‘An Auld Sang with a New Tune’: Devolution to Scotland in the 1970s

Today’s blog is from guest blogger Tom Chidwick. Tom is writing a history of the 1979 referendum in Scotland and here he discusses the vote, the Scotland Act and the considerations for the location of the Scottish Parliament…

In its first ever referendum, on a snowy St David’s Day in 1979, Scotland went to the polls in arguably the most important ballot in the country’s history. Scots were asked whether they wished to enact the Scotland Act (1978) and bring the country’s first legislature in nearly three centuries into existence.

The Scotland Act – which was memorably described by a Dumfriesshire bookseller as ‘the world’s worst seller’ – had been introduced to the House of Commons by James Callaghan’s Labour government and was the result of a decade of frenetic debate about devolving power to Scotland. Intended to counter growing Scottish National Party (SNP) support and reinvigorate an increasingly stagnant Union, the Act proposed the creation of a Scottish ‘Assembly’ of 142 members (two for each of Scotland’s existing 71 constituencies, who would be elected by First Past the Post, rather than by a system of proportional representation, which many devolutionists favoured).

Whilst Scotland voted ‘Yes’ with a small majority (of just over 77,000 votes), the project was torpedoed by failing to meet the conditions of the ‘Cunningham Amendment’, a turnout threshold which stated that 40 per cent of the overall electorate must vote ‘Yes’ for it to take effect. Academics estimated that devolutionists would have needed in excess of 270,000 extra votes to have secured an Assembly. Although the Assembly did not go ahead, the debates about the shape it should take had an important influence on Scottish public life in subsequent decades.

Possible sites for the Assembly to meet had already been considered before the referendum took place. In spring 1975, during what the architectural historian Miles Glendinning has called a ‘crisis in the Modern Movement’, the Scottish Office commissioned a study of a number of redundant historic buildings that could potentially house its Assembly. Centring on Edinburgh, the search took in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall (which eventually housed the Scottish Parliament while Holyrood was being constructed) and Donaldson’s School for the Deaf in West Coates. In a characteristically acerbic intervention, one member of the House of Lords suggested that a School for the Deaf appeared to have ‘certain merits’ which qualified it to house a Scottish Assembly.

Whilst the Scottish Office also briefly considered the headquarters of Strathclyde Regional Council in Glasgow, it settled on the Royal High School’s former home on Edinburgh’s Regent Road, believing it to be inherently more ‘adaptable’ than its competitors. In September 1976, the Property Services Agency of the Department of the Environment began to shore up the dilapidated Grade A listed building and to create, at a cost of £4 million, what The Glasgow Herald described as ‘workable and dignified accommodation’ for the Assembly, whilst ‘fully respecting the character of an outstanding historic building’.

Edinburgh Old Royal High School, photographed in 2017, Wikimedia Commons
Interior of Edinburgh Old Royal High School Chamber, photographed by Tom Chidwick

Although the Scotland Act laid out the powers to be transferred to the Assembly – covering the bulk of Scotland’s social policy, including healthcare, social welfare, education and public sector housing – it did not specify the procedures which would govern its day-to-day life. The novelty of such a major constitutional experiment, and the Callaghan government’s perilous position in the House of Commons, ensured that the Assembly would not have been forced to be a ‘carbon copy of Westminster’ and would instead have been able to ‘develop their own ways of working as they judge best’. As one commentator – who believed that the ‘auld sang’ of self-government would have a ‘new tune’ in the Seventies – suggested, devolution offered an opportunity for ‘new thinking’ and ‘a willingness to break with the preoccupations of the past’.

Whilst the Labour government sought to guarantee the Assembly’s autonomy, the Scotland Act, contentiously, allowed the Secretary of State for Scotland a veto over Assembly legislation (by refusing to ‘submit the [Assembly] Bill to Her Majesty in Council for approval’). It did, however, give the Assembly the significant power to amend and even repeal Westminster legislation. During the referendum campaign, the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group tried to mobilise Scotland’s gay community as a serious political force. The group stressed to its supporters that an Assembly could introduce legislation to overturn the prohibition on homosexual relations between consenting adults north of the border, which only became legal in 1981.

Margo MacDonald ©Historic Environment Scotland

For John P. Mackintosh, the Labour MP for Berwick and East Lothian, if the Assembly was to capture the public’s imagination and reduce the feeling that ‘government is a remote, secret process’, it was essential that it allowed far greater power to backbenchers than Westminster in order to encourage ‘able people to stand’. As a unicameral legislature with no revising chamber akin to the House of Lords, the Assembly would also have had the power to appoint ‘a distinguished person, or one with special expertise … who is not an Assembly Member’ to the devolved Scottish Executive.

As became the case with the Scottish Parliament in 1999, it was widely expected that the Assembly would have an effective and well-staffed committee system to allow in-depth scrutiny of the Executive’s policies by backbench ‘Assemblymen’. A comprehensive committee system would require permanent bodies (with the power to appoint sub-committees) to oversee each department of the Executive as well as one to guide the Assembly’s business and its procedures. It was estimated that there would be 10 permanent committees, with Assembly members likely to serve on at least two at a time.

If the Assembly were to cement these distinctive habits in the long term, it would be necessary to write them into its very DNA by including them in its Standing Orders from the outset. ‘Yes’ campaigners from both Labour and the SNP stressed that Scotland’s fledgling legislature needed to avoid the ‘tendency to drift back towards the Westminster model’, with Ian Smith, the SNP candidate for Kinross and West Perthshire, stressing that the Assembly offered Scots a chance to escape ‘the bitterness and conflict and the antiquated procedures’ that governed the House of Commons.

As the inaugural First Minister Donald Dewar later said of the Scottish Parliament, ‘it is a rare privilege in an old nation to open a new Parliament’. Whilst Scots were denied that privilege in March 1979, the referendum and the debate about what a Scottish Assembly could and should do shaped Scottish public life for a generation and informed the establishment of the Scottish Parliament two decades later. Had Labour convinced the Scots of the merits of its Assembly, the ever-pragmatic Callaghan could have entered the 1979 General Election having just fundamentally reengineered the United Kingdom.


Further Reading:

John Bochel, David Denver and Allan Macartney (eds), The Referendum Experience: Scotland, 1979 (1981).

John P. Mackintosh, ‘Internal Procedure and Organisation’ in Donald I. Mackay, Scotland: The Framework for Change (1979).

Andrew Marr, The Battle for Scotland (2013 edition).

Lindsay Paterson, A Diverse Assembly: The Debate on a Scottish Parliament (1998).

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