As Scotland approaches its third constitutional referendum, its first – in 1979 – provides a useful counterpoint. Whilst the 1979 proposals seemed, to their contemporary observers, radical and nation-changing, the powers of the proposed and aborted Scottish Assembly (note the noun) seemed all-too-modest little over a decade later. The referendum was mired in controversy – George Cunningham’s infamous amendment of the Scotland Act 1978 required that 40% of those eligible to vote must approve of the proposed Assembly – and ended in a majority voting Yes, yet the proposal failing.
The Scottish Government Yearbooks of the time offer a fascinating glimpse into the campaign, its results, and its aftermath. Opinion polls between 1975 and 1978 showed a majority of Scots favoured change: support for devolution varied between 43% and 65%; support for devolution between 18% and 26%. Support for the status quo – no change – peaked at 36%. In the immediate run up to the vote there was little indication that the underlying constitutional preferences had changed: across five polls published between February-March 1979 support for devolution averaged 49%, independence 17%; and the status quo 34%. Yet on the specific proposals to be posed in the referendum there was clear change. Across 1976-78 large majorities of Scots approved of the Labour government’s proposals of devolution, with those disapproving never rising above 37%. Yet when pollsters starting presenting the public with the more concrete proposals they would face in March 1979 they found clear and growing opposition. In the referendum itself the vote split 52% Yes and 48% No.
What does looking back to 1979 tell the observer of current Scottish trends? First, that referenda never represent any ‘settled will’. Rather they represent the specific view on a specific proposal at a specific time. The evidence of 1979 shows that many people who favoured constitutional change for Scotland either did not vote, or voted No to the proposals actually on the table. In that constitutional sense, ‘No’ does not always mean ‘No’.
Likewise unfulfilled promises of ‘something better’ should Scotland vote ‘No’ buttress and deepen support for change. This is accentuated by a further poll, in February 1980, in which Scots were asked how they would vote if the referendum were to be held again: 64% said they would vote Yes, rising to 68% of those who had not voted the year before.
You can read more about the 1979 Referendum in the Scottish Government Yearbook Archive, e.g: