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Author: Gerry Mooney

1979: The First Scottish Referendum on Devolution

Updated Monday, 23rd March 2015
The 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum set in motion political shifts that are still playing-out today, argues Gerry Mooney.

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Scottish flag waving in the wind 1979 was a momentous year for British Politics, with the General Election on May 3rd ushering in a new Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher.  Yet two months previous another political event took place, and while it has generally been forgotten or at best marginalised, that it took place at all mirrored other major political shifts taking place in the political landscape of the UK and as with the Thatcher victory, was likewise to have longer term consequences, consequences that are still playing out today in different ways.

On March 3 1979, the Scottish electorate were given their first opportunity to vote on Scotland’s constitutional future: Yes or No to devolution and the establishment of a Scottish Assembly. 18 years later in 1997 a second referendum was held, again asking voters to support or reject devolution for Scotland. It was a full 35 years after the first referendum that Scottish voters were offered a third referendum, this time as is well known, to cast their vote in favour of Scotland remaining within the UK or in support of full Scottish Independence. Each event took place in different economic, political and cultural contexts. They each reflect massive and ongoing shifts in the UK political landscape – not least in Scotland – and together they gave rise to outcomes that continue to shape the political future of Scotland – and of the UK as a whole.

The 1979 Referendum: Economic Context

Of the many factors over the past 30-40 years that have contributed to the rising demands for either devolution, ‘more devolution’ and or full independence, the idea that Scotland had been badly treated by the Tories under Thatcher after the 1979 General Election is one that for many observers has been key to accounting for the increasingly polarised economic, political and social landscape between Scotland and England. While the debate goes on as to the particular part played by Thatcher and the Tory UK Governments in helping to provoke rising demands for devolution and ‘autonomy’, by focusing on the 1979 devolution referendum we can immediately identify two things: one that such demands predated Thatcher. This is not to say that the arrival of Thatcher didn’t help to increase political support for devolution or quicken the pace of political change in Scotland. It certainly did but at the same time the factors which fuelled the referendum in 1979 can be located at least back in the mid-1960s and this in the main relates to the second main thing we should note: that support for a Scottish Assembly and or some degree of devolution has to be understood in the context of the growing consequences of long-term economic change and economic decline in Scotland.

Two seemingly contradictory terms serve to characterise the Scottish economy of this period: deindustrialisation and economic diversification. The 1960s Scottish economic structure, particularly in the older industrial heartlands of Central and West Central Scotland in particular was, in the language of the time, over-reliant or over dependent on a relatively few industrial sectors, sectors which had been in a historic process of decline and retrenchment. The coal, shipbuilding, iron and steel and older manufacturing industries that had made Scotland one of the key workhouses of the British Empire were now in advanced decline, accompanied by the large-scale shedding of workers as plants that were now unprofitable closed or greatly reduced operations. Post-1945 Regional Policy, particularly under Labour Governments, had seen a number of ‘newer’ and ‘lighter’ manufacturing industries relocate to Scotland from other parts of the UK or thanks to grants that attracted overseas companies to locate in Scotland, particularly during this time from the USA.

Great political capital was invested in this inward location as solving the economic problems of Scotland, primarily by diversifying the economy, making it less dependent on the older declining ‘staple’ industries. Diversification was also held-up as a way of modernising an economy that in many respects had hardly significantly changed from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

(For documentary footage on the Scottish economy of this period, and the creation of new towns and other changes in the urban fabric of Scotland, please see )

While there were greatly differing stories of success or failure in relation to the location of new companies and industries in Scotland, taken together whatever successes there were tended to be short lived with many of the firms establishing in Scotland in the 1960s subsequently declining and or moving out of Scotland by the 1980s.  One of the best examples of this was the Rootes/Chrysler Car Plant, at Linwood, near Paisley, in the West of Scotland. Opened in 1963 to great fanfare, by 1981 the plant had completely closed throwing over 10,000 workers on to the dole. For more information see The Imp Site - Linwood.

Immortalised in the now famous song by The Proclaimers, Letter from America describes the devastating impact of economic closures on Scottish society.

Read more about the songs lyrics here. 

The long term decline of the Scottish economy was in stark contrast to the relative fortunes of the economy of other parts of the UK at this time and the growing disparity in economic growth and prosperity between Scotland and many English regions contributed to a growing feeling that Scotland would be better served by having the key political decision and policy- making institutions and apparatus in Scotland, instead of ‘far-away’ London. Support for some degree of Scottish control over economic decisions, therefore, was an important dimension in the growing clamour for a high degree of autonomy in relation to regional economic management. It was to find support among many of Labour’s traditional working class supporters and in the labour movement amidst a background of rising industrial strife and growing militancy, a period that was typified by the famous UCS ‘work-in of 1971-1972 as shipbuilding workers fought to protect jobs in the Clydeside shipyards against plans for large scale closure.

The political controversies and arguments around oil revenues in the 1970s have of course continued to and beyond the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum:

Support from the Labour Party and Trade Unions for devolution has to be seen very much in this economic context. However, there was another development taking place in Scotland, itself not unrelated to the economic picture: the first real signs of the emergence of the SNP as a political force, albeit at this time this was quite tentative and short lived, but nonetheless enough to force both the Labour and Conservative political establishments to take note. The establishment in 1970 of a Commission to look at Constitutional Reform under Lord Kilbrandon led to a report in 1973 recommending the establishment of a Scottish Assembly.

It’s Scotland’s Oil

Another economic development that was to take Scotland by storm in the decades that followed was marked by the discovery of North Sea Oil in 1970. From this point until the 2014 Independence Referendum and its aftermath, oil reserves and revenues have rarely been far from the competing arguments around Scottish devolution and or independence. That the overwhelming bulk of the oil was to be found in Scottish waters, gave the SNP a hugely effective weapon that they deployed to its full.

The SNP were to increase their popularity during this period, registering 21.9% of the vote in the February 1974 UK General Election and 7 MPs, and 11 MPs and 30.4% of the vote in the subsequent General Election in October 1974. In February they took third place behind Labour and the Tories, on 36.6% and 32.9% respectively but by October, Labour was very much static in terms of support while the Tories dropped to 24.7%, but nonetheless returned 16 MPs. This reminds us that the political decline of the Conservatives in Scotland is very much a relatively recent development.

March 1 1979: The First Referendum on Scottish Devolution

The rise of the SNP was a clear sign of the growing popularity of the ‘home-rule’ agenda. The Labour Government of James Callaghan was forced to react, worried about the consequences of this for Labour’s electoral fortunes North of the Border, a situation worsened by the fact that this was a minority Government for much of its period in office. In 1978 it introduced a Scotland Bill to less than widespread support from Labour MPs. The Government agreed that with any devolution, Scotland would retain the 71 MPs it then sent to Westminster and after an amendment by a backbench Scottish MP, who sat for a London seat, it was agree that a Yes to devolution vote would need to secure a minimum of 40% of all registered voters. To not vote at all, therefore, was effectively being counted as a No vote. While there had been considerable support for devolution in the opinion polls, the Yes camp was divided. And this was also true of both Labour and the SNP. Within Labour, there was strong support for devolution and strong support against it. For many members and supporters of the SNP, devolution was a sell-out and tantamount to ending the struggle for full independence, while other supported it, as in 1997 (and in the post 2014 Referendum clamour for ‘devolution max’) as a but a step on the road to that independence. While overwhelmingly the Tories were opposed to it, there were Conservatives who indeed supported the creation of a Scottish Assembly.

The 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum took place then against a backdrop of economic decline – indeed chaos – rising industrial militancy and strikes, rising inflation and unemployment – and in the context of political tensions and in-fighting within the main contending pro- and anti-devolution camps. When the vote was counted, there was a relatively slim vote for devolution, by 51.6% to 48.4%. With the pro-side only receiving 32.8% of the electorate, it therefore fell below the 40% threshold imposed by and supported by many backbench Labour MPs.

With the failure of the pro-devolution camp the SNP backed a Tory motion of no confidence in the Labour Government which saw the 1979 General Election being called and, well, the rest is history as they say.

Relevance for Scottish and UK politics today; ‘Unfinished business’?

The hostility which exists between the Labour Party in Scotland and the SNP has its origins in the period we have discussed here. Labour MPs and supporters in Scotland are not slow to remind the SNP that they were culpable in the election of Thatcher and the social and economic ravaging of much of Scotland that was to follow her victory. The SNP lost 9 of its 11 seats in the 1979 General Election and it was not until the early 1990s did it really being to show clear signs of a political recovery.

With the Tories in Government in London with a strong majority in parliament meant that the ‘Scottish problem’ was off the agenda as far as they were concerned. It has secured just over 31% of the vote in Scotland at the 1979 General Election but its fortunes in Scotland were thereafter to decline significantly with the party almost wiped out and today only a marginal political force in Scotland.

For many in Scotland, however, the failure to secure devolution in 1979 meant that there was what subsequent Labour leader John Smith termed, ‘unfinished business’. The electoral decline of the Tories in Scotland together with a popular and strongly held view that Thatcher’s Tories were ‘anti-Scottish’, contributed to the widespread argument that Scotland was suffering from a ‘democratic deficit’ – in that it was being ruled by Governments that had seen declining support in Scotland. The unfinished business of devolution was to come to the fore in the mid-1990s as part of Tony Blair’s New Labour manifesto commitment. In 1999 devolution was delivered but Scotland’s constitutional future remains, today in 2015, as it did in 1979, ‘unfinished business’!


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