TODAY is the 40th anniversary of a vote of no confidence in the Labour Government of Prime Minister James Callaghan. It was lost by a single vote and Callaghan had no option other than to call a General Election. It was won by the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher who thus became the first female Prime Minister of the UK – and we all know what happened to Scotland under her misrule.


EVEN 40 years on, Labour still try to punt this myth – that somehow the 11 SNP MPs in the Commons at the time were entirely responsible for the collapse of Callaghan’s Government. They completely ignore the utter chaos into which Labour had descended in the second half of the 1970s.

The party had won the October 1974 election outright after forming a minority administration following a General Election in February.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson was rewarded with his decision to go to the country for the second time in eight months with a narrow win – Labour had an overall majority of just three. Defeat cost Tory leader Ted Heath his job, and Thatcher became leader of the opposition.

The SNP had taken a then record 11 seats out of 71 in Scotland with 30% of the Scottish vote. They were just two MPs behind the Liberal Party led by Jeremy Thorpe. The Government managed to win the Common Market referendum in 1975, but that was Wilson’s last stand – he resigned the following year and Callaghan became PM.

Crisis after crisis set in. Britain humiliatingly had to ask for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. It insisted on public spending cuts which resulted in a series of strikes, most notably by the Fire Brigades Union and local authority cleansing workers.The National:

By-elections came along regularly and Labour lost nearly all of them. Jim Sillars and John Robertson broke away to form the Scottish Labour Party and there were other defections. Labour’s majority was soon gone and Callaghan was forced into a pact with the Liberals in 1977. Although unemployment grew, the economy stabilised in 1978 and by the autumn things looked good for Callaghan. Yet even with a healthy lead in the opinion polls, he did not call an election and indicated he would not do so until he had to – the five-year term would end in October 1979.

Labour could have won, even after all the crises, in 1978 and that’s the real reason why it all went pear-shaped for them – Callaghan’s loss of confidence would lead to the no confidence vote.


WHAT happened was that devolution didn’t happen. Even before the Winter of Discontent which saw mass strikes up and down the UK, Callaghan had committed to bringing in a referendum on devolution for Scotland and Wales in return for support from the SNP in particular.

As The National showed recently, it was during the preparation of the Scotland Act, which would have seen an Assembly created in Edinburgh, that Labour shot themselves through their collective feet with a machine gun.

The National:

The hated 40% rule brought in by George Cunningham, above, the Labour MP for that well-known Scottish constituency of Islington South and Finsbury, meant that the democratic will of the Scottish people who voted for devolution was defeated as only 33% of the total electorate voted Yes – as opposed to 51.62% of those who actually went to the ballot box.

Had the 40% rule applied in the EU referendum of 2016, Brexit wouldn’t be happening. It was Cunningham and those who supported him among Scottish Labour who brought down the Callaghan Government.

The SNP demanded that Callaghan ignore the Cunningham threshold and apply devolution, limited though it was, but the PM refused. The SNP put down a motion of no confidence but it was not proceeded with because on March 26 Margaret Thatcher put down her famous motion: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”

We now know that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Tories’ Scottish Whip, played a crucial role in the motion. He had been tasked with checking that the SNP 11 would back a no-confidence vote and he called it correctly.


THE debate on the motion saw Callaghan really blow any chance of survival. He said of the minority parties such as the SNP: “It is the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas.” Cue outrage from the SNP and Liberals and the end of any deals with them.

Even up to the last minute, and knowing the vote was close, Labour whips tried every dirty trick they could, offering Enoch Powell and the Ulster Unionists from Scotland to Northern Ireland to give the province cheap energy.

Liberal MP Clement Freud was asked to abstain and in return he would get his desired Freedom of Information Act. Plaid Cymru were bribed with concessions for Wales, and the SDLP leader Gerry Fitt and independent Republican Frank Maguire were promised there would be no increase in the number of seats in Northern Ireland. They abstained.

Above all, Callaghan decided he would not risk the life of the extremely ill Labour MP Sir Alfred Broughton who had demanded to be taken to Parliament. He died five days later. The vote was 311 to 310 in favour of Thatcher’s motion. Had Broughton come to Westminster, Callaghan would have survived. Instead, he called the election that brought Thatcher to power.