1979: The beginning of the end of the ancien regime that ruled Scotland and the UK

Today is the 40th anniversary of Scotland going to the polls to vote in the first devolution referendum on Labour’s proposals for a Scottish Assembly. Gerry Hassan reflects on what happened, and what it meant.

This marked the beginning of Scotland’s constitutional revolution through referendums which, at the moment, stands at a triptych of 1979, 1997 and 2014 but which may have another addition. Despite this there will be no bunting, no ceremonies and no plaques unveiled to mark today. Both then and now, Labour’s plans for an Assembly were little loved and respected. But in retrospect it has become more and more obvious that they marked the beginning of the end of the ancien regime both in Scotland and the UK.

On 1 March 1979 Scottish voters supported devolution by 51.6% to 48.4%: a winning margin of 3.2%. The country was divided and not very enthusiastic. The Central Belt of Strathclyde, Lothian, Central and Fife voted for change (as did the Western Isles), but large parts of the rest of Scotland were suspicious: including Grampian, Tayside, Dumfries and Galloway and Borders, and Orkney and Shetland emphatically against (with the last two even asked a different question to allow an opt-out from the whole thing if it went ahead).

The Assembly despite popular backing did not go ahead because of the Cunningham amendment, named after George Cunningham, Scots born Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. This was a wrecking amendment passed to the Scotland Act which stipulated that the plans would only go ahead if 40% of electors voted for them: thus counting non-voters and the dead on the electoral register as No voters.

Hence the 51.6% victory was also 32.9% of electors and seen as not an adequate mandate according to the Scotland Act 1978. Labour did not have a majority in the fag end of the 1974-79 Parliament, and were divided on devolution between arch-opponents like Tam Dalyell and Neil Kinnock and believers in the idea such as John Smith. Thus, the party didn’t have the cohesion to plan a future course.

What then happened is of historic importance. The SNP put down a vote of no confidence in the Labour Government. This was then superseded by Thatcher’s motion, as the Official Opposition, and with the SNP and Liberals voting against the minority government, Labour lost by one vote: 311 to 310. Thatcher won the subsequent election, repealed the Scotland Act, and began eighteen years of Tory rule. Hence, the Labour line for the next forty years to the SNP: ‘you brought down the Labour Government’ and ‘you voted in Thatcher’. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Many Myths of ‘79

The whole period is in fact shrouded in myths. First, a vote of no confidence emerged because Labour were so divided post-referendum. They did not have the numbers or discipline to progress devolution, but nor did they have them for repeal of the Scotland Act. Hence, they dithered and played for time, bringing about the vote of no confidence. Second, it was not just the SNP that voted against Labour, but the Liberals led by David Steel. Third, equally important, the actual vote only precipitated what was fast approaching: a general election and Tory victory, progressing it by a couple of months at best (with an election having to be held by October of 1979 at the latest).

There are deeper ghosts of 1979. The Scottish vote did not bring about the Thatcher revolution, but the former was affected by ‘the winter of discontent’: the series of strikes which drove a coach and horses through Labour’s incomes and industrial policies. Bill Miller of Glasgow University calculated at the time that if the referendum had been held pre-strikes the Assembly would have won 64:36 not 52:48. We also know that these events were much more important than any supposed ‘Argentina overhang’ due to ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’ meeting its comeuppance in Cordoba: the SNP’s vote beginning to fall before the Scottish football team left for the Southern hemisphere.

One footnote is the issue of referendums and supra-majorities. So far the Scotland Act 1978 is the only national example of this. The UK has now had eleven national and sub-national votes, including the Welsh voting narrowly for devolution in 1997, and the Brexit vote in 2016 which was won 51.9% to 48.1% – with the winning side winning 37.4% of the electorate – well below that 40% threshold. To this day there is no proper framework for triggering and holding referendums in the UK, bar the narrow Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 – something which matters in the here and now as we debate a second Brexit vote and indyref2.

What if we had got the 1979 Assembly?

Forty years on it is now much easier to see the Assembly debate as the start of something significant. It raises the issue of what would Scotland be like if we had voted the way we did and got what we voted for.

The 1979 Assembly had 142 seats elected by First Past the Post so it would have produced a huge Labour majority in the 1980s with the other parties squeezed as they were at Westminster. That Labour Party would have an unreformed party dominated by male elders and the councillor class and it would not have wielded this new layer of patronage with any generosity or inclusiveness. But, at the same time, Thatcherism would undoubtedly have been blunted, not in macro-economic terms, but in such injustices as the poll tax.

Writing in this week’s Times Kenny Farquharson explored the terrain of this counterfactual Scotland and wondered that if the 1979 Assembly had happened how things would have turned out. Thatcherism, he posed, would have felt less like an ‘existential threat’ and politics would have been deprived of ‘much of the psychodrama of Tory rule’. Today’s Scotland as a result, he mused, would have been ‘more calm and reasoned’ and our psyche ‘less troubled’. Thus, we would have been saved from our slow morphing over the years post-1979 into ‘a far angrier nation, fuelled by a generation of righteous greviance’.

There are good points in the Times piece about the degeneration of Labour and how our society and politics has changed. But are we really this land of gathering anger and grievance? Is that beyond the margins really the mood of the nation?
Certainly, the 1997 emphatic vote for a Parliament cannot be seen as one animated by anger: instead it was the articulation of a Scottish mindset which had given up on the old order. And in a different way, isn’t it just too sweeping to characterise the Scotland of 2014 and hence as this place of ‘righteous grievance’?

If the Labour Assembly had come about in 1979 it would not have fairly represented Scotland and eventually we would have had a debate on proportional representation. Politics with the background of Thatcherism would become fixed around the Labour v SNP battleground for the left and defending Scotland. And in many respects, we also dodged a bullet in 1979: putting on the backburner, ill-thought out, incoherent plans, giving Labour and others the chance to develop the more coherent, far reaching Convention inspired plans.

The End of the Old Scotland and Britain

There is a much longer story from 1979 which matters to this day about Scotland, its politics and future. First, there is the Scottish dimension. There was in 1979 and even 1997 an absence of debate and drive about democratising the country and its institutions: in the former, Labour had no interest in this, and by the latter, people were focused on achieving the Parliament. Insider Scotland showed no interest in contributing positively to this debate, and why would they as the old system of Scottish Office administration worked well for them? CBI Scotland across the three Scottish referendums campaigning ‘No No No’ and did not offering any constructive suggestions for reform.

Second, 1979 marked a turning point for Scotland, the idea of Britain and the left. It marked the final rites of social democratic Britain. As a young schoolboy at the time, I only have a distant memory of that year politically, with much more immediate things preoccupying me such as music and Dundee United winning their first ever major silverware (the League Cup). But I do remember my parents, both on the left, saying firmly that they were voting No in 1979. Their reasoning was that class mattered more than nation, and that they believed in Britain as the future and best means of lifting up working class people like themselves. It was a commonly held view then, and what came after 1979 marked the discrediting of that position.

The year 1979 is still what defines a large part of Scottish and British politics to this day. It is seen as the ‘Year Zero’ dividing the world into pre-Thatcherite and Thatcherite. Yet, the implosion of social democratic Britain that was made explicit by the events of 1979 was already underway before hand: in the tumultuous events of the 1974-79 Labour Government as the party abandoned the tenets of the post-war consensus, saw the UK humiliated in the IMF crisis, and Prime Minister Jim Callaghan explicitly embrace the politics of right-wing monetarism.

Social democratic Britain went into headlong retreat after 1979 and has never recovered, despite thirteen years of Labour Government under Blair and Brown. There is a widespread assumption in Scotland not only that things are different up here, which they are, but that somehow with our Parliament, SNP and a politics more centre-left, that we have bucked the trend of social democracy’s hollowing out. We have not and the complacencies that we have don’t do us any favours.

In future years 1979 will be understood as marking something profound and long lasting: the beginning of the end of the old order. This was defined by a conservative, insular Labour politics in Scotland and a version of Britain which had held sway over the post-war era based on the betterment of millions of citizens widening opportunities, reducing poverty and narrowing inequality.

1979 represents the final turning away from that past Britain. But the reality is that it was waning and on death row already: beaten into submission by the faultlines in Labour, the counter-offensive from the right, and the changing dynamics of society and capitalism. The old Labour-trade union collectivism could no longer deliver, as the 1980s were to show in spades.

There can be no going back to the Scotland or Britain of 1979: to that supposedly more stable, secure, settled world. It has gone forever. And instead we have to work out how we want to navigate our future path in a world of uncertainty and risk. That does mean Scottish politics has to be grown up and mature enough, particularly on the independence side, to openly talk about things like risk, uncertainty and doubt, for that makes our discussions more relevant and human, and more likely to arrive at the right conclusions.

Comments (9)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    1979 “But the reality is that it was waning and on death row already: beaten into submission…. ….. and the changing dynamics of society and capitalism.”
    Which coincides with the outcomes of the oil crisis and the EROEI of oil dropping from 75:1 to 25:1 at the time.

    The 2008 crises and following decade saw that EROEI drop to 6:1, with fracking at 1:1 or less.

    Political maturity must include the radical realisation that this society is over, that unfettered economic growth on a finite planet is impossible. We are coming to the end of cheap surplus energy, and that means the end of cheap consumerism, as more and more discretionary spending disappears into the coffers of the elites, and the 99% end up spending merely to survive.

    Political maturity (of which there is very little within Westminster currently) has to grasp the nettle that change is coming whether we like it or not. I cannot say if Scottish politics is more mature than English politics, I don’t study it closely enough, I certainly hope so.

    A mature political system would be able to grasp that nettle and roll with it, seeking a braver, economic-less, alternative world in more unstable times. A wise and mature political system will see that tinkering with the same system, revitalising an older glory, or mere variations on the same old same old will not cut it in any future nation, independent or otherwise.

    Can Scotland do it? England certainly doesn’t give me much hope!

    1. Blair says:

      Yes Scotland can do it. Christina will be working with everyone to achieve this post BREXIT BREAK DAY. @5dYour She is BREXIT READY to go out and she will be back in the office with her Twitter Tweets. Follow her now.

  2. Redgauntlet says:

    Gerry Hassan describes the 1945-1979 period of British history as “the ancien regime” and this is a choice of words which has to be challenged.

    The original “ancien regime”, which is merely French for “the old regime”, is of course a reference to the period of history – several centuries long – in which France took shape and was ruled by kings who were believed to have a “divine right” to govern their subjects, the vast majority of whom had no rights at all.

    This lasted until 1789, the year when the French Revolution occurred and swept away the “old regime” in the name of “liberty, fraternity and equality”. The French revolution was and still is one of the most important events in the history of humankind. Without it, the modern world could never have come about.

    So to refer as 1945-1979 Britain as the “old regime or “ancien regime”, as Gerry does, is to suggest that 1979 was a revolutionary moment in British history, when the fact of the matter is that it was a counter-revolutionary moment in British political history.

    In 1945, the British electorate voted in a Labour Govt led by Clement Atlee on a political programme which was truly revolutionary in what it saw as the role of the State in society. Until 1945, which is to say, for many, many centuries, the State existed to establish laws – above all to protect private property – punish people who broke those laws, and wage war on behalf of the interests of the powerful people who ran the State.

    Then, in 1945, under that Labour Gov of Clement Atlee and Nye Bevan, the role of the State in society was revolutionized. The State was to provide free universal health care, free education, affordable housing for everybody, pensions for people who were old, and a basic income for the unemployed.

    This revolution lasted from 1945-1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power and began the counter-revolution, which is to say, she set about changing the role of the State so that it resembled increasingly the State as it has existed for centuries before 1945. Which is to say, a State which protects the powerful and the wealthy, which wages war and which collects taxes – from working people, not the elite who have their money stashed away offshore.

    Thatcher never openly announced a plan to end free universal health care (the NHS), welfare, pensions and education for those out of work because she knew that she would never win an election if she did so. So, what she did, and all Tory governments have done since, was to constantly cut the budgets of healthcare, education and welfare – the most recent name for this counter-revolutionary Tory policy is “austerity” – while at the same time encouraging private enterprises which sought to make money from health and education and turn people’s essential well-being into a commodity like a car or a TV set or a pair of jeans.

    So, to recap, 1945 was the truly revolutionary moment in British political history – not a violent Revolution like the Communists wanted, but a democratic revolution – and what happened in 1979 was the beginning of the counter-revolutionary moment the aim of which is to restore the pre-1945 “ancien regime” when the State was merely a law enforcer, a punisher, and a war monger, and never a carer, a provider or a teacher…

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      PS: Gerry Hassan, like many journalists and commentators, too often offers bold assertions instead of coherent and credible arguments.

      The Trade Union movement, for example, may well have needed some reform and modernizing when Thatcher came to power, but Thatcher was never interested in reforming Trade Unionism, she was interested in crushing it to death.

      Arthur Scargill certainly had many faults, but he was 100% right when he diagnosed that the Miners Strike was a political strike, planned and organized by a Troy government in advance, the aim of which was to crush the most powerful Trade Union in Britain, the National Union of Miners., and by doing so, to deal a death blow to the power of the Unions.

      It is worth remembering that Thatcher described the ordinary working men who risked their lives every day mining coal as “the enemy within” and that she employed para-military style policing, the full force of the law and all the power of the State controlled media to defeat the miners whose immense courage, dignity and sacrifice still shine out today.

      Thatcher won, the miners were defeated, and today, in 2019, there are Amazon workers wear a nappy to work because they are not allowed a break to take a piss by their multi-billionaire boss, Jeff Bezos…

      It is to defend the basic dignity of workers that trade unions were invented, and when the miners were defeated, we were all defeated….

      1. Wul says:

        Yes, Redgauntlet, you have it.

        Funny that the book which inspired Thatcher was called “The Road to Serfdom” (F. Hayek 1944) . It was meant to be a warning that too much state influence led inevitably to centralised power and fascism, and that free markets would liberate everyone to live as an individual.

        Maybe Thatcher thought that serfdom was a good destination for the enemy within.

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          Hi Wul,

          When I recently watched Ken Loach’s excellent documentary, THE SPIRIT OF 45, which I highly recommend, I was surprised to see footage from that election in which Winston Churchill was waving a copy of “The Road of Serfdom” in front of the crowds. So Thatcher merely copied Churchill in 1979…

          The more you think about 1945 , the more incredible, visionary and important a moment it seems to me. The British electorate rejecting a war hero for a brand new vision of society based on the essential human needs and the well-being of all…

          Has there ever been a greater contribution to world civilization than the Welfare State? It was a model so successful, it was copied all over Europe….

          … people say that its demise was “inevitable”, but that is certainly not the case. There is always a choice… to pretend otherwise is a falsehood.

          Here’s the trailer of Loach’s film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c86Gwsb5LY

          1. Wul says:

            Thank you for the link RedG. I shall look out for the film.

            We really should have developed an oral tradition after WW2 to articulate how hard-won the benefits of a welfare state were and how pointless and painful war is.

            We seem to have a very short cultural memory and our media is criminally useless at providing context and a big picture view of current events.

    2. H Scott says:

      Well said Redgauntlet.

  3. w.b. robertson says:

    Redgauntlet says it all. his version of 20th C history is mine.

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