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Mile End Institute

Long Read: 'Come Referendum Day': The 1979 Scottish Referendum

In the final entry in our series of 'Long Reads' to mark the 43rd anniversary of the first referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly, Tom Chidwick explores the result and considers how significant the referendum was in the fall of James Callaghan's government. 

Photo of elderly Scottish woman holding a 'Scottish Assembly Now' sign.
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes.

Reflecting on his boyhood in Fife in Before the Oil Ran Out, Ian Jack, former editor of the Independent on Sunday, explained that, as a result of his father’s part in Scotland’s heavy industrial workforce, ‘the past sustained us in a physical as well as a mental sense … so much so that for me the past sometimes seemed inseparable from the present’. In the first week of March 1979, Scotland was grappling with the very past that sustained Jack’s five million compatriots. 

Whilst Ian Jack’s Scotland of ‘human and mechanical activity expressed as a great national movement of carbon particles’ was waning by March 1979, it was already becoming ‘a nation of consumers rather than producers, deindustrialised but still eager for the fruits of industrialisation’. For William Knox, the Seventies saw the ‘destruction of the once all-powerful sectarian masculine culture of the skilled worker’ and its replacement by a culture which was ‘more democratic, less misogynist and anti-Catholic’. 

Come ‘Referendum Day’, Scotland was forced to contend with both its past and future and confront what it actually meant to be Scottish in modern Britain. For Gordon Brown, the most famous of Raith Rovers supporters, the referendum was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change north of the border. As 2,384,439 Scots cast their verdict on the next chapter of Scotland’s national story, the future Prime Minister cautioned that ‘to be swayed now by the scaremongering and false fears peddled by the money men of the “No” campaign would be like scoring an own goal in the last few seconds of a big match’.

As Scots awaited the official announcement of the referendum result on Friday 2 March, the broadsheet and tabloid press speculated on whether the Government—which had attempted to ease the Assembly’s passage by removing some 90,000 ballots from the electoral register to take account of duplications, the dead, convicted prisoners and those still under 18—had won its gamble. Per the age-old adage, the Liverpool Echo forecast that bad weather in Scotland and Wales (where Tom Jones and The Goon Show’s Harry Secombe proclaimed their support for an Assembly) could seriously affect the ‘Yes’ vote, by discouraging floating voters from casting their ballots. 

Likewise, whilst the Belfast Telegraph offered a hard-hitting evaluation of the devolution scheme, comparing it to how Northern Ireland had been governed from 1921 to 1972, the Daily Mirror’s polling-day coverage, which featured alongside an article about a policeman’s ear being bitten off in a pub fight in East London, centred on two topless models. The spread, unamusingly titled ‘the stark choices’, forecast that the two women, Sian Adey-Jones—a former Miss Wales who would later appear in 1985’s A View to a Kill, Sir Roger Moore’s final appearance as James Bond—and Helen Ferguson would ‘get an overwhelming “Yes” vote for their assemblies’.

When the result was announced, it was clear that, as Jim Callaghan later wrote of Wales, ‘the valleys were deaf to the sound of our music and rejected the blandishments by a huge majority’. Dubbed the ‘man who has to get his sums right’ by Glasgow’s resident tabloid, the Daily Record, Ronald Fraser, a retired civil servant paid £500 to be the referendum’s Chief Counting Officer, collated the results from each region by telephone from New St Andrew’s House. Whilst Fraser retained overall control of the conduct of the referendum, he appointed the Chief Executives of the Regional Councils as the Returning Officers, with Donald McNaughton presiding over the Grampian count and Alexander McNicoll, a solicitor for Lothian Regional Council, overseeing counting in the Lothians. The Highlands generated late drama as industrial action by civil servants working an overtime ban delayed the announcement of its result until the afternoon.

With the Lossiemouth-born Chief Counting Officer now expecting to receive the result between 4 and 5pm, it was a race to the wire to verify and report the Highlands’ decision before civil servants clocked off at 4.30pm. In addition to industrial action, ballots in the far north also had to contend with inclement weather. One ballot box was flown the 100 miles to the Highland count in Inverness in a specially chartered helicopter. Instead of reaching Fort William by road before travelling on to Inverness with the region’s other ballots, the ballot papers of 18 voters from Glen Etive—which hit the big screen in the twenty-third James bond picture Skyfall—were flown from a hotel in Ballachulish to Inverness, arriving earlier than if they had made the journey by road. 

Photo of Ronald Fraser delivering the results of the 1979 referendum at St Andrew's House in Edinburgh.

New St Andrew’s House, the Brutalist administrative centre of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh’s St James’ Centre witnessed a unique moment of political theatre as Ronald Fraser announced the result. Commencing with the ringing of an antique school janitor’s handbell five minutes prior to the declaration, Fraser’s announcement was witnessed by the Scottish Secretary, Bruce Millan, and over 200 journalists, with correspondents travelling from as far afield as South Africa, East Germany, China, Canada and Bulgaria to report the result. One observer, who remarked that New St Andrew’s House ‘had seen nothing like it’ since it was first occupied in 1974, distinctly remembered that six Parisian students who were studying devolution, ‘chattered excitedly’ in French throughout Fraser’s announcement.

Whilst the BBC broadcast a six-hour-long, up-to-the-minute results programme, viewers in the Grampian Region (which took in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray in North East Scotland) were unable to watch the Grampian result being announced after BBC technicians at the Beach Ballroom in the ‘Granite City’ walked out. Despite the significance of the occasion, having discovered that a BBC employee from Glasgow would man the camera at the count, local technicians astonished officials by simply switching off the television lights and unplugging their equipment. 

Whilst Scotland had voted with a small majority (of just over 77,000 votes) for ‘Yes’ on a turnout of 63.8 per cent, the Assembly had been torpedoed by failing to reach that all-important target of 40 per cent of the overall electorate voting for ‘Yes’ (the notorious ‘Cunningham Amendment’). In all, of the 2,384,439 Scots who voted (over 100,000 more than had cast their ballot at the 1975 Common Market referendum), some 1,230,937 voted ‘Yes’, a little over 32 per cent of the electorate. Two academics estimated that devolutionists would have needed over 270,000 extra votes to have secured an Assembly. As Tam Dalyell remarked, the Scotland Act was comparable to ‘the Sultan of Turkey’s battleship, ingenious in many ways except that it would not float’. 

Black and White photo of 'Keep Britain United' billboard

A week after ‘Referendum Day’, the National Museum of Antiquities made its annual visit to the Scottish Office to update its main entrance hall’s Scottish History exhibition. As John Gibson, the Scottish Office historian, recorded, to the amusement of civil servants, the archivists replaced a ‘medieval wooden carving of St Andrew cheerfully shouldering his cross’ with a broken sword from the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513, where, as Sir Walter Scott wrote, ‘shiver’d was fair Scotland’s spear and broken was her shield’. 

Whilst six of the twelve regions voted ‘Yes’ in March 1979, none of the counting areas crossed the 40 per cent threshold, with Central coming closest with 36.4 per cent, followed closely by Fife just one per cent behind. Two of the closest results were in the Highlands. Just under 1700 votes brought about a ‘Yes’ win, and in the Lothians, where ‘Yes’ campaigners had an even smaller advantage of just 800 votes.

With devolutionists failing to overcome the apathy (and often outright hostility) to the Assembly in Labour areas across East Central Scotland, Yes-supporting George Robertson, the Labour MP for Hamilton who had been born in the police station on Islay and would end up as Secretary-General of NATO, remarked that it was ‘like walking through treacle’ trying to keep Scotland interested in the constitution after the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

In and around Edinburgh, there was a clear distinction across the city in how enthusiastically different areas voted for devolution: Craigmillar, a predominantly working-class area of post-war social housing schemes, polled 45 per cent, whilst Morningside, one of the city’s most prosperous neighbourhoods and the home of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, voted 75 per cent for ‘Yes’. 

In an interview with the Independent Radio News’s Peter Allen as he left New St Andrew’s House, Bruce Millan, the mild-mannered Secretary of State for Scotland, conceded that the Government’s weakened position after the ‘Winter of Discontent’ may have ‘played a big part’ in the result. As was also the case with the 2016 EU referendum, Millan was ahead of his time in his assessment that the devolution saga demonstrated the limitations of the referendum as a method of enacting constitutional change, as campaigners had struggled to ‘ensure that people really vote on the issue and don’t take other things into account’. 

Photo of John Smith campaigning for a 'Yes' vote in Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Likewise, in an interview with the short-lived Bulletin of Scottish Politics in 1981, John Smith shared his frustration that, despite Scots’ irritation with ‘English superiority and dominance’ within the Union, too many had decided to spurn the one body which could help to redress the balance. For Smith, Scotland had demonstrated an unfortunate reluctance to even consider a change, with too many organisations taking ‘fresh stock’ and deciding that ‘after all, they had quite a cosy relationship with St Andrew’s House’.

Whilst he shared Smith’s frustration that the Assembly had not come into being, Malcolm Rifkind, one of the few prominent Tory ‘Yes’ campaigners, believed, with some justification, that devolutionists had made a fundamental misjudgement in thinking that there had been an ‘irresistible demand for devolution’.

The following weekend, unsurprisingly, saw rampant speculation about how the Labour Government would respond to Thursday’s ballot. For John Desborough, the Chief Political Correspondent at the Daily Mirror, the Government had a sizeable task on its hands and did not have parliamentary arithmetic on its side. Writing on Saturday 3 March, Desborough reported that, in addition to the STUC having urged the Government to go ahead with an Assembly regardless of not reaching 40 per cent for ‘Yes’, the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists who were now planning to vote against the Government in any future Vote of No Confidence, represented Callaghan’s surest chance of staying in office. 

Whilst not quite urging Scots to ‘Rejoice, Rejoice’, the Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, told the Conservative Local Government conference in London that ‘yesterday was a great day for the United Kingdom’ and accused the Government of having, with ‘total cynicism’, attempted to ‘whip up emotions which just weren’t there’. Whilst speculation continued through the weekend, the Daily Mirror dubbed devolution ‘Jim’s crown of thistles’ and forecast that, despite Jim’s sunny if not saintly persona, the SNP, ‘who have been losing ground spectacularly’ in recent years, would now have ‘a new grievance to feed on and rebuild their strength’. 

Despite some half-hearted efforts by scunnered ‘Yes’ campaigners to secure an Assembly—with the SNP claiming that ‘Scotland Said Yes’ and the formation of the eccentric ‘Scotland-UN’ pressure group, which protested to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Autumn 1980—the political battle for devolution shifted to the House of Commons as the SNP aligned itself with the Conservatives in the infamous 28 March 1979 ‘No Confidence’ vote, in which Callaghan’s Government lost by a single vote.

Whilst the Prime Minister recognised that ‘such a volume of opinion’ in favour of an Assembly could not ‘sensibly be disregarded’, he announced on 22 March that the Government would fulfil its obligation to lay an Order repealing the Scotland Act before the House of Commons, despite Jim Sillars’ warning that there was growing ‘sourness and bitterness’ in Scotland that a simple majority had been enough in general elections and the 1975 Common Market referendum, which had involved a ‘transfer of sovereign of far greater magnitude than devolution’.

Screenshot of Daily Mirror front-page, proclaiming 'Oh, no Jim'.

In a sense, whilst the Government’s future was limited, you might argue that the SNP made a strategic error in presenting Jim Callaghan with such a fate too soon, despite his delay of nearly three weeks in offering the SNP talks to address the devolution problem. Much to Callaghan’s chagrin, the SNP presented the Conservative Party with the prime opportunity to ‘unite like with unlike in a strange alliance of those opposed to Devolution voting with those in favour’. 

1979, then, was not the nation-enhancing moment of democratic empowerment that many claimed the Scottish Parliament’s opening in 1999 later was. However, 1 March 1979 was a moment without parallel in Scotland’s recent history. It presented the nation with genuinely divergent paths, between the status quo and a future with a national legislature deciding on issues important to Scots in Scotland for the first time in nearly three centuries. Whether a stepping-stone to independence or not, the Scottish Assembly would have given Scots far greater political autonomy, without weakening the essential fabric of the Kingdom, and perhaps might have spared the country much of the psychodrama that arose from the next eighteen years of Conservative Government. Above all, and for the Scotland Act’s many faults, it was also a remarkable demonstration of courage by a seriously beleaguered government to stake its very survival on delivering an Assembly.

Forty-three years on from the country’s first devolution referendum, the Labour Party in Scotland faces a similar dilemma to the one that confronted it in 1979. Whilst Boris Johnson’s Government is increasingly unpopular in Scotland, Sir Keir Starmer’s commitment to a ‘constitutional commission’ to offer Scots a ‘positive alternative’ to the ‘uncertainty and divisiveness of separatism’ and a ‘broken status quo’ threatens to, as Harold Wilson memorably put it, ‘take minutes and waste years’. It could fail to capture Unionists who are reluctant to support full-blooded federalism and Nationalists who will tolerate nothing short of independence.

As the party’s future leader, John Smith, once said of the Scotland Act, Labour’s methodical but complex offering lacked the simplicity of both the nationalist argument of ‘be proud and free, independence will cost you nothing and give you everything’ and of the Unionist solution (which Boris Johnson has now adopted) which urged Scots ‘to wrap yourself up more tightly in the Union Jack, and all will be well’.

In June 1976, a year before his still unresolved murder in Cairo, Egypt, David Holden, the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times, argued that devolution would allow the Scots and the English to discover ‘new ways of living together’ and may well be ‘just the challenge needed to reawaken Britain from its depressing slumbers’. For any future Labour government, reembracing Holden’s challenge and reconciling the estranged nations which Stanley Baldwin once called ‘blood brother, remains a pressing and fear-insolvable dilemma. The task demands sensitivity and  gumption and a Prime Minister of Jim Callaghan’s courage, governing ability and political nous, for it is critical to the endurance of a fragile and unloved Union.

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. 



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