It doesn’t take a generation to change your mind

These days the favourite sound bite of politicians opposed to Scottish independence is that the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event.  They tell us that means that there should not and cannot be another for at least another decade or two.

This is a profoundly anti-democratic stance to take. Effectively those who espouse this argument are saying that the electorate should be deprived of any means to hold the winners of the 2014 referendum to account – while at the same time they insist that the losers must respect the result. Yet really, it’s more important that it’s the winners of a vote who must respect the result, by respecting the promises and commitments that they made in order to win the vote. Democracy can only function if the electorate are able to hold the winners of elections to account. Those who won the referendum of 2014 are seeking to deprive the people of Scotland of any means of holding them to account for their failure to abide by some of the key promises and commitments that were made by the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland within the UK, not the least of which was the claim that it was only by voting no that Scotland could remain a part of the EU.

Both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were clear that they were offering personal opinions when they described the 2014 referendum as a “once in a generation opportunity”. There certainly was no firm commitment on their part that the question should never be put to Scotland again until the present generation has died off. What was really meant by the phrase was that the vote in 2014 only came about because of the unprecedented circumstances of an SNP majority in a parliament and voting system which was designed to produce minority governments.

There was nothing in the Edinburgh Agreement about it being a “once in a generation” vote. It was the Edinburgh Agreement which set the political parameters for the referendum. If the referendum really was intended to be a once in a generation affair, you’d imagine that this crucial document might have mentioned that fact. Equally there was nothing on the ballot paper to suggest that it was a “once in a generation” vote. I voted in that referendum, the question was “Should Scotland become an independent country?” not “Should Scotland become an independent country and if the result is no then do you agree to surrender your right to ever have the question asked again in your lifetime?”

In the white paper Scotland’s Future, Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, which was published by the Scottish government in the run up to the referendum of 2014, there are two mentions of the phrase “once in a generation opportunity”. On page 3 it says “If we vote No, Scotland stands still. A once in a generation opportunity to follow a different path, and choose a new and better direction for our nation, is lost.” On page 10 it describes the referendum as “a once in a generation opportunity to chart a better way.” Note the exact words there, “once in a generation opportunity”, not “once in a generation referendum”.

Those are the only two mentions of the phrase in the White Paper, both came in the introduction. Nowhere in the document is an explicit commitment that there will only be another referendum after a generation has passed, for two reasons. Firstly because those who wrote the document were hoping for a yes vote, in which case a second referendum is moot. Secondly and more importantly it’s because the phrase was never intended as a political promise. It was a description of the perceived likelihood of there being another SNP majority government in Holyrood.

It is widely known that the voting system used for Holyrood elections is designed to produce minority governments which require coalition partners. This was the result of a deal done behind closed doors between Labour’s Donald Dewar and the Lib Dems’ Menzie Campbell. The plan was that Holyrood would in perpetuity be governed by a coalition of Labour with the Lib Dems. It was designed to freeze out both the SNP and the Conservatives. And the plan worked well enough for the first ten years of the parliament. The SNP won a minority victory in 2007, much to Labour’s chagrin. Labour was expected to win the election of 2011, but much to everyone’s surprise, including the surpise of the SNP leadership, the SNP didn’t only manage to win the election, it managed to win an outright victory with a majority of Holyrood seats. No one had ever expected such an outcome to be possible, and reports in the aftermath of the election described the SNP as having broken the system.

This is the context in which the “once in a generation” comment must be understood. No one in the SNP expected the party to win an outright majority in 2011, and before that election no one had believed that the party would be in a position to deliver its promise to hold an independence referendum.

Remember that all this was taking place before the referendum of 2014 broke the mould of Scottish politics forever. The SNP, and just about everyone else back then, believed that losing the referendum would see the end of the SNP’s independence plans, and would most likely result in the party failing to remain the largest party after the next Holyrood election, never mind securing an absolute majority. It was believed that the independence referendum was only possible because of the highly unusual circumstances of the SNP’s shock majority victory in the election of 2011, a set of circumstances which were thought to be unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

The only reason that this “once in a generation” statement has become a political issue now is because there is a demand for another vote, there is a majority in Holyrood for another vote, and because that vote is highly likely to produce a yes result. Opponents of independence know that their best hope of preventing independence is to prevent the question ever being asked, and they will grasp at any straw that helps them to do so, no matter what damage it does to the fabric of Scottish democracy. They know that the people of Scotland will not judge them kindly for their failure to live up to the promises and commitments that they made to Scotland in order to secure a No victory in 2014. When politicians cannot be held to account for their failure to abide by their promises, democracy dies.

But even if it were the case that there was a firm commitment that the 2014 was “once in a generation”, so what? If a Westminster government cannot bind its successors, then why should that same rule not apply to Holyrood? If circumstances change then another referendum is perfectly justified, indeed it becomes a democratic necessity. Democracy is not an event, it’s an ongoing process. A democracy which refuses to acknowledge the right of the people to change their minds when circumstances change is no democracy at all.

Labour MP Ian Murray, that’ll be the Ian Murray who is currently banging on about how the referendum was “once in a generation”, said on Channel 4 news on Wednesday evening that there shouldn’t be another independence referendum because the people had spoken in 2014. Then he asserted that there definitely ought to be another EU referendum because the first had been won on fear and lies. Sauce for the goose, meet sauce for the gander. This is also the Ian Murray who told the House of Commons on 8 April 2019, “A democracy fails to be a democracy if the people are not allowed to change their mind. That is exactly what the people have been doing.” Indeed Ian, indeed. And they don’t need to take a generation to do so.

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31 comments on “It doesn’t take a generation to change your mind

  1. fairliered says:

    The life cycle of a slug is less than a year. So using Ian Murray or Ruth Davidson as an example, we could have a referendum every year.

  2. Jim Coll says:

    A wee point you might usefully make ginger is this. suppose there was a referendum, or even a general election, and Labour’s main plank was to renationalise the railways. Would that mean if they lost nobody should ever again talk about renationalising the railways? Or anything else?

  3. benmadigan says:

    It was an unfortunate phrase
    I thought that as soon as I heard Salmond utter it after Scotland lost IndyRef1.
    “He’s handing them a rod to break our backs” I thought

    On a more positive note, as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (the only time frame codification of “a generation”)
    a “generation” is 7 years –

    If a Border Poll fails, it must be repeated 7 years later.
    And keep on being repeated every 7 years!

    So we’re nearly there Scotland!
    “Generation” or not!

    • Millsy says:

      I don’t care how many politicians mouth ” once in a generation ” , they do NOT speak for the electorate .
      No one , and certainly no politician , has the right to speak for a whole generation of voters .

      Ian Murray is the last , dying remnant of a political party that has outlived its usefulness in Scotland . Too many of its MPs and MSPs have betrayed the ideals that Murray supposedly upholds . How many of his Labour colleagues have sold their souls to the HOL for their ermine and £300 per diem ?
      How would this great ‘internationalist ‘ describe his Labour Party’s decision to ignore the people and lie , lie and lie again to take us into a totally unjustified war in Iraq and continue lying about ever since ?
      Whatever you do , don’t stand between this Labour working class hero and his Westminster pension , followed , no doubt , by his joining all the other ”working class heroes ”’ at the bar in the HOL .

    • stewartb says:

      This ‘once in a generation’ issue is clearly going to be brought up time after time. So it’s important to get the reference to the statement in the Good Friday Agreement absolutely right.

      benmadigan writes: “If a Border Poll fails, it must be repeated 7 years later. And keep on being repeated every 7 years!” From my reading of the original document that is, to say the least, a stretch – IMHO it’s just plain wrong. Using such an interpretation as part of any attempt at rebuttal of Murray and his ilk would do us no favours – the interpretation error would be pointed out and the point lost.

      But you can judge for yourself. Below is a direct quote from the section of the Agreement that refers to a period of ‘seven’ years.

      “SCHEDULE 1
      1. The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order.
      2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
      3. The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1 earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll under this Schedule.” (my emphasis)


      My point really is that the statement here regarding seven years is a powerful, additional contribution to the argument without any need to embellish it (IMHO incorrectly) with “MUST be repeated”.

      • Interpolar says:

        Indeed, if I interpret what you are saying correctly, a one-to-one application would mean that another vote on independence could be deferred at least until September 2021.

        However, this should not be relevant to Scotland.

  4. Macart says:

    Neatly done. 🙂

  5. Margaret Noakes says:

    Scotch pie or clootie dumpling ?

  6. Billy Watt says:

    “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

    David Davis, Conservative, November 2012

    I guess he was stealing his lines from someone else….

  7. JimW says:

    In the run up to the independence referendum in 2014 I heard the “once in a generation” phrase used repeatedly by Alex Salmond and others. I believed it to be true, but I never at any time took it to mean anything other than if the vote was lost, that it was unlikely that any UK government would agree to another independence referendum anytime soon. I don’t remember anyone suggesting that if Scotland was “allowed this privilege” then we wouldn’t ask again for a generation. What has puzzled me is why no one in the Scottish Government has challenged it being continually cast up as though it had been some kind of manifesto promise that has been cast aside. Did I miss something?

  8. […] Wee Ginger Dug It doesn’t take a generation to change your mind These days the favourite sound bite of politicians opposed to Scottish independence is […]

  9. Alba woman says:

    It’s basically white noise emanating from in the end, insignificant folk. It only seems loud because they get some time to give forth by the profoundly undemocratic MSM.

    Forwards and Onwards!

  10. ArtyHetty says:

    Excellent article, will share.

    Ian Murray, do people in England not think who th fck is he? Surely many people in Scotland have no idea who this little trougher is, yet he is given airtime, a Britnat proud Scot butt voice. Scotland is only given a platform or voice when an insignificant British Ntaionalist trougher is wheeled onto the BBC or other Britnats’ biased media stage, to spout absolute rubbish and lies.

    Desperate times for the Britnats, they are terrified. Good.

  11. Liz g says:

    Well said Paul and it needed sayin….
    I’m sick of the but but ” Nicola/Alex/the white paper said once in a generation ” whine…

    They might very well have…. Why Should I care ?

    They lost that vote so are under no obligation to stick to anything they said, only a fool would expect them to be….
    The winners of that vote on the other hand are obliged to keep to their word. Or pay the consequences…
    And the losers of that vote are entitled to reframe the debate.
    Where is the issue here? That’s how democracy works…
    It’s not as if it were..
    A repeated offer made again and again like say, “We will abolish the House of Lords” that could indeed fairly be highlighted as a broken promise…

  12. We don’t need to justify anything.
    Davidson Rennie and Leonard.
    In October apply for refugee status and flee across the border back into your Holy Land.
    This is the nonsense to which the Brit Nats would reduce the debate.
    We are holding a plebiscite and we shall prevail.
    I’ll personally drive any Brit to the Border come Freedom Day.

  13. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon could have carved the words ‘once in a generation’ in stone for all I care. The important point about any vote is that is should be fair, open and free from intimidation.
    A couple of nights before the vote I was knocking doors in a Glasgow scheme. Pensioners told me that Labour (I presume they meant Better Together) had been round the previous night and told them they would lose their State Pension if the vote was Yes. One of the pensioners told me his daughter had been phoned by her boss and told the company might close their Scottish operations if the vote was Yes. I read that a large employer in Govan had a meeting at which the same threat was made. (A brave employee challenged them on this.) After the vote I spoke to a car salesman who said he voted No because he was afraid the company would close their Scottish operation.
    So these people were going into the voting booth with the fear that they were going to lose their means of living if they voted in a particular way. This fear was put into their heads by the Better Together campaign as a campaign strategy.
    Therefore, the Better Together campaign used real threats to intimidate people. Therefore, the result of the vote is invalid and needs to be re-run.

    • Anne Martin says:

      The problem is, how do we stop the same thing happening again? 😡😡

      • Millsy says:

        Too many people have been fooled by ‘them’ first time round ( 2014 ) ; as George Bush tried to say – ”Fool me once shame on you , fool me twice shame on me ! ”

      • We can’t control what Better Together say or do. But as Milly says people are now wiser to the tactics of Better Together. We need to work on an individual and an organisational basis to debunk the lies. So conversations at bus stops and street stalls where information is available are both weapons we have to use.
        I would also like to see a more robust response from the SNP to these sort of lies. (The fact that Ian Murray is still trotting out the “SNP were the cause of the Thatcher years” lie shows the need.”)
        I would like to see a poster campaign nailing the Better Together lies during the 2014 referendum as a run up to the next referendum and I would like to see it now.

  14. bringiton says:

    Murray and his fellow Westminsterites now have to con vince Scots that they are better off remaining as a parish of Greater England rather than returning to our historical state as an independent European country.
    England or Europe,that is the question.

  15. smac1314 says:

    How do the likes of Murray and Swinson reconcile their views on the two referendums? How does anyone’s brain hold such obviously conflicting thoughts?

  16. Cubby says:

    An excellent analysis demolishing the nonsensical lies about promising a once in a lifetime/generation referendum.

  17. JMD says:

    Millsy 11.39

    I remember reading that George Bush had also said “You can only fool some of the people all the time, those are the people we need to focus on.”

  18. Charles McGregor says:

    Are we not leaving the Millennial Generation and entering the Brexit Generation as we speak?

  19. Charles McGregor says:

    I think the only real chance of hard brexit being avoided now is if a GNU took charge of the situation but Corbyn would never agree to that willingly.

    A ‘no hard brexit’ GNU would only have a chance of flying with joint leadership. Corbyn, Swinson and a sensible Con remainer e.g. Ken Clarke. In a sane world Sturgeon would also be onboard but the ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ mantra of Westminster has always been and always will be ‘Scotland will have no say in anything, ever.’

  20. MF says:

    I am fed up of the constant mantra from the colonialists that Ms Sturgeon and/or Mr Salmond said it was a “once in a generation opportunity. Why? Because, actually the ones claiming the Scottish referendum was a “once in a generation opportunity” since 2014 were:

    a) the UK government itself:
    “The Scottish independence referendum was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for people in Scotland to have their say about the country’s future”
    You can read this:
    And also:
    “On September 18, voters in Scotland will go to the polls and be asked to make a crucial decision about Scotland’s future. The referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for people in Scotland to have their say about the country’s future”

    The then PM of the UNited Kingdom David Cameron in his statement to the media after Scotland’s independence referendum:
    “Let us also remember why it was right to ask the definitive question, Yes or No. Because now the debate has been settled for a generation or as Alex Salmond has said, perhaps for a lifetime”

    You can read the rest of his statement here:

    And again one year after the referendum took place in his “PM statement on the anniversary of the Scottish referendum” Here are his words:
    “We all agreed – as do the Scottish public – that the independence referendum should be a ‘once in a generation’ or a ‘once in a lifetime’ event. So now it is time to move on”
    You can read the rest of his statement here:

    2 days before the referendum, the propaganda text had not been agreed quite yet so at that time, the meme was “This is a once-and-for-all decision”
    You can read it here:

    Ever since, we have had labour politicians, tory politicians, libdem politicians, reporters etc repeating the same mantra over and over again.
    One day before the referendum, here were words by Gordon Brown:
    “This is not a decision just for this time: this is a decision for all time. This is a decision that cannot be reversed or undone. This is a decision from which there is no going back. This is a decision when once it’s done, it’s done”

    Now, what were the real words of Mr Salmond?

    “If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997.That’s what I mean by a political generation. In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.”

    In this interview with Mr Marr, he clearly says that and he also says that HE would not call another independence referendum in A POLITICAL GENERATION, but he was perfectly open at the idea of a rerun of the referendum because he knew that history would repeat itself and indeed there is some kind of deja vu here. The first time Scotland voted for devolution, even when it won, it was rejected because it did not reach certain threshold set up by Westminster colonialists as an excuse to thwart devolution. It was followed by a second vote, the date dictated by Westminster. Mr Salmond, with the evident interference of Westminster, knew the matter would not be settled with just one go. But he was very careful with his words. He say that HE would not call another referendum, but I am sure I am not the only one that thinks that when that interview was being conducted, Mr Salmond knew he would resign as FM should Yes had lost the referendum. Now, he is no longer the FM of Scotland and he is not who will be calling the second indyref, is he? So he did not lie. What is happening here is that his phrase has not only been taken completely out of context but its meaning is being deliberately extended well beyond its real boundaries so it affects everybody else besides Mr Salmond when he clearly only included himself. With the devolution vote Scotland had to wait 18 years because it was reliant on Westminster to call that referendum. That is no longer the case, as Scotland has its own parliament which will be calling the shots in that matter, we just need to elect a pro indy majority.

    Looking retrospectively, it is crystal clear, in my opinion, what is going on here. Not only Mr Salmond knew that the 2014 indyref would not settle the matter. The colonialists knew this too, mainly because they knew they would not deliver their promises (only 3 days later Cameron would announce EVEL). Knowing that a pro-indy majority could very well remain in place for quite sometime (particularly after the tories call a EU ref) they started their once in a lifetime propaganda nonsense even before indyref. The colonialists were the ones telling us BEFORE and have been telling us ever since that the referendum was a one off, just because they knew indyref1 would not settle the matter.


    We are being conned. This “once in a generation nonsense” is being used as firehose propaganda by the colonialists and the tories, labour. libdems and the many trolls fighting against independence are hiding like cowards behind Mr Salmond’s innocent words so he gets the blame instead of them all. Classic case of don’t look here, just look over there.

    This to me stinks at being a concerted case of propaganda by the English establishment where tories and some elements of labour and LibDems( the first propaganda was being released with the LibDems in a coalition gov) are clearly colluding with each other. The more different individuals bring the “once in a generation” mantra, the more they intensify the volume, the more desperate they are for us to believe it and that is why we should counteract it. It is bogus. We should be expecting progressively more and more senior colonialist figures coming out an parroting the propaganda message to make it credible as they have been doing the same for over 5 years. We should also put together a list of just how many colonialist politicians, lords and ladies, BBC reporters, MSM editors etc actually are part of the plot by repeating the same propaganda. Name and shame.

    View at

    “The experimental psychology literature suggests that, all other things being equal, messages received in greater volume and from more sources will be more persuasive. Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own … receiving a message via multiple modes and from multiple sources increases the message’s perceived credibility, especially if a disseminating source is one with which an audience member identifies”

    The PM and the website of the UK gov are indeed sources the audience identifies. We also have plenty of identifiable sources among labour, libdems, tory MPs, MSPs, the BBC, the newspapers and of course the comments sections courtesy of the colonialist trolls.

    And then they talk about Russian propaganda when we have the masters of propaganda right here in the UK.

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