September’s independence referendum was the third major referendum for the people of Scotland in the past 35 years.

On 1 March 1979, at a time when Labour’s James Callaghan was living at Downing Street 10, Scots were asked whether the Scotland Act 1978 should be adopted. The wording was complicated, but in principle the question was whether Scotland needed a separate Assembly. The Assembly would have had limited legislative power in the field of education, the environment, health, internal affairs, justice and social affairs. It would share a certain amount of decision-making power with Westminster on fisheries, agriculture and food industry issues. It would not have much power, but more than none at all.

Voter turnout was 63.72% and a total of 51.6% - 1 million Scots – voted in favour of having an Assembly. Scotland did not get an Assembly on that occasion, as Labour MP George Cunningham demanded that 40 percent of ALL of registered voters – 3.7 million - be in favour. Turnout was on the low side and fell slightly short of the 40 percent line. As it wasn’t in Westminster’s interests to give Scotland greater self-government, that was the way it went.

Scotland passed the next 18 years under what they felt to be unfavourable, ill-suited Tory rule – Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990) and then John Major (1990–1997). Only a year after the unsuccessful 1979 referendum, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA) was formed, mainly consisting of Labour Party activists who wanted more self-government for Scotland. 1989 saw the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a broad-based NGO representing parties (Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Communists), Church of Scotland and Catholics), association of trade unions, small business associations and many other Scottish civil society activists. The Scottish National Party (SNP) initially was also involved in the Convention but they dropped out as the SCC signalled it was ready to discuss increasing autonomy but not independence – independence has been the main concern for SNP since the beginning. For a long time, it was practically the only goal for the SNP – there was even a joke that the party’s abbreviation stood for Still No Policy.

In May 1997, Labour, led by Tony Blair, won the British general elections. One of the election pledges in Labour’s 1997 platform was devolution – self-government for Scotland if the people of Scotland so wished.

And so the stage was set for the second key referendum, held on 11 September 1997. There were two ballots, both with a simple, concrete question. The first asked whether Scottish Parliament was necessary or not; the second asked whether such a parliament should have the right to vary taxes. Just over 60% of the voting-age population turned out to vote and three-fourths (74.29%, 1.78 million people) said Scotland should have its own Parliament. Nearly two-thirds gave the future Parliament free rein to hike or cut taxes.

The first elections to Scottish Parliament were held on 6 May 1999, and on 1 July 1999, the Parliament officially assumed legislative powers in the following fields: healthcare, education and vocational studies, local government, social work, tourism, the environment, Scottish roads, ports, police and fire departments, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, sport and culture, state registers and statistics, among others.

In 2004, Scottish Parliament moved out of its temporary home into a purpose-built building in picturesque Holyrood Park. The architect of the grand, acclaimed building was a Catalonian, Enric Miralles (1955-2000). Scottish Parliament has 129 members, of whom 73 are elected under the majority system and the rest on the basis of proportional representation – seven Scottish Parliament members from each of eight electoral regions, which are the same regions as in European Parliament elections. The Scottish Cabinet is headed by the First Minister.

The current Parliament is the fourth to be elected and the SNP government is the second SNP government. Already in the run-up to the 2007 elections, SNP leader Alex Salmond promised an independence referendum, but in 2007, the SNP had a minority government and not enough support to see the plan through. At the 2011 elections, the SNP won overwhelmingly and, true to the main election campaign pledges, the independence referendum was held this September. The referendum question was: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” with the options being No and Yes.

YES campaigners protest outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh following the Scottish independence referendum result last week 28 September 2014. Britain’s government promised to give more powers to provincial governments following the Scottish referendum decision for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Photo: Scanpix  

The campaign that preceded the referendum was friendly but intense. The Yes Scotland campaign launched in autumn 2012 drew support from the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists and many other NGOs. The No camp rallied under the Better Together label and slogan, and consisted of Scottish Labour, Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats. In early 2012, support for an independent Scotland was around 30-35%, so the Better Together campaign had a better starting position.

On a side note, it’s interesting that Scots have never equated voting for SNP with wanting an independent Scotland. For years – since 1986 - people in Scotland were asked whether they self-identify only as Scots, more Scottish than British, equally Scottish and British, more British than Scottish or only as British (1). The answers to this question have been compared to voting behaviour and attitudes to Scottish independence. There is naturally overlap, but not total accord. Before the independence referendum as well, polls showed that close to one-fifth of SNP supporters did not plan to vote yes at the referendum while about one-third of Labour supporters were pro- independence.

The turnout at the 18 September 2014 referendum was 84.6%, which was a very high percentage, the highest in British electoral history since universal suffrage. The “yes” vote was 44.7% which is 1.6 million voters, while the “no” vote was 55.3% - slightly over 2 million. I confess this did not come as a surprise for me. All but two opinion polls from September predicted that the Better Together camp would win. The projection was close, but nonetheless a No. Looking at the referendum results, the Yes result matches the opinion polls, while the no camp’s 55.3% is five points better than what was predicted in opinion surveys. This gives reason to believe that at the last minute (as a last gasp?) the Better Together campaign’s devo-max (maximum devolution) pledges brought even the undecideds or doubters to the ballot boxes. The swing voters made up 5-15% of the population, according to opinion surveys in September. The fast-track devo-max proposed by the three parties, with Gordon Brown clearly behind the initiative, will lead to British draft legislation containing proposals from the three parties. Month-long negotiations with Scottish civil society with them will follow. By the end of November, the draft legislation will be
ready and by the anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth, 25 January, the draft legislation should be in front of Westminster Parliament. Scottish critics say the proposed timetable is unrealistically rapid and hasty but there is nothing more to clutch on to at the moment, and they are hoping for the best.

On 24 March 1603, the Scottish King James VI ascended to the throne of England. On 24 Match 1707, a document was signed under which Scottish and English Parliament were merged and Great Britain came into existence. 24 March 2016 was envisioned by Scottish nationalists as being the first day of the new independent state of Scotland. This will not come to pass. And so the Scots and people of Scotland are looking critically to Westminster and Holyrood, scrutinizing every step taken by politicians, as the pre-referendum promises were expansive – and the people remember that. The beloved Scottish author Irvine Welsh (“Trainspot- ting”) wrote several days after the referendum that it was a “glorious failure.” The Scots showed that the corporate, neoliberal model will not “sell” in Scotland. Independence was not achieved on this occasion, but Scotland demonstrated to Westminster and the entire world that they were to be reckoned with and the British government cannot just ignore the Scots.

(1) The Moreno question is named after Spanish sociologist Luis Moreno, who uses it in studying the identity of stateless peoples. Luis Moreno defended his doctorate in the University of Edinburgh.

Pille Petersoo (1974-) is a sociologist and researcher at Tallinn University. She lived in Edinburgh from 1998-1999 and 2000-2006. She received a MSc in Nationalism Studies (1999), PhD in Sociology (2005), and has been a post-doctoral fellow at Edinburgh and Stirling.