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Society, Politics & Law

The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum - The YES campaign as a social movement

Updated Monday, 2nd March 2015

How did the YES campaign act as a social movement? 

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Fists in the air in protest Creative commons image Icon By Ibai Lemon via Flickr under Creatuive Commons licence under Creative-Commons license Not surprisingly, the SNP were clearly to the fore in the YES pro-independence campaign, and 53% of all YES voters had previously voted SNP in Scottish and or UK elections. This meant that the nationalist overtones of SNP supporters and of other Scottish nationalists within the YES campaign worked at times to marginalise the other main parties that were active also in pushing for a YES vote – the Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party. In addition to these three parties, a host of new groups emerged during the campaign, notably the Radical Independence Campaign, Women for Independence and the National Collective among other newly emergent groups. 

That there were tensions too between the SNP and some socialists who saw the SNPs vision of an Independent Scotland as insufficiently radical and as lacking ambition. However, this does not detract from the fact that these tensions were largely kept to a minimum and the YES campaign appeared as a well organised movement – belying its hugely wide and diverse base. 
This also highlights that the vast majority of the 1.6m voting for Independence were not SNP members and could not be considered as Scottish nationalists in any shape or form. It would be mistaken then to claim that this was a pro-nationalist vote. 
The mobilisation in the YES campaign of tens of thousands of active supporters, way beyond the membership of the SNP alone, testifies that the YES campaign had a very broad reach – and not least among the under 40s and in particular among the young. Further, the main issues driving the YES vote, as Lord Ashfield’s immediate post-referendum snap poll of 2,000 voters showed, were not ‘nationalist’ ones let alone anything that could be described as ‘anti-English’, but were firstly, ‘disaffection with Westminster politics’ and secondly, concern over the future of the NHS (itself a vehicle for mobilising other concerns about cuts in public and social services).  
The entire Independence campaign was marked by strong female representation. This is evident not only in that the Scottish Labour Leader and Deputy Leader of the SNP were very prominent female MSPs, but particularly in the YES campaign, female journalists, actors and other public figures played a prominent role – and talked and debated about Independence and its alternatives with real power and authority. There are signs that this is continuing in the post-Referendum discussions and debates with women now the leaders of both the SNP and Scottish Conservatives and deputy of the Labour Party in Scotland.
Many of the activists mobilised in the YES campaign were either young, or new to politics, or older groups who likewise had never been politically active. Social media played a significant part in ensuring that the YES message had a wide reach and this was also important in galvanising support among the young.
There was a considerable degree of decentralisation and grassroots campaigning by the young and groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign played a considerable role in taking the YES message into the large working class housing schemes around Glasgow, Dundee and in other towns across Scotland.
In terms of class, age, gender – and also the mobilisation of a number of minority ethnic groups in support for the YES campaign (for example, Scots Asians for Independence, Poles for Independence etc) – without a doubt there was a high level of inclusiveness and diversity, even if some Scots were put off by suggestions that one could only be ‘really Scottish’ if they supported Independence!
The Scottish Greens together with the Scottish Socialist Party and a range of other groups and organisations were key elements in the wider YES campaign. For the Greens and the SSP in particular, the more nationalist message of the SNP meant that there were differences in approach and in the significance given to different arguments for YES. The SNPs vision of a rich Scotland fuelled by oil revenues did not sit well with the Scottish Greens, for example, and Socialists and far left groups criticised the SNPs vision of an independent Scotland that would fail to challenge vested interests and concentrated wealth. 
The Scottish Independence Campaign was never about nationalist demands in any narrow sense. It was a campaign driven by what might be broadly termed, ‘social justice’ issues, opposition to austerity and to inequality and poverty, opposition to neoliberal policies, opposition to nuclear weapons on the Clyde and opposition to Westminster-imposed policies on Scotland – a country which had overwhelmingly rejected the policies of the two parties that comprise the current UK Coalition Government. 
The wider YES campaign acted as a conduit for a whole range of discontents over issues such as the impact of austerity, the growth of UKIP in England and even opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza, environmental issues and also anti privatisation. The success of community-centred campaigns against the Bedroom Tax in Scotland in 2013 also lent much energy to the YES campaign, an energy not seen since the era of the campaigns agaisnt the Thatcherite poll-tax in the late 1980s. However, given that the broad-appeal of the YES campaign spanned many disparate groups and sections of the population, it would be mistaken to suggest that all shared a same commitment to social justice issues. There were of course strong demands for self-determination – irrespective of the shape and policies of any forthcoming independent Scottish government; others were simply registering protest against ‘Westminster’ and there were also strong and repeated claims about defending the welfare state as well as creating a very different kind of welfare state.
Relevant OpenLearn links: 
This article is part of a series of articles on the 2014 Scottish Referendum.






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