2007 - 2022

1979 – a Counterfactual History

1979 – an Alternative History

Alister Jack’s “60%” wheeze follows a long line of Unionist attempts to gerrymander and distort democracy and undermine Scotland’s path to independence. It triggers memories of 1979 when an amendment to the Scotland Act stipulated that it would be repealed if less than 40% of the total electorate voted “Yes” in the referendum.

Scotland voted Yes to devolution in 1979.

This simple fact is often airbrushed out of recent history. The voter turnout was 63.72% and the Yes vote won by 51.62%. But the victory was rigged.  The Scottish Assembly would have legislative control over Education; the Environment; Health; Home affairs; Legal matters; and Social services. As we try and imagine ways forward in 2021 this is an exercise in a counterfactual history.

Geoff Shaw’s first act as First Secretary was to devolve the Assembly further to Glasgow Aberdeen Inverness and Dundee with consecutive sittings with special hearings from each city-region. While this caused fury from Stirling it created a sense of a ‘national’ parliament’ and a momentum for real change that caught Westminster by complete surprise and inspired Scots up and down the land.

The innovations came thick and fast. In 1982 the post of Makar was created  and Ivor Cutler as the first appointment was a huge success.

Working fast and loose within the restricted devolution settlement Geoff Shaw immediately made an impression inviting members of the Gorbals Group into Cabinet and establishing a Poverty Taskforce at the heart of government. The difference was not another “taskforce” about poverty, the difference was that this was the government’s number one priority and the entire group was staffed and managed by people with lived-experience of poverty.

The effect was transformative.

Rent controls and mass public housing caused a firewall to Thatcher’s programme and fuelled support for the new Assembly.

The Assembly was supposed to be a disempowered and marginal piece of constitutional window-dressing. But that’s not how it turned out. When Shaw appointed Jimmy Reid and Margo Macdonald as co-chairs of the industrial and trade union unit it caused ructions within both the SNP and the Labour Party. But what was emerging was a new national new project.

When Shaw announced – after months of debate within the Church of Scotland – that St Columba was the new Patron Saint of Scotland and that the Patrick Geddes proposal for a statue at the top of the Lawnmarket was to be commissioned the outcry from the Scottish Establishment was hysterical.

This reached fever-pitch when Shaw’s education secretary announced the abolition of private schools and their inclusion into the comprehensive system. But the Assembly had cross-party support and huge public appeal, such that demands for the extension of their powers grew and grew. Though much of the Assembly’s actions were heavily constrained the symbolic acts were powerful and the convergence of Labour movement invited into tangible social justice projects and the nascent nationalist movement coalescing around the inspirational leadership of Shaw became an irresistible force.

Thatcher’s regime acted as a boost to the Assembly’s popularity and attempts to hamper its autonomy only amplified its support.

On the Environment SCRAM was aided by the powerful peace movement, the women’s movement and the position of the First Secretary as an implacable opponent of weapons of mass destruction. The British State’s convergence of nuclear power and nuclear weapons was opposed with a mass movement against Torness and Faslane. This was to become the fulcrum of the independence movement that dragged the Labour movement from Assembly-complacency to being inspired by the potential for radical change. The Scottish peace movement that has its roots in the Committee of 100 became the motivator and the focus for a national renewal.

At a massive rally on the Meadows in 1984 in front of a reputed 80,000 people, the newly appointed Director of the Edinburgh Festival, Richard Demarco introduced a line-up of Billy Connolly; Big Country; the Fire Engines; the Proclaimers; Hipsway; Goodbye Mr Mackenzie; Simple Minds; and the Waterboys which was seen as a landmark in the movement for Scottish democracy.

The step from devolution to independence was inspired by the threat of a good example.

What was happening was a mass mobilisation around a new idea, that of Scottish independence and the full extension of the Assembly’s powers.

By the time of the 1987 General Election such was the support that all Scottish parties (apart from the Scottish Conservatives and the Liberal Party) withdrew consent from participation and caused a constitutional crisis the like of which the UK had never seen. Thatcher’s government fell and a referendum for Scottish independence was demanded by the Scottish Assembly. The stand-off resulted in the occupation of Holyrood Palace as an Upper House and the establishment of a dual-power government in waiting.

When the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival was usurped as an exemplar of permaculture and a national network of organic farming as part of a movement that was to lead to land-reform and the break up of landed power the British State met with representatives of the Assembly and agreed a dissolution Act.

In 1990 Scotland voted overwhelmingly for independence in the referendum with 87% voting Yes.


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Comments (19)

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  1. Helen Trainor says:

    Excellent piece …. Hoping its not too late…

  2. Dougie Harrison says:

    It’s a wee bit late for me to write a proper response to this now, Mike. But as someone who fought for a Scottish Assembly throughout the seventies, and well beyond, I don’t recognise some of the ‘facts’ you present here. And I was fairly central, as the STUC’s economist from 1976 to 1990, to the STUC’s role in making ‘devolution’ finally happen after 1997. More tomorrow, when I’m a wee bit less tired, I hope.

    Dougie Harrison

    1. David says:

      When history gets rewritten in this kind of way it is surely intended to be interesting, entertaining and thought provoking but it is also fiction which makes arguing about the ‘facts’ is kind of strange.

    2. There are no facts … this is all made-up … it’s a (re) imagined history

      1. David says:

        Call me pedantic but the 79 referendum and the gerrymandering of the result were facts 🙂

          1. Dougie Harrison says:

            There is ABSOUTELY not one word in the title or first few pages of this, to indicate that it’s meant to be a joke.

            Some of us take the world a wee bit seriously Mike. Always have. Yesterday in Glasgow, I passed the office from which Janey Buchan and I tried to do oor wee bit for Scotland in 1979.

            This bit of weirdness, unlike almost everything published on BC, does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for Scotland’s people.

          2. Colin Robinson says:

            Och, come on, Dougie. The article’s subtitled ‘an Alternative History’. You can’t get plainer than that.

    3. Colin Robinson says:

      Aye, the clue’s in the prefatory sentence: “As we try and imagine ways forward in 2021 this is an exercise in a counterfactual history.”

      Nice one, Mike. Counterfactual histories are fun ways of expressing one’s social hopes.

      If you get the chance, read Max Herzberg’s East Berlin series of crime novels, which are set in the counterfactual world of an independent GDR that’s transforming itself from a Marxist-Leninist planned society into a grassroots democratic republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

      1. Thanks, I’ll look into Max

  3. Paula Becker says:

    2021 – Reality
    Sturgeon will introduce vax certificates and wants her emergency Covid powers made permanent.

    Bellacaledonia: ZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Paula Becker: ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz………..

      ……… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      1. Paula Becker says:

        No, I’m wide awake Alasdair – and thinking through the implications of Sturgeon’s announcement on Vax certificate. It certainly puts the Scottish Greens in an awkward place having previously stated that they were against the idea. They are now part of the Scottish Government so will have to fall in line with the plan, do a u-turn on their previous position and find themselves contradicting Caroline Lucas and the English Greens. I wonder if this will be just the first of a whole series of excruciating compromises they will have to make as price for the two ministerial roles?

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          This is a good point, Paula. The Greens will just have to sit on its hands and suck up the Scottish government’s policy on Covid passports, just as the Lib-Dems had to sit on its hands and suck up the UK government’s policy on tuition fees in 2010.

          Who’d have expected it to have happened so quickly?

          1. David says:

            Biggest mistake the LibDems made between 2010 and 2015 wasn’t tuition fees, it was the completely incompetent f**k up of the referendum and referendum campaign to change the voting system for UK general elections. I am now reimagining history from the start point of that referendum vote having gone the other way…..

            I’ve not heard much of Boris Johnson since his mayor of London days but I did hear that he had returned to bent carrot journalism. It was good to see Rees Mogg quit politics after his pathetic parliamentary shenanigans when he spent several hours letting us know how well educated he is while he tried to talk down the bill to abolish university tuition fees. I don’t seem to get much UK news when I’m living in my Greek island villa but I might get round to going back to the UK for a visit next year when they have finally switched over to the Euro.

    2. Hi Paula – if you want a websites that suits your obsessions there are plenty of them out there. We are not the droids you are looking for.

  4. R. Dent. says:

    A brilliant, counter factual, alternative, retrospective rune reading. Strathclyde Region was a socialist predictor of what and how Scotland could be. Geoff Shaw was conscience incarnate, a builder of the compassionate consensus that now seeks political realisation. While policians prevaricated, artists heaved the place we now inhabit into imaginative being. Verbal viability, that was the writerly ambition of the makars who made a difference. Those cartographers of the cultural landscape mind- mapped the wilderness. We can steer by those stars. Our coordinates swivel North by the moral compass that pointed the way back in 79, when Thatcher came to power and Scotland didn’t, both outcomes the result of electoral fraud and red top induced faint heartedness. There exists no greater truth than that found in an ethically sound, presciently profound parable or freeingly foensic fable. Your fiction, Mike is the oppositeof fake news. Verily, alternative facts. It really was like that because it really could be in a post Einsteinian Scotland where space IS time and JB Priestly’s inspector could call on the Conways and give Messers Shaw and Reid the last, first word, that word being Yes. Yes indeed. The past is a foreign country. We WILL do things differently there. Thanks for the tardis tour of the future that was the past. What was done back then, can be done again, starting yesterday….

  5. Joe Middleton says:

    That’s the way it should have been. If the Brits hadn’t gerrymandered our democracy in 1979. It may not have turned out exactly like this but it would have stood up against Thatcher and her ilk.

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