When did Britain lose Scotland?: a brief history of the "Scottish question" by Chris Bambery

Scotland is gearing up for another round of voting to decide its future. On referendum day, voters will head to voting booths to solve the yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" What does this vote mean for the left and what is the historical roots to this question? Chris Bambery, author of A People's History of Scotland, gives a brief and striking history of this "Scottish Question".

When Did Britain Lose Scotland?

By Chris Bambery

In Westminster it had long been believed that the “Scottish Question” was settled. How wrong they were. Rooted in the remorseless decline of Britain, this problem has continued, despite claims to the contrary, from an era long before Thatcher and Major, under Blair and Brown and persists today under Cameron. The surge in support for Scottish independence, with its most recent manifestation resulting in this September’s referendum, is, in large part, a byproduct of these historical developments.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) first broke through in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This change was signaled in Labour’s change of heart and agreement to the creation of a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh. But by then crucial changes in Scotland’s cultural identity were underway, centered on the way people living north of the Solway Firth and the River Tweed came to see themselves—as political, working class Scots. Quickly it became fashionable to see Scotland as more radical than its southern neighbours. In response, some on the English left found reasons to cheer a breakaway; for many more, however, the idea the Scottish might go their own way casts a sense of foreboding.

The truth is, however, that for much of its modern history Scotland has been far from radical. Until the years before the First World War it was inhospitable ground for trade unionism and a bastion of the dominant Liberal Party. For most of the time since Britain was created in 1707 with the Act of Union, the Scots have been happy being Scots within an overall British identity. Within the 19th century a strong indigenous capitalist class emerged that proved itself one of the most successful and prominent in the world. That was achieved both through the British Empire and a British army, and the Scottish upper classes took to both with a fury.

Yet, in time, the British economy fell into serious trouble. The consequences in Scotland, which was still reliant on the old staple industries of the 19th century, became seriously grim. If the 1920s were bad, then the 1930s were awful and conditions got worse as the decade went on. As a result there was a political and economic shift that took place  that moved away from a sense of self sufficiency towards reliance on Westminster and state intervention. For Labour that meant ditching its commitment to Home Rule, one of the central planks of party policy since Kier Hardie’s day.

In the post-war period, the decline of traditional industry continued unabated. Between 1951 and 1971 there was a mass emigration of 600,000 Scots—ten percent of the population—including many of the best and the brightest. As a result, the SNP came into existence through the merger of one grouping largely associated with the Independent Labour Party and another made up of Tory breakaways based in Glasgow.  Central to its creation was a sense that power—in its economic and political sense—was slipping away southwards to London.

Initially, the impact of the new movement appeared minimal. Unionism (as the Tories still branded themselves north of the border) seemed alive and well in 1955 when they won an overall majority of votes north of the border. However things had changed as a result of continued decline and in 1967 the SNP first achieved their electoral break through under Labour.

I can still recall my father’s reaction on the morning of the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964. “This means planning,” he told me, pointing to Wilson’s promise of a state-run policy to restore British industry. For him the promise was of a continuation of Atlee’s work, interrupted by 13 years of Tory rule. But, as we soon learned, this was not to be. In the coalfields more pits closed under Wilson than any other prime minister. As a result in Hamilton election of 1967, a Glasgow lawyer from an ILP background, Winnie Ewing, overturned a 16,000 Labour majority to win. In the next year’s local election the SNP took 30 percent of the vote across the country.

The SNP fared even better under Edward Heath by picking up discontented Tory votes and the support of former Labour supporters now cynical about Wilson. In the February 1974 Westminster general election, Labour scraped into government as the largest party. However, its Scottish vote fell to 36.6 percent and its number of seats north of the border to 40. The key feature of the election was the SNP’s success in winning seven seats. When Wilson called another election in order to gain an overall election in September of that year; the SNP took the second biggest share of the vote, winning 30.4 percent of the vote, 11 seats and coming second in 35 constituencies.

In 1979 the Labour government was short of votes in the Palace of Westminster and were forced into holding a referendum on the creation of a Scottish parliament. A study of the Yes vote that year showed it was, “heaviest among Labour and SNP voters, younger voters and the working class.”[i] But the government was split and left wing Labour MPs such as Robin Cook, Brian Wilson and Bob Hughes campaigned for a no vote. The result was a Yes vote of 32.9 percent to a No vote of 30.8 percent. This might appear as a victory but Labour MPs had pushed through a parliamentary amendment mandating that a majority of 40 percent or over was needed. Under these stringent rules the Yes vote fell short of that hurdle. [ii] After that Callaghan lost government to Margaret Thatcher, and her legacy would linger until today .[iii]


If we are to portion out blame for who lost Scotland, Thatcher obviously takes a large slice of the responsibility.  But we could also spoon some out to Neil Kinnock and John Major. Labour was expected to win the 1992 general election, instead John Major took the vote. The party leadership in Scotland had promised a Tory wipe out but this did not happen. The shock of the Tories scrambling back to Downing Street prompted an immediate response in Scotland. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Scotland United, orchestrated by the Scottish Trades union Congress, brought people onto the streets demanding a Scottish parliament.

Although this campaign was not sustained, it created the momentum that brought the SNP and Labour, previously at daggers drawn, together in support of a Scottish parliament. Meanwhile, Labour was transformed into New Labour following the sudden death, in 1994, of party leader John Smith. Blair, the new Labour leader, who had himself been educated in Scotland, was persuaded he had to back devolution on the basis that the creation of a Scottish parliament would block the rise of Scottish nationalism and that the electoral system implemented would rule out an overall SNP majority.

Thus, as my book argues, the often overlooked culprit in the loss of Scotland from Britain is Tony Blair. It’s hard today to remind oneself that in 1997 there was popular enthusiasm over Tony Blair’s landslide win at Westminster, not least in Scotland. Cat Boyd of the Radical Independence Campaign, speaking at a public meeting in Motherwell, recalled her dad walking her up to tell her “our side” were back in government. Coming from Hamilton she recalled people gathering to look out over the Clyde Valley as the giant blue blast furnace at Ravenscraig was demolished, a vivid memory of the legacy of Tory rule. How wrong they were!

Still, that didn’t stop the progressive left from making headway in Scotland. In 2003 the Scottish Socialist Party returned six MSPs and the Greens also registered success. The SNP had opposed the Iraq war (though not the Afghan campaign) and were prominent in the anti-war protests. Because they were able to win over a layer of key young Muslim anti-war activists, there became a sea change with the latest polls showing support for independence topping 60 percent.

The car crash that destroyed the SSP allowed the SNP to take much of the radical left vote, much as they have taken votes of the Lib Dems This was not great news for New Labour who were, and still are, focused  wholly on Westminster. In addition, support for independence draws on aversion to a Tory rule that maintains little support in Scotland.

The fact that a Yes vote is possible is a remarkable transformation because until very recently that support for separation was very much a minority sport. It is reported that in Downing Street David Cameron fears that it will be a Yes vote. In addition, there is a sense of unease among the British elite as to what will happen. This sense of unease continues to remind Scottish voters just what it is they are attempting to escape from.

The decline of Britain is now very apparent. It is very visible by the dominance of the City of London, in the lack of investment that drives low wages, in the masochist clinging to the alliance with the United States and its endless military adventures, and in the sleaze of its institutions summed up best by the expenses scandal of Westminster. For some, politics south of the border seems to be dominated by hatred of migrants and Europe and that does not fit with the way things are in Scotland.

So, we to return to the question of who is to blame for Britain losing Scotland; the best answer is simple—Britain itself. People in England and Wales should cheer independence, for a Yes vote might lead to a discussion on what is wrong with Britain, a discussion Westminster does not want to have. 

[i] William Knox, An industrial nation: work, culture and society in Scotland, 1800 – present, Edinburgh University Press, 1999, P304

[ii] Frances Wood, Scottish Labour in Government and Opposition: 1964-1979, in  Ian Donnachie, Christopher Harvie and Ian S. Wood (Editors), Forward! Labour Politics in Scotland 1888-1988, Polygon, 1989, P120-129

[iii] Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the 1970s, Faber and Faber, 2009, P502-505

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