The 'Once in a Generation' Myth

Both Salmond and Sturgeon used the phrase in 2014 but it was never a pledge. Rather it was an attempt to gee up their supporters by reminding them of the context in which the referendum was taking place at all. The Scottish electoral system was designed to prevent any one party gaining an overall majority at Holyrood. Yet the SNP achieved that in 2011 and thus the Cameron government felt obliged to allow the referendum which had been in the SNP's manifesto. The overall majority is very hard to replicate, hence it was a 'once in a generation' opportunity.

Both Johnson and Corbyn used the phrase during the 2019 General Election. Johnson repeatedly told us it was 'a once in a generation opportunity to get Brexit done'. Nobody is suggesting there should not be another UK election for 25, even 40 years, as Unionists do for the 2014 Referendum. Quite obviously it was said to gee up their supporters, just like in 2014.

There was nothing in the Edinburgh  Agreement about it being a 'once in a generation' vote nor did it say so on the ballot paper.

We are constantly being told to respect the referendum result but Unionists have not fulfilled the promises made to secure that result. The two most prominent promises were that only by voting No could we stay in the EU and that the permanence of Holyrood would be guaranteed in a Scotland Act. Also, the powers which were transferred were well short of what had been promised. If the winners cannot be held to account for the promises made to secure the win that is undemocratic, yet they demand the losers respect the result.

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. (This has been said by Ian Murray MP!)

Who can seriously deny there has not been a material change of circumstances since 2014? The UK which the No side voted for no longer exists. The SNP won the 2016 Scottish election on a manifesto which stated that a material change would justify a second referendum and have since won a vote in the Scottish Parliament for one to be held. In the 2019 General Election they won handsomely on a manifesto which declared that Scotland had a right to decide its own future and the Tories, who campaigned solely on saying No to another referendum lost seats and share of the vote.


  • The phrase referred to the opportunity to have a referendum due to the SNP majority at Holyrood
  • It is a phrase commonly used by politicians at election times
  • The Edinburgh Agreement only called on both sides to respect the result
  • The vote was won largely because of the Unionist promises to keep us in the EU, guarantee the permanence of Holyrood and that we were an equal partner in the Union; all broken
  • Only a few of the powers promised for Holyrood have been devolved
  • If Westminster cannot bind successive governments, why should Holyrood have to?
  • Material circumstances have changed dramatically since 2014 and the SNP manifesto of 2016 said if this happened it had the right to seek another vote