We’ve spoken before of Scottish Labour’s most revered ancient totem of faith, the 1979 “stab in the back” myth by which they accuse the SNP of sole responsibility for the 18-year rule of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.
More than three-and-a-half decades later, Labour still cling to it as their trump card in any argument against the SNP, pulling it out when all else fails and relying on the fact that hardly anyone was there to contradict their version of events.
It’s an accusation that’s complete cobblers from top to bottom, but then again you’d expect us to say that. So instead let’s get the view of someone who was there.
James Callaghan was the Labour Prime Minister in 1979. His political memoir, “Time & Chance”, ends with his defeat in the election of May that year by over two million votes, after a vote of no confidence triggered by Labour’s repeal of the Devolution Act brought down his government in late March.
His account of events and the aftermath is fascinating and revealing. The extracts below come from the book’s final chapter.
(We’ve omitted only passages that aren’t relevant to the progression of the story, marked with […]. You can see the full pages here if you don’t trust our edits.)
“It was the adverse effect of the two Devolution referenda in Scotland and Wales that finally ended the Government’s life. Both were held on 1 March 1979, St David’s Day, for John Morris, the Secretary of State for Wales, had hoped that the compliment would strike a patriotic chord in Welsh hearts. But the valleys were deaf to the sound of our music, and rejected the blandishments by a huge majority of four to one.
The Scottish result was better, with a slim majority voting in favour, but this counted as a defeat as the Devolution Act had provided (against the Government’s will), that 40 per cent of the total electorate must vote in favour*, so with those who abstained added in, the total fell well below the required figure.
On the surface this was a surprising result, and I concluded that in the back of people’s minds, the merits of the case had become entangled with a vote on the Government’s popularity, which was not high even in Scotland because of the recent industrial disputes.
Michael Foot telephoned me at home on Sunday 4 March to discuss the results. He was deeply disappointed for he had made Devoution his cause, and had overcome every obstacle to get the Bills through Parliament. These results required the Government, in accordance with the two Acts, to now lay an Order before Parliament for their total repeal.
Michael is a fighter and he still thought the day could be saved. Why not, he said, lay the Repeal Order before Parliament, but invite the House to reject it? This would leave the Scottish Act on the statute book in accordance with the wish of the majority of those who had voted. But it would not come into force until a second Order, known as a Commencement Order, was laid, and this should be postponed until after a general election.
It was an imaginative proposal, but from the start I did not approach it with an open mind.
Michael Cocks, the Chief Whip, had spoken with some of Labour’s Devolution rebels. In his view the difficulty within the Party was much greater than any from the Scottish National Party and the Whips’ judgement was that the Government could not rely on the votes of Labour Members from Merseyside or the North if we moved to reject the Repeal Order.
For three years we had believed in ourselves and in our capacity to govern and to win, despite all the odds against us. Now I sensed this was no longer true. Nearly thirty years earlier, as a junior Minister in the Attlee Government, I had watched demoralisation set in and a thick pall of self-doubt begin to envelop Ministers as they and the increasingly paralysed Government Departments and Civil Servants waited for the inevitable election.
In 1979 seven months of life still lay ahead before a general election need be called, but I did not wish my administration to drag out the next few months, surviving only by wheeling and dealing. From the moment I knew we could not win a vote of no confidence I preferred to put the issue to the test of a general election.
Even if the vote had gone in our favour I did not expect the election to be long delayed. Since Christmas the Government had suffered severe set-backs on incomes policy and on Devolution, and we could command a majority in the House of Commons for neither.
Contrary to the myths which have sprung up since 1979, Labour did not lose support in the general election – our national vote was in fact slightly higher than it had been nearly five years earlier in October 1974, when we had won more seats than the Tories. It demonstrated how much steady understanding and support existed for what we had tried to do.
But, tempted by promises of lower taxation and with memories of the winter, the abstaining Tories of 1974 had flocked back to their Party’s colours and this gave Mrs Thatcher a large majority of seats. It was a miracle that we had governed as long and effectively as we had.”
In summary, then:
1. The Labour government, which had no majority, was unpopular as a result of a winter of ruinous industrial disputes as it tried to keep public-sector pay low.
2. Scotland voted for devolution, but a rule imposed by a rebel Labour MP in conjunction with the Tories and 33 Labour colleagues ensured that any Yes result would be overturned, by including non-voters and the dead as No votes.
(That is to say, people who’d passed away but who hadn’t yet been removed from the electoral register were effectively counted for No.)
3. Callaghan and Michael Foot wanted leave the devolution act on the statute books with a view to reviving it after the election, given the Yes vote, but English Labour MPs vowed to block the plan, leading to the vote of no confidence.
4. By this point Callaghan had accepted the game was up and resigned himself to an early election, even if he had won the vote of no confidence. The idea that losing the vote hastened the election significantly, thereby preventing Labour from recovering public support in its remaining few months is – by Callaghan’s own admission – completely false. (See paragraphs 8 and 9 above.)
5. Callaghan blamed the election defeat not on the Nats but on Labour’s own fatal hangover from the Winter Of Discontent. He attributes the Conservatives’ success to that and to their promises of tax cuts. (Which the Tories delivered, helping them to win three subsequent elections.)
Calmly and matter-of-factly, Callaghan lays the blame at Labour’s own door every step of the way. Labour caused the pay disputes and strikes, a Labour MP sabotaged the devolution bill, more Labour MPs blocked the plan to keep devolution alive.
Callaghan himself actively sought the election – and would have done so either way – at which Scots punished the SNP and voted Labour, but at which millions of English voters ensured a Conservative victory for reasons which were nothing to do with Scotland and would not have been affected had the vote of confidence been won.
We don’t expect for a moment that this will stop brainless Labour politicians and idiot young activists who weren’t even alive in 1979 from trotting out the same tired old “ushering in Thatcher” hogwash over and over and over again in the next few months in the hope that a few gullible voters might swallow it.
But such people who’d huffily dismiss our undeniably partisan analysis could do a lot worse than listen to the man who lived in 10 Downing Street at the time, and who agrees with every word we’ve said about it, because he said it first.
*These are Callaghan’s comments on the 40% rule:
“[The rule] was instigated by another Labour sceptic, George Cunninghame [sic], with the support of Labour and Conservative opponents. He proposed that if the consultative referendum contained in the bill resulted in less than 40 per cent of the total electorate voting in favour of Devolution, then the Secretary of State for Scotland would be required to lay an Order before Parliament, wiping out the whole Act.
This provision was carried by a majority of fifteen, with as many as thirty-four Labour Members voting against the Government. On the other hand a small number of Conservatives and the Liberal Party supported us.
I have since wondered whether those thirty-four Labour Members would have voted as they did if they had been able to foresee that their votes on that evening would precipitate a General Election in 1979, at the least favourable time for their Government.”
That’s 34 Labour MPs [EDIT: list below] voting with the Tories in order to cheat the people of Scotland by setting an impossible target for a Yes vote – more than three times as many as the 11 SNP MPs who voted against the government in the vote of no confidence. You don’t hear so much about those 34, do you?
Fun trivia fact: if the 40% rule had been in place for the independence referendum, and ABSOLUTELY NOBODY in Scotland had voted No, the Yes vote of 1.62 million still wouldn’t have been enough to win under Cunningham’s rule, representing as it did just 38% of the entire registered electorate. That’s how crooked it was.
Leo Abse (Pontypool)
Sydney Bidwell (Southall)
Betty Boothroyd (West Bromwich)
Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
Maureen Colquhoun (Northampton North)
George Cunningham (Islington South)
Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Joseph Dean (Leeds West)
Peter Doig (Dundee West)
Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)
Ioan Evans (Aberdare)
Martin Flannery (Sheffield Hillsborough)
Ted Fletcher (Darlington)
Ted Garrett (Wallsend)
Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)
Eric Heffer (Liverpool Walton)
Robert Hughes (Aberdeen North)
Adam Hunter (Dunfermline)
Alexander Lyon (York)
Joan Maynard (Sheffield Brightside)
John Mendelson (Penistone)
Eric Moonman (Basildon)
Stanley Newens (Harlow)
Eric Ogden (Liverpool West Derby)
Arthur Palmer (Bristol North East)
John Parker (Barking Dagenham)
Josephine Richardson (Barking)
Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West)
George Rodgers (Chorley)
Renee Short (Wolverhampton North East)
Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Leslie Spriggs (St Helens)
Ronald Thomas (Bristol North West)
Audrey Wise (Coventry South West)
Amendment carried, 166 votes to 151