Referendum is historic vote four decades in making

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In the first of a five part series, Ian Swanson looks back at the key moments in the independence debate. Part 1: 1970s

IN just ten days’ time, the long build-up to the referendum will end with the crucial vote for or against ­independence.

Nurse Margaret McEwan outside Roseburn polling station in Edinburgh before voting in the Scottish devolution referendum in March 1979.

Nurse Margaret McEwan outside Roseburn polling station in Edinburgh before voting in the Scottish devolution referendum in March 1979.

The past two years may have felt like an endless round of campaigning and debating.

But historians could argue the journey to September 18 began more than four decades ago.

Winnie Ewing put the SNP firmly on the political map when she won Hamilton from Labour in a by-election in 1967, arriving to take her seat in the Commons in a Scottish-made Hillman Imp.

Although she lost the seat at the 1970 general election, the Nationalists scored another spectacular triumph when Margo MacDonald – dubbed “the blonde bombshell” – won the 1973 Glasgow Govan by-election.

That paved the way for the party to win seven seats in the general election of February 1974, prompting Labour’s newly returned prime ­minister Harold Wilson to bring forward proposals for a Scottish Assembly – though he had a fight inside his party to get them accepted.

The pressure for change was kept up when the SNP contingent increased to 11 – a football team – at the second 1974 ­general election in October.

These were heady days for the nationalist cause and the SNP’s high point at ­Westminster. Oil had been discovered in the North Sea in 1970 and the SNP won strong support with its slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil”.

But faced with Labour’s devolution proposals, the SNP found itself divided over whether to back it as a ­stepping stone to independence or refuse any compromise and demand “independence, ­nothing less”.

Labour also had its divisions. When the White Paper detailing the Assembly plan was published, some Home Rule supporters within the party were dismayed it did not go far enough and in 1976, they broke away to form the Scottish Labour Party.

The move was led by two MPs Jim Sillars and John Robertson, and Alex Neil, then Labour’s senior Scottish researcher.

On the other side of the argument, West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell made clear his opposition to ­devolution as a “slippery slope” to independence. He claimed the Assembly would be “a motorway without exit roads to a separate Scottish state”.

But when it came to the ­referendum campaign in 1979, Sillars and Dalyell appeared together at a series of highly praised Yes-No debates across the country.

The referendum – on March 1, 1979 – might have delivered devolution for Scotland 20 years early, had it not been for Scots-born London Labour MP George Cunningham, who successfully amended the legislation so that a majority Yes vote was not enough – those voting in favour must also be at least 40 per cent of the total electorate.

The requirement meant that anyone not voting effectively counted as a vote against the Assembly.

The referendum took place at a time of growing political ­tensions. The Labour government had seen its majority whittled away and its pact with the Liberals, which had been keeping it in power, ended in September 1978.

Jim Callaghan, who had replaced Wilson as prime minister in 1976, had been expected to call a general election in the autumn of 1978, but was now running out of time.

The government had also endured the “winter of ­discontent” – a series of controversial public sector strikes – and Margaret Thatcher was waiting in the wings.

There was only limited ­cross-party campaigning in the referendum. Some local Labour parties decided not to ­campaign at all.

Future Labour leader John Smith was among the most active in Labour’s Yes ­campaign, as was a young Gordon Brown.

Other key Labour figures, including Robin Cook, toured the country arguing for a No vote. Most Tories were opposed to the Assembly, though there were exceptions.

Edinburgh Pentlands MP Malcolm Rifkind resigned from the Conservative shadow cabinet – along with the Shadow Scottish Secretary, Alick Buchanan-Smith – because of his support for devolution. He went on to vote Yes in the referendum.

And former Tory prime minister Alec Douglas-Home famously urged people to “vote no for a better bill”.

Margo MacDonald was one of the key figures in the SNP’s campaign for a Yes vote, but some Nationalists were less than enthusiastic.

The result saw 1,230,937 votes in favour of an Assembly and 1,153,500 against – a Yes win by 51.62 per cent to 48.38 per cent, but not enough to meet the 40 per cent requirement.

Some parts of Scotland –including Grampian, the ­Borders, Tayside and Dumfries & Galloway recorded a majority No vote.

In Lothian, the vote was 187,221 Yes to 186,421 No – a majority for devolution of 50.11 per cent to 49.89. But the Assembly plan was dead and it would be 20 years before ­devolution became a reality.

The Callaghan government came to an end just a month after the referendum, on March 28, 1979, when a Tory motion of no confidence was passed by one vote – 311 to 310.

The SNP’s 11-strong parliamentary group went into the lobby with the Conservatives to force Labour from office. The party has never lived down its role in helping Margaret Thatcher get to No.10 – though Nationalists point out there would have had to be an election within months anyway.

Callaghan ridiculed the SNP MPs’ behaviour as “turkeys voting for an early Christmas” – and he proved to be right. The party ended up with just two seats after the election. And despite the narrow ­referendum majority in favour of an Assembly, devolution was firmly off the agenda.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com