Born in the late 1960s I grew up in a Labour household during the nationalist fervour of the 1970s. My memories of that time include heated debates over Scotland’s oil and the dangers of home rule, which apparently would make Scotland into another blood soaked Northern Ireland. Another argument in Labour homes and communities – and one which is still rolled out to this day – is the weird and racist belief that without a socialist Scotland, England would suddenly turn into a far right wing country.
The Labour Party in Scotland always had a difficult relationship with the idea of devolution for Scotland. There is a justified rationale behind this: the more united the UK is, so the argument goes, the better it can use its power and wealth to bring social justice to all. Devolution would dilute the UKs ability to create a progressive society. It is a sincere and valid argument, however belief in it has led to some very unpleasant and anti-democratic decisions being taken by Labour in Scotland.
In 1970s a powerful group of labour activists including George Robertson and Brian Wilson and Robin Cook campaigned for a no vote in the devolution campaign, allegedly with financial support from conservative backers. Despite the fear mongering and confusion sown by no campaigners 63.6 percent of the Scottish electorate came out to vote. The devolution vote was won by 51.6% to 48.4%. Yet this democratic and free vote was declared null and void. Due to a clause added to the devolution bill, a win could only be accepted if more than 40 per cent of the electorate voted yes. This clause had been added by the Scottish Labour MP George Cunningham, who represented Islington South and Finsbury in the House of Commons. In the bitter aftermath the Conservatives tabled a vote of no confidence in the labour government. SNP and Liberal MPs voted with the Tories and the Labour government fell.
In the following UK election the SNP vote collapsed and they were left with two MPs in Scotland. The nationalist threat had been broken. And just to make sure it stayed that way Special Branch ran its own little Tartan Terror campaign to further discredit and disillusion any remaining nationalist sentiment. In 1979 both Labour and Conservatives increased their seats and votes in Scotland; Labour returned 44 seats with 41.6 per cent of the Scottish vote and the conservatives returned 22 seats with 31.4 per cent of the vote. Though the Tories had less than 40 per cent of the vote in Scotland, no Labour MP questioned the legitimacy of their right to rule.
Now read Part Four: Teenage kicks in the 1980s
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