The Scottish Assembly referendum in 1979 took place in the context of intense political divisions. All sections of the labour movement were divided on the issue, and particularly in local government where many local councillors supported the ‘No’ campaign. The Scottish National Party was divided: although official policy was to support the Scotland Act, many of those in the more fundamentalist wing saw this as an unacceptable compromise. The Liberals gave support, but of a highly qualified nature because of the absence of electoral reform. The Conservative Party opposed an Assembly but with a number of prominent rebels in favour. Even those who supported the Act had great difficulty working together. In particular, the Labour Party resisted cooperation with other groups. The referendum result showed a small majority for the proposed Assembly and a respectable turnout, but it fell short of the requirement to gain more than 40 per cent of the total registered electorate.
The past decade has seen the development of a much stronger consensus in favour of constitutional change, and a greater maturity in the Scottish political community. Much of the credit for this must go to the Thatcherite Right. It may be the former prime minister’s most lasting achievement that she consolidated Scottish opinion in favour of reform. But even without the blatant exposure of Scotland’s political impotence, the Scottish constitutional dimension would probably have reasserted itself. It was, after all, a major issue in Scottish politics in the late 1940s and had re-emerged in the late 1960s. It subsequently dominated the political scene in Scotland in the 1970s. Despite the set-back of 1979, the issue was never likely to go permanently off the agenda.
The 1980s highlighted more sharply than ever before this century the Scottish democratic deficit. The Conservatives received only 28 per cent of the vote in 1983 and 24 per cent in 1987 when it held ten out of seventy-two seats. Yet they implemented highly controversial and unpopular policies with no concession to their questionable democratic legitimacy in Scotland. The poll tax, for example, was initially intended only for Scotland, and had Mrs Thatcher not made the mistake of extending it a year later to England it is doubtful whether any
Certain factors in occupational structure explain part but by no means all of this anti-Conservatism. Importantly, there still exists in Scotland a collectivist culture that is not just characteristic of the urban working class. In much of rural Scotland the role of the public sector is recognized as crucial, notably in transport, employment, tourism and agriculture. (There is not a single Conservative seat in the Highlands and Islands, nor since the Kincardine and Deeside by-election in the Northeast.) Even positive developments in the 1980s like Glasgow’s city-centre renewal are recognized as the product of public action. The Health Service is, on the whole, better in Scotland; and in many respects so is education. Almost half of the housing stock is still in the public sector and this has helped cushion Scotland against the effect of high interest rates. Most of middle- and working-class Scotland has reason to view collective provision positively. If anything, the demand is for the public sector to do more rather than less, not out of spineless dependency but because it is recognized that collective action can achieve much more than individual initiatives.
The experience of a Conservative government presiding over radical deindustrialization, reducing the power of local authorities and trade unions, and dedicated to competitive individualism, produced a growing convergence in political positions in Scotland among all except the more committed Tories. Many of those in the labour movement who had opposed a Scottish legislature were to change their position during the early eighties. In particular, those in local government who had feared that an Assembly would take power away from local authorities saw that power being sharply eroded by British government decisions over which they had no influence. The prospect of a Scottish government seemed far preferable. At the same time, public support for a Scottish parliament increased. From the mid eighties, support for full independence rose in opinion polls to around a third and has remained at that level. Support for the status quo has seldom risen above 20 per cent. The shift in mood was not only expressed politically but also culturally. Most of those working in the arts were sympathetic to the Scottish national dimension, and in the highly successful popular-music scene there has been much explicit support for nationalism.