Scotland – the Yes campaign as a social movement

In the second part of his analysis of Scottish politics after the referendum, Scottish historian and activist Neil Davidson examines the Yes campaign.

Mr. Push flickr

To understand the nature of the Yes campaign as it developed, especially in the last 6 months, it is instructive to compare with the two previous referendums on Scotland’s constitutional position. Monitors in 1979 reported “no activity; no cars to polls; no literature; really pathetic. … Political activity during the referendum campaign was significantly absent.” Similar reports were made in 1997: “Apart from the media you would not have known there was a referendum. … The campaign was almost non-existent. No opposing campaign at all was evident.” Now contrast these dismal scenarios with the following picture, drawn by Scottish journalist Paul Hutcheon in 2014:

Rather than consisting of activists manning jumble sales, the Yes movement was on its way to creating the 300 local community groups, 50 sectoral organisations and dozens of other spin-offs that would flood the country with pro-independence activity. Tens of thousands of people across the country were now involved: from self-generated local Yes groups, to National Collective and the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign (RIC); from individuals manning Yes cafes, to new recruits running drop in centres. Yes staffers knew the grass-roots campaign was working when they learned of large community debates they had not organised, run by local groups they did not know existed. Yes Scotland was now almost redundant – it had become a ‘central services’ resource for groups, providing literature, merchandise and email updates. By May 30 this year, the formal starting point of the referendum campaign, Yes was the biggest grass-roots political movement Scotland had seen.

Hutcheon writes of “two campaigns”, one traditional and led by the suits, arguing in conventional media set piece debates, the other a “ground war”, “one-to-one”, door-to-door, intentionally bypassing the media. It was this “other” campaign, which drew in the previously marginalised housing schemes. In his research into the so-called “missing million” of Scots who either unregistered or choose not to vote, Willie Sullivan points out that their reasons are not those they are commonly assumed to be:

One key point… is that they are not apathetic about where they live, or about the desire for it to be better. Any suggestion that non-voters are uninterested and broadly disengaged beyond voting was not borne out by the research.

On the contrary, they had perfectly rational reasons for political disengagement: “Participants recognised that they have a choice in voting, but options arising through voting are set by others who are unlike them, and none of those options are felt to make much sense.”

Much of the credit for beginning the process of involving these Scots must go to the Radical Independence Movement (RIC). Starting as a conference in November 2012 attended by 800 people, it had grown by the following year’s event to 1,200 and it was from this point that it began to operate as an actual part of the campaign, rather than simply as a forum for discussion. Essentially a united front, involving members of the existing left parties (including the Scottish Greens) and the left-wing of the SNP, it helped initiate one of the most important aspects of the overall campaign – the voter registration drives in working-class communities. Two founder members have described part of the operation in RS21:

The mass canvass took place in over 40 localities. We are now reaching into all major settlements in Scotland. But because we recognised that the poorest, most densely ­populated communities must bear the most votes and the most ready support for a decisive political and social change, we canvassed these areas the hardest. RIC is also concerned with a scheme for voter registration and for the recording areas of greatest Yes support – for remobilisation closer to the vote. We recognised early that those voters who would buck the polling trend would be those voters who don’t talk to pollsters and hate politicians; those voters who have told our activists: “You are the only people to ever ask me what I think about politics.”

It would be wrong to credit RIC with all activities of this type – in the north and west of Edinburgh, for example, groups like Craigmillar Yes also conducted mass registration and canvassing drives, but it gave the campaign an initial push toward the left, not least by articulating what socialist demands might be achieved by independence. But initiative and creativity also emerged independently of any organised group and in the most unlikely places. Yes supporter Lesley Riddoch gives the example of a woman from the village of Farr near Inverness who came to one of her meetings in Aberdeen. [Note to non-Scots: this involves a round trip of 225 miles.]

She went home and chatted to another mum as they watched their children at the playground. Neither had organised a political event before but they enlisted like-minded friends to produce hundreds of posters, laminate and nail them onto every road junction within a 10-mile radius of the village hall, and replace them up to four times to cope with rain and naysayers. On the night, the women organised a PA system, got badges, stickers and books, produced food and drink…and opened the night with a fabulous, local all-women band. Around 250 people packed into Farr’s tiny remote hall and the ensuing talk and discussion lasted almost four hours.

Even unionist opinion-makers in the London press felt obliged to report the packed public meetings, the debates in pubs and on street corners, the animation of civic life. One comparison for the mood in in Scotland as Referendum Day drew near might be with General Election night on 2 May 1997. Kenyon Wright recalled the atmosphere in Edinburgh after the New Labour victory:

The city seemed alive with new hope. The sun shone: birds sang in the flowering cherry trees in the gardens; above all every face seemed to wear a smile that conveyed a mixture of relief, surprise and joy. Strangers stopped to shake my hand, or give an ecstatic hug. Everything had changed. The long night was over. Scotland’s day had dawned at last.

That blissful dawn faded quickly enough, as it became clear that New Labour intended to maintain the neoliberal regime by other means, but my point here is a different one. The atmosphere of joy and recognition on 2 May 1997 is, from Wright’s description, clearly recognisable as same one which permeated Yes gatherings large and small in the final months of the campaign – but with this difference: where participation in the 1997 General Election was essentially passive, confined to the act of voting and then of celebrating the scale of the Tory defeat, the Yes campaign was an active process, marking the ballot paper merely the final moment in months of public meetings, canvassing, rallies and on-line discussion. This is why Yes Scotland needs to be seen as a social movement, not merely another political campaign. In Colin Barker‘s discussion of “collective effervescence” (a term borrowed from Emile Durkheim) he describes patterns of behavioural change which many participants in the Yes campaign will recognise from their own experience:

Participants in collective action regularly report that they “discover” aspects of their selves, and their capacities, which they had not previously tested: speaking publicly, organising, taking initiatives which, before the event, they would not have imagined themselves doing. As a result, they felt “more alive”. These experiences, which might be termed “empowerment”, result from the necessity, imposed by the exigencies of collective action, of taking responsibility for new demands of speech and action which were, in their former pattern of existence, outside their everyday scope. What facilitates such experiences is the focusing of energy and attention on a new collective project, the concentrated “investment” of cognitive and emotional resources in pursuing a collective decision… New conjunctures, incidents and discoveries are liable to alter the appeal or resonance of various “frames” and “ideologies”. New possibilities and opportunities may disclose themselves, along with new measures of salience of commitments and social relations. Former patterns of obligation, loyalty and antagonism, may be recast. Previous cognitive, ethical and pragmatic assessments may be re-apprehended. The sequence of new incidents, actions and experiences provides actors with new materials against which to measure existing understandings, with which to confirm or refute arguments, and to assess competing arguments. Collective action, in its short-term and long-term results, provides “live” materials for altering the social and cultural context of meanings, for remodelling the comprehension of structures and totalities. What was formerly desirable may now seem irrelevant or insufficient, what was previously impossible now becomes an issue to be actively pursued.

The closest comparisons with the Yes campaign are therefore not to be found in Scottish history, but in contemporary Europe, as is suggested in this assessment by George Kerevan:

The Scottish Labour leadership, abetted by the metropolitan media, wrongly tarred proponents of independence as tartan romantics – or even anti-English bigots. The reality is that, by the end, the Yes campaign had morphed into the beginnings of a genuine populist, anti-austerity movement like the ‘Indignant Citizens’ in Greece or the May 15 Movement in Spain. Put another way, it was class politics – not old-style nationalism – that fired the Yes campaign.

But now we must leave these scenes of mass political radicalisation – at least for the moment – and turn to the Dark Side.

Tomorrow – Part 3: Project Fear and the Ruling Class Panic

A substantially different version of these articles has appeared in New Left Review.


[1] David Denver, James Mitchell, Charles Pattie and Hugh Bochel, Scotland Decides: the Devolution Issue and the Scottish Referendum (London: Routledge, 2000), 116-119.

[2] Paul Hutcheon, ‘The Growth of the Yes Movement’, The Sunday Herald (21 September 2014).

[3] Willie Sullivan, The Missing Scotland: Why over a Million Scots Choose Not to Vote and What it Means for Our Democracy (Edinburgh: Luath Books, 2014), 19-20.

[4] Suki Sangha and David Jamieson, ‘The Radical Independence Campaign’, RS21 2 (Autumn 2014), 29.

[5] Lesley Riddoch, ‘A Radial and Unexpected Shift Place in Scots has Taken Place…Perhaps as Significant as the Big Vote Itself. People Power has Triumphed’, The Sunday Herald (14 September 2014).

[6] See, for example, Jonathan Freedland, ‘If Britain Loses Scotland it Will Feel Like an Amputation’, The Guardian (5 September 2014).

[7] Kenyon Wright, The People Say Yes; the Making of Scotland’s Parliament (Glendaruel: Argyll Press, 1997), 263.

[8] Colin Barker, ‘Empowerment and Resistance: “Collective Effervescence” and Other Accounts’, in Transforming Politics: Power and Resistance, edited by Paul Bagguley and Jeff Hearn (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 25, 26.

[9] George Kerevan, ‘Vote’s Biggest Loser is Scottish Labour’, The Scotsman (20 September 2014).


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