Scottish independence: timeline to referendum

Here we look at the key events and forces that brought Scotland to a referendum on deciding whether or not it should remain as part of the UK.

On of the Acts that officially joined Scotland and England in 1707. Picture: Neil Hanna
On of the Acts that officially joined Scotland and England in 1707. Picture: Neil Hanna

1707: Scotland and England forma political union. The Scottish Parliament is adjourned; with the country in financial ruin following the failed attempt to colonise Panama (the ‘Darien Adventure’).

1745: Bonnie Prince Charlie - pretender to the British throne - leads the Jacobite rebellion against Hanoverian rule in London.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

1746: Jacobite forces are comprehensively beaten at Culloden.

1800-1850: Scotland’s economy begins to recover. Support for devolution - but not full independence - begins to grow from the mid 19th century onwards.

1869: Scottish MPs ask Prime Minister William Gladstone to appoint a Scottish Secretary.

1885: A Scottish Secretary, and Scottish Office are re-established

1886: Prime Minister William Gladstone introduces the Irish Home Rule Bill. Many Scots begin questioning the status quo, regarding it as inadequate in light of the Irish situation.

1913: A Scottish Home Rule Bill is introduced in parliament, a year before the Irish Home Rule Bill, but the progress of both is hampered by the outbreak of the First World War, and Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising and War of Independence in the early 1920s.

1921: The Scots National League (SNL) is set up in London, influenced by Sinn Fein, with the main goal of seeking independence.

1928: The SNL helps the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association form the National Party of Scotland (NPS), with the key aim of establishing a separate Scottish state.

The Scottish Board of Health, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland and the Prison Commissioners for Scotland are abolished as semi-independent bodies, and become departments that are moved to Edinburgh’s Scottish Office.

1934: The NPS merges with the Scottish Party, an organisation favouring home rule formed by former Conservative Party members. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is formed.

1934-39: The SNP initially focuses on home rule through a devolved Scottish Assembly within the UK, based on the differing views of the pro-independence NPS and the pro-devolution Scottish Party.

Independence is adopted as the main goal prior to the outbreak of World War Two.

1939-45: The SNP are hampered by the rise of undemocratic nationalist bodies in Europe; mainly Fascism in Italy, Falangism in Spain and National Socialism in Germany.

1960-66: The demise of the British Empire is accompanied by a fall in support for the Scottish Unionist Party.

1967: SNP candidate Winnie Ewing surprisingly wins the Hamilton by-election, bringing the party to national prominence.

1968: The Declaration of Perth is made by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath, on May 18th, which commits the party to supporting some form of Scottish devolution.

1969-73: The Kilbrandon Commission (formerly the Crowther Commission) is set up to look at the viability of altering the structures of the constitution of the United Kingdom and the British Isles, and the government of the constituent countries.

Eight members support a devolved legislature for Scotland, with executive power being exercised by ministers appointed by the crown from members of a directly-elected assembly.

Areas of responsibility that would be transferred to the devolved body would include some of those already under the supervision of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate, including: Education, Environment, Health, Home Affairs, Legal Matters, Social Services.

Proposals are also made to reduce the number of Scottish MPs from 71 to around 51.

1974: Seven SNP MPs are returned in the February 1974 general election, rising to 11 in the subsequent October general election after Labour’s failure to secure an overall majority. This means the SNP has secured 30% of the total vote in Scotland, leading the elected MPs to push for the creation of a Scottish Assembly, given added credibility as a result of the outcome of the Kilbrandon Commission.

1979: A referendum on devolution is held, after the Scotland Act of 1978 is introduced, intended to establish a Scottish Assembly as a devolved legislature for Scotland.

52% vote in favour of devolution, whilst 48% don’t - but a controversial condition of the referendum states that 40% of the electorate need to vote in order for the result to be valid. The turnout of 63.6% equates to just 32.9% voting in favour of devolution, and thus the Scotland Act is repealed in March, by a vote of 301-206 in parliament.

It emerges that the ‘No’ campaign instructed the electorate that failure to vote was as good as a ‘No’ vote. Concluding that the 36.4% who failed to vote did so due to voter apathy was seen as incorrect, and the SNP MPs withdraw their support in protest.

A motion of no confidence is tabled by the Conservatives, supported by the SNP, Liberals and Ulster Unionists. Passing by just one vote on March 28th 1979, it forces a general election, won by Margaret Thatcher.

The SNP only return two MPs, and the 79 Group is formed within the party, focusing on a more left-wing stance.

1982: Highly critical of the party’s leaders, the 79 Group are thrown out of the SNP, but are later re-admitted. Amongst them are current First Minister Alex Salmond, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and Independent MSP Margo MacDonald.

1997: The General Election is won by Labour, with Secretary of State for Scotland Donald Dewar agreeing to proposals for a Scottish Parliament.

A referendum is held in September 1997, and 74.3% of voters back devolution.

1998: The Scotland Act 1998 is approved, creating an elected Scottish Parliament with control over most domestic policy.

1999: The first Scottish election for a devolved parliament takes place, with the Scottish Parliament holding session for the first time since the previous parliament had been adjourned in 1707.

2007: The SNP’s manifesto for the upcoming election includes a pledges to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence by 2010.

The SNP emerge as the largest party with 47 seats, closely followed by Scottish Labour with 46. The Scottish Conservatives win 17 seats, the Scottish Greens win 2, and Margo MacDonald is also elected as an Independent MSP.

The SNP subsequently form a minority government with support from the Scottish Green Party on some issues.

2009: The SNP announce that the Referendum (Scotland) Bill 2010 will form part of its third legislative programme for 2009/10, detailing the question and conduct of a referendum on Scottish Independence.

2010: The Scottish Government announce that no referendum will occur before the 2011 elections.

2011: The first majority government since the opening of Holyrood is recorded - quite a feat given that the mixed member proportional representation system used to elect MSPs was, according to Jack McConnell, designed to deny the SNP the chance to achieve a parliamentary majority.

The SNP win 69 seats, gaining 32 constituencies including 22 from Scottish Labour, nine from the Scottish Liberal Democrats and one from the Scottish Conservatives.

The outcome is Labour’s worst election defeat in Scotland since 1931, with huge losses in traditionally ‘safe’ areas and a heavy reliance on regional lists to elect members.

2012: Alex Salmond launches the campaign for Independence in Edinburgh, in May.

October: David Cameron and Alex Salmond sign the 'Edinburgh Agreement', committing to a single yes/no independence referendum in autumn of 2014. It will also, for the first time, allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote.


January:New wording for the yes/no question is agreed following Electoral Commission advice. Voters will now be faced with the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

March 12:The law is changed to allow anyone aged 16 and 17 on the day of the referendum to be able to vote.

March 21:Alex Salmond announces that the referendum will take place on September 18th.

November:The 667-page 'White Paper' is published. Titled 'Scotland's Future: Your guide to an independent Scotland', it is described by Alex Salmond as the 'most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published'.


March: A formal currency union is ruled out by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the event of a Yes vote. The parties argued: "If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the pound."

August 5: Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling went up against each other in a TV debate. A fiery debate ended with both the Yes and No camps claiming victory, but a snap ICM / Guardian poll showed 56% thought the former chancellor had won, with 44% choosing Salmond.

August 25: Salmond and Darling go head-to-head in another televised debate, with an ICM/Guardian snap poll showing 71% of viewers felt the First Minister had won, with just 29% putting the Better Together chief in front.

September 7: A new poll for the Sunday Times, by YouGov shows the Yes campaign in front for the first time.

September 8: A second poll, this time by TNS, shows the two campaigns neck and neck with 10 days left until the referendum.

September 18: Around four million Scots will vote on whether the country should be independent.


January: In the event of a No vote, Gordon Brown's draft laws to set out a 'modern form of Scottish Home Rule' will be published this month.

May: The General Election will be held.


March 24: This is the proposed date of Scottish independence, bringing to an end the Union.