Scotland votes Yes to a Scottish Parliament
The 11th of September 1997 AD
Almost 300 years of prevarication, belly rumbling and constitutional sabre-rattling were put to rest when the Scottish Parliament opened for business on the 1st July 1999. It would be the first time that Scotland would have a sitting parliament – complete with considerable legislative powers – since the ink dried on the Act of Union in 1707. The referendum put to the Scottish people on 11th September 1997 recorded a 74.3 per cent ‘Yes’ to the parliament, and a 63.5 per cent ‘Yes’ to tax raising powers of up to 3 pence in the pound. Scotland had said ‘Yes’ and fears that the British constitution would unravel as independence spread across the country like a rash were unfounded. The limits to the Scottish Parliaments preserved the integrity of the Union, even if it had been modernised and to some degree decentralised.
Constitutional change was promised in Labour’s election manifesto of 1997, and coming so quickly after the party’s landslide victory , affording Scotland devolved power appeared to be – by British standards anyway – to be the crest of a minor revolution. But Scotland’s path to Home Rule wasn’t charted from New Labour’s bunker; the need, the demand, and the mandate for independence was something that had ebbed and flowed for three centuries.
Scottish nationalism has seen plenty of false dawns and spurned opportunities, and while the Scottish Parliament is not the independence that the SNP champion, for the people of Scotland it is a transferral of genuine policy making power that helps focus political attention on
Holyrood rather than Westminster . And for the seasoned campaigners for Scottish Home Rule it helped erase the memories of the 1979 referendum. The movement towards the vote on the 1st March 1979 arguably began with the SNP’s rise to prominence in the late 1960s – specifically, their routing of Labour when Winifred Ewing triumphed in Hamilton . Scotland had always been divided between Labour and Conservatives, the latter attracting the unionist vote from the skilled, blue collar Protestant workers – and of course the traditionally Conservative demographic of the middle classes – while the socialist makeweights would be Labour.
The United Kingdom was changing, though. Industry was changing. Attitudes were changing. Society, and therefore the electorate were changing. And especially, Scotland was changing. The SNP’s arrival on the political stage scared the country’s ruling elite. Even Ted Heath , in his Declaration of Perth in 1968, would begin to recognise this rise of Scottish Nationalism, and for the first time in 100 years a Conservative leader mooted devolution as a constitutional reform that could work. It would not last – the political dynamic of the ’70s was one that recoiled from what particular crisis the economy was lurching towards. This was a decade of discontent, of trade union activism, of a weak pound, and a balance of payments deficit that appeared to consume the UK economy.
During the mid-1970s the Labour party’s support for devolution was lukewarm. It proposed it, but the party was riven with division. It wasn’t until the decade neared a close that the Scotland and Wales Bill was passed in Commons, and Home Rule was offered to the people. Where prevarication had always fudged the issue, it was an amendment to the bill that would see a majority yes vote in the 1979 referendum being insufficient to secure a Scottish parliament. And ironically, it was a Scotsman whose amendment halted Home Rule. George Cunningham, Labour MP for London Islington , forced an an amendment to the Scotland Act that required 40 per cent of the Scottelectorate must vote yes or else the Act would be annulled. It would prove crucial. A majority vote of 51.6 per cent voted for Home Rule. But with a 63.8 per cent turn out Home Rule was stymied. Change was afoot, though; but it was economic and social rather than constitutional as Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative party to victory over a shambolic Labour party and ushered in over a decade of steely-eyed monetarism. It would be an era that afforded Scotland meagre fortunes. Heavy industry would collapse. Factories would close. The British economy embarked on a radical change, moving towards a tertiary service sector. Trade union powers were atrophied as Britain’s reputation as a
manufacturer would be dwarfed by that of China and Taiwan. The traditional Labour seats of Glasgow and Central Scotland were hit by the collapse of the shipbuilding and steel industries. Ravenscraig’s closure was an economic apocalypse for the people of South Lanarkshire . The
issue of Home Rule did not reemerge with any conviction until Labour, in opposition, began to restructure and reanimate its policies. For the first time in a decade they were beginning to look electable.
The Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA) kept devolution on the political agenda, and by the mid-90s it became a crucial part of Labour’s manifesto. The Conservatives reacted by appointing Michael Forsyth as Secretary of State for Scotland. Less charitable commentators of the time may have likened it as putting King Herod in charge of Mothercare. But Forsyth, in his own inimitable – some/most would say shameless – manner relished the task. Looking like he had just fallen out of a Walker’s Shortbread tin, he bedecked himself in tartan at every
opportunity, even attending the premier of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart in full highland dress. But like the film – shot primarily in Ireland and historically unconvincing – Forsyth lacked conviction. At least the film was entertaining.
Scotland was growing up. That is to say, it was recovering culturally from the nadir of the past two decades of industrial decline. The death of Labour leader John Smith was greatly mourned, but, if anything, it seemed to galvanise the movement for devolution. The Think Again campaign grew increasingly desperate in the run up to the September referendum: enlisting Margaret Thatcher’s help probably ended their chances of a no vote. Both the SNP and Liberal Democrats rallied behind the yes campaign. Such was the political zeitgeist, when Bank of Scotland Governer Bruce Patullo opposed the Scottish Parliament his customers threatened to close their accounts. Sean Connery even flew in from which ever country he was sunning himself in to help throw some star appeal behind the yes campaign.
On the 12th May 1999, the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament would be chaired by Dr Winifred Ewing. The Queen officially opened the parliament on the 1st July 1999. Scotland had powers over its own affairs – only defence, macroeconomic policy, foreign policy (though Scotland has seven MEPs), abortion, immigration, social security, and broadcasting would be decided in Westminster.
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