Democracy for Scotland: The Referendum Experience

The new exhibition at the Museum of Edinburgh titled Democracy for Scotland: The Referendum Experience, bridges the years between the devolution campaigns of the late 20th century and the coming independence referendum of 2014, revealing what can be learnt from the movements of the past and what can be expected from the movement ahead.

The exhibition is brimming with old propaganda – pamphlets, badges, stickers, letters, guides and documents. Campaign names, slogans and leaflet titles are loaded with identity and urgency: ‘Support the Vigil’; ‘Scotland Forward’; ‘Scotland is British’; ‘The Menace of Separation’; ‘Democracy for Scotland’; ‘Think Twice or Pay the Price’.

Even as somebody of a younger generation, too late to engage in the campaign for a parliament, all of this seemed somehow familiar. Most of the arguments given in favour of devolution centred on the universal ideals of democracy, self-determination, having a voice – arguments once used by Unionists but now abandoned in the face of independence.

One thing that is evident from old pamphlets and photographs is the sheer excitement of the devolution campaign. Naturally, the campaign in favour of change is most commonly seen as the movement of progression and vision – exciting, loud, ground-shaking. The movement against change is most commonly seen as conservative, doctrinal, old-fashioned, cautionary or negative. That is a significant advantage for the independence movement as we move towards 2014.

There is also a great sense of the continuing history of Scotland surrounding the exhibition. An independence referendum ballot box allows visitors to cast an early vote; an old Democracy for Scotland sign reads “Nearly there”. Independence is shown not as a separate issue but as entirely linear to the evolving narrative of Scotland.

That narrative is vast, going back centuries; filled with heroes, heroines, struggles, poetry, enlightenment, war – filled with countless significant eras and events. And yet to think, that this very era of history in which we live now – that the very event we await in 2014 – that one opportunity – could by far be the most significant cultural and political occurrence in the entire length and span of our nation’s history. For us, the referendum won’t only be the greatest thing in 300 years, but the greatest thing in all of Scotland’s long existence. That is extraordinary and almost incomprehensible.

So when we look back at the devolution campaigns with nostalgia – whether we were involved or not – what we all must realise is that the opportunity to campaign for Scotland is just beginning. With one era of Scotland passing – the devolution era – we can look back at its significance and think of how we were involved – or how we wish we were involved. And if we apply that same idea today, those desires to be a part of history, and to not let it simply pass us by, then we can ensure we do everything we can whilst we still have the opportunity to create change.

I remember reading something recently by Ian Hamilton QC, who returned the Stone of Destiny to Scotland all those years ago. He said:

I wish I was in my first year of university instead of being 86. Soon I will die. To die will be an awfully big adventure. But not as big an adventure as being young in our newly awakened Scotland.”

The exhibition at the Museum of Scotland is open until the 24th of April. Free entry.

Andrew Barr
National Collective