Scottish devolution referendum, 1979
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The Scottish referendum of 1979 was a post-legislative referendum to decide whether there was sufficient support for a Scottish Assembly proposed in the Scotland Act 1978 among the Scottish electorate. This was an act to create a devolved deliberative assembly for Scotland. The Act stipulated that it would be repealed if fewer than 40% of the total electorate voted Yes in the referendum.
The referendum resulted in a 51.6% support for the proposal, but with a turnout of 64%, this represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate, short of the required 40%. The Act was therefore repealed.
In 1976, the UK's Labour government led by James Callaghan, which had won the previous general election in 1974 by just three seats, had lost its parliamentary majority entirely following a series of adverse by-election results. To recreate a voting majority in the commons, the government made an agreement with the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru whereby, in return for their support in Commons votes, the government would instigate legislation to devolve political powers from Westminster to Scotland and Wales. This in turn followed the findings of the Kilbrandon commission which had recommended the establishment of a separate Scottish parliament.
The Scotland and Wales Bill was subsequently introduced in November 1976, but the government struggled to get the Bill through parliament. The Conservative opposition opposed its second reading and on the first day of committee 350 amendments were put down. Progress slowed to a crawl. In February 1977 the Bill's cabinet sponsor Michael Foot tabled a Guillotine Motion to attempt to halt the delays. The motion was rejected and the government was forced to withdraw the Bill.
The government returned to the issue of devolution in November that year, this time with separate Bills for Scotland and Wales and with support from the Liberals. In spite of continued oppostion requiring another guillotine motion, the Bills were passed.
Scottish Assembly proposed in the Scotland Act 1978
Had the Scotland Act 1978 entered force, it would have created a Scottish Assembly with limited legislative powers. There would have been a Scottish Executive headed by a "First Secretary", taking over some of the functions of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Meetings of the Scottish Assembly would have been held at the Old Royal High School in Regent Road, Edinburgh. The former school hall was adapted for use by the Scottish Assembly, including the installation of microphones and new olive green leather seating. Members would have been elected by the "first past the post" system.
Powers and legislation
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The Scottish Assembly would have had the power to introduce primary legislation to be known as "Measures" (rather than Acts) within defined areas of competence. Some other new offices would have been created, such as a Comptroller and Auditor General for Scotland.
The Scottish Assembly would have been able to add to Scots law using a "Measures of the Scottish Assembly" system. This form of legislation would not receive royal assent like Acts of Parliament do. Instead, the legislation is signed via an Order in Council, which the monarch signs and appends to the assembly measure once passed.
The areas of responsibility included:
- The environment
- Home affairs
- Legal matters
- Social services
Responsibility for agriculture, fisheries and food would be divided between the Assembly and the United Kingdom government, while the latter would retain control of electricity supply.
During the passage of the Scotland Act 1978 through Parliament, an amendment introduced by Labour MP George Cunningham added a requirement that the approval at the referendum be by 40% of Scotland's total registered electorate, rather than by a majority.
A total of 1,230,937 (51.6%) voted at the referendum in favour of an Assembly, a majority of about 77,400 over those voting against. However, this total represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate as a whole. The Labour government accepted that the Act's requirements had not been met, and that devolution would therefore not be introduced for Scotland.
Under the terms of the Act, the Act could then be repealed by a Statutory Instrument to be approved by Parliament. However, the government's decision to abandon devolution for Scotland led the Scottish National Party to withdraw its support for the government. A subsequent vote of no confidence led to the resignation of the Callaghan government, and an election was called. The vote to repeal the Act did not happen until 20 June 1979, by which time a Conservative government had come to power under Margaret Thatcher.
In addition to all the arguments which traditionally surround discussions of Scottish devolution or independence, the public debate in 1979 was dominated by the issue of taxation. Since the proposed assembly would have no independent powers to vary taxes, it would be greatly restricted in its scope of operation, and this made it possible for the "no" campaign to play very plausibly on fears of an impotent new layer of bureaucracy. As a result, many voters who believed in devolution in principle were unwilling to support this particular devolution bill.
The campaign for a "no" vote was much helped by an assurance by former Prime Minister Lord Home of the Hirsel that a future Conservative Government would introduce legislation which would meet the objections. This pledge, made by Lord Home in a personal capacity, was not honoured by the Conservatives when they came to power a few months later.
The referendum was held on 1 March 1979. The electorate were asked to vote yes or no: "Parliament has decided to consult the electorate in Scotland on the question whether the Scotland Act 1978 should be put into effect. Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?"
|Invalid or blank votes||3,133||0.13|
|Registered voters and turnout||3,747,112||63.72|
By council area
|Council area||Yes vote||No vote||Yes %||No %|
|Dumfries and Galloway||27,162||40,239||40.30||59.70|
|Source: Glasgow Herald|
The result was a narrow majority in favour of devolution. However, Parliament had set a condition that 40% of the registered electorate should vote "Yes" in order to make it valid. The amendment to the Bill which set this condition was moved by George Cunningham, the Scottish-born Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury.
Thus, despite a turnout of over 60%, devolution was not enacted since less than 40% of electorate voted yes. The Scotland Act 1978 was repealed in March 1979 by a vote of 301-206 in the UK House of Commons.
"Scotland Said Yes"
In the wake of the referendum the disappointed supporters of the bill conducted a protest campaign under the slogan "Scotland said 'yes'", officially launched in a Glasgow hotel on 7 March 1979.
In particular, the SNP carried out a survey of the electoral register in the Edinburgh Central constituency. This appeared to show that the register was so out of date that even in an area where major support for a "yes" vote might be expected, achievement of 40% of the electorate was virtually unattainable. This was because the majority of electors lived in older tenements or newer Council blocks of flats where specific flat numbers were not specified. The work of electoral registration staff to obtain an accurate current register was almost impossible.
- Scottish independence
- Referendums in the United Kingdom
- Scottish Assembly
- Royal Commission on the Constitution (United Kingdom)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1979
- Chronology of Scottish Politics: The Devolution years 1967 - 1979
- Taylor, Brian. "1979 Remembered". BBC News (BBC). Retrieved 10 April 2012.
- Liberals Get tough on devolution" By William Russel. The Glasgow Herald - 8 March 1979