The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency … Part I

by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2010

As trailed here, over the next few weeks I’m publishing ‘The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency’, the thesis I wrote as an undergraduate some 12 years ago. Today, to kick off things, is the abstract …


This thesis attempts to explain the extreme difficulties the Labour Party faced in the 1970s in attempting to introduce devolution to Scotland. It will be shown that the principal problem was the conflict in Labour’s own ideology, the paradox of a party committed to a unified approach to the economic management of the UK seeking to decentralise government powers from the centre.

It felt this course to be essential to its survival as ‘the natural party of government’ because of the electoral success of the Scottish National Party from 1967, which saw its apogee in the October 1974 general election. It is argued that this did not symbolise the growing attraction of separation for the Scots, although this was the starting-point for the analysis of the Royal Commission, established by Prime Minister Harold Wilson to assuage lurking discontent. Instead the SNP surge should be seen as simply one part of a UK-wide phenomenon of third-party success, one component of the dealignment of British politics in this decade.

It was this electoral calculation which inspired the Labour leadership – irrespective of the wishes of either the Scottish or the national Labour Party – to bring forward devolution legislation. This thesis, therefore, draws heavily on the published diaries covering this period, and the memoirs of the protagonists. It is in these that their expedient motivations are most clearly demonstrated.

The haste of this decision, and the absence of an ideological bedrock, combined to produce a legislative package riddled with inconsistencies and vulnerable to the attacks of Conservatives and, most decisively, Labour rebels. Parliamentary arithmetic afforded these dissidents a leverage denied to devolution’s proponents prior to 1974. They manipulated this advantage to devastating effect, most notably by imposing a 40 per cent ‘hurdle’ for the 1979 referendum. Its impact was to ensure that, although Scottish devolution was approved by a majority of voters, the legislation was never enacted. This, it is argued, was precisely the intention.

The erection of this barrier, it will be seen, was symbolic of the reasons for devolution’s failure. Labour, unconvinced by legislation it had formulated for expedient purposes, was unable to persuade its own MPs that devolution was anything other than a clumsy attempt to sustain James Callaghan’s minority Government in power. It was this ideological vacuum which facilitated both sides’ opportunism.

Next week … ‘Beginning to be converted to the least possible’: devolution launched