What if Scotland voted “Yes” to an Assembly in 1979?

Tom Chidwick wonders what would have happend if Scotland had voted Yes in the 1979 referendum……

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As the country’s first referendum campaign drew to a close, Gordon Brown, the chairman of the Labour Party’s official ‘Labour Movement Yes’ campaign, warned that ‘to be swayed now by the scaremongering and false fears peddled by the money men of the “No” campaign would be like scoring an own goal in the last few seconds of a big match’. For the former student rector of the University of Edinburgh, who would become the most famous of Raith Rovers’ supporters, the referendum was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change north of the border. For weeks, the opinion polls had been tightening as the “No” campaign made a remarkable comeback and began to eat into the “Yes” campaign’s sizeable lead. On the final Sunday before referendum day, System Three, the independent Scottish pollster, predicted that ‘Yes’, which had been leading ‘No’ by 64 per cent to 36 in mid-January, now had just a 52:48 advantage. 

While ‘Yes’ campaigners frantically attempted to get the Assembly over the line, there was a growing sense that the complexities of devolution and an increasingly negative campaign had failed to capture the country’s imagination. As George Skinner, an Aberdonian plater, told The Guardian two weeks before: ‘We’re just concerned about our next pay packet, about prices and the cost of living’. Astonishingly, even the Daily Mirror’s polling day coverage, which centred on two topless models who, the paper forecast, would ‘get an overwhelming “Yes” vote for their assemblies’, seemed to have failed to invigorate the Scottish people. It was also assumed that bad weather north of the border had seriously affected the “Yes” vote by discouraging floating voters from casting their ballots. In Aberdeen, one ‘No’ voter, Mrs Bella Lawrie, whose advanced years her local paper did not disclose, performed her civic duty in the rain, only to break her leg as she left the polling station at the city’s Mile End Primary School. 

As Scotland waited to hear the Assembly’s fate, journalists began to gather at New St Andrew’s House, the Brutalist administrative centre of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh’s St James Centre, which rightly share the ‘monstrous carbuncle’ epithet that the Prince of Wales once applied to an extension to the National Gallery in London. The announcement, which would be made by the chief counting officer and former Secretary of the Scottish Home and Health Department, Ronald Fraser, would be witnessed by over 200 members of the fourth estate, travelling from as far afield as South Africa, East Germany, China, Canada and Bulgaria, as well as six Parisian students who chattered excitedly in French throughout the proceedings. 

After Fraser announced that Scotland had voted “Yes” by just 77,000 votes on a turnout of 63.8 per cent, Bruce Millan, the Secretary of State for Scotland, took to his feet to congratulate Scots on making devolution a reality, although he acknowledged that his fellow countrymen had not taken the opportunity ‘with the decisiveness which they ought to have done’. Nevertheless, the Dundonian, who had been the MP for Glasgow Craigton since 1959, promised to organise elections to the new Assembly as quickly as possible. While some questioned whether such a small majority mandated such a major constitutional change, newspapers declared Scotland to be ‘a nation again’, with one admirer of Scotland’s national bard celebrating ‘the country o’ Worth’. That evening, delirious ‘Yes’ campaigners lit a vast bonfire beside the incomplete National Monument atop Calton Hill and, as the flames grew, launched into an impromptu rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’. Few could have missed the extra gusto with which the SNP contingent proclaimed that ‘we can still rise now, and be the nation again, that stood against him, Proud Edward’s Army, and sent him homeward tae think again’. 

Comment: impact of the 1979 devolution referendum | The Scotsman

Amidst the jubilation north of the border, few reflected on the fact that it could have been markedly different had the infamous 40 per cent rule, which had been dreamt up by ‘No’-voting Labour MPs, passed the House of Commons in January 1978. The amendment, which was put to the House by Labour MP George Cunningham, was rumoured to be the brainchild of Robin Cook, the urbane and forensic MP for Edinburgh Central, and would have required at least 40 per cent of eligible voters to vote ‘Yes’ for it take effect. Had Cook and Tam Dalyell, the unofficial ‘Leader of the Opposition’ to the Bill, not had their doubts, publicly refusing to endorse it after deciding that it looked too much like ‘an English trick’, Scotland would now be lamenting a missed opportunity – an independent legislature which only 32 per cent of Scots had voted for. 

In the days following Fraser’s announcement, there was a growing sense that Callaghan’s administration might not survive long enough to oversee the first round of elections to Scotland’s fledgling legislature. While the current parliamentary session was not scheduled to end until October, the government – which had been without any sort of majority since the end of the Lib-Lab Pact in September 1978 – now found itself reliant on the goodwill of the Scottish National Party. As Roy Hattersley, the Prices and Consumer Protection Secretary, later recalled, the government ‘lived precariously … cobbling together majorities night by night by recruiting whatever allies were available’. 

The government’s problems were compounded by the fact that it was also unable to decide on when the Assembly elections should be held. While the SNP favoured going to the polls in June 1979, the civil service informed the Cabinet that it would not be feasible before autumn at the very earliest. As the Prime Minister retired to Upper Clayhill Farm, his bolthole in East Sussex, for the weekend to consider his options, a small group of Cabinet ministers advanced Thursday 9 August as a possible compromise, which they believed could satisfy the SNP and allow the civil service enough time to review the country’s electoral register.

While the Prime Minister sounded out his Cabinet colleagues and consulted his party’s Scottish Executive, Westminster gossips suggested that he would side with the civil service, hoping to ensure that the Assembly elections would coincide with an October general election. As Callaghan’s critics recalled, his refusal to go to the country the previous October had arguably cost Labour its best chance of winning a majority and implied that the Prime Minister would again prefer to delay the ballots until his government had a surer footing. 

Isobel Lindsay on the 1979 and 2014 referendums | The Scotsman

When the only Royal Navy man to assume the premiership took to the despatch box on 5 March 1979 – the House of Commons’ first day back after its February recess – he announced, to widespread surprise, that the first round of Assembly elections would be held on Thursday 7 June. To the horror of many in Scottish Labour, the Prime Minister had complied with the Nationalists’ demand for a June ballot and had, worst of all, arranged the country’s inaugural devolved elections on the 650thanniversary of the death of Robert the Bruce. While Callaghan made no secret of his distaste for the Nationalists – denouncing the SNP as ‘extremists’ during a visit to the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in February – his government’s precarious position in Parliament made appeasing them something of a necessity. 

As ‘Sunny Jim’ explained to an unsettled House of Commons, the Assembly’s use of Scotland’s existing seventy-one parliamentary constituencies would allow for a prompter vote and ensure that the Scottish elections would coincide with the first ever direct elections to the European Parliament. Likewise, with one eye on the finite amount of sitting time that the government had left, Callaghan announced that it was his intention that the election of the first cohort of ‘assemblymen’ would be wrapped up before the election of the next UK parliament. As Callaghan concluded his statement by declaring that it was now ‘Scotland’s moment’, Margaret Thatcher’s solemn expression suggested that the Conservative front bench was now keenly aware that they had been wrongfooted by a wily and spirited Prime Minister. 

On Monday 2 July 1979, as television and radio crews descended on ‘Auld Reekie’ to capture the beginning of a new chapter in Scotland’s national story, the Assembly was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen, whose arrival on Calton Hill had been heralded by a 21-gun salute from Edinburgh Castle. After a somewhat lacklustre election campaign, the consecration of the first Scottish legislature in 272 years made for box-office viewing, as the great and the good of Scottish society and the new assemblymen began the service by parading from the home of the old Scottish Parliament behind St Giles’ Cathedral to the building which had been renamed ‘New Parliament House’, journeying down the High Street and along North Bridge before heading along Waterloo Place and climbing the steps to the Assembly’s Athenian portico. While the monarch had caused some controversy during her Silver Jubilee in 1977 by declaring that she could not forget that she had been crowned ‘Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, she expressed her desire that the Assembly would help the country ‘to realise its full potential’ by being both ‘responsible and responsive to the people of Scotland’. 

While the elections had resulted in only a small majority for Labour, the party took heart from the fact that, even in the days of what had been a tumultuous government, it could still reign supreme north of the border. In Coatbridge & Airdrie, Helen Liddell had successfully contested her home seat, with the breakaway Scottish Labour Party’s Jim Sillars – who it was widely expected would lose his South Ayrshire seat at the next Westminster elections – taking the other of the constituency’s two assembly seats. Moreover, the election of George Foulkes – the chair of Lothian Regional Council’s education committee, who had come to national attention in February 1979 when he suggested that the Scottish Education Department had ‘more secrets than the Kremlin’ – ensured that one of the party’s most promising stars would also sit on the assembly’s brown leather benches. 

The constitutional monstrosity in respect of referendums cannot be allowed  to continue - Prospect Magazine

It was noticeable, however, that a number of the party’s big-hitters had refused to stand, with many speculating that, even with a spell on the opposition benches beckoning, the likes of Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown continued to see Westminster as a bigger and brighter stage. While many activists had urged Bruce Millan to stand for the Assembly, believing him to be a shoo-in for First Secretary, he had instead opted to remain at Westminster, feeling ‘duty-bound’, if only for a few months before a general election to oversee the Assembly’s first steps. The main beneficiary of Millan’s decision was Harry Ewing, his junior at the Scottish Office, whose victory in one of Stirling’s two Assembly seats made him a surprise favourite to head the country’s first devolved executive. 

While not initially the front-runner, Ewing – who narrowly beat Dr Jesse Dickson Mabon, the ‘cheerful and chubby-faced’ now former MP for Greenock & Port Glasgow, to his party’s nomination for First Secretary – was a popular, if unforeseen, choice among his fellow assemblymen. A former foundryman and a skilled parliamentarian, Ewing had enhanced his reputation during the Scotland Act’s difficult passage through Parliament and, crucially, had little time for the ‘separatists’ whose dogged pursuit of independence, he maintained, had cost the ‘Yes’ campaign innumerable votes. 

Although Ewing had sound devolutionist credentials, those most opposed to his appointment as Scotland’s inaugural First Secretary came from within his own party, arguing that a dour, upstanding, fervently Eurosceptic Presbyterian was not an ambitious enough choice to help forge a new and better nation. Ewing’s election also took the liberalisation of abortion law (which he firmly opposed) and the long-overdue decriminalisation of homosexuality off the Assembly’s agenda. This disappointed Labour ‘Yes’ campaigners, who had hoped that a campaign by the executive – which was charged with administering abortion laws set by Westminster – to encourage Parliament to liberalise family law and improve women’s rights would demonstrate the Assembly’s ability to move the country forward. 

The elections gave the SNP a respectable showing on Calton Hill, although not the majority that some thought inevitable following the ‘Yes’ vote on 1 March. Despite the use of first-past-the-post to select Scotland’s inaugural assemblymen, both the SNP and the Scottish Liberals were able to win a handful of seats as third parties, positioning themselves as possible power-brokers in any future hung Assembly. However, as Scots went to the polls in June 1979, it was increasingly evident that the SNP was plateauing, with Scottish Labour expected to receive the bulk of the credit for the Assembly’s establishment. In Hamilton, Margo MacDonald’s decision to relinquish her candidacy for the Lanarkshire town’s Westminster seat in order to stand for the Assembly was vindicated with one of the biggest landslides of the election. While Winnie Ewing chose not to stand, opting to continue with her candidacy for the European Parliament, the election of Dr Robert McIntyre, the Nationalists’ elder statesman and the party’s first ever MP – who had been tempted out of retirement to contest the second Stirling, Falkirk & Grangemouth seat – delighted the party faithful. At nearly seventy years old, it was unlikely that McIntyre would stand for a second term, although it was expected that ‘Doc Mac’ would add gravitas and earthy experience to the Nationalist contingent. 

Despite having campaigned for a ‘No’ vote, the Tories decided to contest every Assembly seat on 7 June. With the party still confident of forming the next government at Westminster in October, the shadow Cabinet concluded that it could not be seen to be turning its back on Scotland before Britain went to the polls. While some speculated that the party’s ‘No’ campaign may have hurt its chance of picking up seats in ‘Yes’-voting areas, the Conservatives won a handful of seats, from rural Dumfries & Galloway across to Edinburgh’s leafy suburbs and as far north as West Aberdeenshire. Tory contenders – primarily unblooded parliamentary candidates and dependable, long-serving councillors – spent the campaign hoping that Scots would heed Mrs Thatcher’s warning that ‘the machinery by which we are governed is of less consequence than the purpose of those who are elected to govern’. 

As the sun set behind Castle Rock – the ‘great primitive black crag’ which Muriel Spark compared to the ‘statement of an unmitigated fact preceded by nevertheless’ – fireworks from Calton Hill, Holyrood Park and The Meadows celebrated the beginning of a new era of self-government north of the border. With its legislature restored, Edinburgh was no longer the ‘hollow capital’ which poets and historians had lamented since the Act of Union had taken effect on 1 May 1707. With the most radical Conservative government since the war on the horizon and the country’s age-old industrial base winding down, Scots would now enter the 1980s ‘a nation again’, with a Scottish legislature deciding on the country’s most pressing issues. Amidst the celebrations, though, some wondered whether the Assembly would inevitable push the country one step further away from the rest of the United Kingdom. 

Excerpt from: Prime Minister Priti … and other things that never happened, a book of political counterfactuals edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale, published on 27 July 2021 by Biteback, priced £16.99

Scottish Review: Tom Chidwick

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