Manifesto by Ruth Wishart
Thinking back, what a shilpit offering it was. A debating chamber hollowed out of the Old Royal High school hall in Edinburgh’s Regent Road; earmarked to be the Scottish Assembly if Scotland said yes to limited devolution in 1979.
The then Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Bruce Millan, showed me round its interior with newly installed microphones and green leather benches the week before the poll.
Like the Commons in miniature. And miniature too in the scale of what it might enact; tacked on measures rather than primary legislation over a limited range of porfolios not including taxation.
But even that modest prospectus was torpedoed by the machinations of London based Scot George Cunningham M.P. And George was indeed a man with a cunning plan. Unless 40 per cent of the entire electorate voted yes, the 1978 Scotland Act would be repealed. In essence abstainers would be registered as No voters.
In the event almost two thirds of eligible Scots went to the polls, and almost 52 per cent said yes. But only 33 per cent of a voters’ roll subsequently proved to be comprehensively out of date.
Thus was anti climax and disappointment exacerbated by a pervasive sense of injustice. The first past the post system which had propelled Mr Cunningham and every other MP into Westminster was temporarily jettisoned to rig the referendum.
Recently I’ve been introduced at meetings as a “convert to independence”. I’m not. That conviction was born out of the foul play in 1979, and out of the refusal of many friends and colleagues on the liberal left to acknowledge it. In truth, many of them were opposed to devolution and for them, the dubious means justified their desired ends.
But I was, instinctively, a gradualist because the Scottish nation seemed to me more likely to proceed in carefully calibrated steps to independence than to leap joyously into the electoral unknown. Had Devo Max been available it would have appeared to me not so much philosophically desirable as politically pragmatic.
Undoubtedly it is not available because those opposed to independence rightly concluded it would have swamped the vote for the status quo. And concluded too that if they secured the expected substantial majority for no change then that, for the forseeable future, would safely be that.
But, as they say, life is what happens when you are making other plans.
As I write, the campaign has taken many turns, but the momentum continues to be with those affirming Scotland’s right and ability to run her own affairs according to her own priorities. The bunting is not ironed, indeed not even unpacked round my patch, because there are surely many twists in the campaign road to come.
But what is clear is that for many of us, the process and progress towards self determination has become irreversible. In 1979 we didn’t exactly shrug our shoulders, but we went into a sort of resigned decline; aware we had been cheated of even modest aspirations, but without the momentum and the energy to articulate more than a temporary, agonised howl of injustice.
We was robbed, but we were too bruised and confused to do much about it. Too divided as well. We had internecine wars within parties as part of the blame game, and inter party wars of the kind which continue to this day to block centre left progressive measures.
There were, still are, too many politically engaged Scots unable to examine policies on their merits rather than their party of origin. But what gives 2014 more traction and more hope than ’79 is the emergence of fresh troops unburdened by such overt party prejudices.
National Collective, Women for Independence and the myriad “for independence” groups from grannies to academic gurus have little truck with yesterday’s sterile battlegrounds. Their focus is on what might be, not what’s aye been. It is a healthy focus. An invigorating focus. A reminder of the potency of optimism and the energy of ideas. A vibrant counterpoint to the endless drip drip of negativity and self deprecation of many in the no camp.
I remember, as a young columnist, writing that Scotland should not contemplate voting No in 1979, for how could it then live with itself. But it did. It lived in something of a half life until the second referendum in 1997 following the victory of the Labour government at Westminster.
This time there was no backstage machinations, although the sudden, untimely death of Princess Diana brought the campaigns to a sudden halt in the run up to the poll.
This time almost three quarters of those voting said Yes to a parliament, and almost two thirds to the second proposition that it should have tax varying powers. Inevitably the 15 years of the subsequent new parliament have taken some sheen from the early idealism of members and supporters.But that period has also served to underscore the fact that most of Scotland’s elected representatives have a different vision of the future than their Westminster counterparts.
From tuition fees to the bedroom tax there is a natural majority in favour of a more socially just prospectus, and a natural revulsion at some of the more divisive and damaging polices enacted in London in the name of welfare “reform”.
But of course welfare, Trident, foreign affairs and macro economic policy are areas over which no Scottish government of any stripe can exercise control.
That dismal fact of political life has only served to cement my conviction that any hope of a more equitable, communitarian future lies in a Scottish government being just that. An elected body serving Scotland’s best interests, and protecting her from the slings and arrows of the more outrageous policy decisions and increasingly xenophobic outpourings of Westminster.
For people of my generation, this third referendum of our voting lifetimes is a seminal one; probably our final throw of the referendum dice.It is that latter thought which finally propelled me from the lifelong habit of observing politics as an interested, if opinionated, spectator into an unexpected activist.
As it happens, I would always have voted yes. This time, just putting down a cross in the right box seemed far from enough.This time it matters too much; the prize is too great, the opportunity too momentous to be spurned.
It is counter intuitive for most journalists to stand on a public platform urging a vote in a specific direction. It is counter intuitive for me.
But, in the event, there seemed no other legitimate choice.