In the twenty years that followed the 1992 general election, debate on the constitutional framework of the country and ultimately on the Scottish independence referendum was conveniently limited to “The UK”, “the Union” or “the United Kingdom” but not “Great Britain”. This was new. As we shall see below, the devolution debates lasted from the 1970s to the late 1990s and involved the whole of the UK. Scottish independence on the other hand was never debated across the UK and only put forward to the Scottish electorate as a serious possibility when they went to the polls in 2011 to elect the Scottish Parliament. Even then, it was part of a manifesto by the ruling SNP rather than the sole or dominant issue. This was a debate that started on 22 March 2011 and ended on 5 May 2011 – 44 days. A democratic process nonetheless and in 2012, David Cameron as Prime Minister of the UK and Alex Salmond, the re-elected First Minister of Scotland, signed the Edinburgh Agreement setting out the basis for the independence referendum to take place on 18 September 2014.
It wasn’t always like this.
Path to the referendum
Devolution wasn’t new. It had been an established fact in the United Kingdom long before it became a major issue in Scotland or Wales – in Northern Ireland. Until the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s, Northern Ireland had its own government and Parliament at Stormont. Its Home Rule was eventually restored, intermittently, with progress on the peace process from the mid-1990s and, particularly, following the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
With respect to the rest of the country, in Wales, concern over the threat to the continued existence of the Welsh language and culture led to growing nationalism and demands for a devolved assembly from the 1960s. England, being the dominant partner, has only very recently taken any interest in an English Parliament.
The first Referenda – devolution, 1979 In Scotland demands for devolution increased in the 1960s, spurred on by the discovery of North Sea oil. Responding to the rise of the Scottish National Party (“SNP”) in the early 1970s, the Labour Party became committed to a policy of devolution for Scotland. Their manifesto for the October 1974 general election included the pledge to hold referenda on devolution in Scotland and Wales. Under pressure from the SNP and the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish and Welsh referenda were finally held in March 1979, but only after a bizarre amendment that 40% of the total electorate had to vote Yes irrespective of the level of majority. So, in Scotland, whilst 51.6% voted Yes, as the turnout was only 64%, only 32.9% of the total electorate had voted Yes and thus the referendum failed. The referendum on Welsh devolution in 1979 was overwhelmingly defeated (79.7% voted No).
In retaliation, the SNP voted against the Labour government in a confidence motion and James Callaghan’s government fell. Margaret Thatcher won the subsequent general election and ushered in eighteen years of unbroken Conservative rule.
In every subsequent general election – 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1997 – the Labour Party manifesto included a pledge of devolution referenda in Scotland and Wales. The Conservative Party remained implacably opposed to devolution.
The Thatcher government was widely resented in Scotland. There was bitter opposition, for instance, to the proposal to privatise Scottish water – it ran counter to Scottish notions of public ownership of the essentials of life and fairness. In England, millions subscribed to the privatisations of the mid-1980s. The hated Poll Tax began as a solution to the deeply unpopular rates system of local council taxation in Scotland.
Devolution sentiment resurfaced but was confined to the Left. An unofficial Scottish Constitutional Convention was held in 1989 declaring “…the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs…”. This was signed by Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling et al. Thatcher, of course, ignored it.
Devolution – the right to decide rejected, 1992
Matters came to more of a head in 1992. In November 1990 John Major had replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister after her policy on Europe became too much for the Conservative Party and the Poll Tax became too much for the country. The Labour Party was widely expected to win the general election. Once again, Labour was committed to providing devolution referenda for Wales and Scotland.
John Major got on his soapbox (literally) and, for the first time, made devolution a central issue of a general election campaign. Major attacked devolution as the thin edge of the wedge leading to the break-up of the Union. Many factors led to Labour’s defeat – an over-confident campaign, policies looking a little too desperate to win, a leader who never quite jelled with the English working class, the appeal of an underdog Prime Minister, fear of change in the teeth of a bitter recession etc. – but there is no denying that devolution would have played a part.
Irrespective of the wishes of the Scottish people, a major decision on Scotland’s future was taken by the whole of the UK and not just Scotland. This was never questioned; no march upon Westminster to declare that devolution was a matter for Scotland alone.
Having won the election, Major threw some olive branches to Scottish discomfort at the constitutional balance between Scotland and Westminster. Major devolved more powers to the Scottish Office and the Scottish Grand Committee – a very long way short of devolving powers to the Scottish people. A Scottish Parliament was firmly off the agenda.
More symbolically, in 1996, the Stone of Scone stolen from the Scots by Edward I in 1296 and placed in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey ever since, was returned to Scotland amid much ceremony. It was renamed the Stone of Destiny. This was an important gesture for Scottish identity and pride even if it didn’t translate into Conservative votes at the next general election; an election that had to be held by May 1997.
Devolution – the right to decide confirmed, 1997
The election of 1997 would be different. Labour had a young leader, Tony Blair, who even the Tories grudgingly liked. Big business and the darling newspaper of Thatcher, The Sun, came out in support of Labour. This time devolution barely got a mention. Once again, the Conservatives argued that devolution was dangerous for Great Britain and refused to offer Scotland and Wales a choice through a referendum.
The landslide for Labour was almost total. Everyone knew a Labour victory meant devolution referenda in Scotland and Wales. This time, the country was comfortable. The mandate for devolution was emphatic; 418 MPs could claim the consent of their constituents.
The referenda that followed in September 1997 were successful. There were no artificial 40% hurdles. Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Scottish Parliament – 74.3% on a turnout of 60%. In Wales 50.3% voted Yes and thus the Welsh Assembly with more limited powers than the Scottish Parliament was created.
The process that gave Scotland its Parliament and Wales its Assembly was impeccable. Extensive debate across the UK; clear manifesto pledges over several general elections – a generation of debate. The country was not quite ready for this step in 1992. The 1997 Labour manifesto didn’t promise devolution; it promised referenda on devolution in Wales and Scotland. Once the whole country was comfortable with the journey, the people of Scotland and Wales were given their opportunity to decide. As a result, devolution was accepted by the whole country and opposition to devolution disappeared. Democracy had triumphed.