Should we stay or should we go? A Tale of Five Referendums

Dr Coree Brown Swan 

Teaching Fellow, Centre for Open Learning 

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre on Constitutional Change 

The past four decades of UK and Scottish politics can be analysed with reference to five referendums – two determining the UK’s place in Europe, with three more determining Scotland’s (and in 1979 and 1997 Wales’) place within the United Kingdom. With further referendums, whether on EU membership or on Scottish independence considered likely, it seems appropriate to consider these referendums, placing them in historical context and considering common threads and arguments. We do so with reference to materials from the Scottish Political Archive, a wonderful online resource. 

In this Festival of Creative Learning session, we examined materials from each of these referendums, analysing them for common themes and arguments, and looking at how the campaign strategies and messages have changed over time. These observations contributed to a broader debate and discussion of political campaigning and strategy, and the role of referendums in making big constitutional decisions. 

Referendum One: EEC Membership 

In 1975, voters were asked ‘Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?’, which the UK joined only 2 years earlier. The campaigns focused on economic issues, including food prices, trade relationships, and jobs, parliamentary sovereignty, and national identity.


A brochure from the campaign to remain within the EEC argued that ‘Membership of the Common Market also imposes new rights and duties on Britain, but does not deprive us of our national identity. To say that membership could force Britain to eat Euro-bread or drink Euro-beer is nonsense’.


Those who campaigned against the EEC challenged these claims, asking ‘Is Great Britain to be a Great Nation, or merely a province of the EEC?’ They warned of the loss of sovereignty and barriers to trade with Commonwealth partners. Participants pointed out that many of the arguments would be familiar to keen observers of the 2016 Brexit debate, which points to the ongoing relevance of the European question in UK politics. 

Referendum Two: Devolution 

Just four years later, voters in Scotland and Wales were faced with another choice – on the introduction of devolved assemblies. The Scottish Assembly would have competences over education, environment, health, home affairs, legal matters, and social services, many policy areas that fell under the domain of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Proponents of devolution argued an assembly would improve Scottish representation and improve policy as well as see off the threat posed by the SNP.


In contrast, opponents warned of the dangers of a Scottish Assembly – of conflict, indecision, taxation, loss of power at Westminster, and the potential break-up of Britain.

The parties themselves were divided – with the SNP debating whether the assembly would serve as an obstacle or a stepping stone to their goal of independence. A majority voted in favour of devolution but the result fell short of the additional threshold introduced. 

Referendum Three: Devolution 

Although the 1979 referendum was unsuccessful, the 1980s saw civil society mobilization around issues of devolution. This included the Claim of Right and Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In 1997, with the return of Labour to power at Westminster, referendums were held in Scotland and Wales on devolution. In Scotland, the campaign mobilised around Scotland Forward, bringing together Labour, the SNP, and the Liberal Democrats, with only the Conservatives opposing.


Opponents warned of increased taxation and the risk to the Union, by encouraging conflict between Edinburgh and London. Workshop participants noted the similarity in the arguments in the two devolution debates and in the independence referendum. 

Referendum Four: Scottish Independence 

In 2014, voters in Scotland were asked ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ The campaigns coalesced around Yes Scotland and Better Together. The debate was characterised by competing knowledge claims – currency, the economics of an independent Scotland, and EU membership. The campaign in favour of remaining within the UK focused its arguments on the benefits of union and the uncertainty of independence.

Yes Scotland emphasised a message of hope, for the present day and for future generations.

We also went beyond print media to analyse the Better Together video targeted at women who were undecided. In 2014, a majority of voters in Scotland opted to remain within the UK but Scottish independence remains a live issue. 

Referendum Five: EU Membership 

The Brexit referendum debate featured a plurality of voices and messages and competing knowledge claims about budgetary contributions, jobs, migration, and policy choices.


Participants engaged with the printed materials but also discussed reports of micro-targeting of campaigns and what impact this may have had on perceptions. They also contrasted the efficacy of the Better Together campaign in 2014 with that of the remain campaign in 2016, concluding that the 2014 messaging was more effective. 

Referendum Mania? 

Ultimately, participants seemed to identify the challenges of referendums, which reduce very complex issues to a binary choice, but concluded that they were necessary in certain areas. Participants raised the prospect of further referendums – a second referendum on independence, brought about by the ‘material change of circumstances’ outlined in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto or a People’s Vote, a vote on the final Brexit deal and brainstormed what messages and arguments they would employ if they were leading these campaigns. 

Dr Coree Brown Swan is a teaching fellow at the Centre for Open Learning and a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre on Constitutional Change. She tweets about all things politics at @Coree_Brown.

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