How Thatcher tried to thwart devolution

MARGARET Thatcher wanted to prevent the creation of a Scottish assembly by amending Labour legislation to allow the English to vote in the 1979 referendum on devolution, The Scotsman can reveal.

The then leader of the opposition was urged by the Tory peer Lord Boyd-Carpenter to amend the Scotland Bill to enable all voters in the United Kingdom to have a say on devolution for Scotland. Mrs Thatcher supported the idea and consulted colleagues.

The proposals are contained in documents from the "Thatcher Papers" released by the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge. The files cover 1975-79, when Mrs Thatcher was Conservative leader and the Labour government's plans for devolution in Scotland and Wales had split both the Labour Party and the Conservatives.

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Mrs Thatcher had told Conservative MPs to vote against the Scotland and Wales Bill in December 1976. Two months later, the government's bill was defeated in a Commons vote and in November 1977 ministers published a new stand-alone Scotland Bill and a separate bill to establish an assembly for Wales.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who had been Mrs Thatcher's ministerial boss at the ministry of pensions and national insurance in the early 1960s, wrote to her just days later.

"There is, I think, in law no definition of a Scotsman," he argued, adding: "If an amendment were put in the Commons, the government would have to face the embarrassing possibility of an adverse vote on the referendum."

Lord Boyd-Carpenter spoke of delaying "the operation of the bills until after the general election, when you would, I hope and believe, be able to deal with them!"

Mrs Thatcher replied: "I like your proposition about the Scotland and Wales Bills – and agree with the reasoning. Whether I can sell it to my team is another matter – but I will have a go. If we can't do it from the front-bench we can try from the back-benches and we might even attract the support of some Labour MPs."

Many Labour MPs – most famously Tam Dalyell – were then deeply opposed to their own government's proposals for devolution and were fully prepared to collude with Conservative back-benchers to pass disruptive amendments.

But when Mrs Thatcher circulated details of the proposal, it was vetoed by Teddy Taylor, the shadow Scottish secretary. "The extension of the franchise would be interpreted in Scotland as no more than a device to deprive the Scots of devolution and it might arouse parochial and nationalist sentiments," he argued.


THE SNP was keen to forge a "working arrangement" with the Tories as James Callaghan's Labour government encountered hostility to its proposals for a Scottish assembly.

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Hamish Watt, the SNP MP, approached the Tory MP Jack Weatherill in 1976 stressing there was "room for agreement".

Weatherill reported in a memo: "I gained the impression ... he was anxious to come to some sort of working arrangement with us."

Click here to read the original documents