Reorientate Part One: When We Were Giants

by | 29 Nov 2022

To understand what a mess has been made of the cause of independence it is worth going back to the pre-devolution era to remind ourselves how they did it.

It is plain to see to anyone who is paying even a little attention that the current ‘strategy for independence’ has come off the rails permanently. A few people may be following on behind the ‘plebiscite election’ bandwagon but it seems to be more in desperation that belief. It isn’t going to work.

This is not the time for despair or depression but we do need to find a way to do some introspection without getting lost gazing into our own navels. We need to start to create the shape of a theory for a proper plan for achieving independence and we need to do it quickly. Which is to say we have to reorientate ourselves. So this is a three-part series to help begin that process.

Part one will look at lessons we should have learned from Scotland’s recent past. Part two will look at why we didn’t learn them and how that sent us off in the wrong direction. Part three will take a simple look at the broad outline of what are the main jobs we need to get done.

But I wanted to start with a reminder that in Scotland’s very recent past we got this very right indeed. We approached a very similar problem with a focussed, grown-up attitude (ten parts work to one part self-promotion) and we got the job done. There is so, so much to learn from this process.

In 1979 the devolution referendum was ‘lost’ (it wasn’t, but the late addition of a threshold meant it seemed to be). Labour quickly lost the subsequent election and the whole devolution agenda was in a mess. Labour was stunned, paralysed, didn’t know how to respond. So the activists from Labour, the SNP, the Liberals and others, who had driven much of the referendum campaign stepped in.

They formed the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (everyone wanted to call it the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament but it was the mid-1980s before the politics enabled that). The purpose of the CSA/CSP was to keep the flame alive. If you think everyone is despondent now, it isn’t a half of how people felt in 1979.

But it wasn’t just ‘the dream will never die’ stuff. Yes, the flame needed to be kept alive, but there was lots of work that needed to be done too. The CSA was the means through which people were able to work together, build and develop.

For the first few years the job was building connections and links. The 1979 referendum looked in many ways like 2014 (though much worse) in that bodies that should have been sympathetic (like some of the trade unions) were stand-offish or even hostile and bodies that should really have been neutral (like the universities) were vocal opponents. Scotland was miles from devolution being the ‘settled will’ of civic Scotland.

It is worth stopping to remember that recruiting a team of that calibre would not have been possible five or six years earlier

That was task one. People weren’t going to be won over in one go but there was more than enough sympathy to start gradually to build relationships. The CSA reached out to the STUC, business organisations, churches, political parties, civic organisations, anyone with an interest in Scottish public life. Gradually, it built trust – helped greatly by the Thatcher government.

Fairly early on everyone realised the best route forward was a constitutional convention, but it was absolutely clear the Labour Party (and the SNP too at first) was not ready for that kind of commitment. It took time and effort to get there (the SNP was first to adopt the policy, but not until 1988 and not before it had rejected it once first).

From the early 1980s the CSA view was that a constitutional convention would be the best route forward  It had been adopted as policy by the SNP in 1983 on the second attempt but there was no prospect of Labour accepting it at that stage. But after the Tories won yet another election in 1987 despite Labour winning 50 Scottish seats, the CSA decided it was now or never.

They did not feel they had the credibility to initiate it so they tried to establish that credibility by setting up a committee of respected individuals with a wide range of experience to prepare the case for a convention to work out the principled reasons why there should be a Scottish legislature and how it should be constituted – the Claim of Right group.

It is instructive to look at who was on that – because it wasn’t political parties. It was chaired by a retired senior civil servant called Sir Robert Grieve (first chair of the Highlands and Islands Development Board) and the secretary was another retired civil servant called Jim Ross. They were appointed not because ‘they were popular with the base’ or because they had promoted themselves for the post but because they had the track record in managing negotiations.

They led what was a lot of the careful wheeling-and-dealing that creates support for new ideas. The other members of the group included an Assistant Secretary of the STUC, a retired Diplomat, and some academics like Neil McCormack and Isobel Lindsay (my mum) among others. The point was that everyone was 100 per cent committed, no one was there to grandstand and everyone was selected because they were capable of doing the job that needed to be done.

They were set up in early 1988 and worked on the terms of reference for a constitutional convention – and a case for why we needed devolution – over the course of a year and a half and published in 1989. The report was well received all round.

It is worth stopping to remember that recruiting a team of that calibre would not have been possible five or six years earlier. Before anyone got near grandstanding and fundraisers and campaigning work, people had knuckled down and done the preparation. Relationships had been built, trust was high, people were moving towards the campaign, not away from it.

Both the CSP and the Claim of Right Group had maintained strong links with all the political parties (apart from the Tories). They managed to convince Donald Dewar and John Smith that full-throated support of devolution gave Labour something to say in Scotland after the crushing election defeat in 1987.

Before 1988 was up both Labour and the SNP had signed up to a constitutional convention. But then the Chair and Vice-Chair of the SNP without informing even the NEC announced that the SNP would not now take part in the convention because there was no option to choose independence.

But the CSP stalwarts were still worried that this wasn’t enough, that Labour in particular wasn’t bound in enough and could be flakey (there were very vocal rebels like Tam Dalyell voicing strong opposition). So the CSP took a gamble. They organised a mass signing of the Claim of Right (as it was now known) and almost dared individual backbenchers not to sign. By the time over 50 per cent of MPs had signed up the gig was over – even Dalyell read the weather and signed.

That’s part of the point – everything looks easy after you’ve done all the work

This might seem like an easy, consensual step looking back on it from now but this history shows it was no such thing. In reality it was clever brinksmanship. That’s part of the point – everything looks easy after you’ve done all the work.

From there it was down to the work of the Convention itself. Its members were the Labour Party, Liberal Party, Communist Party, Scottish Ecology Party (the previous name for the Greens), most Scottish MPs and MEPs, representatives of almost all local authorities, all the trade unions, the principal churches, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Universities and some other civic groups.

The leader of Strathclyde Regional Council got the agreement of Cosla that they would provide the Secretariat and the detailed negotiations were carried out by an executive committee. The formal launch meeting was in March .

The work was done by an Executive and overseen by the full group. By far the biggest fight was PR – Labour was the only body opposed to proportional voting. By now some crucial figures were on board, none more important than Campbell Christie who really led all the difficult negotiations (along with Bill Spiers). And they triumphed.

(To this day the collective memory is that Labour backed PR so ‘the SNP could never get into power’. This is total rubbish – the Lib Dems would have walked out so Campbell negotiated it and the SNP line is only how Dewar sold it to his backbenches.)

They published their first plan in 1991. The 1992 election was an unexpected disaster, totally taking the wind out of everyone. This steady, careful process was attacked. A group of those more impatient kicked off Scotland United as a more muscular, street-level campaign for independence (that rally was one of the first times I went to a big political protest all on my own…)

But Scotland United were wrong and achieved nothing, dissolving shortly after. Flag-waving and shouting got nothing done; careful work and relationship-building did. After that flurry dissipated the Constitutional Convention picked up and, once again, kept things going when they were in a mess. They spent about another 18 months revising their plans and improving them.

And that revised plan, published in 1994, is the Scottish Parliament we have (well, as it should have been). The work was serious and credible, the problems had been answered, the clashing interests of all the different players had been scrupulously managed, the case was solid, there was massive institutional support – and the public saw it, felt it and were won over.

None of this involved photo opportunities or stunts or angriness or grandstanding or knocking doors and throwing leaflets at people. It involved genuinely towering figures who delivered item for item everything they said they’d deliver.

I cannot stress this enough – everything looks easy when you put the work in. Everything becomes possible if you work to make it possible. Big names, serious players, respected civic organisations – all of them will come out to play if you make your self credible and are taken seriously.

No, there wasn’t a single hero, a single ‘great figure’ who gets to pocket the glory. What there was is success. So what do we want as an independence movement? Personal glory, a fun time pleasing ourselves doing the things we like doing – or do we want to win? Tomorrow I’ll explain how we came to choose pleasing ourselves over winning.

The full series: Part Two | Part Three 


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