Devolution - The 1960s in Scotland

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Devolution Rears its Head - Scotland in the 1960s

The Sixties may have been swinging in places like London, Paris and San Francisco - but in Scotland, there wasn't much to smile about.

High unemployment, shipyard closures and the troubles of traditional industries all contributed to a mood that the country was sinking, and little could be done to stop the slow death.

However, from this gloom a new political spirit suddenly emerged - the whirlwind of Scottish nationalism. At a stroke, Scottish independence was on the political agenda, and there seemed to be little anyone could do to stop it.

It was a remarkable renaissance. At the start of the sixties, the SNP had been so small and weak that one of their own leaders quipped that if all the senior members had been together in a small plane and it had crashed, then the party would have been wiped out forever.

However, hard work by the SNP's activists, particularly in West Lothian where they established a stronghold, started to restore the party's fortunes.

By the end of the 1950s, the demise of the Covenant Association, which had sought to win a parliament for Scotland, had left the independence field clear for the nationalists.

In a by-election in West Lothian in 1962 William Wolfe (link to Times Obituary), who was later to serve at the SNP's chairman, came second in a by-election in West Lothian, which was regarded as a significant victory at the time.

The move was seen as something of a watershed, and gradually the party rebuilt both its own membership and its political presence. It also developed its profile through its contributions to Radio Free Scotland - a pirate station which broadcast on television frequencies once programmes had finished for the night and also on medium wave radio.

The party was also growing in funds and in confidence. In 1966, it fought 23 seats at the General Election of that year which saw the Labour party under Harold Wilson returned to power - its largest ever number of candidates. But it still failed to win a single seat.

The breakthrough, however, was about to come. Gradually, the Scottish Office was taking on more power and responsibility north of the border - its size, for instance, more than trebled between 1945 and 1970.

Real power, however, continued to lie at Westminster, where the political decisions were made and where nationalised industries such as shipbuilding and mining, which were important to the Scottish economy, were run from. The fact that the Scottish Secretary had increasing power but did not have to account to the country's electorate was starting to become a source of tension.

However, a far more important issue was also starting to rear its head. Exploration work in the North Sea had established that there were significant reserves of oil under the seabed.

It was established that these deposits were worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and questions started to be asked about where the tax revenues should go. It quickly became clear that Scotland would only be a staging post for landing the oil - the revenues would go straight to the Treasury in London.

Frustration finally boiled over in the winter of 1967. In the winter of that year, a by-election was held in Hamilton in Lanarkshire. The seat was a safe Labour one, and the party anticipated no problems in holding it.

It was badly wrong. The SNP won an incredible 46 per cent of the vote, taking the seat and sending its candidate, the young Glasgow solicitor Winnie Ewing, to Westminster. For the first time since 1945, the nationalists had won a seat in the Commons, and this time they were not going to let power slip away from them again.

The effect of Ewing's victory was electric. The nationalists were fully aware of their publicity coup, and milked it for all it was worth. She arrived at Westminster in a Hillman Imp built at the Rootes car plant in Linwood, and someone in the party came up with the line: "Stop the world - Scotland wants to get on."

When Ewing started talking about an independent Scotland having its own seat between Saudi Arabia and Senegal at the United Nations in New York, the Westminster parties reacted with a mixture of fear and fury.

They knew that the nationalist tide was running, and that something had to be done to stop it - and quickly. Both Labour and the Conservatives responded by suggesting that Scotland should be given more power to run its own affairs.

It soon became clear that they were right to be worried. A massive influx of new members poured into the SNP, and the party's campaigning skills grew. At the council elections in May 1968, it won no less than 34 per cent of the vote, and performed well in traditional Labour strongholds such as Glasgow. The SNP bandwagon was truly on the move.

The Tories were the first to try and counter the new nationalist threat. They were already worried about the way their electoral popularity was slipping in Scotland, and the party's leader, Ted Heath, knew that nationalism was a potent force.

During the Conservatives' 1968 Scottish conference in Perth, Heath suddenly dropped a bombshell on his party by announcing that he was going to commit them to a devolved Scottish assembly.

The announcement caused horror among many Conservatives, as the party had had spent the entire century opposing the idea of a Scottish parliament. But Heath managed to force it through.

Labour, too, had its own plans to head off the nationalist challenge. It thought that if it managed to give Scotland's economy a boost, then nationalism would die a natural death.

The 1970 General Election, when Ewing lost Hamilton and the SNP picked up only one seat in the Western Isles, seemed to confirm this thinking. The Tories were returned to power, but did not move on their pledge of devolution.

They soon learned that the SNP bandwagon had only been temporarily halted. In the first of two general elections in 1974, the nationalists gained seven seats and 22 per cent of the vote, emerging as a real parliamentary force for the first time.

The incoming Labour government realised it had to do something to turn the tide and immediately pledged itself to set up a Scottish assembly. Yet the nationalists continued to gain strength. In the second general election of 1974, they won a remarkable 30 per cent of the vote and a further four seats, taking their total to 11.

The Labour government faced another problem - devolution was a highly contentious issue within the party, and many backbenchers opposed it. The first devolution bill was lost because of defections, and the second only got through with the backing of Liberal MPs.

It also became clear that Prime Minister Jim Callaghan would have to hold a referendum on the issue. In a highly controversial amendment as the Scotland Bill to establish an assembly passed through parliament, the legislation was changed to ensure that 40 per cent of Scots had to vote yes before the parliament was set up.

When the referendum finally took place in March 1979, it asked the voters one simple question: "Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?"

When the votes were counted, a majority of Scots had voted yes to their own parliament - but only just. Electors in Strathclyde, Central, Fife, the Highlands, Lothian and the Western Isles backed the parliament plan, while voters in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Grampian, Orkney, Shetland and Tayside said no.

The final outcome was that 32.85 per cent of Scots backed the scheme, while 30.78 per cent rejected it, with 77,435 more Scots saying yes than voting no.

However, because the number of yes voters didn't hit the magic 40 per cent figure, the parliament scheme couldn't automatically go ahead.

The SNP urged Labour ministers - who by now were in dire trouble, since they didn't have enough MPs to command a majority in the Commons - to ignore the referendum result and press ahead with setting up the parliament anyway.

But Callaghan and his ministers refused. When a vote of confidence was tabled a few weeks after the referendum vote, the 11 SNP MPs sided with the Tories and the Liberals and voted against the government.

Labour managed to secure only 310 votes in the crucial confidence vote, while the opposition parties cobbled together 311 votes - meaning that Callaghan's government fell by a single vote and he was immediately forced to call a general election.

When voters went to the polls in 1979, the Conservatives won and put Margaret Thatcher - a passionate anti devolutionist - into power.

Devolution was down, but it was not out. This time, it was not going to go away. It would take the batter part of another 20 years, but the Scots would eventually have their parliament.


Meanwhile...

  • 1962 Sonny Liston knocks out Floyd Patterson and becomes World Heavyweight boxing champion
  • 1962 The "Cuban Missile Crisis". President Kennedy of the USA and Kruschev of the USSR clash over the Russians' missile bases in Cuba. Faced with the USA's nuclear threat, the Russians back down
  • 1962 There are riots at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith, a black student, arrives on campus to begin his studies
  • 1962 The first ever Bond film, Dr.No, is released, starring Sean Connery
  • 1966 Charles de Gaulle begins his second seven-year term as President of France
  • 1966 A Soviet spacecraft, Luna 9, successfully lands on the moon
  • 1966 Indira Gandhi becomes Prime Minister of India
  • 1966 The Tay Road Bridge is opened by the Queen Mother
  • 1967 Martin Luther King leads an anti-Vietnam War march in New York
  • 1967 Dr. Christiaan Barnard performs the world's first human heart transplant operation
  • 1967 Celtic become the first British club to win the European Cup, beating Inter Milan 2-1
  • 1968 The Revernd Martin Luther King is assassinated
  • 1968 Jacqueline Kennedy marries Aristotle Onassis
  • 1968 "Pulsars", pulsating radio sources, are discovered by Hewish and Bell at Mullard Observatory, Cambridge
  • 1968 Jim Clark, twice world champion Formula One driver, is killed in a race in West Germany

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