The Brexit Experience, Independence and the 1970s

Scotland’s first referendum on devolution was held on March, 1979. It saw 52 per cent vote in favour and 48 per cent against – the same margin as in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum. Isobel Lindsay, (Scottish Independence Convention founding member and Vice Chair of Scottish CND) looks back at the process and lessons for independence supporters today forty years on.

For those of us who were politically active during the 1974-79 UK Government, many of the current Westminster happenings are not surprising and those celebrating Parliament ‘taking back control’ should be a little more wary. The Labour Government of that period were certainly not devolution enthusiasts although a few were moderately supportive but Labour’s devolution policy had changed in 1974 because they recognised that for electoral interests they needed to offer significant change in Scotland’s governance. Delivering this and keeping the 11 SNP MPs on board was accepted as a price worth paying for staying in Government. But they had rebellion in the Commons.

The first bill was defeated by the Liberals who wanted PR. The second bill was subject to constant guerrilla warfare from a combination of Tory opponents and a substantial number of Labour MPs, particularly from Scotland, Wales and the North of England. They couldn’t stop their Government from tabling legislation but they were determined at every point to undermine it. As now, there was cross-party co-operation among back-benchers. The major coup was the Cunningham amendment. He was a Scot sitting in an English seat but it has been suggested that the idea for this came from Edinburgh MP, Robin Cook, who ironically a few years later became an enthusiast for Devo-Max. The amendment was to require a confirmatory referendum after the Bill became an Act but was to be an unusual ‘weighted’ referendum requiring at least 40% support of all registered voters whether they turned out to vote or not and whether they were alive or dead. After a long and weary process the Scotland Act was passed. It was very far from an adequate scheme not just because of the MPs but there was also plenty of lobbying of Whitehall. Control of the universities was excluded because of pressure from the Scottish universities. However the view of the majority of SNP members was that it was a base from which to build as long as it was a legislature and had a democratic franchise even without PR.

The referendum produced the same result as the Brexit vote with 52% Yes but fell short of the 40% rule. There were many reasons why the Yes vote and the turnout were much lower than opinion polls had predicted a few months earlier – the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the deeply divided campaign, the unpopularity of the Government, the strong support for No by many Labour activists. From our perspective today and observing what has happened in the Brexit process, there are lessons to be learned if we get a Yes vote for independence.

1. Even if there is a deal agreed with the UK Government, assume that there will be cross-party opposition in the Commons and Lords which will use whatever procedural tactics they can devise to undermine it. They will now be better at this since they have had plenty of practice. Plan how this should be dealt with. Absolutely refuse to co-operate with a confirmatory referendum. This would simply be an incentive for Westminster to offer the worst deal and to keep hostilities going.

2. Do not assume that because you have been allies with others in the Brexit context that this will have earned you brownie points when it comes to independence. It is not the English public who will be a problem. The majority wont be supportive but they have been fairly laissez-faire on the issue. But the political, corporate, military and land-owning elites have skin in the game and some of the intellectual and cultural figures are more British nationalist than they would like to concede. There are sympathisers in England but few with any power. So behaving with courtesy and respect is commendable in itself but do not have illusions that it will get you any practical advantages.

3. As we have seen with Brexit, the balance of power in any bargaining process will depend on how much you want to get from the other side and what they want from you. The more you are supplicants, the weaker you are. The logic for Scotland is to put the work into the indy planning process between a Yes vote and formal independence to prioritise the creation of as many of our own functional and regulatory institutions as possible. Everything we do for ourselves means fewer deals we have to ask for from a much larger partner who is in a better position to say no unless…

4. Make certain there are important things that are non-negotiable. One of the things on which Scotland will be under greatest pressure will be Faslane/Coulport. The tactic will be to ask for a 10-20 year lease so that the rUK can continue its posture as a nuclear-weapons state operating from Scottish territory. Those seeking a soft indy are going to find this difficult to resist so be warned. It is SNP and Green policy to sign up to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and to include an article in the Scottish constitution prohibiting nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on our territory on humanitarian grounds. If we can say in negotiations that this is a matter of legality, our hand is much stronger. We need to think about red lines and build up support for them so that it is harder to give in to pressure.

5. Don’t concede any figures in advance because these will be taken as the starting point. There are probably few assets we will want – better to commission our own and deduct the cost from any request for payment.

6. Above all we need to build a consensus across the whole movement on the plans for transition and sign people up to this. Pushing deeply divisive proposals that create serious fractures on our own side is not a recipe for success. One of the things that those of us who set up the Constitutional Convention in 1988 did succeed in doing was to get substantial agreement among parties and civic groups who supported devolution on the details of a scheme. It was a difficult process but it meant there was a scheme made in Scotland that was presented to Westminster with substantial weight behind it and there were few changes in the final legislation. It was not civil servants and politicians in London drafting the substance of the plan.

Comments (27)

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  1. Gavin Alexander says:

    Sensible points! Both the 1970s and Brexit show up a lot for us to keep in mind for our next big push. Not many folks have clear memories of what went on in the 70’s, and in those days the BBC and press ruled – there was no social media, so any articles to remind us of what went on then would be very welcome.

  2. Me Bungo Pony says:

    I hate to be the one to voice a potentially “divisive” point, but the demand to vacate Faslane on independence day with no option to lease it for a relatively short time is impracticle, liable to cause rancour from many of our neighbours and would be a missed opportunity to appear reasonable while negotiating ourselves a good deal elsewhere.

    I say “impracticle” as there is currently literally nowhere else for these nuclear submarines to safely go. This will, in my view, cause “rancour” with many of our neighbours (not just the rUK) who will not be happy at such a potentially catastrophic ecological disaster landing on their doorstep. Not to mention the ill will it would cause with potential military allies an independent Scotland would certainly require.

    A relatively short lease of, say, 10 years, would show an independent Scotland was willing to be reasonable (a desirable trait in international politics)and would give the rUK a realistic time period in which to either re-base or decommission the vessels. It would also allow a newly independent Scotland to negotiate a deal worth £bns with the rUK such as taking on none of the current UK’s debt or just revenue to help build up infrastructure and bolster the economy.

    I totally agree the nuclear systems need to be removed, but let’s not make things more difficult for ourselves by setting worthy but impracticle red lines that are not negotiable.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Me Bungo Pony,

      I do not see anywhere that Ms Lindsay is demanding ‘to vacate Faslane on independence day with no option to lease it for a relatively short time.’ As I read it she is advocating appraising what a potentially strong bargaining chip this is and that, having prepared the ground, negotiate about it in a robust way.

      When I describe it as a ‘bargaining chip’ I am not attempting to euphemise an obscenity; but it is there and while we wish it gone, we ought not to let our desire obscure our need for clarity.

      The points you make are valid, but let us consider them in the round.

      1. I’m almost 100% certain that Isobel Lindsay, as a long standing senior member of Scottish CND has no intention of leasing out Coulport/Faslane. This seems to be a fringe idea I only heard about a few weeks ago. I am also certain that a movement based on transforming Scotland would not want such a thing either.

        1. Jim Bennett says:

          Stuart from Wings Over Scotland have been banging the leasing drum for a long time.

          1. Yes I don’t really understand the appeal or motivation or tactics.

          2. Me Bungo Pony says:

            BCed, see my original post.

          3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            On the day following a successful independence referendum (or whatever way independence is achieved) Coulport/Faslane will still be there with its terrible weaponry. There will have to be some process by which these are removed in a safe way and any contamination or stored nuclear waste removed. This will take time and, that is the context in which the word ‘lease’ is intended.

            If there is a ‘transition period’ to independence, it is possible that an agreement for removal could be in place for Independence Day, but I think it would take a longer period. Scotland will have a ‘share’ in the ownership of the weaponry and the facility, as we will have of the pound and other UK assets.

          4. It seems to be consistent with a sort of value-free, ultra conservative approach which is developing in which independence moves from being an opportunity to transform Scotland to a process by which nothing really changes except for the flags.

        2. Kenny Smith says:

          I want rid of them too but I totally get the argument that we could ring a few billion out of them while they find somewhere else to put them. I would be happy with a commitment that Scotland will be nuclear free by 2030 or something. It would be great to see them sail away on day 1 but as long as they are going then we could take advantage while they are there. I think for a country trying to establish themselves it could be a wee earner in the first moments of statehood. We can all wish they were never there at all, invented even but they are so I think we should twist the screw and charge rUK until they are relocated.

          1. MBC says:

            I agree that being pragmatic, leasing the facilities for a number of years is the way to go even though I hate them. It is like wishing for the moon to wish for them to be gone 24 hours after independence. Those who support the idea of wishing them to be gone overnight owe it to the rest of us to explain how exactly this can be achieved.

          2. I have no idea where all this is coming from … this remains true:

            “Scotland has been home to one of the largest concentrations of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, despite consistent and clear opposition from across civic Scotland, our churches, trade unions and a clear majority of our elected politicians. Billions of pounds have been wasted to date on weapons that must never be used and, unless we act now, we risk wasting a further £100 billion over its lifetime, on a new nuclear weapons system. Trident is an affront to basic decency with its indiscriminate and inhumane destructive power.”

            – Scotland’s Future p.232

          3. Me Bungo Pony says:

            No one here is claiming the submarines should stay forever BCed. It’s just unrealistic to think they could go anywhere on day one of independence. If it were possible, I think all who have posted would be thoroughly glad to see the back of them. But since it isn’t, an Indy Scotland should at least negotiate the best possible deal in the meantime till they can finally be removed from our country. That doesn’t contradict anything from the Scotland’s Future document. The thought of £bns going to Scotland might actually incentivise the rUK to get them shifted as fast as is humanly possible.

          4. The White Paper from 2014 states it should be done as quickly as possible. No-one suggests anything is easy. But viewing Trident as a mans to make some money is just a weird way of viewing the world, and forms part of a continuity of thought from people within the movement who don’t seem to have any moral compass or deeper vision for Scotland. Everything is just reduced to whatever is needed to gain a specific end, there doesnt seem to be any why we are doing anything, just instrumental gain.

    2. Bill Ramsay says:

      “the demand to vacate Faslane on independence day with no option to lease it for a relatively short time is impracticle”

      I would greatly appreciate a signpost to any publication produced by any part of the peace movement who has made this demand.
      Bill Ramsay
      Chair SNP CND

      1. Me Bungo Pony says:

        Point 4 of the article states “Make certain there are important things that are non-negotiable. One of the things on which Scotland will be under greatest pressure will be Faslane/Coulport” and then goes on to argue against leasing Faslane. That and subsequent statements made by BCed led me to believe that the systems will need to leave on “Day 1” (term used for dramatic effect) or very, very soon after. This just cannot happen for reasons given above.

        All the posters above have argued for is that Scotland gets paid a rent for the time the weapons will HAVE to spend here after independence. Whether it is 10 weeks or 10 years. Why should the rUK get to keep them there for free? As I’ve said, the more the rUK have to pay, the quicker they’ll have them out of there.

        If, as is intimated, those who oppose Scotland being recompensed for temporarily housing these weapons accept that they will not be going anywhere on “Day 1”, can they tell us what the plan is then? How long will the subs remain after independence? What pressure can be exerted to hasten their removal? Warm words and cocoa won’t budge them and neither will waggy fingers and disapproving looks. Force is a non-starter. Just what is the thinking?

        I see nothing wrong or “anti-transformational” about a newly independent Scotland being recompensed for the time these unwanted systems are housed on its territory from the day of independence until they finaly leave. If anything, it would aid in that “transformation” by providing £bns to fund it. Or is it just the “taint” we are to worry about? Is independence worth nothing if it is not funded from “pure” sources? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t sufficiently “pure”?

        1. Your analysis is just missing a moral compass.
          “Why should the rUK get to keep them there for free?” They wont. They’ll be gone. That’s the point.

          1. Me Bungo Pony says:

            So it is the “taint”.

            PS Still no answer as to when the subs would leave. Mr Ramsay of the CND appears to believe they will still be there on “Day 1” …. and you agreed.

            PPS A “compass” points in every direction. Our’s may not be aligned exactly, but we both still have one.

          2. You either see WMD as a moral obscenity and want rid of them as soon as possible or you see themselves as a lucrative bargaining chip. Its difficult to see them as being both.

            I dont have an answer for when the subs would leave because we’re not in the midst of negotiations for independence. My preference would be as soon as possible.

            There is continuity across the issues from the people who want independence but keep the oil keep the pound and keep Trident. I dont see why we would bother.

          3. Me Bungo Pony says:

            For my part, I neither wish to keep Trident (just that Scotland should be recompensed for whatever length of time it will inevitably, though temporarily, be housed here for), keep the £ (as with Trident, if it can be gone on Day1 …. fantastic) or like the Growth Commission Report (I prefer the Common Weal’s offering). As to the oil, it’s not going anywhere, it’s still valuable and its used for a lot, lot more than fuel.

            So I don’t quite fit into your stereotype. I doubt many do. There is a vast and diverse range of views on the why’s, wherefor’s and how’s on the subject of Scottish independence out there.

  3. Ian Shearer says:

    A lesson from the independence movement in Ukraine following the fall of Soviet Union. Russia leased back the port facilities in Sevastopol for the Russian Black Sea naval base. The lease was due to expire in 2017, but Croatia was ‘annexed’ by Russia in 2014.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Ian Shearer,

      ‘Crimea’ not ‘Croatia’.

      1. MBC says:

        That’s a good point too. The whole issue needs strategic clarity, as does Scottish defence. What sort of defence would we need? During the indy ref I attended a forum about military planning. One ex-army guy said that there are some geographic considerations that military planners always have to think about as they are unchanging. One of them is that though Scotland has 30% of the land area of the UK, it has 80% of the coastline. Maritime defence of some sort is therefore needed. I guess that is part of the attraction of Scotland as a naval base for these subs – all those headlands, skerries, islands, sea lochs. From time to time you hear of subs snagging fishing nets.

  4. MBC says:

    Getting rid of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory. Of course I want rid of them. Of course they are an offence to humanity. I am just wondering how it can be done overnight and would like those wishing them to go within 24 hours of independence to explain how exactly this could be done.

  5. John B Dick says:

    My wife’s joke:

    People on the radio discuss “What shall we see different the day after Brexit/Independence?

    Our new-build home is in an elevated position overlooking the Clyde.

    Her answer: “Three Trident submarines passing the window.”

    Of course it won’t happen exactly like that.

    It may well be the case that when independence looks certain to happen, some pretext and artifice it is found so that after all, replacement of Trident is no longer necessary. Nothing to do with independence, you understand.

    Nonetheless, we are already building the bonfire, have constructed a fixed barbeque, invited the MSP and individual Glasgow Quakers and Unitarians (when we know when it is going to happen we will invite them all). An experienced Italian barbeque cook and a drone pilot have been asked to assist.

    I am working on the probably first modern performance in HIP (historically informed performance) of c 1800 repertoire for the little known “Scots Flute” and fiddle in Baroque set-up, though there will probably be other music ensembles too.

    We aim to be ready even if notice is short.

  6. Murdo Ritchie says:

    I don’t remember that the first devolution referendum (1979) was required to hold a “confirmatory referendum after the Bill became an Act.”

    But my biggest concern is about attempts to engineer a form of partitition. The obvious area would be around Faslane. It may not be simply by annexing the territory but by demanding special exemptions for military personnel working on the base. It is not unusual for the US to demand of host governments that they exempt their personnel from national law. Any move in that direction must be resisted.

    The other area that concerns me are the Orkney and Shetland Islands. I fear an attempt to promote “loyalist” or secessionist movements to obstruct Scottish national independence. I don’t think it is any accident that the UK government has sponsored a number of visits by the Falklands Islands Legislative Council to these islands. Even if the UK doesn’t seek to entirely annexe them, it may attempt to impose some form of condominium status.

    I think it very naive to discount the strong possibility of partition. It has been a continual theme when the UK has departed from its colonial possessions.

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