Political Devolution and Scottish Nationalism

In response to what was a serious challenge to its support in Scotland, the Labour Party introduced proposals for a referendum on both Scottish and Welsh devolution, which was held in 1979. In Scotland the result was a slender majority voting in favour of devolution (51.6 %), but the proportion of the total electorate voting in favour, at 32.5 %, fell short of the required 40 % needed to secure devolution. In Wales the outcome was even more decisive: only 20.3 % voted in favour of devolution, which amounted to only 11.8 % of the total electorate. The outcome, coupled with the inception of the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, prompted serious internal introspection and division within the SNP. The fact that support for the SNP declined during the 1980s, at a time of rapidly increasing Scottish unemployment, would appear to be a major flaw in the argument that nationalism is attractive to the economically insecure. But there were other political changes which had a negative effect on the SNP’s popularity after 1979. Labour itself had made a shift to the left and, despite suffering a big electoral defeat in 1983, still received a higher percentage of the vote in Scotland than in England by some margin. Behind Labour the Conservatives led by Thatcher remained the second largest party, and their policy of selling ‘council houses’ to tenants at a discount was no less popular in Scotland than south of the border (Cameron 2010). Meanwhile the introduction of the short-lived Alliance Party provided extra competition.

Support for the SNP in general elections did not rise again until the 1990s, when in 1997 referenda on devolution would be held again, this time with the full backing of the newly installed New Labour government. But the period between 1979 and 1997 was highly significant for the development of the SNP as a ‘left-of-centre’ political party. Although some of Thatcher’s early policies were popular, the imposition of a poll tax in Scotland in 1987 was received as a gross injustice and an ‘offence... to Scotland’s moral identity’ (Maxwell 2009: 123). For Maxwell this consolidated the SNPs position as a left-of-centre party on social and economic issues—a shift in which the link between Scottishness and social democracy could be made (2009 : 123). Under the neo-liberal policies adopted by the Conservative government the British state would no longer take such a managed approach to alternative employment in other sectors, and declining employment in manufacturing would be allowed to go unchecked. By 1991, the proportion of people employed in manufacturing in Scotland had declined to 20 %, from 42 % in 1951 to 35 % in 1971 (MacInnes 1995). By 1991, in Fife and Central, the largest coalfield area of Scotland, official unemployment was 13.5 %, and coupled with those claiming incapacity benefits, economic inactivity was 21.2 % (Beatty and Fothergill 1996) . Similar effects can be observed within multinational branch-plant manufacturing industries located in the new town areas. One example is Burroughs Ltd., a computer manufacturer with headquarters in Detroit, Michigan (USA), around which the new town of Cumbernauld was built. In this firm, employment fell from 3000 in 1968 to 1800 by 1978, and to 800 by 1981. Burroughs Ltd. ended operations in Cumbernauld in 1982. Today Cumbernauld is one of the most deprived parts of Scotland (SIMD 2012). A similar pattern of declining employment and subsequent closure can also be observed with Timex watch manufacturers in Dundee.

Studies of party support in the 1980s and 1990s show that SNP voters came to be increasingly drawn from the working classes (Brown et al. 1999). Brand et al. (1994), for example, argue that SNP support during the 1980s was markedly materialist, motivated primarily by concerns such as welfare, unemployment and the poll tax. The class profile of SNP support was becoming similar to that of Labour support and different from Conservative support (Brand et al. 1994). In addition to an increase in its working-class support, the 1990s also witnessed the particular appeal of the SNP for professionals and other middle classes, principally those working in the public sector. For Hearn (2002: 18-19), advancement through opportunities offered by the welfare state meant that both SNP and Labour could generate significant cross-class support (amongst the salariat and working class). The retrenchment of the welfare state, coupled with a sense of ‘disenfranchisement’ as Scottish Labour voters under English Conservative rule, had a notable ‘nationalising’ effect on professionals working in the public sector (Hearn 2002).

Between 1979 and 1997 the Scottish people had the experience of a Conservative government for which they had not voted. By the end of the 1980s, the Conservative Party in Scotland would no longer be seen as Unionist but increasingly perceived as anglicised and alien to the Scottish body politic (Seawright 2002). Throughout this period, the Labour Party, by far the largest party in Scotland, received almost double the Conservative share of the Scottish vote. This so-called ‘democratic deficit’ led to a change of approach within the Labour Party itself and fresh hopes for devolution with the establishment in 1984 of the much- heralded Scottish Constitutional Convention. Initially the SNP refused to join this convention, a decision which reflected the party’s internal divisions between ‘pragmatists’, content to proceed at first with devolution, and Utopians’, committed to independence within a broader framework of the European Union (Paterson 2015). Partly because of the work of the convention, this tension was resolved. There was a broad public consensus in Scotland on the advancing of devolution. In contrast, the Conservatives ended their period of government in 1997 by losing all of the seats in Scotland.

In 1997 a proposal for a Scottish Parliament, with far more substantial autonomy on offer than in 1979, managed to gain the required popular mandate by some margin, with 74.3 % voting in favour of a Scottish Parliament and 63.5 % voting in favour of tax varying powers. In the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 the Labour Party won 38.8 % of the constituency vote, followed by the SNP as the second largest party with 28.7 %; little changed in the 2003 election. In 2007, however, the SNP became the largest party with 32.9 %, winning just 0.7 % more, crucially resulting in one more seat, than Labour. But in 2011 the SNP won 45.4 % of the vote, compared to Labour’s 26.3 %, and enough seats to be able to form a majority government for the first time. Over this period, the SNP would see its support increase across all social classes, particularly amongst professionals within the public sector and those in working- class occupations (Mitchell et al. 2012). In the context of a New Labour government which continued rather than broke with Thatcherism, the SNP were able to present Scottish autonomy as the best option for social democracy, and for what became ‘anti-austerity’.

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