First Minister’s referendum call rivets Scottish constitution workshop

By Alex Benchimol and Philip Schlesinger

Two University of Glasgow staff, Dr Alex Benchimol and Professor Philip Schlesinger, recently ran a pair of Royal Society of Edinburgh funded workshops on the press, civil society and constitutional identity in Scotland. Here, they reflect on how real world-politics and academic analysis may coincide.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on 13 March, announcing moves towards a second independence referendum, coincided precisely with a Centre for Cultural Policy Research (CCPR) workshop ­on the referendum of 2014. Since that year, Scotland’s political life has been dominated by the constitutional question: should the country stay in the United Kingdom or seek independence?

Organised by CCPR and funded by an award from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), the workshop was the second of two to address the national press, civil society and constitutional identity in Scotland. The previous one focused on 1707 and the run-up to the Union.

A couple of hours before the First Minister’s announcement from Bute House, we set the context by highlighting how a UK-wide constitutional crisis might be triggered by the 2016 Brexit vote.

We quoted from a recent David Hume Institute speech made by Ms Sturgeon who said: ‘There are those who argue that, as the vote was a UK-wide one, the result in Scotland is essentially an irrelevance, of mere academic interest. However, to do so is to deny a long-established constitutional and political tradition in Scotland. … Namely that Scotland – as a nation – should always have the right to determine its own destiny, and that the people of this nation should be able to determine the government best suited to its needs.

Mere academic interest and real world politics collided that day as we all watched the live BBC stream of the First Minister’s dramatic announcement that she was seeking a second independence referendum ‘when the options are clearer than they are now – but before it is too late to decide on our own path.’

Leading Scottish journalists, including Iain Macwhirter of The Herald and Richard Walker of The National, made their excuses and left to cover unfolding events while prominent Scottish commentators also at the workshop posted their views on social media. Walker had contributed an insider’s perspective on how the Sunday Herald plumped for a Yes vote during the 2014 independence referendum campaign. While himself believing that a national newspaper needed to represent the pro-independence case, crucially this was also a commercial judgement endorsed by his management.

In a previous Policy Scotland post, we reported on how economic factors routinely shape decisions in the Scottish press and those of other small countries. We covered this question in previous RSE workshops.

Since Ms Sturgeon’s announcement, the referendum question has been high on the UK’s agenda. Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to delay it to a time of her choosing while deep fissures have once again reopened between unionist and nationalist politicians both at Westminster and in Holyrood. Campaigns have already begun to shape up in Scotland for the next phase of constitutional struggle. The workshop discussed the particular challenge of maintaining civility as the next indyref debate takes off.

The echoes of the past continue to resonate in the present. In the first workshop on 1707 we discussed the debate concerning the very prospect of the Union between Scotland and England. Taking the long view certainly makes you appreciate some deep continuities that started with the formation of a modern public sphere in eighteenth-century Scotland in which media and diverse political responses to fundamental change filled the political space with constitutional argument.

Our 1707 and 2014 discussions will soon feature in a special issue of Scotland’s longest-running academic journal of contemporary political and social issues, Scottish Affairs.

Both authors are at the University of Glasgow where Dr Alex Benchimol is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Professor Philip Schlesinger holds the Chair in Cultural Policy. The Centre for Cultural Policy Research [link:] regularly engages with policy-makers and the media and cultural sectors. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.