Isobel Lindsay on the 1979 and 2014 referendums

Ronald Fraser announces the results from the referendum on Scottish devolution in March 1979. Picture: Hamish Campbell
Ronald Fraser announces the results from the referendum on Scottish devolution in March 1979. Picture: Hamish Campbell
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This is the latest in a weekly series of indyref essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.

Sometimes you can feel politics is on the move. That was certainly the case in the three months leading up to the 1979 referendum. In the autumn it still looked as if there would be a comfortable majority for a Yes vote. It was what the polls had indicated. It was the official position of the Labour Party, the SNP, the Liberals and the STUC. At institutional level only the Tories and business organisations were opposed. Most of the Scottish press in terms of readership were in the Yes camp. The main anxiety was whether turnout would be sufficiently high to ensure the vote would pass the 40 per cent threshold of registered voters, the requirement of a backbench amendment. But despite all the factors which should have produced a strong campaign and an easy win, you could sense the public mood slipping away.

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The Yes side was sharply divided. The Labour Party refused to join any cross-party campaign. A substantial minority of Labour MPs, and probably most Labour councillors, were actively working for a No vote. A section of SNP members, while not openly attacking the party line, were reluctant to work in the campaign because they wanted “independence nothing less”. Some Liberals were distinctly unhelpful and were happy to play the Shetland card and encourage the anti-Central Belt narrative. And although by circulation most of the Scottish press were in the Yes camp, their support seemed fairly subdued and they did give fair coverage to the other side. In contrast the Daily Express, then still a big player in the Scottish media scene, had been sold shortly before the referendum to Trafalgar House, which was close to Margaret Thatcher, and overnight the previous 50 years of Express support for home rule was transformed into a strident anti-devolution campaign, rather like the current Daily Mail role, with a constant diet of threats about the disasters devolution would bring.

But these negative factors were not the most important reason for the outcome, which was a majority of only 52 per cent on a 64 per cent turnout, much smaller than had been expected at the start of the campaign. The wider politics of the period played a key role. It was the “winter of discontent” – extensive public sector strikes in response to the Callaghan government’s decision to continue with wage controls. The additional factor of a winter of appalling weather didn’t help the public mood, which was pessimistic – not specifically in relation to the Assembly but in relation to the prospects of any change. I can remember campaigning locally a few days before polling day, cold and wet with one man from the Transport & General Workers’ Union, one from the National Union of Mineworkers, a couple of SNP activists and that was all.

The second referendum was very different. By 1997, after the Conservative years and with all the work of the Constitutional Convention having produced an agreed Scottish Parliament scheme, there was a substantial consensus for Yes. The Tories and the CBI were about the only institutional opponents. All the others were co-operating together in the campaign. Civic Scotland was fully signed up. Legislation was coming at the start of a new government when there was still plenty of goodwill. But this was very much a top-down affair, partly because it was a short campaign and partly because the No side was very weak. The main concern was the impact Princess Diana’s death in the middle of the campaign might have on turnout and whether there would be a Yes for the second question on tax-varying powers, which many of us thought had been included in the expectation it would fail. The outcome was a substantial Yes, so no surprises.

Forward to 2014 and again there is that feeling of opinion on the move, but unlike 1979, the move is from negative to positive. What has been most marked about the current campaign is that the real driving force has been on the ground, not from the political or media elites. This doesn’t mean that the big players don’t count, just that there is great energy and ability out there which has been triggered into action by the referendum. The No side has the three Westminster parties, a big initial poll lead, overwhelming print media support and most of big business opinion. But the activists on the Yes side decided to do their own thing. It was a handful of young leftists who decided in 2012 to organise a Radical Independence conference (and charge for it) and some of us were very surprised when 800 people turned up. This has developed into a distinctive campaign on the ground. It was a handful of young people with an arts background who decided to set up National Collective, which has been a source of great material and creative events. It was a small group who set up Business for Scotland, now with a large membership. The list of groups for Yes is a long one – academics, health service workers, lawyers, trade unionists and many more – and these have been largely self-starting. More important have been the extensive local groups and the hundreds of well-attended local meetings which have taken place over the past year. This has come as a surprise to older activists who were not expecting the community meeting to be such a successful part of the campaign. Of course, most people attending are Yes supporters, but they are coming to get answers to the questions family and friends are asking them in order to win more votes. And there are certainly undecideds who are also attending.

The other significant difference from earlier campaigns is social media. A lot of publicity has been given to the abusive fringe. This is insignificant in comparison to the role that social media has played in this campaign, especially for those on the Yes side, because they feel more unrepresented in mainstream media and they now have other options which they are using in increasing numbers. Apart from enabling much greater ease of organisation, it has weakened the corporate control over political communication. This may appear just to be Yes supporters talking to each other, but they pass material on to personal contacts so it is wider in its impact – more like the old word of mouth.

Voters are being challenged by this referendum. They are realising that for at least once in their lives they have real power and we should feel proud to see how many Scots are taking the responsibility seriously and are acting and thinking for themselves, although much of this may be below the conventional political radar.

The increased activism, political creativity and use of new political media are unlikely to disappear whatever the vote in September.

Unlike 1979, and to my surprise, this has been a very enjoyable campaign. That should tell us something.

• Isobel Lindsay is one of the founding members of both the Independence Convention and Women for Independence.