The Roads to Referendum: 1

A campaigner in the 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum

This year’s Scottish Independence Referendum is  one of the most important political events in the lives of most living Scots. It outweighs in importance, for Scotland, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It outweighs the powerhouse rise to prominence of a rejuvenated China or an India that is on its way to being not just a regional, but a global, superpower. It is even more important, though perhaps less so, than the accession of the UK to what was then the EEC and is now the European Union. In this series of articles I am going to outline the history of the Referendum, as I saw it evolve.

The coming Referendum is the single most significant event to occur in Scotland since the end of World War Two. That event brought about the end of the Imperial era, in which European states used their military strength to dominate the planet. With Europe in ruins, and the United Kingdom pauperised, the control systems that had held empires in place collapsed. The British Empire, which Scotland had been a part of, was consigned to history.At the same time, the end of that war laid the groundwork for the New Europe, an association of states which came together partly for economic reasons, but perhaps more, for the underlying imperative that has animated the project ever since: peace. This project has known many phases, from the original European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community (EEC) and is now known, simply, as the European Union or EU.

Scotland is part of that Union. We are Europeans now, not colonialists or imperialists, and the nature of our relationship to our neighbours both within and without the United Kingdom has slowly but inexorably changed.

Many Scots who vote in this year’s Independence Referendum will be voting for the first time, and many will be very young, thanks to the Scottish Government’s brave and forward-looking decision to extend the right to vote to everyone over the age of sixteen. Yet the story of how we got here is often not well understood.

1979: The First Cracks Appear

This year’s referendum began in the run-up to another, held long before a significant proportion of this year’s voters were born. Over thirty years ago, in response to an uprise in national sentiment, buoyed by confidence at the discovery of North Sea Oil, a weak and battle-weary Labour administration in London arranged a referendum on Scottish Devolution, or Home Rule. This had been promised by the Labour Party since the days of Kier Hardie, but had never been delivered.

This referendum was held in 1979 and, contrary to what appears to be much of currently held opinion, the vote was for devolution, albeit by a slim majority: 52% in favour. This vote had cathartic consequences for the UK, for Scotland and for the party that had been instrumental in forcing it, the Scottish National Party, the SNP.

In no small part, the magnitude of the consequences was due to the fact that although a majority of those who voted were in favour, an infamous and scurrilous get-out clause had been inserted into the enabling legislation by Labour backbencher George Cunningham. It was supported by a group of other MPs, notably Neil Kinnock, who was to become, and to fail as,  Labour’s Great White Hope of the 1980s.

This was the so-called Forty Percent Rule, which said that it was not enough for a majority of those who voted to tick the box that said “Yes,” but that over 40% of the entire electorate had to vote for devolution for it to count. This threshold was rightly seen by the canny lads in London as a bar too high. However, as a measure of the inequity of this rule it should be borne in mind that UK governments themselves almost never achieve this level of popular mandate.

In the aftermath of that vote, the minority Labour government, led by Jim Callahan and held in power by the Liberals under David Steel – the infamous ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ – collapsed, resulting in a General Election, at which that great Nemesis for Scotland, Margaret Thatcher, was voted in by a slender majority.

Thatcher was so toxic in Scotland that she galvanised resistance. The enemy outside put domestic dispute on hold. Perhaps for the last time, ever, most Scots believed that the best thing to do to save their vision of a left-wing, socialist-leaning Scotland, was to unite with their allies south of the border to fight the common enemy. Labour in Scotland was rejuvenated, and the Tories squeezed out north of the border.

The SNP, which had invested every effort in the referendum, won it, and then had seen victory snatched away by Westminster, retired to lick its wounds and re-invent itself. The Scottish electorate had been given a harsh lesson that said, ‘It doesn’t matter how you vote, Westminster is where the power is.’ The puppy had been smacked. The puppy would be obedient. For now.

Ten years later, however, things had changed again. In the first place, a charismatic and fiery politician, an economist, had begun to rise through the ranks of the SNP. His name was Alex Salmond, and he was – and remains – an iconoclast. Coming from that northeast Scottish tradition of dogged determination and preparedness to argue his corner, he began to bring together a young, dynamic core of politicians and activists. The wounded SNP began to feel fire in its belly again, as it had in 1967, when Winnie Ewing became the first SNP Member of the Westminster Parliament after taking Hamilton in a by-election.

Another change was that Thatcher’s very manner itself – always a problem for her outside the south-east of England – began to corrode even her home support. Her dictatorial management style had progressively lost her ground in both Parliament and the Cabinet. The writing was on the wall; a so-called ‘stalking horse’ appeared, a leadership election was called, and a rather mild-looking man called John Major took over the reins of the Tory Party.

With Thatcher gone, a slow, but massively important paradigm shift began to take place. Although Scottish Labour was at the heart of what was to become ‘New Labour’ which would eventually win the 1997 General Election to end eighteen years of Tory rule, Major did not provoke the kind of vitriolic hatred that was directed at Thatcher, and the unified front of opposition to her, which had, for probably the very last time, provoked a genuinely British – in the sense of being cross-border – political will, began to crumble.

Into the space left, in Scotland, the SNP began to expand its influence.

To be continued…

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