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 It triggers memories of 1979 when an amendment to the Scotland Act stipulated that it would be repealed if less than 40% of the total electorate voted “Yes” in the referendum.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 he 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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