Road to Referendum: Salmond, Dewar and Devolution

Yes Yes supporters react as they hear the results of the referendum in 1997. Picture: Reuters
Yes Yes supporters react as they hear the results of the referendum in 1997. Picture: Reuters
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In the third part of our series, Ian Swanson looks at the devolution vote which transformed Scottish politics

ALEX Salmond’s election as leader of the SNP on September 22, 1990, marked the start of the Nationalists’ serious ascent to power.

MSPs are sworn in to the new Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA

MSPs are sworn in to the new Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA

The party he inherited was still on the fringes – it had won only three seats at the previous general election.

But almost a quarter of a century later, he now leads a majority government at Holyrood and is asking voters to back the Nationalists’ dream of an independent Scotland in next week’s referendum.

The 1990 SNP leadership contest, which followed Gordon Wilson’s decision to stand down after a decade at the helm, was billed as a close fight between Mr Salmond and Margaret Ewing, daughter-in-law of Nationalist icon Winnie Ewing. But in the end Mr Salmond won by a massive 486 votes to 146.

Commentators remarked on his energy, media skills and sharpness of thinking and predicted an increase in the party’s voter appeal. His election was a triumph over traditionalist Nationalism and paved the way for a more determined, modern, slick approach which eventually saw him lead the party into government.

The Queen, Sir David Steel and Donald Dewar emerge after the opening ceremony. Picture: TSPL

The Queen, Sir David Steel and Donald Dewar emerge after the opening ceremony. Picture: TSPL

The 1990s were the decade when Scottish politics were transformed.

It began with Margaret Thatcher still prime minister and a Scottish Parliament a distant prospect. But it ended with Scotland’s first democratically elected parliament sitting in Edinburgh with control of most matters that affect people’s day-to-day lives.

After 11 years in power, Mrs Thatcher quit as prime minister in November 1990, having lost the confidence of her MPs. One of the first acts of her successor John Major was to order a replacement for the hated poll tax, which had done so much to fuel Scottish opposition to Mrs Thatcher.

But the move did little to increase Tory popularity north of the border. At the 1992 general election, the party increased its contingent of Scottish MPs from ten to 11, but it was just five years away from losing them all.

Major was re-elected in 1992, against expectations. The Tories fought the election on the promise of keeping Scotland firmly in the Union and their only concession afterwards was to launch a “Taking Stock” exercise, which led to little beyond allowing the Scottish Grand Committee to meet in Edinburgh from time to time.

After Labour’s election defeat, Neil Kinnock resigned as leader and his place was taken by Edinburgh-based former devolution minister John Smith. He described devolution as “the settled will of the Scottish people” and for him personally “unfinished business”.

Labour seemed almost guaranteed to win the next election and there was a sense of optimism that this widely-respected and principled Scots MP would be the next occupant of Number Ten.

But that dream was cruelly shattered when Smith died of a heart attack in May 1994. His funeral took place at Cluny Parish Church in Morningside, where he had been a frequent worshipper at Sunday evening services. More than 900 attended the funeral and 3000 people lined the streets to pay their respects.

Tony Blair, elected to replace Smith, confessed in his autobiography he was “never a passionate devolutionist” but regarded it as “inevitable”. However, Blair did change the party’s stance by announcing there would have to be a referendum before a Scottish Parliament was set up.

Previously, electing a Labour government was seen as enough of a mandate to press ahead with devolution, but now there was to be a separate vote – and there would be two questions, one on having a parliament, the other on giving it tax raising powers. The move caused controversy inside the party, but others hailed it as a way of entrenching the parliament for the future.

All this time, the Scottish Constitutional Convention – which brought together churches, trade unionists, businesses and others with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens – had been working away in the background, hammering out details of how a parliament would be elected and how it would run. The final scheme was published in 1995, proposing the new body should have a wide sweep of powers, including varying income tax up or down by 3p.

But before the 1997 election, the Tories – with arch-
Thatcherite Michael Forsyth now Scottish Secretary – had one last card up their sleeve. The Stone of Destiny, taken by Edward I in 1296 and briefly stolen back from Westminster Abbey in 1950, would be brought back to Scotland.

Crowds lined the streets on the day it was paraded up the Royal Mile to its new home at Edinburgh Castle, cheering the ancient stone symbol as it passed on the back of a Land Rover, but booing Mr Forsyth in a following limo.

Labour swept to power at Westminster on May 1, 1997, committed to a devolution referendum, while the Tories lost all their Scottish seats.

Work began almost straight away on drawing up a white paper with plans for a Scottish Parliament. Key figures involved in the work included Donald Dewar, his special adviser Wendy Alexander and Gordon Brown. The document briefly became a bestseller in Scotland.

Despite the SNP jibes that Labour “couldn’t be trusted to deliver a pizza, never mind a parliament”, Blair was true to his word and the referendum took place on September 11 that same year – just four months after the election.

The campaign – fought with the slogans “Yes Yes” and “Think Twice” – had to be suspended for a week following the death of Princess Diana. But after the funeral, the pro-devolution campaigners returned with a bang, fielding Sean Connery alongside Donald Dewar, Alex Salmond and Jim Wallace at the start of a final push.

The SNP campaigned alongside Labour and the Lib Dems in favour of the new parliament. The Tories were the main opponents – even though it was about to throw them a lifeline by allowing them to have some elected representatives in Scotland.

The final result, announced at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, was a three-to-one Yes majority (75 per cent to 25 per cent) for a parliament and almost two-to-one (63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent) for tax powers.

Blair flew to Edinburgh the next day and was greeted by Donald Dewar with the words “Satisfactory, I think”.

The first Scottish Parliament elections took place in 1999 under the proportional representation system proposed by the convention, which made it highly unlikely any one party would have an overall majority.

Labour emerged as the biggest party with 56 seats, the SNP was second with 35, the Conservatives had 18, the Lib Dems 17 and there was also one Green, one Scottish Socialist and one Independent – Labour MP Dennis Canavan, who had been blocked by the party hierarchy from standing under its banner.

After several days of talks, Labour and the Lib Dems reached a deal to become a coalition government. Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace – who were to become First Minister and Deputy – duly signed the partnership agreement at a special ceremony in the Royal Museum of Scotland.

On the first day of business, it fell to Winnie Ewing, as the oldest member, to take chair. She told her fellow MSPs: “I want to start with the words that I have always wanted either to say or to hear someone else say – the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened.”

The official opening of the new parliament at the Church of Scotland General Assembly Hall took place on July 1, 1999. The newly-elected MSPs paraded through the streets to their temporary meeting place, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh sat and listened as politicians joined in singing A Man’s A Man For A’ That and there was a fly-past by Concorde and the Red Arrows.

The new First Minister Donald Dewar told the assembled gathering: “This is a moment anchored in our history. Today, we reach back through the long haul to win this parliament, through the struggles of those who brought democracy to Scotland, to that other parliament dissolved in controversy nearly three centuries ago.

“Today, we look forward to the time when this moment will be seen as a turning point: the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland, when we revitalised our place in this, our United Kingdom.

This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”

Presiding Officer Sir David Steel said: “We are bringing the government closer to the people. I think this is just a fantastic day for Scotland.”