IT WAS 15 years ago last week that Scotland voted Yes-Yes to a devolved parliament with tax-varying powers. Which offers this sometime political activist an opportunity to reflect, not least on where the time has gone.
Everyone claims to have played a role in the cross-party campaign for a Yes vote; the reality was somewhat different. I scarcely saw a member of the Labour party in my patch of the country either during the campaign or on polling day.
Enthusing all members and supporters in a movement involving a broad spectrum of opinion is clearly problematic, especially if many are effectively signed up by their parties to a position they don’t hold. But it was also a revelation to be on platforms alongside previously sworn political enemies and discovering that we shared more than just an immediate cause. Some of us even got excited at the prospect of this new politics, naifs that we were.
My willing band of campaign helpers consisted of SNP supporters and people with no party ties, who wanted to play their part, simply because they believed in devolution. And then there were the first-time voters, who had just finished covering Scotland’s long, slow march to self-determination in their Higher modern studies and were excited at the prospect of contributing towards that end. Their youthful exuberance was inspiring, and delivering leaflets and knocking on doors never seemed so purposeful.
There had, of course, been a stushie over the question, or rather, over the introduction at the 11th hour of a second question on tax-varying powers. Everyone cried foul play, suspecting a plot by the UK Labour hierarchy, to “do for” devolution. As it turned out, the question or questions mattered little. Scots had determined in their own quiet way that devolution and more say and control over their daily lives closer to home was what they wanted. Tax-varying powers were nothing to be scared of, and indeed, Tony Blair might have done us all a favour.
Their very existence has provided the springboard for the current constitutional debate, even if the parties have proven too timorous to use them. The campaign was truncated as a consequence of the tragic and untimely death of Princess Diana when, as a mark of respect, everyone downed tools until after her funeral. While we waited, we witnessed an extraordinary unfurling of communal grief, making us anxious that such an event would strengthen the ties which bind. Not that anyone said so publicly, but there was a lot of fretful whispering in the Yes-Yes camp at all levels about the implications of her death for the campaign.
Selfish? Perhaps. But also, for many who had worked all their political lives for this moment, a real and visceral fear that suddenly, we’d all feel British now and better off together.
It sounds awfully familiar, given the efforts of both sides of the current debate to hijack this summer’s festival of all things triumphantly British for political ends. But what the juxtaposition of a highly political and politicised campaign and the death of a much-loved member of the Royal Family showed was that people do not behave as the chattering classes suppose they might. As well as grief, there was also anger at all things establishment and the result was an imposition of the people’s will on the order of things.
It seems hard to believe now, but the Queen and the royal household – who responded in the way established protocol on such occasions dictated – were vilified. Commentators even pondered if the Royal Family might survive.
The result of the referendum showed that such things – the social ties of the Union, if you like – actually have little to do with how people act politically. The Scots were perfectly capable of separating the two in their minds – and their hearts – and making a reasoned choice in favour of constitutional change.
But that period also showed the establishment’s capacity to reinvent itself in order to maintain the status quo. Thus, we now have a Royal Family revered by all – if you believe everything that some say – with an assured place in our lives and futures.
My most enduring memory of that historic September day in 1997, though, is of a frail woman in her 70s who had waited patiently all day for someone to come and take her to vote.
She arrived ten minutes before the polls closed, in her nightclothes, refusing the offer of the ballot box being brought to the car, inching her way across the playground on her zimmer frame, all of us holding our breaths to see if she would make it. She did.
All her life she had believed in Scotland’s right to determine its destiny; no way, she said, was she going to miss out on her opportunity to finally, after decades of believing in it, vote for it to happen.
And no matter what heat and noise had been created in the campaign, no matter what the questions were, no matter whether she felt more British or Scottish, or indeed swayed by any of the events of the previous weeks, she voted the way she wanted to.
• Kate Higgins is one of Scotland’s leading political bloggers: burdzeyeview