Skip to main content
Mile End Institute

Long Read: 'All say Yes or Tinkerbell will die': The 1979 Scottish Referendum

In the second 'Long Read' to mark the 43rd anniversary of the first referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly, Tom Chidwick explores the various 'Yes' and 'No' factions formed within the Labour Party and reflects on the famous devolution debate at the Oxford Union in February 1979. 

Sepia-coloured poster from 1979 referendum, urging Scots to vote 'Yes' to the Labour Party's Assembly proposals.
Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes. 

Campaigning had begun in earnest over two years before the referendum, with The Guardian reporting in January 1977 that even during Hogmanay, ‘delirious Scots’ were subjected to ‘a barrage of publicity from the Bill’s opponents’. The Hogmanay ‘No’ campaigners were primarily from the well-funded ‘Scotland is British’ group (SIB), established in 1976 by Sir John Toothill, the electrical engineer and Managing Director of Edinburgh-based Ferranti.

With George Lawson, the recently retired Labour MP for Motherwell, as its Campaign Director, SIB, which later became the ‘Scotland Says No’ campaign, believed itself to be best placed to become the umbrella ‘No’ campaign, possessing both cross-party parliamentary support and extensive support from Scottish businesses. Its public campaign was even supported by the Clydesdale Bank, which sent its material to branch managers and letters to its customers urging them to vote against an Assembly. This act prompted the SNP group at Westminster to move their account away from the Clydesdale to the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Whilst it was reported that ‘Scotland Says No’—which boasted the support of William Hannan (the long-serving Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill) and Sir George Sharp (the President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities)—had almost £100,000 at its disposal, the majority of its donations were made up of small contributions from a multitude of businesses. Although many ‘Yes’ campaigners suggested that Scottish (and some outlying English) businessmen had only donated to the ‘No’ campaign for financial advantage, the Government ruled that business donations to campaign groups were not tax-deductible. With intense speculation that Scotland had been bought and sold for English gold, Allan Stewart, who would be elected as the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire in May 1979, quipped that the ‘only traditional bogeymen’ who were not accused of financing the ‘No’ campaign were ‘the CIA and the South African secret service’. 

Selection of 'Vote No' stickers from 1979 Referendum, including a 'Rock against the Devolution Act' sticker.

Simple, mass-produced stickers proclaiming that ‘It’s NO for me’ and even ‘Good Girls Say NO on 1stMarch’ were increasingly prevalent through the winter of 1978 and helped give the ‘No’ camp an easily recognised and unqualified message. In Macduff, near Banff in Aberdeenshire, one car at a polling station bore a sign instructing residents to ‘Vote No, Thank You’, reminiscent of the ‘No Thanks’ branding adopted by the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the September 2014 independence referendum.

In addition to Wishaw folk duo, The Alexander Brothers, and Kenneth McKellar, the Scottish tenor who represented the UK at the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest, the ‘No’ side also received a memorable endorsement from Leither Ken Buchanan, a former undisputed lightweight boxing champion of the world. The reigning European champion, who had just returned to the ring after a two-year retirement having been voted the greatest ever British boxer in 1978, gave an exclusive interview to the Scottish Daily Express, in which this ‘great fighter for Scotland’ told his fellow country to ‘Give the Scottish Assembly the KO.’

Whilst cross-party campaigns were formed (including ‘Yes for Scotland’, which received the support of Sean Connery and Ludovic Kennedy as well as SNP MPs like Margo MacDonald), the majority of Scottish Labour MPs and activists threw their weight behind the Party’s official ‘Labour Movement Yes’ campaign or the unofficial ‘Labour Vote No’ group. Although ‘Labour Vote No’ (LVN) was supported by councillors across the country and chaired by Brian Wilson, the future MP for Cunninghame North, it was primarily intended to provide a platform for Tam Dalyell, the so-called ‘leader of the opposition’ to the Scotland Act, whose biographer Russell Galbraith dubbed him ‘The Man They Can’t Gag’. While Labour MPs were free to campaign as they wished, the Labour Party officially endorsed a ‘Yes’ vote. LVN’s branding made a conscious effort to associate Labour’s name with the ‘No’ campaign.

Throughout the campaign, Tam Dalyell and his fellow Labour ‘No’ campaigners focused their interventions on the damage that an Assembly could do to both Scotland and the Union, exploiting the lack of clarity about what would be devolved to make the case that the Assembly would generate greater bureaucracy and complicate the country’s governance. In a pamphlet published by Labour Against Assemblies (the umbrella group which oversaw the Labour ‘No’ efforts in Scotland and Wales), Dalyell argued that the creation of the Assembly—which the SNP believed could be the first step towards independence—would lead to ‘friends and relatives in England becoming foreigners; passport control at Gretna; industrial and commercial chaos; and consequences of all kinds that flow from the reconstruction of Hadrian’s Wall’. 

For ‘Yes’ campaigners in his own party and the SNP, ‘Tam’, as he was affectionately known, became something of a figure of derision during the campaign, with public meetings and newspaper inches being dedicated to taking on his frequent and lively interventions. At the launch of the cross-party ‘Yes for Scotland’ campaign in Linlithgow (Dalyell’s hometown and the centre of his parliamentary constituency), Professor Nigel Grant, a Labour activist and the recently appointed Chair of Education at the University of Glasgow, took on Dalyell’s ‘parochial outlook’. For Professor Grant, Tam’s claim that the Assembly would make Scotland ‘a parochial backwater’ was unlikely, as he explained that, in his view, ‘Scotland has always been more internationally minded than England’ and already possessed ‘its own legal system, its own church and, to a degree, its own educational system’, which was administered north of the border. 

Whilst local Labour Party branches felt compelled to issue statements proclaiming their full support for Dalyell and repudiating ‘any suggestion’ that he ‘gives other than 100% effort on behalf of his constituents’—labelling them ‘inaccurate statements made by people outwith the West Lothian Constituency’—it is clear that Tam’s hyperactive campaigning against the Assembly aggravated tensions within Scottish Labour. As Tony Benn observed, Dalyell ‘makes good points, but he always raises them at the wrong time’.

For his part, Dalyell maintained that his supporters and opponents alike admired his commitment to his anti-devolution principles, writing in his memoirs that, the people of West Lothian, ‘more than most, took the view that I might be a bugger, but I was their bugger’. However, one prominent figure from a neighbouring constituency, Alex McKinnon, the Chairman of the Midlothian Labour Party, felt compelled to write to Dalyell’s local paper, The West Lothian Courier, to express his frustration, suggesting that Tam should ‘submit the question of his political reliability’ to all Labour MPs. For McKinnon, the outcome of such a ballot was almost inevitable; ‘Tam will get one “Yes” vote, his own’, proclaiming that ‘alas, we are all out of step except oor Tam’. 

Photo of Donald Dewar and George Robertson holding 'YES' sign in front of Old Royal High School

For ‘Yes’ campaigners, the dominance of their cash-flush opponents—who were persistent in espousing their central message that the Assembly would bring added bureaucracy and do irreparable damage to the Union—made the campaign an uphill struggle. Whilst the ‘Labour Vote, No’ campaign had landed Tam Dalyell, Brian Wilson and Robin Cook, ‘Labour Movement Yes’ (LMY) received the bulk of Labour’s Scottish establishment. Under the leadership of the future Prime Minister Gordon Brown, then a Labour candidate and the former Student Rector of the University of Edinburgh, and Helen Liddell (Labour’s first female General Secretary in Scotland), LMY also received the wholehearted support of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), which urged Trade Unionists to fulfil their ‘obligation’ to vote ‘Yes’.

For Jimmy Milne, the STUC’s highly respected General Secretary and a dedicated Communist, devolution was not just the best way to improve the quality of Scotland’s governance but the only way to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom. In an interview with Douglas Malone, the Daily Record’s Industrial Editor, Milne spoke of his belief that devolution would be ‘an improvement in the democratic process’ and, whilst he recognised that Scots ‘have as much right to make mistakes as anyone’, Milne argued that it would give the Scottish people the ‘opportunity to make decisions which will be to the benefit of all of Scotland’. 

By securing the STUC’s support for its Assembly, in the year in which union membership in the UK peaked at just over 13 million, Labour had tapped into a substantial mass of organised working people across the country. In Clackmannanshire, where the local Labour Party decided not to play any part in the referendum campaign, the trade union movement became essential to the efforts of ‘Yes’ campaigners, as disenfranchised Labour ‘Yes’ supporters and union officials established their own campaigning group through a meeting of the Clackmannanshire Trades Council at the Fishcross Miners’ Welfare Club in January 1979.

Whilst ‘Labour Vote No’ campaigned with ‘No’ campaigners from other parties, ‘Labour Movement Yes’ publicly stressed its desire not to cooperate with fellow ‘Yes’ campaigners. In a letter to Constituency Labour Parties across Scotland in January 1978, Helen Liddell explained that the Party had decided on a policy of ‘no collaboration’ and stressed that Labour was the only party in Scotland which believed in devolution ‘for its own sake’. Although Baroness Liddell later admitted that she had campaigned with other ‘Yes’ campaigners, having done a ‘double-act’ around Scotland with Malcolm Rifkind, she instructed CLPs that ‘to share the campaign for a devolved Assembly with those whose declared objectives are so far from our own, would be to compromise totally our own case’ and would prevent Labour from claiming the credit for such a major ‘constitutional advance’. 

Whilst he did not try to ‘take the credit’ for Labour, the Prime Minister sought to spend some of his own and his party’s capital to shore up the ‘Yes’ vote on a visit to Glasgow on 12 February 1979. Despite Callaghan’s initial popularity in Scotland, which had been bolstered by three by-election victories on the bounce in 1978, he had started to become something of a burden to ‘Yes’ campaigners after the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

However, speaking at the McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street, in what was unfairly described by the Glasgow Herald as a ‘plodding address’, Callaghan sought to remind Scots of the considerable time and energy that his Government had devoted to devolution, despite his own reservations about its merits. With the ‘40 per cent rule’ in mind, Callaghan attempted to mobilise Scots who were inclined to support ‘Yes’ but would not necessarily vote and declared that only Labour had ‘kept faith’ with Scotland in recent years, having ‘fought doggedly with determination, without a majority’ to get the Scotland Act through Parliament.

Black and White photo of 'Keep Britain United' billboard

In Dundee, where a small band of Labour activists (led by a youthful George Galloway) pursued their own ‘Yes’ campaign, printing and distributing 70,000 leaflets as well as circulating LMY’s literature, Tony Benn sought to persuade Scots that devolution could bring about radical change north of the border. Addressing 800 people as he opened the new Whitfield Labour Club, Benn attacked the ‘enormous power’ that business, finance and multinational oil companies wielded in the late Seventies and stressed the importance of continued solidarity between England and Scotland. Whilst devolution was intended to give Scots greater autonomy from the rest of the United Kingdom, Benn suggested that, if the two nations didn’t ‘get together to beat’ the malevolent forces that he described, ‘we shall go down together’. 

Whilst ‘Labour Movement Yes’ produced one million leaflets, 1,000 posters, held four major rallies and managed to persuade the majority of the Cabinet to travel north of the border in support of the Assembly, many ‘Yes’ campaigners remained dissatisfied with its efforts. For historian Christopher Harvie, then a prominent Yes’ campaigner, the Labour Party had failed to mobilise enough resources and generate enough enthusiasm to support the efforts of its most dedicated campaigns to maximise the ‘Yes’ vote.

Whilst Harvie declared that LMY’s literature was nothing short of an ‘unmitigated disaster – less than 100 words along the lines of “All say yes or Tinkerbell will die”', he also highlighted how the local working-class support—including ‘lapsed members turning up at temporary offices in housing schemes, offers of windows for posters, old ladies making tea’— that usually materialised in a general election was almost entirely absent from the referendum campaign.

Photo of Helen Liddell holding a 'Yes for Scotland' poster featuring the Prime Minister, James Callaghan.


For Gordon Brown, LMY was also hampered by the repeated use of Callaghan’s image which made devolution appear as ‘a diktat from a prime minister based in London with a parliamentary seat in Cardiff’ and encouraged voters to ‘deliver a verdict on the government of the day’, rather than express their view on greater autonomy for Scotland.

On the final Sunday of the campaign, the most high-profile debate about devolution outside of Scotland was held at the Oxford Union. For Iain Macwhirter, who attended the ‘curiously lacklustre affair’, the decision to hold a debate on Scotland’s future in such a bastion of English privilege was ‘strangely offensive’. The case for the Assembly was put by three of the most proactive ‘Yes’ campaigners, Trade Secretary and Labour’s future leader John Smith, Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald; its opponents were represented by a curious combination of Labour’s ‘long-haired’ Brian Wilson (who Macwhirter noted was the star turn, with his ‘open-neck shirt and cord jeans’ somewhat at odds with the Union’s hallowed chamber) and two front-bench Conservatives, Leon Brittan and Teddy Taylor, who Smith memorably dubbed the ‘urban guerrilla’ of Scottish politics. 

Whilst Brittan, the MP for Cleveland and Whitby in North Yorkshire and a former President of the Cambridge Union, argued that devolution would inevitably lead to the ‘balkanisation of Britain’, John Smith suggested that, at its simplest, the question on the ballot paper was whether or not Scots had ‘some self-confidence in their own political maturity’. 

As polls closed at 10pm on 1 March, devolutionists had good reason to believe that Scots had answered Smith in the affirmative, with ITN predicting that 57 per cent of those who had voted had endorsed the Assembly’s creation. After weeks of a sizeable, but declining, ‘Yes’ lead in opinion polls, on the day of the Oxford Union debate, System Three (which had recorded that ‘Yes’ were leading ‘No’ by 64 to 36 per cent in mid-January) reported that devolutionists now held a slim 52:48 advantage. Whilst the historian, poet and ‘Yes’ campaigner, Angus Calder, maintained (after several pints) that ‘it was 1945 all over again’, devolutionists could only hope that, after a decade of debate, Scots were finally scratching what Alec Home called the country’s ‘itch’ for self-government.

Tom Chidwick is the Manager of the Mile End Institute and a contemporary historian. This essay originally appeared in Tides of History and is reproduced with their kind permission. 



Back to top