UNIONISTS have every reason to fear a forth-coming second Scottish independence referendum if the example of the first and second devolution referendums are a guide to what will happen, according to one political expert.

In Scotland’s first devolution referendum in 1979, one third of voters were opposed to the idea, one third in favour and one third could not be bothered to vote.

Less than 20 years later the vote for devolution was a resounding Yes.

“If I were a Unionist I would be worried – will there be the same kind of differential between the first and second independence referendum as there was between the first and second devolution referendum?” said Professor Richard Finlay of Strathclyde University.

A significant long-term effect of the failure of the first devolution referendum was that people began to turn to culture to express their identity rather than politics.

The power of culture had long been understood in Ireland where Sinn Fein said that political identity could not be achieved without cultural identity.

“Culture became a more effective way of expressing Scottishness and that probably made a more solid foundation for the subsequent devolution referendum in the 1990s,” said Professor Finlay.

“You get the cultural infrastructure that then supports a political movement.”

But why did Westminster ever agree to a devolution vote in 1979?

“The key to understanding this is the wider political context at the time,” said Professor Finlay.

The British state was in crisis with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, controversy over entry to the European Economic Community, large-scale industrial disputes and huge financial woes resulting in the UK taking one of the biggest loans in history from the International Monetary Fund in 1976.

“Britain was effectively bankrupt and part of settlement was that the Government had to introduce austerity and cut back on public expenditure,” said Professor Finlay.

Meanwhile support for the SNP was gaining momentum, particularly after oil was discovered in the North Sea – although the full extent of this was kept under wraps by Westminster. The UK political establishment’s unease at the SNP’s surge had been growing since Winnie Ewing’s stunning Hamilton by-election victory in 1967.

That prompted Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath to hint that he was in favour of devolution in his “Declaration of Perth”.

“The Scottish Parliament was Tory party policy until Thatcher noticed it in 1979 and threw it out,” said Professor Finlay.

Labour also saw devolution as a way to curb the nationalist threat which increased with the two general elections of 1974 where the SNP gained seven MPs in the first and 11 in the second.

A Royal Commission under Lord Kilbrandon recommended the establishment of national assemblies and the Labour Government, led by James Callaghan, pushed forward the Scotland Act of 1978 with a similar act for Welsh devolution.

This was far from wholeheartedly supported by Labour and a Scot, George Cunningham, a London MP, put forward an amendment that a Yes vote would need a minimum of 40% of all registered voters. It was widely seen as an attempt to spoil the vote and has not been repeated in any referendum since.

Indeed, as the SNP’s Jim Sillars pointed out at the time, it was not included in the referendum on the UK joining the European Economic Community.

The amendment – which meant that not voting was effectively a No vote – was opposed by the Labour Government as well as the SNP but was passed by 166 votes to 151.

Scotland did vote Yes in the referendum with 51.6% for and 48.4% against but the Cunningham amendment scuppered the proposal.

The Yes side was not helped by an active Labour campaign against devolution led by Brian Wilson, Robin Cook and Tam Dalyell.

AS the proposal was for a weak assembly with very limited powers rather than a Scottish Parliament and very far from full independence there was also dissent in the SNP over whether to support it.

“The No side were pretty united whereas the Yes message was not as straightforward and coherent,” said Professor Finlay.

Following the vote, a motion of no confidence in the Government was tabled and supported by the Liberals, eight Ulster Unionists and the SNP, who were then blamed by Labour for the ensuing General Election and the advent of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

However, the SNP had little choice but to support the motion, according to Finlay.“The SNP said Callaghan could still go ahead with the devolution bill but he refused. In that situation the SNP had no other choice but to say ‘we cannot support the Government’.

Scottish historian Professor Tom Devine pointed out that Scotland was split over the devolution issue. “The Northern Isles, Borders, Grampian and Tayside all voted against the devolution package which was on offer,” he said. “Indeed, less than one third of the total Scottish electorate voted for the most significant constitutional change since the Union of 1707 – hardly a ringing endorsement.”

The forthcoming election was a disaster for the SNP.

“The party lost nine of its 11 seats, so confirming Callaghan’s famous gibe that the nationalists’ no confidence’ parliamentary motion was the first recorded instance in history of turkeys voting for an early Christmas,” said Professor Devine.

“The campaign for Home Rule which had dominated Scottish politics throughout the 1970s now collapsed in acrimony, bitterness and disillusion and did not start to recover for almost a decade thereafter.

“Instead, the 1980s are remembered as a time of rapid deindustrialisation, increased unemployment and misery for many working class families.”

The vote also demonstrated that devolution for Scotland was not by any means inevitable, according to Professor Devine.

“There was still a rocky and uncertain road to follow before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament could eventually be assured.”

He said the failure in 1979 had a number of causes. It was the time when the country was rocked by a series of large-scale industrial disputes, exemplified by the “Winter of Discontent”, when uncollected rubbish piled high on the streets and even the dead were left unburied.

“It was hardly a surprise, therefore, that many people were more concerned about their jobs and living standards rather than constitutional reform,” said Professor Devine.

“The Yes camp was also irrevocably split with no cooperation between the SNP and the Labour Yes campaign. Even some pro-devolutionists felt the original Scotland Act had had its limited powers so mangled and cut back by civil servants and the Westminster Parliament that by the time the final stages of passage were reached in the House of Commons the legislation had become so emaciated it was unlikely to inspire either confidence or enthusiasm as a major landmark in the nation’s long history worthy of strong support.”

Dr Gerry Mooney, of the Open University in Scotland, said the first devolution referendum marked a “real staging post in the long term war between Labour and the SNP” and also began to bring the whole issue of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK to the fore.

“Although the SNP had had some by-election victories up until that time, this referendum brought to the front the constitutional question of Scotland’s relationship with rest of the UK and the nature of the government of and for Scotland,” he said.

“The idea of the referendum then, as in 1997, was about halting or preventing the rise of Scottish nationalism and it marks the raising of the big question which is still with us – the national question and the question of Scotland’s constitutional status and relationship with the rest of the UK – and Europe.”

WHEN the SNP refused to support the Labour Government and Thatcher took over it deepened the hostility between the parties.

“What this did I think was crystalize and brought to the attention of the wider public the animosity which had been bubbling along for at least a decade,” said Dr Mooney.

“It intensified a trend that was already there and after the referendum defeat became a cruxstone of the continuing conflict between Labour and the SNP.”

The referendum debacle was used by the SNP to say Scotland could not trust Labour or the UK Parliament.

“I think it was a bad move on Labour’s part as granting devolution might have prevented the rise of the SNP thereafter,” said Dr Mooney.

“It also puts into question whether Thatcher would have been elected in 1979.

“There might not have been a 1979 General Election at all for a start but although a Labour Government would not have been anywhere near as extreme as a Tory Government it was moving towards a more right wing position by introducing cuts and policies that attacked the living standards of some of its core working class electoral base.

“When Thatcher came to power she said she was just continuing what the Labour Government had started with wage freezes, cuts and so on.”

Would devolution have protected Scotland?

“Had there been a 1979 devolution act and a Scottish Parliament re-established in 1980 it is possible that a Labour or SNP government at that time could have introduced policies that would may have differed from the policies of the UK Government,” said Dr Mooney.

“Some of them may have been more progressive and less punitive, but at the end of the day Scotland then, and now, remains a very unequal society and those other class divisions would still have been there even if they had played out in a different way to the rest of the UK.”