The Vampire Rises : Roads to Referendum 3

Pic: Rod Fleming

Eight years after Scotland voted ‘Yes’ to Devolution, but had seen this victory snatched away by Westminster, things were very different.

The most hated Prime Minister in recent history – possibly all history as far as the Scots are concerned – Margaret Thatcher, had focussed minds on the fight against her all over the UK. Scottish Labour rode high on this wave of anti-Tory sentiment, and lost no time in asserting that it was the only way to be sure to get rid of the Tories. A vote, they claimed, for any other party, was a ‘vote for the Tories’.

But it was a gamble. Thatcher’s popularity in England had increased radically since she first had been elected. In England, though far less in Scotland, her resolve in fighting and defeating the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Isles, had played well for her. She called an election in 1983 and found her majority increased.

In 1987, Thatcher called another General Election. The Labour Party, which had been led by Neil Kinnock, the Great White Hope, since the 1983 defeat, threw everything into the campaign. In Scotland, they promised, this would be the election at which the hated Thatcher would be consigned to history.

So the Scots dutifully listened and overwhelmingly voted Labour. In fact they did everything Labour had hoped; the Tories found their seats in Scotland slashed from 21 to 10.

Perhaps never has a political party ever won so hollow a victory. The exact same disaster that had befallen the SNP at the 1979 Referendum rebounded and crashed into Scottish Labour, rolling its forces into disarray. Yes they had marshalled all their reserves, yes they had fought a hard and well-managed campaign, and yes, they had achieved their goal of crushing Scottish Tory representation at Westminster, well, in the House of Commons at least.

But in England, Labour’s vote did not hold up, and the Tories were re-elected. Scotland still had a Tory government, and Thatcher was still in charge.

Scottish Labour’s bluff had been called. It didn’t matter whether the Scots turned out in force to vote for Labour, it wouldn’t have mattered even if every Tory candidate in Scotland had lost his or her deposit. The democratic deficit inherent in the Union, in which Scotland would always have to do as she were told by the English electorate, meant that the Scottish Labour promise – that it was the party that could deliver Scotland from the Tories – had been shown to be sheer hubris. The Scots would get whatever government the English voted for.

This was a catalytic moment. If Scottish Labour could not deliver Scotland from Thatcher, then who could? There was only one possible candidate – the SNP.

The 1987 General Election was a tipping-point. The SNP came out of the doldrums with fire in its belly again.  A new, younger core of activists had formed around the capable Alex Salmond and while the old leadership remained in power, everyone knew its days were numbered. It was still a long way from being a force that could make history, but the evidence was clear; it had shaken off the weariness of a victory turned into defeat.

Nationalism was not going to go away, no matter what the unionist parties said. This was the thorn in the side that would not be drawn; but for the unionists, if it could not be drawn it had to be neutralised.

Many in Scottish Labour also realised that they risked being caught by a reaction, if voters, dissatisfied with Labour’s failed promise, turned away from it. A new initiative was needed, something that would spike the SNPs guns forever. The relatively poor showing of the SNP at General Elections at this time is misleading; at local and regional level within Scotland, they were making ground again, something which was anathema to Labour in particular.

However, the anger and disillusion at the result of the 1987 election was by no means limited to Scottish Labour. The whole country – with the possible exception of the remaining Tories, whose opinion had been rendered and remains irrelevant – was beelin at what had happened. Yet AGAIN, Scotland had had a government imposed upon it by England.

This awareness, that Scotland was being abused and was, within a Union manipulated by the larger partner, powerless to do anything about it, galvanised the political world. In 1988, less than a year after the fateful election that had seen Labour win in Scotland overwhelmingly yet have the chalice of victory cast from its lips by the democratic deficit, a new initiative emerged in Scottish politics.

It would be called the Claim of Right, and with it, a campaign for a new referendum was launched.


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