Jackie Kemp: Independence lessons from 1979

Robin Cook and  Tam Dalyell were among the panel at this No For Scotland press conference in February 1979. Picture: Dick Ewart
Robin Cook and Tam Dalyell were among the panel at this No For Scotland press conference in February 1979. Picture: Dick Ewart
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A new generation is having its interest in politics awakened by the independence debate, just as many of these teenagers’ parents did three decades ago, writes Jackie Kemp

The Conservative Party at its conference this week voiced a new degree of support for devolution and the Scottish Parliament. When standing for the job as Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson way back in 2011 promised a “line in the sand” – no more powers for Holyrood.

But the game of politics moves on and greater support for devolution may enable the Tories to make a kind of Queen to King Four move, letting Holyrood take the pawn of the bedroom tax.

This tactical shift, made in the shadow of a winner-takes-all referendum campaign, is reminiscent of the febrile politics of the late 1970s, when a minority Labour government called Scotland’s first constitutional referendum on 1 March, 1979.

This was a pivotal, dramatic moment in Scottish and UK affairs. So why were the polls so wrong? A year before the vote, they showed a huge majority for a Scottish Assembly which melted away. Why did the Labour Party delay so fatally? Why did the SNP let themselves be boxed into a corner?

At Scotland’s history festival “Previously…” next month, I will chair an event at which some key players in those events – politicians Tam Dalyell, Gordon Wilson, and Isobel Lindsay, and journalists Julie Davidson and Harry Reid – will recall that momentous campaign.

In the car on the way to school this morning I asked my teenage children what they know of it. Rather to my surprise, they knew there had been a narrow majority for a Scottish Assembly and started talking knowledgably about the hurdle that was imposed which meant that 40 per cent of the names on the electoral roll had to vote for a Scottish Assembly. “Even the dead had a vote,” one said, referring to the fact that people who were still on the electoral register but who were no longer alive were effectively counted as voting “No”.

How did they know all this, I asked, and together they chorused: “Grandma.”

My children’s two grandmothers both have strong views on the forthcoming referendum – one for and one against – and since older teenagers will have a vote, campaigning is beginning in earnest at my kitchen table.

One grandmother will drop by with a leaflet; the other will call to tell the children to watch some interesting debate on TV. So far, the rest of us are determinedly – and diplomatically – undecided.

But whatever the outcome, I am sure my children will remember this referendum as the start of their political awareness, and it brings back memories for me of 1979. I was a child then – quite a young child actually – but nevertheless it impinged on my consciousness.

I remember, of course, those fun power cuts of the winter of discontent in 1978-79, when neighbours with ranges had others in to huddle round the singing kettle in the candlelight.

I remember too the building excitement of the vote; anger about the 40 per cent hurdle and the resultant sense of anti-climax when it became clear that devolution had vanished in a puff of smoke and a Scottish Parliament was a long way off.

For many Scots today, 1979 remains the moment when all the Unionist parties combined, abandoning their fickle support for Home Rule, to frustrate the wishes of the Scottish people.

But for others, equally vehement, 1979 was the kilted version of Julius Caesar, the moment when on our version of the Ides of March (actually 28 March), 11 Nationalist MPs queued up to knife James Callaghan in the back, becoming as he said “the turkeys who voted for an early Christmas”.

Forcing a vote of no confidence meant that the precarious Labour administration collapsed at the very worst time, in an atmosphere of chaos and disaster, and went on to be gubbed at the polls by Margaret Thatcher and usher in 18 years of Conservative rule.

In my father Arnold Kemp’s account of the time, in The Hollow Drum, he recalls the extraordinary machinations of that vote. One Northern Irish MP Frank Maguire was accompanied the whole time by two men in raincoats, who may have been IRA minders. An Ulster Unionist MP was hidden out of sight. The “miserable” SNP delegation were caught on the horns of a dilemma. One tried to cancel out his vote when he found the government had fallen by one, by dashing to the other lobby but he was too late.

In his memoir SNP: The Turbulent Years, former leader Gordon Wilson recalls the 1974-79 parliament.

“The MPs paid a personal price, apart from defeat. While bitter opposition and abuse had served to keep the group united, eventually long hours, stress from making important decisions, and being away from home all caught up with people. Because a General Election could have been called at any time, most accommodation arrangements were temporary. I was in hotel accommodation for five years. It was no surprise there were health and social problems for some.”

He continued: “The hostility of the British majority in the Commons was entrenched and SNP leaders today would find it beneficial to study what happened as an indicator of the opposition and resources London will mobilise to stop Scotland from gaining independent statehood.”

There was a tough and well-funded “Scotland is British” campaign. When the Queen gave a speech in which she said she was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom, the SNP made what Wilson saw as the mistake of attacking her.

He said: “I thought it had no continuing impact. My wife, Edith, who viewed things from a different perspective, thought otherwise. She noticed a neighbour running up the Union Flag on her washing line opposite our house, and believed it was a tipping point for the unionists.”

Tam Dalyell, a life-long opponent of devolution who wrote a book at that time called Devolution: the end of Britain, became famous as the originator of the “West Lothian question”.

He recalls in his memoir The Importance of Being Awkward that: “In 1978, during the passage of the Scotland Bill, on every clause, sub-clause and debatable amendment, I rose in my place and solemnly asked the same question with appropriate variation… ‘How can it be that I can vote on education in Accrington, Lancashire but not in Armadale, West Lothian’ … I would terminate my question with the repetitive mantra, ‘It cannot be asked too often’, Eventually exasperated John Smith exploded from the front bench: ‘Oh, yes, Tam it bloody well can be asked too often’.

“Later Roy Hattersley observed: ‘Tam, you do realise that, as a little side-effect of your anti-devolution campaign, the Labour government fell and Margaret Thatcher became prime minister?’ It was a comment that was grossly unfair – it was in fact the SNP voting with the Tories on a motion of confidence that brought the Labour government down, yet it contained just sufficient truth to make me blush.”

Dalyell was one of the Labour dissidents behind the 40 per cent rule. He now sees this as a mistake. “It was viewed as ‘not quite cricket’ by some and ‘downright cheating’ by others … Undoubtedly it cost the No campaign votes … But as things turned out, pro-Assembly activists could resort to the emotive and ever-appealing mantra, ‘We was robbed’.”

In 1979 when these events were unfolding, of course, no-one had the benefit of hindsight. Labour may have miscalculated, and made a kind of Queen sacrifice, thinking that the SNP would suffer at the polls and Labour would be out for just one term.

It was simply an unfolding story then, just as the current referendum story is. What we will make of it when we look back depends on where the path we choose now leads, for us and for our children.