TODAY is the 40th anniversary of the day the British state cheated Scotland out of its rightful choice of devolution.

On March 1, 1979, Scotland’s voters cast their ballots narrowly in favour of the creation of an assembly in Edinburgh, with a range of devolved powers, but a sneaky rule change by the Labour government meant that the true democratic choice of the electorate was overturned because not enough people voted.

The hideous 40% rule meant that the Labour government could not proceed with devolution. Devastated by the cheating, the SNP called a motion of confidence in the government of Jim Callaghan. He lost by one vote, called the General Election and Margaret Thatcher arrived in 10 Downing Street with consequences for Scotland that resonate to this day.

Following the upsurge in nationalism in the 1960s, the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution had recommended devolved legislatures for Scotland and Wales.

After Labour’s Scotland and Wales Bill of 1976 collapsed, devolution came back in November, 1977, with the Callaghan government now in a minority. Callaghan did a deal with the Liberal leader David Steel to form the Lib-Lab pact and also gaind the support of the 11 SNP MPs with the promise of a referendum on devolution.

The Scotland Act 1978 made slow progress with Labour rebels joining Conservatives in opposing the Bill.

Then came the 40% rule, introduced by the Labour MP George Cunningham. His amendment went through against Callaghan’s wishes by 166 to 151.The 40% rule effectively cooked the books for No as an abstention for whatever reason effectively became a No vote.

The killer clause in the Act was this: “If it appears to the Secretary of State that less than 40% of the persons entitled to vote in the referendum have voted ‘Yes’ in reply to the question posed in the Appendix to Schedule 17 of this Act or that a majority of the answers given in the referendum have been ‘No’ he shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council for the repeal of this Act.”

There were some in the SNP who could not vote Yes because they believed it did not go far enough, yet the overriding picture of the time was the split in Labour ranks.

In order to keep his government together, Callaghan had to allow Labour members to campaign for a No vote. There was an active Labour Vote No campaign in Scotland, of which Brian Wilson was chairman, and Robin Cook a vice-chairman together with Tam Dalyell.

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Labour’s Yes contingent included future first minister Donald Dewar and future Nato chief George Robertson. The problem was that the then Scottish secretary, Bruce Millan, nice guy though he was, just wasn’t anybody’s idea of a campaigner. In the end, the Yes campaign won, albeit very narrowly, with 51.6% or 1,230,937 votes in favour of devolution and 1,153,502 votes or 48.4% against.

The crucial figure, however, was the turnout which was just 62.9% of those entitled to vote. When the 40% rule was applied it meant that 32.85% of the electorate had voted Yes compared to 30.78% who had voted No.

According to Alex Neil, now an SNP MSP and former minister and then a senior figure in the Scottish Labour, which had broken away from the party over the issue, the referendum was “rigged”.

He said: “One of the main things in that campaign was the split on the Labour side. Helen Liddell was Labour’s Scottish general secretary at the time and she refused to campaign with the SNP for devolution. Others were quite happy to do so.

“I also remember the roadshows with Jim Sillars on one side for devolution and Tam Dalyell on the other against the assembly. There were big audiences across the country because there was a great deal of interest in the subject.

“But I remember the 40% rule most of all. Cunningham and Robin Cook just rigged the rules and it meant that our side ended up with a much poorer result than we anticipated.”

This week The National, by publishing the McCrone report in full, has shown how Labour and the Tories cheated Scotland out of our oil wealth. Forty years on we remember how we were cheated again.