Lessons from the 1997 referendum - independence is about more than party politics

This Sunday will mark 25 years since the historic devolution referendum on September 11, 1997, which delivered a huge ‘Yes’ ‘Yes’ for a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers. It's instructive to look back on that moment of inspiration when Scotland stood together (minus the Conservatives) to do what was best for Scotland. 

Many in the Scottish independence movement today regard independence as primarily about creating a more progressive country. But the lesson from 1997 is how support for a Scottish Parliament grew across all parties and regions, breaking down political barriers and tribalism. At that historic moment, Scotland united to demand democracy. 

“Now is not the time” - for devolution

When John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1992, his response to the increasing consensus that Scotland needed its own Parliament was to refuse devolution, saying effectively - “Now is not the time”, much like the current and all potential future UK governments on an independence referendum. 

Major's stance felt undemocratic to many - three out of four Scots had voted for parties that supported devolution. On April 10, 1992, the day after that vote - which had been a poll-defying victory for the Conservatives, hundreds of demonstrators made their way to Edinburgh’s old Royal High School and began a “vigil for Scottish democracy” that was to last for five years. 

Aware of the growing strength of feeling, Major decided Scotland might be bought off with some attention. He sited the meeting of the leaders of the European Community in Edinburgh, which filled with delegates and representatives from all over Europe. Scotland’s response to being briefly on the world stage was a huge rally for “Scottish Democracy”, where 30,000 marched up the Mound.  Neal Ascherson records in his book Stone Voices a famous speech given that day by novelist William McIlvannay. He told the crowd: 

‘ “We gather here like refugees in the capital of our own country. We are almost seven hundred years old, and we are still wondering what we want to be when we grow up. Scotland is in an intolerable position. We must never acclimatize to it - never!"

‘And then, in a tone of tremendous pride, he said this. 'Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition!' At those words, for reasons which perhaps neither he nor they ever quite understood, the crowd broke into cheers and applause which lasted on and on.

"After that December mobilisation, the game was up. The Tories knew that they were doomed; Labour knew that they must deliver Scottish self-determination as soon as they came to power"

A Popular Movement 

It wasn't so much the political parties that drove Scotland's progress towards devolution but a groundswell of popular support and grassroots action across the nation. The groundwork for devolution was prepared by the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) a cooperative of civic groups, churches and Scottish political parties that developed a Scottish devolution framework.

The SNP did not engage with the SCC as the other political parties refused to allow discussion on independence as an option and the Conservatives boycotted the meetings due to their objections to devolution.  The SNP did however, campaign for devolution once the referendum campaign began.

‘Think Twice’ fails to get official party and business backing backing

At the general election in May 1997, Tony Blair‘s Labour government swept to power, with a manifesto commitment to deliver devolution. The Conservatives lost all of their 11 Scottish seats. Neal wrote that the Scottish Conservatives were “still shattered” by that. “They were sick of being abused as anti-Scottish,”  

Campaigning for the devolution referendum got underway soon after that election. There was opposition but it was much less vociferous than it had been in 1979. The No campaign in 1997 was called ‘Think Twice’ and the Conservatives declined to grant it the party’s official support and business figures also failed to back the anti-devolution campaign. In contrast, the pro-devolution group Business for Scotland reached out to businesses large and small to convince them of the advantages of devolution. Scotland's future finance Minster Jim Mather said of Business for Scotland's campaign that:

"Business for Scotland made sure that the conservative business community became the dog that did not bark".  

Business for Scotland is the only surviving 1997 campaigning group and now supports Scottish independence.

Despite their opposition, it was because the Scottish Parliament is elected under a form of proportional representation that the Conservatives were able to regain some national significance and they have made full use of the platform they get from their seats at Holyrood ever since. 

A huge majority for “Yes”

The 1997 referendum is the only one ever held in the UK where there were two questions on the ballot paper, each with two options. The voter had to mark one box with an X. They were:

“Parliament has decided to consult people in Scotland on the Government's proposals for a Scottish Parliament: I agree there should be a Scottish Parliament/ I do not agree there should be a Scottish Parliament”

“Parliament has decided to consult people in Scotland on the Government's proposals for a Scottish Parliament to have tax varying powers: I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers/ I do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers.”

On the first question, 75% of voters supported a Scottish Parliament. The biggest ‘Yes’ was from West Dunbartonshire with almost 85%. Glasgow was just behind with almost 84%. Orkney was the lowest, with 57% in favour. 

On the second question, the overall response was a healthy 64% for ‘Yes’. Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire voted 75% yes and just two council areas had a marginal No - Orkney and Dumfries and Galloway. 

“Our only guarantee is ourselves”

In the run-up to the vote, Ascherson and McIlvanney organised a bus party of poets, musicians and writers which, rather than addressing political policy directly, attempted to boost the cultural confidence of people who had grown used to being ruled from London. 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.” 

Neal Ascherson recalled that 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 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.”


The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP all supported a Scottish Parliament in 1997. There were even some in the Conservative movement who 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.” 

Many people have differing views on today’s hot-button issues. These can be turned into “wedge issues” by a hostile media and used to divide and rule Scotland. An independent Scotland will of course have political parties from across the spectrum. There will be many issues to debate and make decisions on. But in order to get there, people who disagree on many things must be prepared to work together.   Believe in Scotland is the Yes campaign run by Business for Scotland and has 125 affiliated local Yes Groups and a campaign steering group with 17 locally elected representatives - the grassroots will once again drive positive constitutional change in Scotland.  

By Jackie Kemp