The 2014 independence referendum changed Scotland for the better

The referendum of September 2014 changed Scotland – and I believe it transformed our country fundamentally for the better.

As the campaign progressed, the whole nation was a hive of debate and discussion of the kind that I have never heard or witnessed in my political career, before or since.

Indyref1 was an invigorating experience, one that saw Scotland come alive, not just with impassioned debate, but alive to the possibilities of the kind of country we could be, contributing in our own small but significant way to making a better world. That might sound lofty and idealistic, but it perfectly captures the spirit of 2014.

Nicola Sturgeon with young Yes activists on Buchanan Street Steps.
Nicola Sturgeon with young Yes activists on Buchanan Street Steps.

It was a campaign in which I crisscrossed Scotland, speaking to people in community centres, town halls and in any number of one to one conversations with people in all parts of the country.

There are some moments which stand out in particular. And, as is so often the case, it was sometimes the smaller, apparently insignificant details that linger in the memory, rather than recollections of the big set-piece events like conferences, TV debates and stump speeches.

One of those moments, which stays with me to this day, is of a conversation I had with a man one day in the final weeks of the campaign. It was on a street corner in Glasgow, and the topic he was keen to discuss wasn’t the latest football chat, or what had been on TV the night before – he engaged me in a detailed discussion on the finances of independence, and in particular the issue of who would be the lender of last resort after a Yes vote.

That conversation and so many others like it were replicated many times over, up and down the country, in the months, weeks and days leading to September 18th 2014.

Scotland was at that point arguably the most informed, engaged and intelligent electorate anywhere in the democratic world. I can hardly think of a better testament to the transformative nature of the referendum, or indeed a better legacy to flow from it.

For the fact is that, while the campaign of five years ago may slowly be starting to fade into history, the passion it brought to our national debate remains as vibrant as ever.

Yes supporters celebrating the potential of an independent Scotland.
Yes supporters celebrating the potential of an independent Scotland.

The referendum wasn’t just something which made people interested in politics and in the potential of independence – it was something which made many who had never voted, or who hadn’t done so for many years or even decades, come out and have their say on the day.

That brings me to one of my other abiding memories. It was on polling day, again in Glasgow where I spent much of the latter stages of the campaign, that I was spotted by a man at my local polling station. He came over to me, gave me a box of chocolate biscuits and thanked me, simply, quietly but emotionally, for being given the opportunity to vote for independence. It was the first time he had ever exercised his right to vote. It was a small moment in a big day, but it is a memory that lingers and one that says so much. Indeed, the sight of the empty box – the contents had been eaten by hungry activists – had me in tears when I saw it in the campaign office a few days after the vote.

Half a decade on from that campaign, and the question of Scotland’s future burns as brightly and urgently as it ever did.

We now face being taken out of the European Union against our will by the most dangerous, reckless and irresponsible government the UK has had to endure in modern times. Boris Johnson has no majority, no mandate and no right whatsoever to try and drag Scotland and the rest of the UK over the calamitous cliff edge of a No-deal Brexit – an outcome that wasn’t on the ballot paper in 2016 and which literally no one has voted for.

Scotland said no to Brexit and we meant it. That is a message the SNP will take into any forthcoming election – along with a crystal clear message that Scotland must have the right to choose independence, within the current Holyrood term of parliament, with the mandate we already have.

Since 2014, support for independence has rarely dipped below the 45 per cent that was secured in the referendum. Poll after poll has shown a rock solid baseline of support far in advance of what we entered the last independence campaign with, and recent surveys have shown that surging even higher into outright support for a Yes vote.

But it is not only support for independence itself that is on the up. Backing for holding an independence referendum is now the majority position across Scotland.

And no Westminster government, of any party, has the right to stand in the way of the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future.

Young Yes supporter marching in Glasgow.

The Bill paving the way for the next independence referendum is already going through the Scottish Parliament, and before it completes its passage at Holyrood we will make the formal approach to Westminster for the transfer of power that will put a referendum beyond legal challenge.

The Tory government’s behaviour in the three years since the Brexit vote in arrogantly and high-handedly dismissing and ignoring Scotland’s views has, in my view, made independence all but inevitable. Boris Johnson’s outrageous move to shut down the Commons to try and drive through the No-deal outcome proposed by right-wing zealots and Brexit fanatics will have been the final straw for many people watching and wondering just how much worse things can get under Westminster rule.

However, the Tories’ actions since 2016 also carry an important lesson for Indyref2, when it comes. The more that Westminster collapses in the mire of its own making, and the more that the proponents of Brexit lurch to the extremes, the more that those of us who advocate independence must resolve to ensure we do not fall into the trap of copying any of their mistakes. While I disagree profoundly with Brexit, there was nothing inevitable about the shambles it has become. That has everything to do with the lack of planning, a lack of honesty on the part of the Brexiteers and the inflexible red lines they have imposed.

Independence is coming, of that I am sure – but we need to win more hearts and minds and do so through positive persuasion while holding firm to the democratic and constitutional route for which 2014 provides clear precedent.

Vote Yes sign with Glencoe behind.

Before the 2014 referendum – and in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s preposterous promises plastered on the side of his Brexit bus – we published a White Paper that ran to more than 600 pages and was the most detailed possible prospectus for what an independent Scotland would look like. That work will be updated before the next referendum, making sure that everyone knows what they will be voting for.

The next independence referendum must be fought in the same positive frame by the Yes side that the 2014 campaign was. There will be hard challenges, and there will be lessons to be learned from last time round.

But I believe, with head and heart, that when the time comes Scotland will vote Yes to an independent future – and that is perhaps the greatest legacy of the historic campaign of 2014.

Photo Credit: Documenting Yes