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Points of Divergence - Scotland Act 1978 (Part One)

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

By Ryan Fleming

This series looks at specific individual Points of Divergence (PoDs). One rather prominent example is what could happen when a Government calls a referendum, so today, we're looking at the 1979 Devolution Referendum in Scotland.

Act of Union

The ratification of the Act of Union in 1707 between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England was not without its opponents, and since that time there have been those advocating the reinstatement of some Scottish legislature. At the time of ratification their were anti-Union riots in major Scottish cities, a generation later lingering opposition went some way to gathering the Young Pretender support in Scotland, before a century had passed the Scottish poet Rabbie Burns had decried the Scottish parliamentarians who signed the act in Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation, but it would not be until the twentieth century that the people of Scotland would first get the chance to vote on some measure of devolution from London to Edinburgh.

Press for Devolution

In 1967, after the resignation of the former Labour MP Tom Fraser, a by-election was held in the Lanarkshire constituency of Hamilton. At the last general election in 1966, Fraser had taken 71% of the vote against his sole Conservative opponent. The SNP put forward solicitor Winnie Ewing as their candidate, its leadership instructing her to “try to come a good second in order to encourage the members”. They had not won a seat since the 1945 Motherwell by-election. Mrs Ewing won the seat with a majority of 1,779 votes over the Labour and Conservative candidates; she famously told a crowd after her declaration “Stop the World, Scotland wants to get on.”

Following the Hamilton by-election, itself coming after Gwynfor Evans’ breakthrough for the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru at the Carmarthen by-election the year before, the Labour government of Harold Wilson established the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969. By the time it reported in 1973 that the formation of a devolved Scottish Assembly was recommended, Ted Heath’s Conservative government was dealing with much more pressing issues of industrial disputes, the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community, and the violence in Northern Ireland; a Scottish Assembly would still not be implemented.

In the second general election of 1974, the SNP took 30% of the vote in Scotland, and Labour had one a small majority of three seats across the UK. By 1976 a series of by-election losses lost James Callaghan’s government its majority; they reached out to both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, in return for the two parties’ support in Commons votes, legislation would be instigated to allow for the devolution of political powers from Westminster to Scotland and Wales.

The Proposal

The Scotland and Wales Bill was introduced in November 1976, but the Labour Party was bitterly divided on devolution. The Conservative Party, under their new leader, and despite still having devolution as part of their manifesto, were more concerned with opposing the Labour government than seeing through legislation to provide for something they had previously championed. Progress slowed to a crawl, and in early 1977 the government was forced to withdraw the Bill.

New bills were published in November 1977, separate ones for Scotland and Wales, but both still faced considerable opposition. The precedent for referenda had been set by the Labour government with the 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC, and when the idea was revived for the new bills on Scottish and Welsh devolution its place in British politics was confirmed. A number of Labour MPs, including Robin Cook, Edinburgh Central, were prepared to vote for the Scotland Act only on the understanding that they would be able to campaign against it in a referendum. The Leader of the House of Commons, Michael Foot, Cabinet sponsor of the Bills, agreed to this in order to bring rebellious Labour MPs in line, and with the support of the Liberals the Scotland Bill received Royal Assent on 31 July 1978.

The Scotland Act 1978 proposed the establishment of a Scottish Assembly with limited legislative powers. A Scottish Executive headed by a First Secretary would take over some functions of the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Assembly would have the power to introduce primary legislation in its areas of responsibility; education, the environment, health, home affairs, legal matters, and social services. Agriculture, fisheries and food were to be shared between the Assembly and the UK government; all other matters would be reserved to the UK government, including the electricity supply.


The referendum, asking “Do you want the Provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?”, would differ from the previous EEC referendum in two main respects. Firstly, a simple majority of the voters would not be enough to see the legislation put into effect. The Cunningham Amendment, after its proposer George Cunningham, Islington South, required 40% of the total electorate to vote in favour of the Assembly. The date of the referendum was set for 1 March 1979; the extended period between the act and the referendum would give both campaigns ample time to prepare. Secondly, where as in the EEC referendum there were two campaigns offering an obvious choice, in the devolution referendum there would be numerous bodies campaigning for either Yes or No.

The main campaign groups for the Yes vote were the Labour Movement Yes Campaign, the Scottish National Party, the Scotland Says Yes, and the Alliance for an Assembly. Later groups emerged still during the campaign. This fragmentation was perhaps an inevitable result of the many distinct reasons these groups had for supporting devolution.

The divergence between the Labour Movement and the Nationalists saw a refusal by Labour to take part in any joint campaign. Several public disagreements between the two campaigns in January led to an agreement between them that if they would not share a platform they would at least not hold conflicting platforms. This ceasefire led to both campaigns rarely campaigning in the same area on the same day when delivering leaflets, holding meetings, and canvassing. Though there was the obvious contradiction between the Labour Yes campaign campaigning that Yes would not lead to a breakup of the UK and the SNP urging a Yes vote as a means to independence, the mutual agreement not to campaign in the same area meant campaigners were never called to debate the matter between themselves.

Of the smaller campaigns, Scotland Says Yes was set up by Lord Kilbrandon, who had chaired the Royal Commission on the Constitution. Though supposedly an all-party group, it had been boycotted by Labour because it contained nationalists; and its principle campaigners were Margo MacDonald and George Reid of the SNP, and Jim Sillars, Ayrshire South, leader of the Labour splinter Scottish Labour Party. Its association with nationalism convinced Alick Buchanan-Smith, Angus North and Mearns, of the Conservative Party to launch his own cross-party group, the Alliance for an Assembly, with Donald Dewar, Glasgow Garscadden, of the Labour Party, Russell Johnston, Inverness, of the Liberal Party, and Malcolm Rifkind, Edinburgh Pentlands, also of the Conservative Party. Scotland Says Yes, in line with the nationalist campaign, also campaigned on what the Assembly would be able to do once established, for women, the social services, and education.

The No campaign was slightly less fragmented than the Yes campaign, consisting of Scotland Says No and Labour Vote No. Though the campaigns did not formally cooperate, there was not the same level of disagreement as there was between the Yes campaigns – at least one member of Labour Vote No, Robin Cook, would appear on a Scotland Says No platform. Scotland Says No also attempted to avoid duplication of effort by leaving some campaigning efforts to the labour Vote No, to the extent of keeping a record of their meetings and providing information on them when asked.

Scotland Says No was an organisation that dated back to 1976 under the previous names of Keep Britain United and Scotland is British, eventually rebranding as Scotland Says No in November 1978. Its leading lights including Iain Sproat, Aberdeen South, a Conservative, Baron Wilson of Langside, of the Labour Party, the Very Rev Andrew Herron, former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It also included the support of organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and some Chambers of Commerce.

Labour Vote No was chaired by Brian Wilson, the Labour candidate for Ross and Cromarty in the October 1974 election. The most fervent anti-devolution campaigner for Labour Vote No was Tam Dalyell, West Lothian, though the leadership underestimated him he addressed an unprecedent number of meetings during the campaign.

Though the Conservative Party did not launch its own official No campaign, as desired by Teddy Taylor, Glasgow Cathcart, it did take part as a supporter of Scotland Says No. This was to allow members in favour of devolution to campaign with their consciences. Though devolution was still technically Conservative Party policy they knew that a No vote would severely damage the Labour government, possibly even to the extent that the SNP would withdraw support for the government.

The Campaign

With all the campaigns launched in January 1979, the questions of many undecided voters were would the Assembly lead to a breakup of the UK, would it mean more bureaucracy and more government, and would it cost more. Though the question of whether devolution would lead to a breakup of the UK was a difficult one with the various Yes campaigns holding various views on the matter, most of the Labour Yes campaigners adopted the rhetoric of it offering a greater say by Scots in their own affairs thus negating the need for independence. The basic statement that an Assembly would cost more and mean more bureaucracy was met with the argument that by controlling the bureaucracy the Assembly would be able to reduce cost. In addition to confronting these issues head on, the Yes campaign also campaigned strongly on the democratic argument that the Assembly would make Civil Servants in the Scottish Office more accountable and more responsive to public opinion.

The No campaign fought part of the campaign on the fact the Assembly proposed by the Scotland Act would have no economic powers, with the main preoccupations of voters being prices and jobs it was thought any body that would not be able to deal with these concerns would not encourage voters to turn out. They also enjoyed some late success when several Yes campaign speakers, principally Jim Sillars, began to dwell at length on the unfairness of the Cunningham Amendment and the finances of Scotland Says No.

Result - "Not Proven"

Despite this, by the time the polls closed on 1 March 1979, Scotland had voted in favour of the Scotland Act 1978 – but it would not be enough to meet the requirements of the Cunningham Amendment.

There were 1,230,937 votes for Yes, in favour of devolution, to 1,153,502 votes for No – by 51.62% to 48.38% the electorate had shown their support for the Assembly. However, this equated only to 32.9% of the electorate voting in favour on a turnout of 63.72%. The Labour government conceded the requirements of the Scotland Bill had not been met, and no devolved legislature would be introduced for Scotland.

Why did the referendum fail to meet the requirements of the Scotland Act 1978? Well, the first reason is that the turnout requirement was only ever introduced in order to make it more difficult for the provisions of the Act to be met. No referendum before or since in the United Kingdom has had a requirement for a certain level of turnout voting in favour of either option for the result to be valid. However, in April 1978 a MORI poll for London Weekend Television showed 63% of respondents in favour of Yes, a 36% lead to No with 10% undecided. By February 1979 in another MORI poll for LWT this had narrowed to a lead of 27% with 55% in favour of Yes, 28% for No, with 16% undecided. Later in February another Mori poll for the Scottish Daily Express reported 54% for Yes and 33% No with a 21% lead and 12% undecided. In the last poll before the referendum MORI showed a dead heat of 42% for both Yes and No with 16% undecided.

Behind the numbers

Why did Yes go backwards in the ten months from April 1978? And the gap between the two options narrow further in the last three weeks before the poll? To the former, there was a turn against the Labour government during that time. In February 1979 the Winter of Discontent was only just over, and the coupling of some of the most widespread industrial action of the decade with one of the worst winters in years probably soured many in Scotland against the government and their proposals.

However, even after the Winter of Discontent Yes was polling higher than No but went backwards in the month leading up to the referendum. This can perhaps be laid at the complacency and confusion from the Yes campaigns coupled with a number of small victories from the No campaigns that accumulated. Labour activists were at best blasé about devolution when compared with the general election due before the end of the year, and the Labour Vote No group proved effective at a local level in persuading activists not to take part in campaigning. Labour Vote No also took the unprecedented step to have the Court of Session stop Party Political Broadcasts during the campaign (there would have been three in favour of devolution from the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, and the SNP to only one against from the Conservatives). Then there were the divisions in the Yes groups between those arising from the Scottish Labour movement and those formed from or containing nationalists, the aforementioned lack of a joint platform or even partial joint campaigning made the Yes groups seem more divided than the No groups.

Despite Teddy Taylor’s lack of success in having Central Office contribute funds and campaigners to a dedicated Conservative No campaign he did have some success in convincing senior English Conservative politicians from appearing in Scotland on the campaign trail for Scotland Says No. He presumed, perhaps rightly, that the Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, Finchley, touring Scotland rallying against a Scottish Assembly might have been counterproductive to the No campaign.

Another failure of the Labour Yes campaign was in choosing to have a short, general election length campaign beginning in February where as almost all the other campaigns began early in January. This meant that by the time the Labour campaign had begun Scotland Says No had already set the terms on which the campaign would be waged, and the Yes campaign would never gain the initiative.

Two late coups from the No campaign further drove back the lead that the Yes campaign had begun with. Reverend Herron of Scotland Says No was successful in persuading the Kirk to withdraw a pastoral message in favour of devolution. The second was in persuading former Prime Minister Lord Home, a significant figure amongst Conservatives in Scotland and one of the architects of the Conservative devolution proposals, to come out against the Scotland Act 1978. This was perhaps most significant, a poll at the end of January from System Three showed Conservative voters 39% in favour of Yes; a month later only 19% of Conservative voters were responding in favour of Yes.

And yet...

Even with all this, a majority of voters backed the proposals of the Scotland Act 1978. If just one of these things were have to gone for the Yes campaigns of against the No campaign – if the PPBs had gone ahead; if senior Conservative politicians had appeared in Scotland during the campaign and misjudged the climate in the country; if the Labour Yes campaign had begun in January and been able to set the terms of the campaign as they wanted them; if the Kirk had allowed its planned pastoral message in favour of devolution to go ahead; or if Lord Home had not made his last minute intervention for the No campaign – if any one or more of these things had happened then the Yes vote might have swelled to the point were it broke the 40% threshold set by the Cunningham Amendment.

How this might have happened, and what this might have meant in the immediate and medium term for both Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, is a topic for another article.



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