced by Starbucks and whole areas are losing their cultural identity. The locals are noisily and quite understandably pushing back.

Turismofobia in Barcelona
They should have stuck with “Space Invaders” That  would have been a better heading.

Up until now, most of the obvious reaction to the level or tourism has been the street graffiti / artwork and low key demonstrations. Above is one of the arty and rather amusing posters from my barrio Poble Nou.

Turismofobia in Barcelona

There has been a palpable change in the last couple of weeks. The peak numbers of tourists this August, and the heat has obviously made some hot under the collar.  An anti-tourist phrase was spray painted onto a Tourist Bus – while it was full of tourists. The tires were also, allegedly, burst. You can see the “attack” for yourself here (25 seconds in).

The incident was, not unsurprisingly, recorded and splashed over social media: it was the coverage, rather than scaring the tourists, that was the point of the stunt. Similarly a city centre hotel was paint-bombed and filmed. But that’s not all. Tourist bikes have been vandalised in Barcelona and these little stickers (below) put on cars across Majorca too. It’s certainly unsavoury, but it’s very far from an extreme response considering the intimidation that many locals feel during the high tourist seasons.

Turismofobia en barcelona

A few groups with political affiliations appear to have spearheaded these campaigns and the coverage has been significant in the Spanish TV and press.

The UK media has happily picked up on this being a “young lefties” (this from the BBC) anti capitalist reaction of sorts. (UPDATE: I want to add this one from The Independent as it perfectly sums up my later point about “you continentals should be happy with what we give you”)

But on the ground it is obvious that similar views are much more widely held. Arran Jovent seem to be the busiest and the noisiest organisers but it would be an error to think that their views are simply extremist and can be ignored.

The headline grabbing actions have been condemned by local community groups and Barcelona’s Mayor,  however many locals share the concerns being voiced by political parties across Spain. But not every political party seems to understand the frustration. As you may expect from a Conservative Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy was blaming “radicals” for the actions, as he made a wholehearted, money first, defence of the tourism industry. Money talks, but so do the communities across Barcelona, Catalunya and Spain. And the talk is of resistance.

Many residents are vocal in their anger at the number of tourists (which rises year on year) and the type of tourism Barcelona attracts. Tourists impact the places they visit and a balance has to be found. The concerns I’ve heard do not come from Spain’s disenfranchised youth, but from middle aged and older city dwellers.  The genuine concern for the impact on the barrio culture crosses age and political affiliation.

Spain has a real and growing issue with finding a balance between tourism and the affect on local communities

It may be the young who are spearheading the dissension, but few disagree with the motivation driving them to act. And it’s not just the “Crazy Catalans” Other regions and cities in Spain have, or are planning to have, anti tourism rallies. And its not just Spain. CNN Travel recently ran a “Can Venice save itself from its own popularity” piece. Much of the continent is rallying to support its culture against a wave of commercialism.

An “anti-tourism” campaign puts further pressure on the Barcelona Mayor 

As soon aAda Colau was in office she quickly put the shackles on parts of the tourist industry by restricting where, and how many, new bedrooms could be added to the city’s stock. The Mayor is trying the most difficult of tasks in this reactionary and forthright city: balancing commerce against communities.  But she is clearly trying.

It’s not just Ada Colau and her administration that is attempting to slowdown the tourism industry in Barcelona. Smaller municipal areas are taking the lead too. The popular tourist mode of transport – the Segway – was banned from the sea front last year. It seems like a blanket ban is not far behind, as stymying the use continues throughout the city.

Like tourist buses, bikes and cars, the Segway is regarded as a wheeled enemy.

Another area bans the Segway.

Many of the city wide responses to rebalance tourism with local living have received cross part support. Recently a new tourist tax was agreed for “day trippers” to Barcelona. Day visitors had been slipping through the gaps but this new levy will see day visitors (link in Spanish) contributing to lessen the impact of their time in Barcelona.

The narrative back in the UK is of typical continentals; never happy with what they have, plus a good dose of umbrage at that lack of welcome for pissed up Brits.  However the picture, here on the ground, is of a city united – north and south of Diagonal, and de las montañas al mar, that is quite rightly standing its ground against, incessant wave after wave of tourists.