The Labour party, Europe and the (recent) history of Scottish independence

by Matt Broad

With less than a year now to go before Scots head to the polls to take part in the independence referendum, one can’t help but be reminded of earlier debates surrounding the matter of the country’s place within the UK. The story of today’s independence debate is, however, not only rooted in the groundswell of electoral support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) that emerged in the 1960s. It is as much a product of the problems that beset Labour under the leaderships of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and of the party’s inclination to deploy regional and national referenda in pursuit of its own goals.

The vote on British’s continued membership of the European Community (EC), held on 5 June 1975, was the first unprecedented event in this regard. To be sure, the referendum was little more than a device used by the Labour leadership to manage a party divided between pro- and anti- EC factions. Harold Wilson even temporarily waived collective Cabinet responsibility. An ‘agreement to differ’ was a signal to Labour ministers that they could openly argue against one another when it came to Europe. The only way the Labour party seemed able to unite on the issue was to divide over it.

How did this affect the campaign for Scottish devolution in the 1970s? First, even after the EC referendum Labour remained heavily split. The EC vote effectively opened the floodgates in terms of disunity within Labour ranks. One area of disagreement was devolution, with some Labour MPs openly calling for a referendum on the subject. Against the backdrop of divisions over Europe, devolution thus had be taken more seriously and treated more sensitively by the leadership if there was to be any hope of containing party splits. Second, Labour had a slim parliamentary lead after the October 1974 general election. If the EC question already threatened to destabilise the government, the Labour elite were certainly not prepared to be usurped by the growing support for Scottish and Welsh nationalists that could all but seal Labour’s fate in any forthcoming general election. A more concerted line on devolution was therefore seen as a potential vote winner. And third and more important still, the 1975 referendum on the EC made a devolution referendum politically more acceptable. Those at first unwilling to sacrifice the principle of parliamentary sovereignty now saw the benefits that could be reaped by taking a potentially divisive party issue and placing it in the hands of the electorate. From Labour’s perspective, if a referendum also happened to wrong-foot the SNP, then all the better. Indeed, anti-devolutionist Labour MPs, predominantly from England and Wales, saw such plebiscites as the best way to stop the nationalists in their tracks and counted on the electorate being allergic to change in order to secure a ‘no’ vote. Put simply, the question of Scottish devolution was closely entwined with Labour politics in this period.

If Labour was central to the decision to hold the referendum, which eventually took place on 1 March 1979, it was also in part responsible for its failure. George Cunningham – a Scot by birth, the Labour MP for Islington and a vociferous opponent of Scottish devolution – suggested that a simple majority in support of devolution was not enough. On a matter of such constitutional significance, a ‘yes’ vote should, Cunningham argued, also be backed by 40 per cent of the registered Scottish electorate. When the results came in, it did in fact produce a slim majority in favour of devolution over those against. Yet, this fell short of the ’40 per cent rule’. Labour’s decision to accept the result would prove disastrous. In brief, the SNP put a motion of no confidence down in the Commons which, as a minority government, Labour was unable to resist. This set in train a series of events that eventually led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher to the premiership and Labour’s consignment to the opposition benches for 18 years.

Fast forward two decades and Labour once again found itself at the heart of the Scottish question. Tony Blair’s support for a Scottish Parliament differed considerably from the line adopted by the previous Conservative administrations of Thatcher and John Major. Blair justified the move by stating that he was responding to the wishes of the Scottish people. But there is, quite justifiably, room to suggest that Blair saw the devolution vote as nothing more than an extension of the New Labour project to a Scottish setting. Indeed, Labour performed well in the first direct elections in 1999 and the inaugural First Minister, Donald Dewar, was a stalwart supporter of New Labour policies (Millar, 1999, 317). Once again, Labour’s own politics seemed to be at the forefront of its Scottish policy.

Today, things are somewhat different. Of course, the biggest change between the situation now and that of the 1970s and late 1990s is that the most recent decision to hold a referendum on Scotland’s future originated not in Westminster but in Edinburgh. Unlike in 1979 and 1999, moreover, it is no longer just a question of whether and what powers should be devolved to Scotland, rather whether Scotland should be completely independent. But there are striking similarities between the devolution debates of the 1970s and 1990s and the independence debate of today. Most notably, Labour is once again at the heart of events. Alistair Darling, Chancellor under Gordon Brown, is both director and chairman of the Better Together campaign. Blair McDougall, a former Labour special advisor who helped organise David Miliband’s leadership bid in 2010, is its campaign director. Beyond personalities, some have argued that Labour would likely be the biggest casualty were Scotland to become independent. Although perhaps unlikely, it is certainly true that the majority of MPs sitting in Westminster from Scottish constituencies are Labour MPs. With coalition politics widely predicted to be the norm rather the exception in years to come, the loss of Scotland could well prove fatal for Labour.

And, as with the 1970s especially, the issue of Europe is once again topical in the context of Scotland. One area of controversy concerns whether Scotland would need to reapply for membership of the European Union (EU) should the electorate back independence. A second and altogether more interesting point is the nexus between Britain’s growing Euroscepticism and next year’s independence referendum. As has recently been argued by the IPPR, Euroscepticism is in fact more of an English – rather than British – phenomenon, while on the whole Scots tend to support the link with Brussels (Wyn et al, 2013). Might we reach a stage where English anti-Europeanism propels Scottish voters to sacrifice the union with the UK in order to maintain the union with the EU? Whatever the result, it is always useful to remember that more often than not politics, much like fashion, is not invented but reinvented. The current involvement of Labour and the prominence of ‘Europe’ in today’s debates over Scotland’s future are without doubt nothing new.


William Millar (1999), ‘Modified Rapture All Round: The First Election to the Scottish Parliament’, Government and Opposition, 34/3, 299-322.

Richard Wyn et al (2013), ‘England and its Two Unions: The Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents’, Institute of Public Policy Research, available at–R3/Studi-rice/IPPR_england-two-unions_Jul2013.pdf.


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