When Falkirk casts its vote in next year’s independence referendum, it will be the second time in two decades that the district has been asked to decide on Scotland’s future.
Twenty years ago today (December 12), the results of the 1993 ‘People’s Referendum’ were announced to an expectant media. It was a mock vote held only in the former Falkirk District Council area - but it was an event that aimed to have national consequences.
Organised by the Coalition for Scottish Democracy, the Falkirk ballot was staged to highlight public support for devolution at a time when John Major’s Conservative government was bitterly opposed to the idea.
The coalition was led by the late Campbell Christie, a committed devolutionist who was then general secretary of STUC and chairman of Falkirk Football Club.
The district was chosen for the vote by organisers because it was thought to represent “a political microcosm of Scotland”.
“It has to be remembered that in 1993 the Labour Party was divided on devolution and the Tory Government tried to ridicule the whole idea of a Scottish Parliament, arrogantly claiming that there was no support for it,” said Dennis Canavan, then a Labour MP for Falkirk, and now chairman of the Yes campaign for independence.
“The people of Falkirk obviously thought otherwise. They kept the flag flying throughout difficult times and, less than four years later when the real referendum came, the electorate in Falkirk and in Scotland as a whole made the Scottish Parliament happen. The people of Falkirk were ahead of their time.”
Referendum papers were hand delivered by a team of volunteers to as many homes in the district as possible, and were then collected again week later. It was a far from perfect system, and one that would have a detrimental impact on the number of returns.
Voters were asked if they supported a Scottish Parliament within the UK, and whether they wished to see Scotland become an independent country.
Only 7788 ballot papers of 27,828 were collected. But of those, 88 per cent were in favour of an elected Scottish parliament. A total of 46 per cent declared support for an independent Scotland.
Scottish Tory Party chairman Sir Michael Hirst branded the referendum a “bellyflop”.
Coalition convener Isobel Lindsay explained that those oraganising the ballot faced several logistical challenges. “Trying to do this in December, in appalling weather, was probably not the best idea,” she said.
“But we did get 28 per cent of the papers returned, and in comparison to turnouts in many later elections it was not such a bad response.
“We had a friendly reception, and I found that many people appreciated being asked about their views.
“We were just volunteers doing this after work and at the weekend. We got almost 8000 Falkirk voters engaged in making their choices, and probably many more who filled in their ballot papers but who weren’t at home when we called.
“The problem was that we managed to visit all households once, but many people were out and we didn’t have time to make second visits. We were just volunteers doing this after work.”
Tommy Sheppard, who runs The Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, was one of those volunteers.
“I remember traipsing up and down Hallglen, knocking on doors and trying to get people interested,” he said. “But I still view it as worthwhile, people were receptive. It was a big fillip to the campaign for a Scottish Parliament at a time when it seemed to be off the agenda.”
Canavan agreed. “I still think that the 1993 referendum was a useful exercise and a harbinger of things to come,” he added.
“Of course it could have been better organised but, despite the disappointing turnout, the result was an overwhelming majority in favour of a Scottish Parliament.”
So are there any lessons that either the Yes or No campaigns can learn from the 1993 campaign ahead of next year’s big vote?
Isobel reckons so. “I think it will be activity on the ground - talking to people face-to-face - which will make the key difference.”
“Falkirk is a key battleground”
The Falkirk district was chosen to host the 1993 people’s referendum as organisers viewed it as a perfect representation of Scotland as a whole.
Twenty years on, and both the Yes and No campaigns in the 2014 independence referendum take similar views on its electoral importance.
Better Together - which promotes Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom - told The Falkirk Herald that its volunteers were already working hard across the district.
“Falkirk was a key battleground in the campaign for devolution, and it will be again as those of us who support devolution campaign for Scotland to remain in the UK,” a spokesman said.
“The only threat to devolution is Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence.
“Better Together has set up a Falkirk group which is led by people here in Falkirk. We hold campaign events in the town regularly, and speak to people on the doorsteps. There can be no taking the people of Falkirk for granted - we will campaign hard between now and polling day to get across our positive message that we are stronger and better together.”
Dennis Canavan takes a different view, and says there are important similarities between next year’s vote and the referendum in 1993.
“Once more we have a UK Government which the people of Scotland did not vote for,” he said.
“That Government is widening the gap between rich and poor and the opposition at Westminster does not offer the radical change which most people in Scotland want.
“Falkirk will again be a key battleground. There is still a huge amount of work to be done, but I am confident that we can win sufficient hearts and minds to build a fairer Scotland that will play its part in the international community.”
Did you take part in the 1993 referendum, or are you volunteering in Falkirk for either the Yes or No campaign ahead of next year’s vote? We would like to hear from you.