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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

The referendum

BBC Scotland's Political Editor Brian Taylor looks at Labour's strategy to give the Scotland Bill a smooth passage through the House of Commons

As outlined elsewhere in these articles, the government has faced a series of challenges to the detail of its devolution legislation.

But the Bill has had a relatively comfortable ride by contrast with some of the more lurid forecasts when Labour outlined its plans in opposition.

This is largely due to the device of subjecting Labour's scheme to popular test in a referendum.

The announcement of plans for a referendum provoked a bitter internal row for Labour in opposition.

The party had previously discounted such an approach, arguing that the General Election would be a sufficient mandate for devolution.

But in practice the referendum strategy - which caused Scottish Labour such pain - has proved its worth.

The referendum on September 11 1997 was technically seeking an endorsement of the government's plans as set out in the White Paper.

As envisaged in opposition, there was one question on the principle of devolution and a separate question on the plans for the Parliament to have tax varying powers.

Scotland Forward

[ image: Edinburgh Castle played host to the White Paper launch party last July]
Edinburgh Castle played host to the White Paper launch party last July
The White Paper was published in the House of Commons on July 24 1997 - but launched at a party in Edinburgh Castle that evening with Labour, Liberal Democrat and Nationalist MPs flown north from Westminster for the occasion.

In advance of the referendum itself, those same MPs partied politically as well: constructing a combined campaign under the title Scotland Forward to press for a double Yes vote.

The rival campaign, Think Twice, mostly comprised Tory-inclined politicians - although the Conservative party played no direct formal part.

Privately, senior ministers had fretted over the tax question in particular. Did it not run counter to contemporary political strategy to confront voters so directly with a possible financial cost for their electoral choice?

There were other problems in the run-up to the referendum: a news agenda focus upon allegations of Scottish Labour "sleaze", a campaign truncated by mourning for the death of Princess Diana.

In the event, Scotland voted incontestably for devolution on both counts.

In May, the people of Britain had voted for a new government. In September, the people of Scotland voted for a new system of government.


The overall result was 74.3% in favour and 25.7% against. Such a popular mandate has eased the passage of the legislation through Westminster so far.

At Second Reading in the House of Commons on January 13 1998, the Conservatives tabled a reasoned amendment, accepting the referendum result but attacking the Bill as constitutionally unstable.

They adopted this approach instead of condemning the Bill outright. That amendment was defeated by 411 votes to 148, a Government majority of 263.

More significantly, the Parliamentary logjam feared by some Labour figures in opposition has failed to materialise. In the aftermath of the referendum, the Tories agreed a timetable for Commons progress on the floor of the House.

That respected the traditional form of handling constitutional Bills. In such circumstances, senior peers have indicated that - while the Bill will face detailed scrutiny - it should not be subject to unwarranted delay.

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