Did the SNP bring really down the Callaghan government and pave the way for Thatcherism?

So says Jeremy Corbyn. But the truth about 1979 is more complex.

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According to Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP ended the 1974-9 Labour government and is therefore ultimately responsible for the de-industrialisation, miners’ strike and poll tax that followed under the Conservatives.  

There is some truth to this charge: Scottish Nationalist MPs did not back the government in a vote of confidence held in the Commons on 28 March 1979. Given that Jim Callaghan’s minority government lost by just one vote, the SNP could have saved it, as it had done a few months before.

Corbyn’s claim is of course grounded in our current political climate. North of the border, Labour is tanking, despite the 2016 promise that Corbyn would win back Scotland by reasserting the party’s socialism. Today’s message is meant to convince Scottish voters that only Labour can stop the Conservatives winning a possibly imminent general election.

Yet quite why, in the midst of Brexit chaos, someone thought it worth the Labour leader’s time to claim Scottish Nationalists were the ones to usher in Thatcherism is puzzling. Corbyn, his closest advisers and keenest supporters, many of whom are old enough that they were actually there, might see politics in 2019 as a restaging of the 1980s – but that’s not how most view it.

History is often mobilised to serve a contemporary political cause. And pinning all the blame on the SNP for Thatcherism might persuade a few Scottish voters ancient enough to remember what happened. But it is a pretty dubious interpretation of the past.

Had the SNP not withheld its support, Callghan’s government might have staggered on – but only for a few months, as it would have been obliged to go to the country by October, when its five-year term of office lapsed. Either way, the SNP was not responsible for Labour losing the May election that followed the lost vote of confidence. Margaret Thatcher’s victory was basically due to the “winter of discontent”, an unprecedented wave of public sector strikes, which allowed the Conservative leader to credibly argue that the post-war settlement had to be overthrown for the good of the country. Perhaps the memory of that dreadful winter of strife might have faded by the autumn, and given Callaghan a better chance of re-election – but given the shadow it was to cast over the 1980s, it seems unlikely.

In any case, it is ironic that Corbyn wants contemporaries to shed tears for the end of the Callaghan government: it was one from which the Labour left received no love. Tony Benn even believed it was following Conservative monetarist policies, an accusation thrown at ex-ministers by delegate after delegate at the Labour conference held later in 1979. It was the failure of that government to pursue proper socialist policies, activist without number argued, that let in Thatcher. The left actually looked on Labour’s period in opposition as a welcome chance to overthrow a right-wing parliamentary leadership now denuded of the power and prestige of office.  

But why did the SNP vote against the government in that vote of confidence? Labour ministers had reluctantly agreed to holding votes in Scotland and Wales over whether to devolve power to Edinburgh and Cardiff. While many Labour MPs objected, it was the price Callaghan was prepared to pay to keep the Nationalists onside.

These referenda were held on 1 March 1979. The Welsh voted decisively against devolution. But in Scotland, 51.6 per cent of those who voted supported it. Yet due to a low turn-out, this amounted to just under one-third of the Scottish electorate and, thanks to an amendment introduced by Labour MP George Cunningham, for devolution to pass it required the support of at least 40 per cent of those entitled to vote.

Callaghan refused to press on with devolution. By this point he was exhausted, politically and personally, fed up trying to make social democracy work in a party going left and a country going right. He knew that abandoning devolution meant he would lose SNP support in the Commons and it was only a matter of time before the Conservatives called for a vote of confidence. But having struggled to maintain a minority government for three years, he was almost beyond caring.  

So, Corbyn is partially right to blame the SNP for Thatcherism. But the guilty men and women might also include the Labour leadership and striking trade unionists – and that part of the electorate that voted Conservative in May 1979. But ultimately, just like the troubles inflicting British politics today, the end of the Labour government in 1979 can be properly traced back to a referendum called by a desperate government.

Update: This article was amended on 29 March to reflect that the SNP did not abstain in the 1979 confidence vote.

Steve Fielding is the presenter of How to Break Up the Party and cohost of The Zeitgeist Tapes. His next book, The Labour Party: From Callaghan to Corbyn, will be published by Polity in 2020-1.