The greatest impetus for political dissatisfaction with things as they were in 1970s Scotland was the failure of Tory or Labour governments to halt the rapid decline in Britain’s industrial base, on which Scotland was heavily dependent. Between 1955 and 1965, Scotland’s growth was the lowest recorded in Western Europe. Emigration ran at around 10,000 people a year, most of them highly skilled. They sought better lives in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Scotland was leaching its best people, its great industries and the sense of pride and worth that came with being a Workshop of the World. In the late 60s support for the SNP began to slowly grow.
Winnie Ewing shook the political world to its roots when she beat Labour to win a by-election at Hamilton in 1967. A year before, Plaid Cymru had won its first Westminster seat in Wales. The political establishment was sufficiently rattled to set up the Kilbrandon Commission to look at the constitutional set-up of the UK and recommend changes that would strengthen the Union. Kilbrandon proposed a Scottish Assembly, elected by Proportional Representation and with significant powers over domestic affairs. The report was kicked into the long grass. Scotland had to wait.
In 1979, the dying administration of Labour prime minister James Callaghan, presided over a referendum in Scotland asking the country if it wanted an assembly. 51.6% voted in favour. Despite this clear majority, Scotland was to be denied its wish. A Scottish Labour MP sitting for an English seat had successfully introduced a clause to the referendum Act that required a minimum of 40% of the total Scottish electorate to vote for an assembly. The turnout fell short, even though 51.6% had voted for the proposition.
The fall of the Callaghan government and the arrival into power of Margaret Thatcher would delay Scottish devolution for another 20 years. She came in with a radical economic agenda and the huge financial cushion of the revenues from North Sea oil, then reaching peak production.
The failure of the 1979 referendum gave birth to the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, which later morphed into the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Drawing support from many parts of Scotland’s civic society, these bodies kept alive the flame of Home Rule.
The Claim of Right
Under the auspices of the Convention, on 30 March 1989 58 of Scotland’s 72 MPs, 7 of its 8 MEPs, 59 out of 65 Scottish local authorities and representatives of trades unions, churches and many other civic bodies met on The Mound in Edinburgh to sign a remarkable document. It was the Claim of Right. 104 words that in calling for Home Rule also laid down that sovereignty over Scotland rests with the Scottish people.
Its authors said it was never the intention that the Claim have any legal standing, and that remains the case. What is sure is that it captured the imagination of many Scots. It has since been adopted by the independence movement and is as sacred to many as the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. The power of the Claim lies in its shortness, its simplicity of language and its clarity of action.
” We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.
We further declare and pledge that our actions and deliberations shall be directed to the following ends:
To agree a scheme for an Assembly or Parliament for Scotland;
To mobilise Scottish opinion and ensure the approval of the Scottish people for that scheme; and
To assert the right of the Scottish people to secure implementation of that scheme.”
It’s Scotland’s Oil
Thatcherism and Scotland were never going to get on. Margaret Thatcher was to wipe out most of what remained of the “smoke stack” industries, plunge Scotland into a post-industrial pit of despair and drain away oil revenues to support mass unemployment and cut the taxes of the already well off. The SNP’s response was one of the most powerful political slogans in British history. “It’s Scotland’s oil” they cried, as the bounty of the black gold pumped billions into the London Treasury.
In Scotland, poverty and hopelessness fuelled anger and resentment of Thatcher’s dismissal of the human misery and economic decay wrought by her policies. All this while the Labour party was indulging in a civil war, leaving its traditional supporters wondering what is the point of Labour if it abandons us while our communities die? In 1984, the general election brought 11 SNP MPs to Westminster.
It was not a revolution, but it was a stark warning that Scotland should not be taken for granted. It was a warning that Margaret Thatcher chose to ignore. She was implacably opposed to any form of Home Rule for Scotland and the idea it was Scotland’s oil was treated with scorn.
Her Scottish Conservatives began to lose seats. The 1987 general election saw the Tories go from 21 to 10 seats. The 1997 election, which brought in the government of Tony Blair, was devastating for Scotland’s Tories. The party won no seats. Blair, had a huge Westminster majority that included holding 56 of Scotland’s 72 constituencies.
Whether Blair himself was a convinced advocate for Scottish devolution is unclear, but his immediate predecessor as Labour leader, the Scot, John Smith, had promised it would happen under a Labour government. Smith died before Labour could come to power. He had been a hugely respected figure across the UK and his legacy was seen to be the completion of the “unfinished business” of devolution.
74.39% say Yes
The 1998 Scotland Act was ushered through the Commons by John Smith’s old friend Donald Dewar, who was to become the distinguished and much-admired first holder of the office of First Minister and taken through the House of Lords by the former Labour Leader of Aberdeen City Council, Dr John Sewel. The Act drew its authority and political legitimacy from a referendum held in Scotland the year beforehand. The question was “should there be a Scottish parliament?”
74.39% said there should. Just over 2.4 million Scots voted and every local authority district recorded a majority for the parliament. 60.18% of eligible Scots voted. The result was an overwhelming instruction from the people of Scotland that a Scottish parliament come into being.
On 12th May 1999, the new Scottish Parliament sat for the first time, following elections that produced a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition government. It fell to the SNP’s Winnie Ewing to utter the words that finally changed devolution from a hope to reality. At the end of the Parliament’s first day, after all 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament had taken the oath, Mrs Ewing said the words Scotland had voted for.
“The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th Day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened.”
Beware the wronged Scot
There have been many twists and turns since then and the institution is now facing perhaps its toughest time since its foundation. It might be wise for those who seek to diminish it to remember that almost 75% of Scotland voted for it, not as a talking shop but as a force for good in Scottish life. The Westminster parliament has never been the recipient of the endorsement of the British people. The Scottish Parliament is the will of Scotland expressed at the ballot box. Where legal sovereignty lies is open to dispute and interpretation. Where moral sovereignty sits is not.
Westminster would be wise to think carefully about undermining Holyrood. Scotland saw off Mrs Thatcher’s Tories, wiping them out as a Westminster force. In 2015, Scotland sent Labour into a tailspin when the SNP won 56 seats, leaving Labour just one Westminster seat. The unthinkable happened in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum. Labour had made the fatal error of standing on the same platform as the Tories to kill off the prospect of the people voting to end the Union.
A year later, Labour, which had considered Scotland its assured citadel for the best part of 100 years, was left looking like the battered stump of a lighthouse after a great hurricane, with its beacon and foundations both swept away.
There are no more certainties in democratic politics. No party can ever take the voters for granted in a way that Labour did in Scotland and the Tories have in the Home Counties. But one thing is fairly constant; beware the Scot who thinks they have been wronged by England.
By Hugh MacDiarmid
It requires great love of it to deeply read
The configuration of a land,
Gradually grow conscious of fine shadings,
Of great meanings in slight symbols
Hear at last the great voice that speaks softly,
See the swell and fall upon the flank,
Of a statue carved out of a whole country’s marble,
Be like Spring, like a hand in a window
Moving New and Old things carefully to and fro,
Moving a fraction of a flower here,
Placing an inch of air there,
And without breaking anything,
So I have gathered unto myself,
All the loose ends of Scotland,
And by naming them and accepting them,
Loving them and identifying myself with them,
Attempt to express the whole.