History of Scottish independence: The Yes campaign and devolution


Our history of the Scottish independence movement continues with the story of a remarkable woman.

“BATHGATE no more, Linwood no more” – the Scottish places scarred during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as prime minister of the UK are evocatively listed in the Proclaimers’ Letter From America lament.

Closures of sites such as Ravenscraig steelworks and the Linwood car plant in the 1980s which threw thousands of people out of work, along with the hated Poll Tax, led to growing fury in Scotland and gave credence to the belief that Thatcher and the Tories were using the country as a vicious trial for brutal right-wing policies.

There was also frustration over the “democratic deficit” which meant that Scotland was landed with a succession of Tory Governments that it had not voted for.

The result was that 18 years after the first vote for devolution in Scotland in 1979, the second was given a resounding thumbs up.

By this time devolution had won support not only from all the political parties bar the Tories, but also the trade unions and much of civic society, including the churches.

In 1979 support had not been as widespread as many felt that the form of devolution that was proposed was too weak. There was also the issue of the 40% rule, imposed through an amendment to the bill by a Labour MP in a deliberate attempt to scupper the vote, as it meant that even those who had not voted were counted as being against the proposal.

The vote in favour failed to pass the 40% of the electorate hurdle but the issue did not go away and remained Labour Party policy.

In 1980 the campaign for a Scottish Assembly was launched and included many Labour Party and some SNP members.

It published the Claim of Right for Scotland which held that it was the people of Scotland’s right to choose the form of government that suited them best – a principle first stated formally as far back as 1320 in the Declaration of Arbroath.

READ MORE: Scottish Independence: The remarkable story of Margo MacDonald

Many prominent Scots signed the Claim of Right which recommended setting up a convention to push this principle forward.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention was duly established in 1989 and included representatives from the trade unions, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church and all the political parties other than the Tories.

SNP leader Gordon Wilson and Jim Sillars later decided to pull the SNP out of the convention because of its unwillingness to include independence as a constitutional option.

However the convention continued to work and in 1995 published a blueprint for devolution, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, on St Andrew’s Day and campaigning began in earnest.

The Tories remained opposed throughout, prompting the rallying cry “we say yes and we are the people” from Canon Kenyon Wright, the convention’s executive chair.

While acknowledging that the convention was important, Gerry Mooney, senior lecturer in social policy and criminology at the Open University in Scotland, believes it would not have achieved much were it not for the political-economic context of the time.

“It was able to draw on the unhappiness about the poll tax and other Tory policies and it did keep the issue on the agenda and gave legitimacy to the idea of the need for devolution,” he said.

“The fact that the convention began to pull trade unions and churches behind it meant that the desire for devolution could no longer be dismissed as the aspiration of a few odd organisations in Scotland.”

The Tories were finally ejected in 1997 when the Labour Party won with a landslide majority of 179. The establishment of a Scottish Parliament was included its General Election manifesto.

Professor Richard Finlay, of Strathclyde University, pointed out that Labour under Tony Blair were keen to push the idea of devolution throughout the United Kingdom, with plans for assemblies in the regions of England.

“These proved unpopular and the referendum in the North East of England in 2004 voted 77% against on a 48% turnout,” he said.

“The fact that devolution only applied to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland meant that the policy of devolution, because it failed to establish itself in the regions of England, meant that it would be associated with the nations of the United Kingdom.

“One further thing to point out is that if you look at the arguments made by Labour for the Scottish Parliament, they used the language of nationalism in the sense that the people of Scotland were sovereign and should have the best form of government suited to their needs. In other words, they should have a Scottish Parliament because they were a nation, not because they were a region or an administrative unit.”

Mooney said that the big difference between the two devolution referendums was the years of Thatcher and Tory rule and the scale of the political, social and cultural change that occurred during the 18-year gap.

“By the time of the 1997 General Election what had become clear was that, on the back of Thatcherite policies, there was growing anger in Scotland that the country was being used as a test case for a variety of socio-economic policies,” he said.

“In many ways Thatcher and the Tories were out of touch with the realities, needs and problems of Scottish society that were reflected partly in the economic changes that took place from the late 70s up until the 90s.

“Then the collapse of heavy industry in Scotland and deindustrialisation very much expanded and the pace quickened up. Thatcher did not start it but when she was in power it was the ending of what remained and people saw the closure of Ravenscraig as a symbol of that.”

Mooney added: “Scotland was scarred by economic collapse and economic change and that began to feed into the idea that the Tories and Thatcher just did not ‘get’ Scotland.

“There was also concern about what has been referred to as a ‘democratic deficit’ where people were voting one way in Scotland but still getting a succession of Tory Governments.”

The SNP, which had seen its vote share reduce after the 1979 election, started to reap some advantage from this and began to make inroads, particularly in the west of Scotland.

By the early 90s the party was showing clear signs of a political recovery and it eventually rejoined the campaign for devolution after Donald Dewar, who became secretary of state for Scotland under Tony Blair, gave assurances that any Scotland Bill would contain nothing that would rule out independence.

At the time the Labour Party hoped devolution would kill nationalism stone dead.

“It meant the two main political parties in Scotland were supporting a referendum for two sharply polarised and contradictory reasons,” said Mooney.

“In the SNP, then as now, there was a tension between those who say everything must be about independence and the more gradualist approach. It would be wrong to say that to a man and woman they were committed to the idea of devolution but when the Scottish Parliament came around it soon changed minds and people saw it could be the first stage on the longer-term path to independence.”

READ MORE: History of the Scottish independence movement: The SNP

FINLAY pointed out that the result and the fact that the SNP, Labour and the LibDems all campaigned in favour was a turnaround from the previous time when the Yes campaign was divided.

“Only the Tories opposed and, paradoxically, it was the proportional representation system for the new parliament that arguably kept the party alive in Scotland,” he said.

Campaigning was suspended towards the end of the campaign following the death of Princess Diana but Finlay said this may not necessarily have frozen the lead the Yes campaign had.

“It might have reinforced the idea of difference between Scotland and England as the former went into hysterics whereas the grief was not as public north of the Border,” he pointed out.

To date, the 1997 referendum is the only one in the UK to have had two questions, with the first being whether voters agreed to a Scottish Parliament and the second being whether they wanted it to have tax-raising powers.

The No campaign was led by Brian Monteith, a former employee of Tory MP Michael Forsyth and board members included Donald Findlay, QC, the vice-chair of Rangers.

They failed to make much impact and the majority of voters agreed to both proposals,although Orkney and Dumfries and Galloway voted Yes-No.

“The overwhelming result put things pretty much beyond doubt and it meant that there was no rearguard action or sniping, with even the Tories accepting the result,” said Finlay.

As a result of the vote, the UK Parliament passed the Scotland Act 1998 and the Scottish Parliament reconvened on May the following year – the first time it had sat since the Union of the Crowns in 1707.

However the Labour Party’s hopes that this would end the pressure for independence were dashed as SNP leader Alex Salmond, who had joined Dewar to lead the Yes campaign, followed the celebrations by claiming there would be an independent Scotland within his lifetime.

“In 1999 devolution was delivered but Scotland’s constitutional future remains, today, as it did in 1979, ‘unfinished business’,” said Mooney.

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