Vox Populi: ‘The Voice of the ‘Wee Society’: the referenda experience in Scottish local government since 1868’

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On 23 April 2013, as part of the on-going Vox Populi series, the Centre was pleased to welcome Irene Maver, who discussed ‘The Voice of the ‘Wee Society’: the referenda experience in Scottish local government since 1868’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr Maver framed her lecture with a discussion of the key focus of David Cameron’s election manifesto in 2010, the ‘big society’. This was a direct response to Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous claim, ‘there is no such thing as society’ and at this stage, he was attempting to distance himself from Thatcher’s legacy. The basic idea of ‘big society’ was the encouragement of direct participation in local politics by the wider populace. Yet in many ways, Cameron was merely re-branding Tony Blair’s concept of the ‘stakeholder society’, which championed similar ideals such as social fairness. Ultimately, Cameron’s ‘big society’ failed to capture the public imagination. Perhaps because in Scotland at least, engagement in local politics was nothing new.

Dr Maver outlined the long history of the royal burghs in Scotland, whose history stretches back to the twelfth century. They were safeguarded through the Act of Union in 1707 but their strength was finally undermined in the twentieth century. In the 1800s, most of the royal burghs were inviolable, with little financial accountability as shown in the spectacular bankruptcy of Edinburgh in 1833. Glasgow was an exception to this as she was headed by the burgeoning merchant class. Annual local burgh elections took place and before 1975, one-third of representatives were elected on a rotational basis, ensuring some measure of public representation.

In the face of widespread fear of a cholera outbreak, Glasgow took considerable pride in the 1859 Loch Katrine scheme, which provided fresh water for the city. This signalised Glasgow as a leading provider of municipal services. To the local Glaswegians, they were following in the footsteps of progressive cities like Venice. Around this time in the east, Edinburgh underwent a volatile local debate on this issue, finally deciding on the Moorfoot water scheme in a plebiscite (referendum) in 1873.

Glasgow may have been a leading-light in the supply of clean water to her inhabitants, yet she was shamefaced for a long time due to local resistance to free city libraries. Lagging behind other cities and smaller burghs like Airdre, the Glasgow rate-payers (those eligible to vote) were suspicious of the cities civic leaders, fearing they intended to monumentalise their own personal achievements. In 1877, a referendum was held on the issue and the scheme for free libraries was voted down, two-to-one against. The working class also feared the liberal middle-class were attempting to reshape their leisure habits, subliminally instilling liberal values. In 1881, the enfranchisement of female householders allowed women to vote on these issues (though they were prevented from attending public debates for fear of excessive ‘jostling’). An army of female activists shored up support for the ‘yes’ vote on this library issue in 1888, yet the ‘no’ campaign was successful once again. Eventually in 1898, the local leaders found a back-door solution and pushed through the scheme under parliamentary sanction.

Leaping ahead into the twentieth-century, the issue of water privatisation during John Major’s term as Prime Minister evoked incredible resistance from the people of Glasgow. In 1993 a referendum was held on this issue, which managed a record 71.5% turnout, with 97% of votes against privatisation of the hitherto publicly owned water supplies. This was interpreted as a displaced vote for home rule, as calls of devolution were growing. The Victorian origins of Glasgow’s public water supply was romanticised by the anti-privatisation campaign and was utilised as an instrument of ‘political purity’. The Conservatives’ privatisation attempts were regarded as anti-democratic. 

Dr Maver’s concluded that these experiences of local government referenda show the evolution of democracy goes back a long way. These referendums could be intensely political and often divisive, even seemingly innocuous plans like free libraries. The results of these referendums reflect an opinion ‘frozen in time’ and do not take into consideration changing habits.

After the lecture, Dr Maver took questions and comments. One speaker alluded to the ‘sham’ consultation of the regeneration of George Square, with the local council offering a range of options yet ignoring the generally negative public opinion on them. Dr Maver agreed a referendum would be a suitable way of settling the issue and ‘injecting a sense of purpose’ into the project.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

The Vox Populi series continues on 9 May with Dr. Christopher Harvie’s discussion of ‘Remembering 1979’. This will be held in Room 611 of the Boyd Orr Building at 5.30pm.

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