1979: The beginning of the end of the ancien regime that ruled Scotland and the UK

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, March 1st 2019

Today is the 40th anniversary of Scotland going to the polls to vote in the first devolution referendum on Labour’s proposals for a Scottish Assembly.

This marked the beginning of Scotland’s constitutional revolution through referendums which, at the moment, stands at a triptych of 1979, 1997 and 2014 but which may have another addition. Despite this there will be no bunting, no ceremonies and no plaques unveiled to mark today. Both then and now, Labour’s plans for an Assembly were little loved and respected. But in retrospect it has become more and more obvious that they marked the beginning of the end of the ancien regime both in Scotland and the UK.

On 1 March 1979 Scottish voters supported devolution by 51.6% to 48.4%: a winning margin of 3.2%. The country was divided and not very enthusiastic. The Central Belt of Strathclyde, Lothian, Central and Fife voted for change (as did the Western Isles), but large parts of the rest of Scotland were suspicious: including Grampian, Tayside, Dumfries and Galloway and Borders, and Orkney and Shetland emphatically against (with the last two even asked a different question to allow an opt-out from the whole thing if it went ahead).

The Assembly despite popular backing did not go ahead because of the Cunningham amendment, named after George Cunningham, Scots born Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. This was a wrecking amendment passed to the Scotland Act which stipulated that the plans would only go ahead if 40% of electors voted for them: thus counting non-voters and the dead on the electoral register as No voters.

Hence the 51.6% victory was also 32.9% of electors and seen as not an adequate mandate according to the Scotland Act 1978. Labour did not have a majority in the fag end of the 1974-79 Parliament, and were divided on devolution between arch-opponents like Tam Dalyell and Neil Kinnock and believers in the idea such as John Smith. Thus, the party didn’t have the cohesion to plan a future course.

What then happened is of historic importance. The SNP put down a vote of no confidence in the Labour Government. This was then superseded by Thatcher’s motion, as the Official Opposition, and with the SNP and Liberals voting against the minority government, Labour lost by one vote: 311 to 310. Thatcher won the subsequent election, repealed the Scotland Act, and began eighteen years of Tory rule. Hence, the Labour line for the next forty years to the SNP: ‘you brought down the Labour Government’ and ‘you voted in Thatcher’. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Many Myths of ‘79

The whole period is in fact shrouded in myths. First, a vote of no confidence emerged because Labour were so divided post-referendum. They did not have the numbers or discipline to progress devolution, but nor did they have them for repeal of the Scotland Act. Hence, they dithered and played for time, bringing about the vote of no confidence. Second, it was not just the SNP that voted against Labour, but the Liberals led by David Steel. Third, equally important, the actual vote only precipitated what was fast approaching: a general election and Tory victory, progressing it by a couple of months at best (with an election having to be held by October of 1979 at the latest).

There are deeper ghosts of 1979. The Scottish vote did not bring about the Thatcher revolution, but the former was affected by ‘the winter of discontent’: the series of strikes which drove a coach and horses through Labour’s incomes and industrial policies. Bill Miller of Glasgow University calculated at the time that if the referendum had been held pre-strikes the Assembly would have won 64:36 not 52:48. We also know that these events were much more important than any supposed ‘Argentina overhang’ due to ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’ meeting its comeuppance in Cordoba: the SNP’s vote beginning to fall before the Scottish football team left for the Southern hemisphere.

One footnote is the issue of referendums and supra-majorities. So far the Scotland Act 1978 is the only national example of this. The UK has now had eleven national and sub-national votes, including the Welsh voting narrowly for devolution in 1997, and the Brexit vote in 2016 which was won 51.9% to 48.1% – with the winning side winning 37.4% of the electorate – well below that 40% threshold. To this day there is no proper framework for triggering and holding referendums in the UK, bar the narrow Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 – something which matters in the here and now as we debate a second Brexit vote and indyref2.

What if we had got the 1979 Assembly?

Forty years on it is now much easier to see the Assembly debate as the start of something significant. It raises the issue of what would Scotland be like if we had voted the way we did and got what we voted for.

The 1979 Assembly had 142 seats elected by First Past the Post so it would have produced a huge Labour majority in the 1980s with the other parties squeezed as they were at Westminster. That Labour Party would have an unreformed party dominated by male elders and the councillor class and it would not have wielded this new layer of patronage with any generosity or inclusiveness. But, at the same time, Thatcherism would undoubtedly have been blunted, not in macro-economic terms, but in such injustices as the poll tax.

Writing in this week’s Times Kenny Farquharson explored the terrain of this counterfactual Scotland and wondered that if the 1979 Assembly had happened how things would have turned out. Thatcherism, he posed, would have felt less like an ‘existential threat’ and politics would have been deprived of ‘much of the psychodrama of Tory rule’. Today’s Scotland as a result, he mused, would have been ‘more calm and reasoned’ and our psyche ‘less troubled’. Thus, we would have been saved from our slow morphing over the years post-1979 into ‘a far angrier nation, fuelled by a generation of righteous greviance’.

There are good points in the Times piece about the degeneration of Labour and how our society and politics has changed. But are we really this land of gathering anger and grievance? Is that beyond the margins really the mood of the nation?

Certainly, the 1997 emphatic vote for a Parliament cannot be seen as one animated by anger: instead it was the articulation of a Scottish mindset which had given up on the old order. And in a different way, isn’t it just too sweeping to characterise the Scotland of 2014 and hence as this place of ‘righteous grievance’?

If the Labour Assembly had come about in 1979 it would not have fairly represented Scotland and eventually we would have had a debate on proportional representation. Politics with the background of Thatcherism would become fixed around the Labour v SNP battleground for the left and defending Scotland. And in many respects, we also dodged a bullet in 1979: putting on the backburner, ill-thought out, incoherent plans, giving Labour and others the chance to develop the more coherent, far reaching Convention inspired plans.

The End of the Old Scotland and Britain

There is a much longer story from 1979 which matters to this day about Scotland, its politics and future. First, there is the Scottish dimension. There was in 1979 and even 1997 an absence of debate and drive about democratising the country and its institutions: in the former, Labour had no interest in this, and by the latter, people were focused on achieving the Parliament. Insider Scotland showed no interest in contributing positively to this debate, and why would they as the old system of Scottish Office administration worked well for them? CBI Scotland across the three Scottish referendums campaigning ‘No No No’ and did not offering any constructive suggestions for reform.

Second, 1979 marked a turning point for Scotland, the idea of Britain and the left. It marked the final rites of social democratic Britain. As a young schoolboy at the time, I only have a distant memory of that year politically, with much more immediate things preoccupying me such as music and Dundee United winning their first ever major silverware (the League Cup). But I do remember my parents, both on the left, saying firmly that they were voting No in 1979. Their reasoning was that class mattered more than nation, and that they believed in Britain as the future and best means of lifting up working class people like themselves. It was a commonly held view then, and what came after 1979 marked the discrediting of that position.

The year 1979 is still what defines a large part of Scottish and British politics to this day. It is seen as the ‘Year Zero’ dividing the world into pre-Thatcherite and Thatcherite. Yet, the implosion of social democratic Britain that was made explicit by the events of 1979 was already underway before hand: in the tumultuous events of the 1974-79 Labour Government as the party abandoned the tenets of the post-war consensus, saw the UK humiliated in the IMF crisis, and Prime Minister Jim Callaghan explicitly embrace the politics of right-wing monetarism.

Social democratic Britain went into headlong retreat after 1979 and has never recovered, despite thirteen years of Labour Government under Blair and Brown. There is a widespread assumption in Scotland not only that things are different up here, which they are, but that somehow with our Parliament, SNP and a politics more centre-left, that we have bucked the trend of social democracy’s hollowing out. We have not and the complacencies that we have don’t do us any favours.

In future years 1979 will be understood as marking something profound and long lasting: the beginning of the end of the old order. This was defined by a conservative, insular Labour politics in Scotland and a version of Britain which had held sway over the post-war era based on the betterment of millions of citizens widening opportunities, reducing poverty and narrowing inequality.

1979 represents the final turning away from that past Britain. But the reality is that it was waning and on death row already: beaten into submission by the faultlines in Labour, the counter-offensive from the right, and the changing dynamics of society and capitalism. The old Labour-trade union collectivism could no longer deliver, as the 1980s were to show in spades.

There can be no going back to the Scotland or Britain of 1979: to that supposedly more stable, secure, settled world. It has gone forever. And instead we have to work out how we want to navigate our future path in a world of uncertainty and risk. That does mean Scottish politics has to be grown up and mature enough, particularly on the independence side, to openly talk about things like risk, uncertainty and doubt, for that makes our discussions more relevant and human, and more likely to arrive at the right conclusions.