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Wednesday, April 7, 1999 Published at 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK


Breaking up is hard to do



March the first, 1979 - a date firmly imprinted on the minds of pro-devolutionists in a nation alive with self-confidence.

During the earlier part of the decade, tartan - that most potent of national symbols - could be seen everywhere. It was on trouser hems, cuffs, collars, round necks.

Actually, this had less to do with supporting the campaign for separatism from London and more to do with the hysteria surrounding one of Scotland's major exports - the Bay City Rollers.

Then of course there was the Argentina '78 World Cup, with Ally McLeod at the Scotland helm and only the small matters of Holland, Peru and Iran to face in the qualifying group.

Scotland's World Cup song included the immortal line: "And we'll really shake them up, when we win the World Cup ..." The rest is history.

For those in favour of Scottish devolution, the outcome of the 1979 referendum is another result best confined to the dark shelves of the "What Might Have Been" cupboard.

Referendum roots

James Callaghan's Labour Government had a majority of only three after the October 1974 election and by 1977 had no majority at all after a series of by-election defeats.

The government was therefore vulnerable to pressures from the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, who between them won 14 seats at the election (SNP 11, Plaid Cymru 3).

A combined Scotland and Wales Bill was introduced in November 1976. It gained a second reading only after referendums in both Scotland and Wales had been conceded.


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The Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Alick Buchanan-Smith, and one of his front benchers, Malcolm Rifkind, resigned their posts when the Shadow Cabinet decided to oppose its second reading.

On the first day of the committee stage 350 amendments were put down. Michael Foot, (then Lord President and Cabinet minister responsible for the Devolution Bill) was reluctant to impose a guillotine.

After nearly 100 hours of debate only three and a half clauses of the bill had been considered. A guillotine motion was tabled but defeated in February 1977. The Bill was withdrawn.

Guillotine wins

In November 1977, separate Bills for Scotland and Wales were introduced, with support from the Liberals. This reduced opposition from those who had previously opposed the combined Bill on the grounds that the Welsh did not really want devolution. This time the guillotine motion was won.

As the committee stage was nearing its end, MPs scrutinised an amendment from Labour backbencher George Cunningham. It required the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an order repealing the Act unless at least 40% of the eligible electorate voted "yes". The amendment was strongly opposed by the government, but it lost the vote by 166 votes to 151.

By March 1979, the cracks were appearing in the pro-devolution ranks. The debate revolved around the "West Lothian Question", as put by the Labour MP for the area, Tam Dalyell.

Why, he argued, should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on English matters at Westminster while English MPs would have no right to intervene in Scottish matters in a Scottish Parliament?

This highlighted the potential for conflict between the proposed new body and Westminster, which, unionists said, would lead to total independence.

Internal dissent

In the referendum, on 1 March 1979, Scotland voted in favour of devolution by 52% to 48% - but only 32.9% of the total electorate had joined the majority. The Cunningham Amendment meant the prospect of devolution disappeared.

The government was not helped by the extent of internal dissent within the Labour Party. There was an active Labour "Vote No" campaign in Scotland, of which Brian Wilson was chairman, and Robin Cook a vice-chairman together with Tam Dalyell.

A motion of no confidence in the government was tabled by the Conservatives and supported by the SNP, the Liberals and eight Ulster Unionists. This motion was carried by one vote on 28 March 1979. The next day Callaghan announced that Parliament would be dissolved.

In his book, The Battle for Scotland, Andrew Marr wrote: "Devolution carried the stigma of a failing government. It had been imposed on a doubtful party by a London leadership for purely electoral reasons.

"It had been legislated for in a fog of internal dissent and confusion. It was campaigned for by divided parties at a time of economic chaos. In some ways it is surprising that so many Scots voted for it."



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