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).
Labour's position has no such honesty. More than twenty years ago its central flaw was identified as "the West Lothian Question" by Tam Dalyell, a veteran Labour MP, a foe of devolution, and one of the true adornments of British politics in the past generation. He has sat at Westminster since 1962 for the constituency west of Edinburgh, which fidgety bureaucrats have renamed Linlithgow, but which used to be called West Lothian, and his Question is this: In the event that devolution came to pass, and Scotland established its own Parliament, how should it be that he, as a Westminster MP, could vote in Parliament on the domestic affairs of West Bromwich, in the English Midlands, but not those of West Lothian, which he was meant to represent?
The Question is particularly sharp because Scotland is so heavily overrepresented in the Westminster Parliament in proportion to its population. There are seventy-two Scottish MPs, whereas for parity with England there should be more like fifty-eight. After devolution there should in equity be fewer still. At the time of the debates over home rule for Ireland, a century ago, it was accepted that once there was a Parliament in Dublin, the Irish would send fewer MPs per head to Westminster than the English (and the Scots) sent. This principle was embodied in the Home Rule Bills of 1893 and 1912 and in the 1920 act by which Northern Ireland continued to send MPs, but in reduced numbers, to Westminster after the Stormont statelet had been created to rule Northern Ireland. That is, incidentally, the one British experiment in devolved government so far this century, and a thoroughly unhappy one.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; Did Braveheart Die for Devolution? - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 20-34.