Can England learn from Scotland?

Isobel Lindsay suggests some lessons from Scotland for devolution campaigners in England

February 26, 2016
5 min read

Sometimes politics can surprise us. Sometimes it can even be a good surprise. After over 50 years in campaigning, it was refreshing to experience unprecedented positive political engagement. The dynamic that developed in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 has given us a new political landscape in Scotland. It was different from the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums and it was different from general election campaigns. How? Why? And can this be reproduced?

In a period of long-term decline in election turnouts, this referendum dramatically bucked the trend with an 85% turnout. In some more prosperous areas it was 95%, while in poorer areas it was more typically 75% – but this was 30% higher than in other elections. The two previous referendums had 64% and 60% turnouts.

Early in the campaign, we knew something different was happening when public meetings in places not noted for political activism were getting audiences four times bigger than expected. This revival of the public meeting was replicated throughout Scotland, and this and much other activity was often led not by seasoned activists but people new to politics. This engagement went beyond the organised activities of meetings, street stalls and leafleting. Many people on both sides of the debate found themselves enjoying discussion in shops, offices, trains and schools (16 year olds got the vote). To an unusual extent people were talking politics.

Interesting things were happening in the media too. Every newspaper in Scotland except one Sunday paper backed the No side and broadcasting largely took their lead news stories (though not feature programmes) from the press. The independence case was greeted with howls of derision by the press for two years. Readers outside Scotland might not have noticed this. The response of Yes supporters was to produce alternatives. A range of new websites and blogs sprung up and social media played a key role.

New groups largely organised themselves: women, lawyers, teachers, academics, LGBT people and others developed their own campaign networks. National Collective was set up by people with an arts background and produced clever, witty multi-media material. Common Weal emerged in this context because of the need to offer a fresh but practical and researched vision for reform expressed in fresh language. We realised that voters would only take the risk of radical change if they could see a credible alternative. It was a ‘think and do tank’ combining policy research with bringing together left, environmental and equalities campaigners from different parties. Its ‘all of us first’ slogan was warmly received and typified the search to present long-established values in fresh images and words. Much of this activity would never have achieved this buoyancy without the referendum.

Can this activism be replicated in the political context of England? Recent events suggest there is significant dissatisfaction with existing structures and policies. But as yet there is not clarity around issues or how change can be achieved.

There were three key factors in Scotland. First, the recognition that there was something very big at stake. With independence Scotland could get rid of nuclear weapons and develop different welfare, employment, taxation, industrial, international policies. Second, the idea that power lay directly with the people – rich and poor. And third, a diverse, local and non-traditional leadership emerged and provided real energy for the Yes side.

In England work needs to be done regionally and nationally to identify the most important issues and alternative policies that can stand up to serious scrutiny. Presenting people with routes to change that they can understand and are credible is a big challenge. At least in the 1990s it was possible to see English regionalism as one such route and from the outside my view is that this needs to be revived and an attack made on the exclusive emphasis on cities rather than integrated regions with new democratic structures. Many reformers in England appear to have given up on doing serious work on this and critiquing the over-development of the south east with its damaging housing and environmental problems.

One lesson from the Scottish campaign on which it is realistic to build in England is communication strategy. Almost all the mainstream media are likely to be a hindrance. By all means try to use them effectively but assume the efforts will be largely futile, as we found. We have to do our own thing.

Common Weal has set up a professional news service, Common Space. We have a number of other well-supported opinion sites. These are financed by small donations. If Scotland can resource these, England should be able to do much better. If this is done well, in a few years they could reach a big audience. But we have to come back to the message – there is no point in the medium without a coherent, inspiring message.

Isobel Lindsay is a Scottish independence campaigner


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill