Tony Blair's controversial referendum on devolution may soon prove vital to Scottish Parliament – Ian Swanson

In one of his last acts before announcing his resignation, Boris Johnson formally refused the Scottish Government's request for a Section 30 order to give them the power to hold another independence referendum.

By Ian Swanson
Monday, 25th July 2022, 4:45 pm
Tony Blair in Edinburgh's Parliament Square the morning after the devolution referendum delivered a decisive Yes Yes vote (Picture: Allan Milligan)
Tony Blair in Edinburgh's Parliament Square the morning after the devolution referendum delivered a decisive Yes Yes vote (Picture: Allan Milligan)

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Neither of the candidates to succeed him looks likely to take a different view. And now the Supreme Court has set a date in October to hear the arguments on whether Holyrood could call its own vote.

For years, all the referendum talk has been about an independence vote which campaigners desperately want and the UK Government is refusing.

But around this time 26 years ago – before the Scottish Parliament existed – the row was about a referendum which politicians were proposing but campaigners were not at all sure they wanted.

Tony Blair caused huge controversy in the summer of 1996 when he came up with a plan for a referendum on Labour’s devolution proposals – and one which asked two separate questions: whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and whether it should have tax powers.

Up until then, Labour had believed victory at the next general election, due in 1997, would be a sufficient mandate to go ahead and create a parliament based on the blueprint drawn up by the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention.

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Yet now this new leader, who had taken over following the tragic death of John Smith two years earlier, was proposing a double hurdle to be overcome before devolution would finally be delivered.

To make matters worse, many key players – including Labour's frontbench spokesman on devolution, John McAllion, and Harry Ewing, the Labour co-chair of the Constitutional Convention – had not been consulted. Both quit their posts.

Blair argued the two-question referendum would entrench the new parliament and its tax powers, making it more difficult for any future UK regime to reverse devolution.

But before the plan leaked out, there had been stories claiming Labour was backtracking on its commitment to the full scheme agreed by the convention, so those working hard for devolution were understandably suspicious of what Blair was up to. They feared he might be quite happy to see the tax powers rejected and actually not too bothered if the whole plan collapsed.

And, of course, there was the memory of the failed 1979 referendum on a Scottish Assembly which helped pave the way for Margaret Thatcher's election and took devolution off the agenda for a decade.

In his autobiography, Blair admits he was never an enthusiast for devolution, describing it rather as "inevitable". And he was exasperated at the reception his referendum plan received.

But when the vote was held on September 11, 1997, there was hearty endorsement for the full devolution scheme: the principle of a parliament was approved by 74.29 per cent to 25.71 per cent and the tax powers by 63.48 per cent to 36.52 per cent.

A quarter of a century later, the Holyrood parliament has a firmly established, central place in the life of Scotland and its powers have been significantly expanded over the years.

But the UK government’s increasing encroachment on devolved areas of responsibility, such as awarding funding directly to councils, shows how the devolution arrangements can still be undermined.

In years to come, the parliament may need all the extra legitimacy that referendum result gave it.