‘The last in a long series of protests’? Historians and the Scottish independence referendum


To provide a neutral forum for knowledge exchange by historians and the policy makers behind the Yes and No campaigns in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum.


  • A referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future will be held on September 18 2014. The SNP argues that Scotland should have control of its own destiny and that independence will deliver a desired focus on Scottish affairs. Its aim is for the independence process to be complete in time for the 2016 general election. The British Government has agreed to respect the outcome but remains opposed to independence.
  • A referendum deal was struck in October 2012, with the details arranged since. The debate over its merits has been superseded by an acrimonious dispute over the virtues of independence and the nature of a future Scotland-UK relationship. Output is only likely to increase down to 2014.
  • If the SNP wins, independence must be negotiated. If it loses, it could seek further devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament. Policy is therefore fluid to an extent, but the two sides will have to work together one way or the other.

Historical parallels

  • The SNP says its origins can be traced to the 1920s and 1930s, yet a debt is owed to earlier movements that called for a restored Scottish parliament. Work by Naomi Lloyd-Jones on the Scottish Home Rule Association and by James Kennedy on the Young Scots Society has drawn attention to an historic belief that the Scottish people are best placed to understand their requirements. The SNP claims that independence will help it focus on providing a future that better suits Scotland’s circumstances and needs. Although the goals are different, there are clear parallels in the language employed. This discourse is informed by the conviction that for Scotland to manage its own affairs a change is needed – a change British governments have traditionally seen as unnecessary.
  • Alternatively, Graeme Morton has shown that nineteenth-century nationalism could also be Unionist. The 1707 Union provided an opportunity to express Scotland’s distinctive attributes within a wider British and imperial framework. One aspect of the No Campaign concentrates on the strong role Scotland plays within the UK, and how this participation enriches Scottish society, culture and business. This concept of interdependence echoes the claims of Unionist-nationalists, who stressed the existence of a partnership-based arrangement.
  • There is evidence of misunderstanding the UK’s constitutional history. The Scotland Act, passed while referendum negotiations were underway, was repeatedly referred to as the ‘most significant transfer of financial powers to Scotland from London’ since the UK’s creation, while it was recently asserted that sterling has been the UK’s currency for 300 years.
  • Alex Salmond declares that an independent Scotland will have a written constitution. The Republic of Ireland, the last part of the UK to break away, has its own constitution. Its secession necessitated legislation defining the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Similar Acts for the rest of the UK could become necessary from 2014.

Activities and objectives

  • The flagship event will be a one-day conference at a neutral location, preferably a university with no overt links to either side. It will coincide with the one-year countdown, in September 2013. Panel sessions on the history of Unionism and nationalism will be held in the morning, with a commentator to chair and a Q&A session. Potential speakers/commentators include Morton, Lloyd-Jones, Finlay, Paterson. Breakaway workshop-style groups will follow, focusing on how historians can inform the referendum process going forward. This ensures the event is a forum for discussion, not just another conference. A keynote will be given in the evening on Scotland’s relationship with the UK, preferably by Alvin Jackson, who has written on the Scottish and Irish Unions, or Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional historian.
  • Seminars will follow at intervals, aiming for four down to September 2014. Historians’ papers would be pre-circulated to participants, who would take part in discussions. Another large-scale event would be scheduled six months after the referendum, on the theme of how its history will be written and how the Scottish-UK relationship can be negotiated.
  • A website will be the means for promoting events and monitoring success. It will be running by end-May, to coincide with the call for papers/invitations. Speakers will be confirmed by end-July and papers sent to commentators by end-August.


  • As the SNP has announced that all political parties and civic bodies will be invited to work with the Government if independence is secured, representatives from all such groups will be invited.
  • Civil servants working on the referendum in the UK and Scottish Cabinet Offices, the Scotland Office, and, given the potential for sustainability, the Northern Ireland and Wales Offices.
  • The Yes Scotland and Better Together, the two official campaign groups, have prominent politicians among their members and on their boards. Both are active on social media.
  • Journalists working on the campaign coverage for major media organisations.
  • Think tanks involved in the campaign, including the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, Reform Scotland, the Scottish Independence Convention, A Just Scotland.


  • The Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum, set up by Scottish university law departments. It could work well with this parallel initiative by historians.
  • Scotland’s Futures Forum was created by the Scottish Parliament to help MPs, policy makers, businesses, academics etc look at challenges and opportunities beyond the current parliamentary cycle.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council runs a ‘future of the UK and Scotland’ programme.

Monitoring and sustainability

  • The website will publish participating historians’ papers – will discuss with them possibly opening papers to public comment.
  • Will explore making podcasts/videoing historian’s papers. The website would post these, linked to a Youtube channel, the hits on which would be monitored.
  • Event participants will be emailed a feedback form within the week.
  • Based on feedback, a broader roll out system for Wales and Northern Ireland will be considered within the year.


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