Referendum Protocols – A Look back at the 1979 Debacle – February 2014 Voting Advice to the Scottish Electorate Which Fell Upon Deaf Ears



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Referendum Protocol

A referendum is concerned with major questions of policy change and views will be strongly divided. There is a clear need, therefore, that its conduct should be accepted by the electorate as efficient and fair.

Guidelines should be established early and accepted by all parties ensuring consistency of administration in their conduct maximizing confidence in the legitimacy of the result.

Given the Westminster Government will be committed to a “no” vote the referendum should be handled exclusively, (in all aspects) by an Independent Electoral Commission whose purpose (free of any political or financial influence) should be to ensure the referendum is conducted efficiently enforcing a fair presentation of competing views.




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Referendum Independent from Government

Responsibility for the publication and management of information relevant to the referendum should be exercised entirely outside of Government – by the Independent Commission The conventions which require the Civil Service to avoid engaging in political or public debate’ and which limit its actions to the provision of factual information, should be strictly adhered to.

The Independent Electoral Commission should, (on an equitable basis) provide facilities and funds for the production and distribution of leaflets written by a campaign group from each side (and is responsible for any arbitration between the competing claims of campaign groups).

Every household should receive a publicly funded leaflet (through the Independent Electoral Commission) giving general information on the holding of the referendum and statements of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases relating to the referendum question.

Public funds, (other than the financial budget allocated by government to the Independent Electoral Commission) should not be used.

The Independent Electoral Commission should handle the process of consulting campaign groups, deciding on the establishment of umbrella organisations, and administering any appropriate financial assistance.

Political, groups, parties’ or individuals not wishing to be associated with any of the recognised campaigning organisations (and therefore not eligible for public funding assistance) should still be free to participate in the campaign.




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Broadcast Media Matters

A balance should be maintained between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ viewpoints rather than between the different political parties. Broadcasters should be encouraged to provide a limited amount of
airtime for setting out the arguments for each option in the referendum.

The content of such broadcasts would be the responsibility of any formally recognised campaign organisations. In the absence of such organisations the Independent Commission should appoint production companies to produce such broadcasts.

Party political broadcasts should not be transmitted during the referendum campaign.

The broadcast media will occupy a central role in informing the Public of the issues and the arguments on both sides of the referendum question.  The three distinct areas which concern the broadcast media are:

* News and current affairs coverage,

* Provision of fair time for referendum broadcasts

* Paid News and current affairs programmes should operate according the rules and guidelines to political impartiality.

Broadcasters should apply a strictly enforced 50:50 balance (observing well established and tested guidelines) between opposing views ensuring that ”justice is done to a full range of significant views and perspectives during which the issue is active”.




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Other Media

Restrictions on political advertising do not apply to the print media. It is difficult to see how expenditure on newspaper advertisements could be subject a general restriction. Current advertising law requires that advertisements are identified as such and cannot be confused with the editorial content of the paper. There is no requirement for newspapers to present a balanced political view and the political affiliations of the national newspapers are well known. Other forms of campaign media, like direct mail and telephone canvassing, are similarly unregulated. It is likely that legislation to do so would be politically unacceptable.




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Referendum – Use of Threshold Targets

The establishment of a threshold target is confusing for voters and produces results which do not reflect their intentions.

A turnout threshold may make extraneous factors, such as the weather on polling day, more important.

If a threshold is used, it should be a set percentage of the votes cast and not a percentage of the eligible electorate.

If thresholds are set, a clear explanation of the meaning of the threshold for the electorate should be included in the public information provided.”



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The 1979 Devolution Referendum Debacle

During the Parliamentary proceedings on the Scotland Act, a clause was inserted on the initiative of the Labour backbencher, George Cunningham MP. This provided that, unless 40% of those entitled to vote voted in favour, the Government had to lay an Order before Parliament repealing the Act. The turnout was 32.8%, (short of the 40% required.) The Labour Government accordingly tabled an Order repealing the Scotland Act. The outcome of the referendum produced lasting resentment, it was felt that the rules had been biased against advocates of a Scottish Assembly.

Outcome of the Referendum on Devolution for Scotland 1 March 1979:

Question: Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?

Yes: 1,230,937 – 51.6% No: 153,502 – 48.4% Spoilt Ballot Papers: 3,133 Turnout: 2,387,572 – 63.6% Percentage of Electorate which Voted Yes – 32.8%



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Factors Driving the 1979 Devolution Referendum

The BBC was the accepted “voice of the State.” The electorate in Scotland almost universally trusted “Auntie Beeb” to provide information with strict impartiality.

There was a very different level of media available at the time the 1979 referendum took place which was before the internet – so no web pages, twitter, podcasts – but also in the period when there were only three TV channels (Channel 4 did not appear until 1982).

There were few computers (not as we know them now anyway), no mobile phones, no telephone canvassing, and none of the modern campaigning techniques of recent years that have utilised technology (direct mail for example).

Campaigning was therefore quite traditional and involved pen and paper, leaflets, posters, public meetings, press releases to newspapers, limited TV coverage, etc.

The campaign did not have any party election broadcasts or even an information leaflet on devolution, setting out the arguments from the government. This was because the Party Whips warned that a Government leaflet held no appeal.

Even the provision of an explanatory leaflet in Post Offices in Scotland was not attempted, and although partly compensated for by private initiatives there is strong evidence suggesting that the turnout was reduced because voters had no information delivered to their homes.

Another factor was the content of the Act, which presented an extremely complicated set of responsibilities to be vested with widely differing proposals for Wales and Scotland. These had the effect of influencing the electorate that devolution mirrored the political scene in the country at the time, the (winter of discontent and the desperate struggle of the minority Labour Government to stay in power) were not necessarily in the long term interests of Scotland.

Campaigning was unregulated compared to now, with no spending limits for the campaign or any public accountability over campaign spending: It is estimated that the “no” campaign spent double the amount of money of the “yes” side.

Despite conflicting views on devolution a significant number of labour and Tory Party MP “no” activists joined forces and cross-funded campaigning efforts. Brian Wilson (strongly anti-devolution) was very active with this group.

Anti-devolution trade unions were supported, in their spoiling campaigning with finance laundered through a Tory backed, tycoon-fronted group “Scotland Says No”.

The Labour Party was almost exclusively against it’s own “Devolution Bill.” Party MP’s in Scottish constituencies, (with the exception of Willie Ross) were as one opposing the legislation, driven by an intense hatred of the SNP which blinded them to any suggestion that devolution would benefit their constituencies.

The political reality of the Lib-Lab pact that began in March 1977 had a serious effect on the devolution issue. It meant that Labour struggled to construct a parliamentary majority for its devolution proposals at Westminster, and this exposed it to influences of its own backbenchers (meaning Labour’s devo-sceptics such as Tam Dalyell, George Cunningham, Robin Cook, Brian Wilson, etc) as well as the Liberals and SNP.

The result was that Labour lost control of the devolution issue at Westminster and was forced to amend its legislative proposals to suit party dissidents –this resulted in the necessity of holding a referendum to implement the Scotland Act 1978 as well as the 40% rule: that 40% of the registered electorate would need to vote Yes to devolution for the Assembly to be created.

The SNP, was a new force at Westminster. The party’s electoral success in 1974 had brought 11 MPs to Westminster. This proved to be the catalyst for change that brought about proposals for devolution, within the lifetime of the parliament. But the devolution issue was also very controversial within the SNP. The party was not as one on providing support to the proposals and this was reflected in their poll ratings and performance in by-elections. The devolution agenda was a well designed “Harold Wilson” spoiler for the SNP and the party fell for it big time.

The Tory Party was well disciplined and contributed very little overtly to the referendum campaign. The cautious approach, (confining their efforts largely to the provision of funds to Labour party activists and unions) had been adopted so that the party would not adversely influence their prospects in the next election.



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UK General Elections

Application of the same criteria to the last four UK General Elections would have required a re-run of three. In 1978 the referendum was not re-run which is a blatant abuse of the 40% rule implemented by Westminster in 1978

2001: 59.4% 40.7%
2005: 61.4% 35.2%
2010: 65.1% 36.1%
2015: 66.1% 36.9%



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The Influence of the Newsquest Newspapers on the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum

In the course of the 2014 Referendum Campaign the Herald in Scotland often changed its editorial policy – At times supporting independence then confusing the issue going cold on the approach transferring their allegiance to “Better Together”. In the final months of the campaign the paper firmly backed “No”. Its sister paper, “The Sunday Herald” also favoured independence only to revert to supporting the “no” side in the last weeks. The introduction of “The National” (from the same stable) with an editorial policy supporting independence was a godsend for the “yes” campaign.

In February 2014 (when it was onside with independence) the Herald issued a message to the Scottish electorate which had it been heeded would have ensured a different outcome to the referendum.



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Scots should take to heart the lesson of the 1979 campaign – (28 February 2014)

The referendum campaign has entered another and perhaps decisive stage, reminiscent in many ways of the 1979 referendum campaign for a Scottish Assembly.

In 1979, the “No” campaign was run by the same commercial and political forces now in play. The Labour Government was notionally in favour of its own legislation, which it had allowed to be crippled by the 40% rule. It sat passive, leaving the trade unions and opposing Labour MPs to join with the Conservatives in opposing the creation of an Assembly with minimal powers.

Yet the deceptions and threats were still being made. The Assembly, they said, would lead to a wholesale withdrawal of Scottish industry with loss of jobs.  It wasn’t all that valuableThe oil located in Scotland’s waters was British. It wasn’t that valuable. It would run out and where would Scotland be then? Impoverished and ruined was the answer. And weren’t we under a duty to be selfless and help out England’s poor? Further generations of those English poor – and Scotland’s too are still with us – and using food banks for survival.

Fifteen years after the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, the disaster has not happened. None of Scotland’s companies kept to their threats to pull out. Instead many of the objectors have prospered. If there has been any problem affecting Scottish commerce it has come from the mismanagement of the British economy and its cataclysmic failure to control the credit explosion from which came the 2008 depression.

As for oil, the tax revenues went south, causing huge expansion in London at the expense of Scotland.

It’s all happening again. Standard Life says it “may” transfer jobs and capital south. Then there is the Weir Group, which is to produce an “independent” report to assess the advantages and disadvantages of independence. Some may remember the then chairman, Lord Weir, being amongst the most militantly opposed of Scotland’s industrialists.

Until the start of the year, London thought it had the result in the bag. Then six polls charted growing support for Yes. Abruptly, the Unionist campaign became aggressive.

The figment that “Better Together” was running a purely Scottish campaign was brushed aside. Alistair Darling was sidelined. In came the main armament of the British state. The British Government actively canvassed support from other countries, including Russia and Spain, to collate opposition that would be broadcast in Scotland.

Then there was the Cameron “love-bombing”, the Osborne and Balls “blitzkrieg” on the currency, followed by the President of the EU Commission saying that Scotland would have difficulty becoming a member of the EU and a “rare” meeting of the Cabinet in Scotland to proclaim Scotland’s remaining oil was better in London’s hands.

The timing and sequences demonstrate that although the “British Government” claimed it was not involved in the debate, it had laid the ground work for its direct intervention through a series of political hammer blows. The tactics as in 1979 are simple – destroy Scottish self-confidence and morale.

There was no attempt to put forward constructive reasons for Scotland to stay in the Union. Promises for more devolution may be made at the Scottish party conferences. Do not believe them. In the aftermath of a No vote, London will see no need to give more powers to Scotland.

If the Scottish people are as gullible as in 1979, there is not much that can be done. They will pay the price. The budget of the Scottish Government will be slashed when the Barnett revenue formula is abolished and £25bn of cuts come down the line. In that case, the harsh experience that follows will induce Scotland to win independence in 10 years’ time.

But why wait? The evidence from 1979 is that these threats never come to anything. They are propaganda only. What is a reality is that “Food Bank” Britain is crumbling. The bubble of accelerating growth of London and the South-east of England will provoke increases in interest rates that will reverse today’s shallow recovery and induce a further recession.

There is an economic case to be made for independence and so far it has not been projected strongly enough. Time for “Yes” Scotland to move from defence to counter-attack.




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