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Points of Divergence: Scotland Act 1978 (Part 2)

By Ryan Fleming

In the last article we took a look at the lead up to the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, as well as how though a majority of those who voted in the referendum voted in favour of the proposed devolved assembly it was not enough to meet the requirements of the Scotland Act 1978. This was largely due to a requirement added to the Act that mandated at least 40% of the total electorate would have to vote in favour of the Act; though there were other factors during the referendum campaign itself that hindered the possibility of a Yes vote. This time we will take a look at how events might have transpired differently that the threshold could be avoided or even passed and the immediate consequences this change would have in UK politics. A further look will be taken at how the first elections to the devolved assembly might have gone, as well as what might have been the long-term consequences for Scotland and the UK as a whole with a devolved Scottish legislature becoming a reality almost two decades before it did historically. The Scotland that would have seen a devolved Assembly in 1980 was a very different place from the one that saw a devolved Parliament in 1999.

The Cunningham Amendment

Before we can consider what might come from a Scottish Assembly in the 1980s, we must first consider how the requirements of the Scotland Act 1978 can be met. In that 40% of the total electorate must vote in favour of the Assembly for it to be implemented.

The Cunningham Amendment to the Scotland Act, after George Cunningham, Islington South and Finsbury, was designed to ensure that devolution to Scotland, which the Dunfermline born Cunningham opposed, would be strangled in the cradle by setting an almost impassable hurdle for it to clear. Without this requirement, that has never been used in any other referendum held in the United Kingdom, the Yes vote in 1979 would have been enough for the Scotland Act to be implemented. However, without it the Scotland Act will face much more opposition through Parliament. It is possible that many MPs opposed to any form of devolution supported the Act only with the Cunningham amendment, and it might fail again in the Commons without it. If the Scotland (and Wales) Act could get through Parliament without the threshold requirement set out by the Cunningham Amendment then (in Scotland at least) a majority vote in a referendum would be enough to see its implementation, without being dependent upon an electoral register that in many places was long out of date where the deceased might have counted as being opposed to the Scotland Act.


The referendum campaign itself opens up much more potential for having the requirements of the Cunningham Amendment met by maximising the Yes vote. There are two potential routes to achieve this; the first is by improving the Yes campaign particularly the one ran by the Labour movement, and the second is by hobbling the No campaign and not giving them some of their major coups. As to the first, the decision by the Labour Party to wage a short campaign perhaps hindered them by allowing the No campaign to set the terms of the debate, leaving the Labour Yes campaign scrambling to catch up. If the Labour Yes movement had begun their campaign following Hogmanay as others did (including the Nationalist Yes campaign) then the largest campaign might have stood a better chance. The inherent disagreements between the Labour and Nationalist campaigns are more difficult to reconcile, but at least they might work better to keep them out of the public eye and if they still cannot agree to a shred platform, a certainty, then at least they might agree to a ceasefire for the betterment of the wider campaign like the Labour and Conservative No campaigns did. From the flip side, denying the No campaign some of their major victories would provide a similar, if not greater, boon to the Yes campaign. The lack of any party-political broadcasts during the referendum helped the No campaign more than the Yes campaign, there would have been three in favour (from Labour, the Nationalists, and the Liberal Party) to one opposed (from the Conservative Party). Similarly, having the Kirk withdraw a pastoral message in favour of devolution during the campaign helped the No vote; at the time the Church of Scotland was still a major party of civic life. Finally, the late intervention by Lord Douglas-Home opposed to the Assembly as proposed by the Callaghan government probably swayed many wavering Conservative/Unionist voters in Scotland to turn out for No.

Likely none of these changes on their own would have bulked up the Yes vote to the point where it would meet the requirements of the Cunningham Amendment. However, any combination of them (an earlier Labour campaign with party-political broadcasts; or no Douglas-Home intervention with a Kirk pastoral message in favour of Yes) might have swung the Yes vote enough to ensure, by the thinnest of paper-thin margins, that at least 40% of the total electorate voted for Yes.


Immediate Consequences

The United Kingdom wakes up on Friday 2nd of March 1979 to find that Scotland has voted in favour of devolution, what are the immediate consequences? Well, those in favour of devolution are likely to be propping up bars long into Saturday the 3rd for one thing. There are a lot of more immediate consequences for the British body politic as a whole beyond an exponential increase in hangovers north of the Tweed.

For one thing, with the Yes vote passing the Scottish National Party would not put down a motion of no confidence in the government of James Callaghan late in March 1979. Even in our own history when the SNP turned against them the no confidence motion only passed by a single vote; with the 11 SNP MPs still supporting the Labour government the Conservative Party would be unlikely to introduce another no confidence motion before elections are due in October of the same year. Beyond legislation to implement the Scotland Act 1978 (even with changes in Scotland the Wales Act 1978 is unlikely to be passed in a referendum in 1979, it also bears noting even in our timeline with the failure of devolution the 2 Plaid Cymru MPs still supported the Labour government) the Callaghan government will be unlikely to achieve much in the remaining months of its life – because even without a successful no confidence motion the Labour government would still be running on borrowed time.

With a point of divergence in March 1979 the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher is still likely to come to power at the next election. The Winter of Discontent would still be fresh enough in the minds of voters that even without a no confidence vote at the end of March the Labour government of James Callaghan would still be unlikely to survive a general election. However, even though the maximum benefits to the Labour Party would be the possibility of scraping a hold of a seat or two they lost in our own timeline it is possible the resulting Conservative government in October would be weaker than one that saw an election in May. For voting with the Conservative Party in the no confidence motion, a move derided by Prime Minister James Callaghan as “turkeys voting for Christmas”, the SNP saw 9 of their 11 MPs unseated in the May 1979 election leaving them only with 2. Without this, and with devolution a reality, the SNP would be unlikely to see their vote plummet so far; though they are still likely to lose anywhere up to four seats following the high watermark of the October 1974 election.

Even though a successful vote for Scottish devolution would not be enough to prevent the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from coming to power it would likely be enough to keep the Callaghan Labour government going for a few more month. It would also see the possibility by more SNP MPs retaining their October 1974 seats that the Conservative government that came to power would be significantly reduced in power from the one that came to power with a majority of 43 in our own timeline. A reduced majority that might even see them much more vulnerable to rebellions from their own MPs during the tumultuous times of the early 1980s.


The First Assembly Elections


he first elections to the new Assembly were to be held on Thursday the first of May 1980; concurrent with district council elections in Scotland. They would be held in a Scotland that was a very different place than the one that elected the first Scottish Parliament in 1999 – homosexuality was still technically illegal in Scotland, sectarianism was still rife in many aspects of Scottish life, and the deep-fried Mars bar was still in its earliest stages of research and development.

Per the terms of the Scotland Act 1978 there would be 148 initial members elected by first-past-the-post in the 71 Scottish Westminster constituencies. 7 constituencies would elect three members (those that were over 125% of the electoral quota), 1 constituency would return just one member (Western Isles), 1 constituency would be split into 2 constituencies for the Assembly each returning a single member (Orkney & Shetland), with the rest returning two members. Those returning multi-member seats would technically be electing under bloc voting as previously used for some Westminster constituencies prior to 1950 and used for local elections in Scotland up to 1974. The Labour Party, the Conservatives, and the SNP would be likely to stand a full slate of nominations in every constituency. The Liberals might perhaps lack numbers to stand a full slate of two or three candidates except in their safest Westminster seats; similarly, the Labour splinter Scottish Labour Party of Jim Sillars would likely be unable to stand in anything more than the seats of their three defectors.

One similarity that would exist between the elections to the Assembly in 1980 and the elections to the Parliament in 1999 is that the Labour Party would likely emerge as the largest party following the election. There is even a possibility that Donald Dewar would be leading the campaign as one of the leading lights of the devolution movement, but given his lack of ministerial experience and not having held a seat since the 1970 General Election it is just as likely he might take a back seat to someone more senior (Shadow Scottish Secretary Bruce Millan for example) as a placeholder. Most Labour candidates from the 1979 general election would likely stand again at the Assembly elections, except for those most opposed to devolution such as Robin Cook and Tam Dalyell and those wanting to focus exclusively on Westminster, such as John Smith, would be unlikely to stand. This might see the likes of Jimmy Reid and Gordon Brown amongst the initial Assembly Members taking their seat.

The Conservative Party was not the stigmatised organisation they would become in Scotland by the late 1990s, they had even topped the polls (by a small margin) in Scotland during the 1979 European Parliament elections. They would be very likely to wind up the Opposition in the Assembly a fair bit ahead of both the SNP and Liberals. As to who might lead the Conservatives in the election, both Alick Buchanan-Smith and George Younger have ministerial duties at Westminster. The most likely candidate might be pro-devolution Malcolm Rifkind; but it is also possible the Conservatives might be led by Thatcher’s first choice for Scottish Secretary who would still be as likely to lose his Glasgow seat in October 1979 as in May – the arch anti-devolutionist Teddy Taylor. Though Taylor might still be more likely to await a suitable by-election before returning to Westminster, even with the knowledge that a ministerial position was now out of the question.

The SNP would be highly likely to come third in terms of seat numbers ahead of the Liberal Party, but both would be likely to break into double digits. Jim Sillars might also be able to sneak through in Ayrshire South for the Scottish Labour Party but is the only possibility for a minor party to be successful at the initial elections. What might have a wider effect is if the single candidate in multi-member seats by the Liberal and Scottish Labour parties forced on them by necessity might be enough in some cases to split the seat between two parties, this might be the case in anywhere up to 15 seats before we even begin to consider tactical voting by Liberals.

The results of the initial elections to the Scottish Assembly would be unlikely to set the world on fire, but during the recession and rising unemployment of the early 1980s it would provide an established body through which opposition to the policies of the Conservative government might be voiced. The question would then be whether this would be a viable position for a devolved legislature to take.


Long-Term Effects

The long-term effects of a Scottish Assembly being established in the wake of the 1979 devolution referendum would be dependent on several factors in the first decade of its existence – not least of all would be whether it is able to continue in existence beyond its first few years. Even if it did not survive the 1980s, there are plenty of opportunities in which it might change the trajectory for events in Scottish and British politics.

Though the Labour Party would be very likely to be in power in the Scottish Assembly during the early 1980s the systematic problems in the wider UK Labour Party that led to the split and formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 would still be there. Though Scotland has a reputation (exaggerated to a certain extent) as being more left leaning than the rest of the UK, this has tended to be the opposite with its elected representatives of the Labour Party. There is the possibility that the newly elected Labour AMs might push to vote in the Party leadership election along with MPs in November of 1980. This would likely see Denis Healey elected over Michael Foot, but the attempted change might prove too difficult to be introduced in time for the leadership election. Without them, Michael Foot would still be elected leader and the SDP split would happen on schedule – not that the split would be an impossibility under Healey’s leadership. Many of the most likely defectors amongst Scottish Labour MPs did not jump ship historically and might be less likely to do so whilst in government in Edinburgh. The historical defectors to the SDP, Dickson Mabon and Bob Maclennan, would still be likely to defect perhaps along with several other AMs (Vince Cable might be amongst the initial crop of Labour representatives in the Assembly and defected historically). However, it is very unlikely these would be enough to rob the Labour government in Edinburgh of its majority.

The SNP historically faced its own split in the early 1980s, the aftermath of the failed devolution campaign saw the formation of the 79 Group in favour of the SNP adopting a left-wing stance. After a fraught internal debate most of the grouping was expelled by the party in 1982, several future Scottish government ministers amongst their ranks. Without their early 1980s nadir this debate might be more in the public, and if the established order of the SNP still moves to expel the ascending left-leaning thinkers then the latter might take to form their own party in the Scottish Assembly. Potentially joining with the Scottish Labour Party of Jim Sillars or forming their own Scottish Socialist Party.

If the initial Assembly goes the full length of its term the next elections would arrive historically during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The combination of a Labour Party divided over the strike (perhaps Jimmy Reid defects back to the Communist Party of Great Britain as a result), an unpopular Conservative government, the Liberal and Social Democratic Parties polling high (not necessarily as the Alliance), and the SNP without their 1980s nadir (potentially split between left and right leaning nationalist camps) might see the most split election in Scottish history. However, this would be dependent upon the Thatcher government not shutting down the Assembly.

There is an argument to be made that unlike the Greater London Council the Scottish Assembly was a more than a local government body and approved of by the electorate it governed in a referendum. If the Scottish Assembly has just been used as another organ with which to oppose the Conservative government rather than one for providing better governance for Scotland then opinion may sour against the body, and the Conservative Party might leverage that to begin moves for its abolition. If the Assembly were to be abolished and the grievances from much of the Scottish electorate against the Thatcher government in the late 1980s still happen (the Poll Tax experiment for instance), then the optics of ‘the Tories took away our assembly then gave us the polls tax’ would be detrimental to the very existence of the United Kingdom – if the Assembly were to be re-established it might see an independence referendum happen as early as the 00s rather than the 10s.

If the Assembly were to continue beyond the mid-1980s we would still probably not see any government other than a Labour or Labour led coalition one. If the latter, then electoral reform for the Assembly would become a real possibility. This might see the likes of the Green Party gain representation before 1990, or perhaps an equivalent of the Orkney and Shetland Movement seen in 1987 calling for status similar to the Faroe Islands and the Isle of Man might be more successful, or even some success for a party similar to the 1986 Scottish Unionist Party opposed to devolution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, taking advantage of the Orange vote still to be found in the West of Scotland in the 1980s (independent candidate Jack Glass might also benefit from this). Of course, the butterfly effect might mean none of the events that led to these developments even come to pass; but the longer the Assembly exists the more it changes trajectory of events of the 1980s for the United Kingdom.

If the devolution referendum had met the requirements of the Scotland Act 1978 then it might have seen the Callaghan government limp on for a few more months, and without the collapse of the SNP vote might have seen the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher returned with a smaller majority than they gained historically in the May 1979 general election. The first elections to the Assembly in 1980 would have been highly likely to return a Labour government, and the longevity of the Assembly would be dependent on what this first government would be able to do for the people of Scotland from Edinburgh better than London. If it proves ineffectual it might face abolition by the UK government stoking the doubts of those not entirely convinced in 1979, but if it survives then the tumultuous times of the 1980s would see a distinctly Scottish body in place, more than likely in opposition to the UK government under the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher.

However long it lasts, the Scottish Assembly set up in 1980 would be a different beast from the Scottish Parliament set up in 1999. It would not have tax-varying powers, it would have responsibility over fewer areas, and there would be many voters still not convinced of its need. Its first decade would prove to be a far more difficult time than the Scottish Parliament, but like the Scottish Parliament it would have been a major milestone in Scottish history.

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