Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 15: After the War, Steps towards Independence

In November, SNP candidate Margo MacDonald was elected at Govan, another "safe" Labour constituency. The following year marked the high point of the party's success, winning eleven seats in the October election, nine from the Conservatives. Though many would argue that the victories were mainly due to protest votes, not as marks of approval for independence, the fact remains that the SNP attained over thirty percent of the Scottish vote. Once again, despite the deep divisions in the majority Labour Party over the issue, things looked promising for those Scots who had embarked on the high road to independence.

After a period of waffling and indecision, the government published its proposals for a devolved Scottish Assembly in November 1975. It would have no revenue raising powers and sovereignty would be retained in Westminster. Though prospects for passage looked good, the wide range of conflicting government priorities left the Callaghan government little time to devote to the issue. Labour, fearing loss of its support in Scotland to the SNP, was also still deeply divided on the question and the extent of devolution. The government's program was bound to fail.

The Callaghan government's lack of commitment was made manifest in the Cunningham amendment of January 1978 which stipulated that the Bill (for devolution) would not be implemented unless more than forty percent of the total electorate voted in favor of an assembly. In addition, Orkney and Shetland Island would be excluded from the scheme if they returned a No vote. The North Sea oil reserves, upon which so much of Scotland's economic future depended, were off the shores of these islands.

All these factors combined with signs of a revival of the economy early in 1978, left the Bill headed for defeat. Like the voters in Wales, who were completely confusion as to what would result from limited devolution with lukewarm governmental support, Scottish voters found themselves in a quandary. The ambiguity of the Yes campaign was completely canceled out by the well-organized, well-run and well-financed campaign of the other side.

Big business was not interested in romantic notions of Scottish independence or Celtic national integrity. Their sentiments lay with the British Union. In the March 1979 referendum, over forty percent of the Scottish people did not even bother to vote, which resulted in 51.6 in favor and 48.4 against. The same situation prevailed in Wales, where even die-hard nationalists of the Welsh-speaking areas turned down the ambiguous measure as worthless. In both countries, people were asking who would want yet another layer of bureaucracy that would only serve to create more jobs for "the fat cats?"

Eighteen years later, results were completely reversed. It wasn't all to do with the astounding success of "Braveheart," the Hollywood movie that reminded the Scots of their past glories as an independent nation and of the bravery of those who had fought to ensure independence against almost insurmountable odds. The success of a form of artistic expression, however, does tend to remind us that Scotland and Wales are still Celtic nations in spirit. Centuries of watering down have not erased a state of mind where economics plays second fiddle to the arts, where business is second to literature, where music and those who play it, poetry and those who write it, good stories and those who tell them, and good songs and those who sing them all have a high place in society.

The fortuitous arrival of "Braveheart" was good for business, tourism especially. It was also good for the SNP who cannily set up booths outside the theatres where the movie was playing to packed houses that cheered lustily at Wallace's triumphs and booed the English armies on screen. Winnie Ewing confessed that "we all used it -- it was a wee bonus that came along."

It was more than a wee bonus. More and more Scots began to look at William Wallace as a role model and proclaim "We're not free. We need a William Wallace." The leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond took advantage of the movie's success to exhort his followers "to come out from under the control of London." "Independence," he added, "is the process by which we fulfill our potential as a nation."

On September 11, 1997, four days after the trauma of Princess Diana's funeral, the referendum was passed by a 3:1 margin. Scotland would agin have a Parliament. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Labour Party had actively campaigned for passage of the devolution bill, called the results a step in the process of "modernizing Britain." Hollywood movie star and Scotsman, Sean Connery (who did not appear in "Braveheart") campaigned hard and contributed a great deal of cash to the campaign. He invoked the 1370 Declaration of Arbroath, "It is not for glory, riches or honors we fight, but only for liberty, which no good man loses but with his life."

The referendum followed thirty abortive attempts to raise the issue of home rule in Parliament. For the sober, historically informed Scottish citizen, the result was simply an act of common sense -- Scotland had been the only modern nation state in the world to renounce its sovereignty voluntarily when it had entered the Union in 1707 (though, to put it in its proper perspective, the vast majority of its people had not been consulted on the matter).

The decision would give Scotland an Assembly with tax-levying powers, unlike the much weaker "talking-shop" that the Welsh would be saddled with as the result of their own (barely) successful referendum. It would also be given the broad authority to legislate in a host of sectors, but Westminster would "reserve" or "withhold" many powers: constitutional matters, foreign policy, defense, national security, border controls, monetary and fiscal matters, common markets for goods and services, employment law and social security.

The 129-member Scottish Assembly, we hope, will not assume the status of "a glorified Parish Council" as Tony Blair put it. However, it is expected that New Labour will try to run the show from London. Encouraging, however, is the well considered hope that the brightest and best of the Scottish M.P.'s will shift their allegiance from Westminster to Edinburgh (or, at least temporarily, to Glasgow). Scots will have the right to democratically choose (unlike 1707) whether they want full independence. Whatever the future brings, all Scots the world over, are mighty proud of the September 11, 1997 referendum to restore dignity and pride to their nation by allowing them to make their own decisions in so many of their own, purely Scottish affairs.

Chapter 16: The Scots in the US