1st March 1979

Scotland votes for an independent parliament

“Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?” was the question on the ballot paper for the 1979 Scottish referendum on devolution. 51.62% of those who cast a vote said yes on a 63% turnout.

However, although more Scots who expressed a preference voted in favour of an independent parliament, that turnout meant it was less than 40% of the electorate as a whole so, regardless of which side “won”, the parliament never came into being – or, at least, not in 1979.

The Scotland Act 1978 to which the ballot paper referred was an Act to create a devolved assembly for Scotland, which had been passed on the understanding that it would be repealed if less than 40% of the overall Scottish electorate voted in its favour.

No Scottish Assembly

However, as the Aberdeen Press and Journal reported on 3 March, when the results had been announced, “the Scots have delivered a major blow to the Government’s plans for an Edinburgh Assembly, even though a paper-thin majority of voters said Yes in Thursday’s historic Referendum. In the country-wide poll, 1,230,937 voters backed the Assembly scheme – 77,435 more than the Noes. [But that meant] just under 33% of those entitled to vote were for the Assembly package, while almost 31% were against.”

Those in favour had to wait until 1999 to see a devolved Scottish Parliament meet for the first time, after a second referendum, in 1997, led to the implementation of the Scotland Act 1998.

Meanwhile, the national Labour government of 1979, led by James Callaghan, found itself in a position of having to return to Parliament to ask MPs to annul the Act. This put it in a risky position at a time when it needed the support of the SNP to survive.

Out of date register

The SNP launched an investigation, which found that Scotland’s electoral register was so out of date that the chances of crossing the 40% threshold had been practically nil, and it demanded action from Labour. Labour refused, so the SNP withdrew its support.

Opposition parties saw their chance: they called a vote of no confidence in the government. Labour lost, and had no choice but to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call an election. It then lost this, too, to the Conservatives, and as James Callaghan left 10 Downing Street on 3 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister.

The Conservatives, with a majority in Parliament, repealed the Scotland Act and the dreams of an independent Parliament for Scotland were put on hold indefinitely.



Other events that occured in March

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