Isobel Lindsay's radical road to devolution
Activist and academic Isobel Lindsay describes her devolutionary odyssey as one of the extra-parliamentarians who sowed the seeds of change
Isobel Lindsay - David Anderson/Holyrood
As Holyrood reflects on the 20 years since the Scottish Parliament was born, it’s worth remembering that it has not only been elected politicians who have shaped Scotland’s devolutionary journey.
Indeed, its conception was arguably the fruit of the academics and activists that quietly made constitutional change an offer that politicians couldn’t refuse.
Peace activist Isobel Lindsay has been involved since the 1960s, instrumental in the SNP’s modern identity then abandoning party tribalism to become a founding member of the cross-party Campaign for a Scottish Assembly in the early 80s.
This campaign paved the way for the Constitutional Convention and, ultimately, the Scottish Parliament itself, where Lindsay unsuccessfully sought selection as a Labour candidate.
She then became a prominent voice in the Yes movement in 2014, alongside her children Robin McAlpine, who set up the Common Weal think tank and Shona McAlpine, a founding member of Women for Independence.
Holyrood visits Lindsay at her house in Biggar, which she built with her late husband and fellow CND stalwart, Tom McAlpine.
One cat, Silver, flashes past the window on a garden hunt, while ginger tom Whisky holds court centre stage in front of the stove.
At 20, he is the same age as the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood magazine, but Lindsay explains devolution is a “long, long saga” that can be traced back 50 years.
As SNP vice chair for publicity and then policy in the 1970s, Lindsay played a part in shaping the party’s social democratic identity, taking on a key role in the ‘It's Scotland's oil’ campaign.
“The 70s is really the big neglected period” for the party, she suggests.
“I’m quite shocked by many younger journalists – and some not so young – who have quite forgotten, who say, you know, ‘the modern SNP started in the 1980s, and that established the social democratic position’.”
Lindsay credits Billy Wolfe, who led the SNP from 1969 to 1979, with modernising the party as an unlikely radical, encouraging younger members and aligning it with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Lindsay knew chartered accountant Wolfe from when he had advised her husband in setting up a cooperative factory – Rowen Engineering – in Glasgow in the 1960s.
“Billy was one of those whose background would have said ‘bourgeoise, conventional, family company, and boy scout leader’. His wife’s father had been the controller of BBC Scotland, so he had all that background. But Billy was actually very radical, in many ways.”
Wolfe had brought in journalist Douglas Crawford to try and give the party a slicker image.
“I certainly learned very valuable lessons in the early 70s from Douglas Crawford, because he said, ‘Right, these are the messages, repeat them and repeat them and when you’re absolutely bored with them, repeat them again because it takes a long, long time for the messages to get through to the public.’”
This new image would be a “firmly social democratic” one, Lindsay remembers, as the party recognised growing calls for a Scottish assembly.
“I felt very strongly we had to be prepared for this assembly which looked as if it was quite likely to be coming,” she says.
Lindsay points to the 1974 general elections which saw the SNP’s vote share in Scotland jump from 22 per cent to 30 per cent between February to October.
“These issues dominated Westminster, in many respects, with the minority Labour government and having 11 SNP MPs,” she remembers.
Of course, the momentum behind home rule would lead to the 1979 referendum, which saw Scotland back the establishment of a parliament by 52 per cent.
However, an amendment by Labour backbenchers had added a requirement that the bill also had to be approved by 40 per cent of the total registered electorate, which it fell short of.
Lindsay describes the aftermath as an “enormous depression” which led people to look for scapegoats. The SNP, she says, was having “a nervous breakdown”.
“One part of the party [was] going on the absolute fundamentalist position, ‘nothing ever to do with devolution again’. The other part of the party was going, ‘this is because we didn’t sufficiently appeal to the working class’.”
This latter faction, the self-proclaimed ’79 group, was critical of the leadership for not being left-wing enough.
Given her politics, Lindsay might have been expected to join but she felt the party had already been developing “quite radical policies”, and she had no appetite for factions.
“I’d had earlier experience of the Labour Party because I joined that when I was 16 or 17 and had two or three years there. The one thing I really liked when I joined the SNP in ’67 was that there weren’t rigid organised factions, you could actually go in and the debate mattered and could change things.
“Whereas in the Labour Party, you could go into a constituency Labour Party meeting – I was in Hamilton constituency – and you could tell before there was any discussion what the vote was going to be because everyone was in fixed positions.”
The ’79 group, meanwhile, had based its stance on “a feeling” rather than “proper research”, she suggests.
“Now the problem I had, which I made at that point in time, was that your notion of the working class hasn’t kept up with reality, because they still kind of saw the working class as Clydeside shipbuilders.
“Now I was academically a sociologist so, you know, I was trying to say that the labour force has changed. Even then, the trend was towards the feminisation of the labour force, there was a big expansion of the service sector as opposed to manufacturing.
“You have to see what this working class that you’re talking about is actually like, and how do you speak to them?”
This dislike of factions may well have been a factor in Lindsay becoming a founding member of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA).
Supporters of the Liberals, Labour and the SNP were all represented, recognising a lack of unity in the Yes side may have cost the referendum, at a time when tribalism between Labour and the SNP had got particularly bad, remembers Lindsay.
“It was so very, very hard for Labour to accept that they no longer necessarily had safe seats,” she says.
“There was always the assumption that there were certain seats that were safe Tory, certain seats that were safe Labour, there were a few safe Liberal seats, and a few might change, but if you got in there and you were in one of them, that was you.
“But the SNP disrupted the system and that made it so unacceptable, so difficult to cope with for the other parties.”
However, the 1979 election, which ushered in the era of Margaret Thatcher, would prove to be bruising for the SNP, losing all but two seats. Lindsay believes the party was partly blamed for devolution not happening by people who had turned to the party for change.
General pessimism meant that when the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly convened, its numbers were small.
“One of the lessons I’ve learnt is small numbers of people can do surprisingly large things,” she says.
“We didn’t expect to do anything dramatic, we just decided that if there was going to be a future referendum or if there’s going to be future prospects for – at that time it was only devolution – it looked as if it was on the horizon, then one thing we had to do was to show that those in favour could work together and to try and create a mood of cooperation.”
The group included extra-parliamentary figures like Labour home rule activist Bob McLean, SNP chronicler Dr Jack Brand and communist Douglas Bain, the brother of renowned fiddle player Aly. Lindsay also remembers Liberals such as Jim Wallace and Andy Myles voicing their support.
From the start, the CSA recognised the need for a constitutional convention, after seeing what “the awkward squad” and behind-the-scenes lobbying on the Westminster backbenches could do with a legislative approach.
“What we thought was that we have to keep control in Scotland of what the scheme is,” Lindsay remembers.
“We have to try ourselves to work out all our differences, things like PR, and we have to then say Scotland has worked on this and produced a scheme. ‘This is what we want’, rather than letting Whitehall cobble together some legislation.”
By 1983 Lindsay had successfully embedded the idea into SNP policy, but in the general election, the firmly anti-devolution Thatcher had won the most decisive victory in 40 years. The CSA was left attending conferences and producing leaflets, waiting for an opportunity.
That opportunity would come at the next general election.
“Now, 1987, after Thatcher got elected for the third time and Labour had won 50 seats but no government, I remember we discussed it and said, ‘well, it’s now or it’s never’. We might not succeed, but this is the best chance we’re going to get.”
Instead of initially inviting the parties to formally join a constitutional convention, the CSA shrewdly drafted a ‘Claim of Right’ document, asserting the sovereignty of the Scottish people, and asked individual politicians to sign it.
All serving Liberal and Labour MPs did so, apart from the Labour MP Tam Dalyell.
But the document, chiefly drafted by former civil servant Jim Ross, also contained a blueprint for a constitutional convention. Every MP and MEP would be asked to join, as well as a representative from every local authority and several civic organisations.
Initially, Lindsay was worried about whether Labour would get on board.
“It turned out we were worried about the wrong thing,” she laughs, recalling a speech by Donald Dewar at Stirling University in which he hinted that he thought it might be a good idea.
“It was the first hint that there was a real chance that Labour would go along with it.”
The hostility Lindsay had witnessed from Labour in 1979 had shifted during the Thatcher years, she observed, with the Labour Action Group lobbying members behind the scenes.
She recalls a dinner meeting at private social club, the New Club, in Edinburgh’s New Town.
“The New Club of all places, I’ve never been back in, but looking around the table at some of the people there and I thought, well, if they can go with this then we can get that amount of agreement, and there is probably a very real chance that we’re going to get there.
“Not an easy route, but we’re going to get there.”
Among those round that table was Magnus Linklater, the newly appointed editor of the Scotsman newspaper.
“After that, the Scotsman gave it very, very strong backing and then the Herald and most of the others did as well,” Lindsay remembers.
When it came to convincing Labour, “there were two people who had to perform a very important role here and right the way through the convention,” she says.
“One was Campbell Christie of the STUC, who was very supportive and played a really important role, the other was Charlie Gray, who was leader of Strathclyde Regional Council.”
Gray backed a single-tier local government system in the new devolution model which would effectively put him out of a job.
“He brought COSLA along and he, very importantly, he arranged for COSLA to provide the secretariat for the convention. So that was a really important role and these two men, I think, have not perhaps had the credit they deserve.”
With the backing of Labour and all other parties, the convention looked set to succeed.
“And then, astonishingly, I turned on the radio one Monday morning to hear Jim Sillars and Gordon Wilson saying the SNP was withdrawing from the convention.
“Now, it was an appallingly anti-democratic thing to do because they hadn’t even consulted the national executive and they said they were speaking on behalf of office bearers, but it turned out they hadn’t told Alex Salmond, who was a senior office bearer at that time.”
Lindsay says she was “stunned” and was flooded by letters of “outcry” from party members.
“By this time, of course, there had been the Govan by-election and therefore, Jim and some others were on a high, ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to swing people ahead of this kind of thing’.
“But it was partly because some of them had voted for it in July because they thought Labour wouldn’t. They also thought, and this was the big miscalculation they made, that if they withdrew from it, the convention would have no credibility, it would just be seen as a Lib-Lab thing.”
Lindsay tabled a motion to reverse the decision with the SNP’s national executive, but Winnie Ewing, Jim Sillars and leader Gordon Wilson were giving “strong, strong opposition to reversing the position, and when it came to a vote, I saw all these people who had been strongly supportive slipping under the table. I couldn’t even get a seconder!”
Lindsay tried to fight it at national council but knew already it was a lost cause.
“I knew we were going to lose, not because there weren’t quite probably a majority there who thought it was the wrong decision but because they realised that if they voted to overturn that position, that was the same as a vote of no confidence on most of their own leadership.”
After completing work on a campaign against nuclear dumping, Lindsay then let her membership of the SNP lapse because her place on the Constitutional Convention would have become “impossible”.
The convention began working on the practical functions of the proposed parliament.
“There was a huge elephant in the room, that we all knew about, which was PR,” says Lindsay.
“The position was that Labour’s policy was still against proportional representation, and everyone else was pretty well for it.
“We knew Labour had to move on this … or the Lib Dems were going to go out the door.
“There is this myth that has come about, and I hear it quite often mentioned, that the PR scheme was devised and promoted and supported by Labour as a way of stopping the SNP ever being able to get a majority in government for independence. This is rubbish.”
The additional member system, which would eventually form Labour’s preferred electoral system and the basis for Holyrood, had been SNP policy in the 1970s, she adds.
But with the party dominating parliamentary representation and local government, Labour was the party with the most to lose from PR.
“I remember the annual conference, I went down to observe with one or two of us.
“Again, the STUC played a very important role here because the key was, could they deliver the union vote?
“Now, there was a general resolution on electoral issues basically supporting PR in principle, but it wasn’t by any means a done deal and I know that Campbell [Christie] and others did a lot of our arm-twisting.”
Lindsay laughs as she recalls so much focus was on PR that many Labour members didn’t read the full resolution, which contained a clause supporting 50:50 women’s representation in the new parliament.
“I remember, months later, talking to a former Labour minister who was at this time in the House of Lords, and I was saying, ‘of course, it’s Labour Party policy, 50:50’.
“He said, ‘that’s absolute rubbish, when did that go through?’ I said, ‘did you not know that that was in the resolution?’”
MPs were encouraged to sign a pledge to introduce devolution with the first year of the new parliament, which is exactly what happened after Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997.
But while John Smith had been a firm supporter of devolution, Blair was harder to read, Lindsay remembers.
“Blair had come up, the STUC had had a meeting with him and [Campbell Christie] said, ‘you’d come out that room and think he’s in favour of all the things you’re in favour of’.
“He said, ‘it’s all wink-wink, just wait until we get into power, I’ll show I’m a left winger’.
“There is one useful thing the Scottish media did. Whenever Blair came up here, and it irritated him, he was asked was he fully in support of the Scottish devolution scheme and would he implement it? Of course, he had to say yes, so he had to get more and more drawn in to it.”
However, what hadn’t been expected was another referendum, this time with a second question on tax-raising powers. Lindsay says it came “totally out of the blue” and upset “many Labour people”.
This time, however, all parties united behind the Yes campaign, including an SNP now led by Alex Salmond, which left the Conservatives increasingly isolated.
“As it turned out, the parliament didn’t use the tax powers anyway, but they thought they were going to.”
But has devolution met the expectations of a woman who had campaigned for it throughout her political career?
“In significant respects, yes, because I think it has kept Scotland on a solid social democratic path,” she says, pointing out the Scottish Conservatives adopt more centrist positions to reflect the realpolitik.
But there are other aspects where Lindsay feels the parliament has been too timid, such as on land reform or local democracy.
“Nicola has been a very cautious, centrist politician,” she says.
“I mean, I was quite amazed that the Greens pushed them into allowing local government to have a tourist tax. I mean, why not? And I think they’ve been maybe over-open to corporate lobbying.”
Lindsay had joined the Labour Party ahead of devolution and even sought selection to the new parliament, but as an anti-war campaigner, she only lasted as long as the 2001 Afghan war, “when the Blair phenomenon was seen as it is”.
She insists she doesn’t regret never sitting in the parliament she helped build.
“Oh, I would have been a rebel,” she smiles. “One of the criticisms one can make about Holyrood is how few rebels there are in parties, it’s a lot worse than Westminster, in that respect.
“I know there are people who might like to rebel but they don’t rebel, the degree of conformity in the voting is a disappointment.”
Lindsay was refused selection as a Labour candidate at the same time as leading nationalist intellectual Stephen Maxwell also failed in his attempt to be selected for the SNP.
“I remember Stephen and I having a laugh in our respective positions when they had refused to allow him to be a candidate and he would have been an excellent MSP,” she says.
“Solidarity is important in parties and a degree of discipline, but only so far. One of the reasons why I don’t regret being in is because I also appreciate the freedom to do things.”
She refers to the establishment of Common Weal and her work in CND.
“The terrible thing is the party leaders probably pay more attention to the outsiders than they do to the party members. They’re contemptuous, many of them, of their rank and file members.”
Those outside party politics will also continue to have a role to play in Scotland’s constitutional future, Lindsay predicts, recalling a moment in the independence campaign ahead of the 2014 referendum when her son, Robin, spoke at a rally in a Conservative stronghold.
“It was early in the campaign and I said, ‘it’s quite a long way to go, to go and speak to 20 people’, and he came back, and he said there were nearly 200 there.
“I said, ‘gosh, I don’t believe it’, and he said, ‘yes, and there were quite a lot of people there who were there to ask questions, they were interested, they wanted to be engaged.’
“That made me think something has happened. A lot of the Scottish media did not pick it up, to look at what was happening on the ground, and I remember that was a point where I thought something is going to happen here.”
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