The failure of the first referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979 caused acrimony, bitterness and disillusion among its supporters. Jim Turnbull’s cartoon in the Glasgow Herald the day after the result was announced, depicting the Scottish lion cowering in a cage with the door wide open and mumbling “I’m feart”, exactly captured the mood of despondency and recrimination in the Yes camp. One of the first actions of the new Conservative administration led by Margaret Thatcher was to repeal the Scotland Act 1978, which had failed to attract the necessary national support. Yet, just two decades later, the Queen opened the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in July 1999 to the acclaim of a virtually united nation after the Scots voted overwhelmingly in another referendum for a more powerful devolved administration than that on offer in 1979.
The successful outcome was far from inevitable and would have seemed a pipe dream indeed to the disappointed campaigners of 1979.
Both the Scottish National Party and Labour, the two pro-devolution parties, became mired soon afterwards in profound factional difficulties. The SNP threatened to split apart as open warfare for the soul of the party raged between various groups, while internal disputes – the split that led to the creation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the threat of the Militant Tendency – paralysed Labour as a political force for several years.
Devolution no longer seemed relevant; the outlook was bleak for a cause that had garnered support throughout the 1970s. The Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, which attempted to carry forward the torch for home rule, was a voice crying in the wilderness until the later 1980s.
It was deeper and wider political and economic factors that eventually brought constitutional change back on to the agenda towards the end of that decade. Whole sectors of Scottish industry, old and new, went to the wall as a result of the steep climb in oil prices during the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East, and later, after 1979, the determination of the Thatcher government to squeeze inflation out of the UK economy once and for all by raising interest rates to unprecedented levels.
The future of Scotland as a manufacturing country seemed under mortal threat. Old-style government support for ailing industry came to an end and it became easy to depict the Conservative government as uncaring and anti-Scottish. Tens of thousands of jobs were shed as unemployment soared to levels not seen since the 1930s. Scotland’s old industries of shipbuilding, mining and steel had become vulnerable over a long period, but most people blamed the Thatcher government rather than any deeper weaknesses for the economic catastrophe.
This view hardened when in 1987 the hated community charge, or poll tax, was imposed on Scotland before England, suggesting that Scots were being treated as tax guinea pigs. It also seemed to many that the welfare state, which was remarkably popular north of the border, was under attack from Tory policies. Charles Kennedy MP now described Thatcher as “the greatest of all Scottish nationalists”, because she had managed to unite the nation against most of her policies.
Since the 18th century, the Union had been viewed as a partnership in which Scottish views were taken into account. That tradition seemed to be discarded in the 1980s. That the increasingly unpopular government continued to win elections in the UK but haemorrhaged support in Scotland was the catalyst that finally brought devolution back to the centre of the Scottish political agenda.
A so-called democratic deficit developed. Scots voted against Thatcherite policies, but these were still foisted on the many as the Conservatives continued to pile up large majorities because of support in England. Home rule now had wide appeal, as it seemed the only way to insulate Scotland, at least partially, from unacceptable decisions made in Westminster.
The moribund devolution movement came alive. Prominent Scots drawn from across civil society drew up A Claim of Right for Scotland, stating the need for a Scottish constitutional convention to plan for a developed assembly with more powers than those mooted in 1979. The SNP proclaimed triumphantly “Free by ’93”, only to be disappointed yet again when John Major’s government was elected with a reduced Conservative majority in 1992.
However, in the ensuing years, Labour, the only party that not only could win a UK election outright but was also sympathetic to devolution, committed itself to the proposal for a Scottish parliament with tax-varying powers. Its landslide general election victory of 1997 was followed swiftly by the promise of a referendum on Scottish devolution later that year. Some thought that the establishment of the Holyrood parliament in 1999 might spell an end to further Scottish constitutional experiments. George Robertson, the former shadow secretary of state for Scotland, confidently predicted that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”.
Twelve years later, however, in May 2011, the SNP won a stunning election victory, achieving what was then thought to be impossible, namely securing an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. One immediate result of this was the promise by the First Minister, Alex Salmond, to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within the five-year term of his administration.
Analysis of the 2011 poll results demonstrates that the Scottish electorate did not vote for independence in that year simply by giving the SNP such remarkable support, even if this year’s independence referendum is the direct consequence of that victory. Other factors were much more influential.
The crucial battle in the 2011 election was between Labour and the SNP. The Tories still languished as an electoral rump and the Liberal Democrats were virtually wiped out as they paid a terrible price
for the unpopularity of their membership of the Westminster coalition government. Labour, too, was weaker than pre-election commentaries suggested; the veteran Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson described its campaign as “hopeless”. Yet others saw this poor performance as symptomatic of a more profound malaise in a party that had grown accustomed to ruling Scotland, at both national and local level, for over a generation.
Many core Labour voters in Scotland had been alienated by neoliberal Blairite policies and memories of the Iraq war, which they saw as an illegal foreign adventure. Indeed, the SNP, with its vehement condemnation of the war and left-of-centre policies, could be depicted as the rightful heir to old Labour values. Nor did it help that Labour’s Scottish big hitters, such as Gordon Brown, John Reid, Brian Wilson and Alistair Darling, preferred Westminster to Holyrood, prompting suspicions that Labour was not serious about devolution.
By comparison, the SNP came across as running a very positive campaign, competent in government and committed to defending Scottish interests. This last was vital, as the post-devolution Scottish electorate had long mastered the habit of supporting the SNP in Holyrood and another party, normally Labour, in contests for Westminster. It was a substantial bonus that, in its leader, the SNP had the most accomplished politician not only in Scotland but also the UK.
And now the Anglo-Scottish Union faces its biggest challenge in more than three centuries. The debacle of 1979 seems far away indeed.
Tom Devine is senior research professor in history at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent book is “The Scottish Nation: a Modern History” (Penguin, £12.99)