Did Braveheart Die for Devolution?

Scottish independence is in the air, and it may well stay there, masking the facts of English domination

All of this gave modern Scotland its character, with a densely populated central belt of industrial cities between huge hinterlands of mountains and moors, the whole closely integrated into the British economy and ruled from London. And for a long time Scotland seemed contented with that dispensation, the Union and all. As recently as the 1955 general election a majority of Scottish MPs returned were Tories (or "Unionists").

It seems another century. From that majority of seats in 1955 the Tory vote declined over forty-two years -- to the point where not a single Tory MP was elected from Scotland in the 1997 election. Scotland became a Labour redoubt. Labour controlled almost all the municipal authorities in the urban lowlands -- a great, sprawling, one-party statelet. The Labour MPs that Scotland sent to Westminster were crucial to any Labour ambitions for parliamentary power, and Scottish politics therefore elicited considerable attention in Labour councils.

THE story of devolution begins in 1967. A book could be written about the influence of by-elections on British politics. These are held between general elections on occasions when, as a cynical political journalist I know used to say, a sitting member of Parliament takes a highly paid job in Brussels, goes to jail, or dies of cirrhosis of the liver.

Sometimes these by-elections are upsets for the governing party, as the voters express midterm discontent. Often the seat will revert to its previous allegiance at the next general election -- but not before the upset has altered the pattern of politics. One famous case was the East Fulham by-election of 1933, which persuaded Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister before and after) that the British people had no stomach for re-armament and resisting Hitler.

Looming large in Scotland's modern history is the 1967 by-election at Hamilton, in the Clyde Valley southeast of Glasgow. Winifred Ewing startled the political establishment, and terrified Harold Wilson's Labour government, by taking that seat for the Scottish National Party, which was founded in 1934 as a union of the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. Until then the SNP had been seen as a joke in London. Originally a cranky fringe party of romantic reactionaries (though it later acquired a socialist tinge), the SNP had won all of 21,738 votes throughout Scotland in the 1959 general election. Winnie Ewing's success was an astonishing portent.

It was said of Baldwin that the nerve damaged by East Fulham "never quite healed"; and the Labour Party has never been the same since Hamilton. Labour still won forty-four out of seventy-one Scottish seats in the 1970 general election. But in the 1970s there was another SNP upsurge. In 1970 the party's vote was 306,802; by 1974 it had risen to 839,617, and the "Scot Nats" won eleven seats.

Everything that has happened subsequently must be seen as a desperate reaction by Labour to this threat: an attempt to square the circle, giving Scotland enough sops to stave off the Nationalists while keeping it in the Union so that -- the all-important part -- Labour can retain its four dozen or so pocket boroughs in Scotland. As it happens, Tony Blair did win a majority of English seats in 1997, but this was a feat that only two previous Labour leaders have managed (Clement Attlee in 1945 and Wilson in 1966), as Blair is acutely conscious.

During the Labour government of 1974-1979 the first serious attempt was made to give devolved government to Scotland. This was put to a referendum in 1979, and the Scots voted for a Parliament of their own, but in insufficient numbers to pass the electoral threshold that had been set. In the wake of this failure the Labour government of James Callaghan fell, ushering in eighteen years of Tory rule under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

"Thatcherism" was profoundly at odds with the statist, welfarist political culture of Scotland. Mrs. Thatcher tried to persuade the Scots that they were natural free-marketeers, the people of Adam Smith, notably in her didactic "Sermon on the Mound," delivered to the Church of Scotland in May of 1988; but this scolding only increased their disaffection.

Tony Blair's platform included devolution, which he had inherited from his predecessor. But the truth is that Labour was a belated and half-hearted convert to this cause. Labour was traditionally a British centralist party, for the good reason that it was a socialist and redistributive party that believed in shifting wealth not only from richer to poorer individuals but also from richer to poorer regions -- from the prosperous south of England to the north and, especially, to the "Celtic fringe," Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

At the time of the Union, and for long after, the balance of government taxing and spending was not in Scotland's favor. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries state spending was, of course, exiguous by today's standards. Over the past century, in contrast, the Scots (and the Welsh, and the Northern Irish) have done well from that balance. And they still do.

The figures are truly remarkable. Spending rates are fixed under the "Scottish block," or the "Barnett formula" (named after a Finance Minister). This ensures that, in broad terms and on average, every resident of Scotland receives £1.25 of state spending for each £1 that every resident of England receives. Put another way, the southeast of England puts in £114 per head for each £76 received, a net transfer of -£38, while Scotland puts in £99 and receives £120, a transfer of +£21.

This makes the Scottish demand for autonomy seem curious -- to the English, at least. The Nationalist position is at any rate honest. The party wants complete separation from England, with the acceptance of financial responsibility that implies (though the Nationalists look longingly at independent Ireland, whose economy has been transformed in the past twenty years by very large sums of money injected from the European Union).

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In