25 years on from the referendum of 1997

25 years ago, on September 11, 1997, Scotland voted overwhelmingly for a Scottish Parliament, in a referendum

Less than a fortnight before the poll, Princess Diana died in a crash in a Paris underpass, on August 31, 1997. Some wondered whether the tragedy would affect the result. Neal Ascherson in his book Stone Voices recalls that the mourning for Diana was more muted in Scotland than down south, where vast crowds outside Buckingham Palace wept and waved flags. He noted that these were largely St George’s Crosses rather than Union Jacks, in what he saw as a symbolic moment of the re-emergence of an English national consciousness.

Campaigners had to hold their breath and suspend activity for a week. This delayed the start of a “bus party” which Neal helped organise, with novelist William McIlvanney, now pushed to just a few days before the vote. The bus went around Scotland, bringing poets, writers and musicians to town and school halls across the country to engage more people in the conversation.

On board for one day of the short tour were musician Mairi Campbell, husband Dave Francis and their tiny daughter Ada. Neal wrote of a meeting in the hall at Gala Academy:

“After the talking, we gathered around the school piano and a ceilidh developed, A choir of middle-aged Gallashiels businessmen sang Border ballads. Mairi sang ‘The Broom o’ the Cowdenknowes’ in her light, poignant voice…I saw tears on old Borders faces around me.”

A quarter of a century later, Mairi and Ada, now also a musician,  appeared together in the Edinburgh Fringe of 2022 in a show called “She/Her” presented by Brian Cox and directed by his wife Nicole Ansari-Cox. It featured a cast of powerful women, including a trans woman, performing stories from their lives.

Mairi feels devolution has achieved much since the Scottish Parliament was recovened, two years after the referendum, but she longs for Scotland to take the next step into independence. She looks forward to a strong, feisty Scotland of diverse languages, cultures, and ways of being.  “We need to reboot the operating system of the UK, and Scotland has to lead the way.”
Mairi recalls of her bus party stint:

“I felt that the people who were opposed to a Scottish Parliament were lacking in confidence. They just didn’t believe that Scotland could run its own affairs. There is a kind of natural human desire to be on the side of the powerful and they saw that as being down in London – but it’s not.”
A patient vigil for democracy

Back in 1997, on September 10, the eve of the vote, the bus tour ended at the Vigil for a Scottish Parliament, where doughty campaigners sat and sang and talked around a brazier, day and night for five years in a perpetual protest called ‘Democracy for Scotland’.

In 1992, John Major had been elected in a surprise fourth general election win for the Conservatives. Major was resolutely opposed to anything approaching devolution or what was called Home Rule for Scotland. ‘Now is not the time’, he said – or words to that effect.

Many in Scotland were devastated by this shock result, particularly as exit polls had predicted a Labour victory. Once again, Scotland was to be ruled by a Government it did not vote for. Three in four voters in Scotland had voted for parties that promised a Scottish Parlament. This didn’t feel like democracy to many.

That night, hundreds of protestors met outside Edinburgh’s Royal High School – a putative site for the new Parliament and began a vigil. Originally planned just for a weekend, they kept the protest – called “Democracy for Scotland’ – going come rain, come snow, for the next five years.

The counter clicked to 1979

When the bus party arrived at the foot of Calton Hill, the night before the vote, the tally on the portacabin counting the time the vigil had lasted read ‘1979 days’. That was a coincidence – it was in 1979 that the first referendum for a Scottish Parliament was held. Back then, although the vote was a majority for ‘Yes’, an amendment had been inserted demanding that 40% of all the names on the electoral roll would have to vote for it. Many Scots felt cheated by this clause which led to the claim that ‘even the dead had a vote’ – because the roll is always somewhat out of date.

But that very high bar was actually met in 1997. The referendum was unusual in having two questions – but there was strong support for both. Every council area said Yes to a Scottish Parliament, with 75% of the vote. Around 84% of voters in Glasgow and West Dumbartonshire said ‘Yes’. Only two areas had a marginal ‘No’ to tax-raising powers – Dumfries and Galloway, and Orkney.

At a celebration to mark 30 years since the vigil’s beginning, earlier this year, members of the loose collective reminisced about the number of people who stopped by, donated or just beeped their horns to express support. On September 10, it seemed everyone was beeping – even passing police cars.

The May 1997 election wiped out all Scottish Conservative MPs

There was opposition to devolution, but it was much less vociferous than in 1979. The No campaign in 1997 was called ‘Think Twice’ and was without much high profile support. At the general election in May 1997 a Labour Government led by Tony Blair swept to power. The Conservatives lost all of their 11 Scottish seats. Neal records in Stone Voices that the Scottish Conservatives were “still shattered” by that.

“They [Scottish Conservatives] were sick of being abused as anti-Scottish, and they declined to grant ‘ThinkTwice’ the party’s official support.”

The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP all supported a Scottish Parliament in 1997. There were some on the centre right in Scotland  who also campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote. Michael Fry toured the North East on behalf of his organisation ‘Wealthy Nation’, arguing that Scotland needed Home Rule to become a more thriving,  prosperous country. He recalled:

“My support for independence was rooted in my Conservatism – I felt that Scotland should run its own affairs, I actually felt that even if it was a failure, it would be our failure.”

Do Scots still have the energy and brains for the task of self-government?

The main concerns about devolution were familiar – Neal summarised them as fears that:

“Maybe our small nation of Scotland no longer has the brains, skill and political energy to govern itself.
“William McIlvanney told them:

‘It is an act of self-belief to vote for this Parliament.  And that was the bus party’s line through all this, a line which no politician could dare to take. Yes, of course, this is a leap into the dark…We are asking you to take a risk and it is not a quantifiable risk. As Lech Walesa said when the Solidarity revolution began in Poland, ‘Our only guarantee is ourselves’.”

The bus party debated seriously with the school children who would vote for the first time in the new Parliament. Neal pondered:

“They would be first-time voters at the elections for the Parliament of Scotland. If they gave any thought at all to the struggle which had brought it about, they might wonder why it had taken so long, why it had required so many false starts and hesitations to bring about something which to them was so normal and so obviously necessary.”