March 1979: What really happened when the SNP brought down a minority Labour government


On its 36th anniversary, Ben Wray speaks to Dennis Canavan, Gordon Wilson and Isobel Lindsay, who all had a part in what has been described as one of the most dramatic nights in UK political history: the vote of no confidence against Labour’s minority Government in March 1979

ON 28 March 1979, SNP votes helped bring down a minority Labour government in a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. Under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, the Tories went on to win the General Election that took place a few months later, and the Conservatives went on to rule Britannia for 18 years. The event is seen as one of the most dramatic in UK political history, and has been used as a stick to beat the SNP with by the Labour party for years since. But as the 2015 General Election nears, and the possibility of a minority Labour government relying on SNP votes to stay in power increases, is there more than petty political point scoring to take from the 1979 experience?

1.) The 40 per cent rule

Gordon Wilson became SNP leader shortly after the 1979 General Election, where he was one of only two (out of 11) SNP MPs who managed to hold onto their seats, and his recollection of the reasons behind the SNP voting against James Callaghan’s minority government is calm and clear.

“The SNP’s support had been collapsing for a year or two,” Wilson tells CommonSpace. “Against that background, combined with the fact that the party felt Scotland had just been robbed of devolution, the National Council [the key decision making body in the party at the time] decided our new strategy would be to give an ultimatum to the government: either accept the yes result of the referendum, or we won’t support the government.”

The referendum on devolution of powers to Scotland had taken place just weeks earlier, on 1 March. A majority backed a yes vote, but ‘The Scotland Act’ was not passed as anti-devolution Scottish Labour MPs managed to get a provision passed that stipulated up to 40 per cent of the total electorate had to vote yes.

The referendum had a 64 per cent turnout, and therefore with 51.6 per cent voting yes, it only amounted to 32.9 per cent of the registered electorate. The same vote would have secured an independent Scotland in the referendum last year, but was not enough to secure devolution in 1979 because of Robin Cook’s clause (introduced by George Cunningham) in The Scotland Act.

Wilson says a good insight into the mindset of SNP MPs after the 1979 referendum is to look at the intensity and commitment of the independence movement after September’s referendum last year.

“Let’s imagine there was a referendum now,” Wilson says, “and the UK government decides to put an arbitrary number on how much of the registered electorate has to vote yes. And then a majority votes yes, but not a big enough majority to suit the government. Then that same government has a vote of no confidence a few weeks later. Given the movement that exists today, what would those SNP MPs decide to do?

“You have to put yourself in the situation at the time,” Wilson concludes.

2.) “What are they going to do? Back the Tories?”

It is highly unlikely the crop of SNP MPs, that is set to grow substantially after May’s General Election, will face a referendum scenario to deal with. However, it is well within the realms of possibility that they will face a minority Labour government that has little sympathy with the SNP’s cause.

A Labour insider told The Herald that, if there is a minority Labour government, the SNP will not get “anything” in return for Scottish nationalist votes.

“What are they going to do? Back the Tories?” The source said.

Prior to the vote of no confidence in 1979, Callaghan refused to give the SNP any concessions either, and the outcome was that the SNP did vote for the Tories motion against the government.

Isobel Lindsay was on the SNP’s national council at the time of the vote, and tells CommonSpace that she, as well as others in the party, thought that “there would be some concessions because Labour would not want to face an election”.

“The view that prevailed among Labour ministers was that the SNP would lose their nerve and make sure that a few of their MPs would abstain and that was their expectation right up to the vote,” Lindsay added.

This view was based on the fact that Callaghan’s minority Labour government had constantly sought to negotiate to stay in power for three years previously. In that time, it had lost many votes in parliament, and scraped through on others.

Lord Hattersley, Labour prices secretary from 1976-79, said in a BBC Documentary that “the sick and the lame were constantly being brought in” to secure majorities for Labour in tight votes.

“There was quite often two or three ambulances in the lobby,” he added.

In December 1978, Thatcher had lost a no confidence vote against Callaghan’s government by 10 votes, with the SNP’s support crucial in propping up the government.

Callaghan had by then already missed his opportune time to call a General Election in the summer of 1978, when his government was ahead in the polls. By the time winter had come round, Labour’s pay policy had collapsed in the face of striking trade unions that sought pay rises at a time of high inflation.

The ‘Winter of Discontent’ saw dead bodies unburied and rubbish pile up on the streets as the trade unions flexed their muscles, and Callaghan’s support collapsed.

In this context, Lindsay says: “Labour were almost certain to lose” the General Election, whether they survived a vote of no confidence was fairly inconsequential.

“All the claims of letting Thatcher in are nonsense – Thatcher was going to get in within six months. It was the anti-devolution Labour MPs who undermined their own government and prevented the majority Scottish opinion from prevailing,” Lindsay adds.

One Labour Lord, who describes himself as just “a low level foot soldier in 1979”, told CommonSpace he agrees that “the SNP cannot be wholly blamed for Thatcher”.

“People love to re-write history,” he added.

3.) “Sometimes you’ve got to hold a line”

Could a compromise have been found between Labour and the SNP to prevent the government falling?

Some Labour MPs have admitted that Callaghan was fed up and unprepared to offer the sort of concessions that would have allowed him to win the vote of no confidence.

Appeals were made to Callaghan by Lord Donoghue, head of the Downing Street policy unit, to “make some concessions” to win the vote, but Callaghan was described as “priggish” in response.

He acted, according to Donoghue, like an “honourable vicar in the face of corrupt politicians, when he ought to have done those things to win the vote”.

Wilson concurs with this, saying Callaghan “had basically had enough”, and the SNP would have been prepared to compromise if Labour offered something.

“If, for example, we had been offered a serious industrial development fund for Scotland,” Wilson says, “we could take that to the public and to our party and say: ‘we’ve negotiated a package’.”

Wilson says Michael Foot, who would become the next leader of the Labour party, went to Callaghan with an offer to buy off the SNP, but it was rejected by the prime minister.

“To be honest we were desperate for some sort of compromise,” Wilson adds. “But we got nothing. So at that point it’s retreat, or go ahead.

“If you back down, and just let all your demands go, with no compromises from the other side, people would say we were just bluffers. That we’d never hold the line. So sometimes you’ve got to hold a line,” Wilson concludes.

4.) “Turkeys voting for Christmas”

The SNP held the line, and in the House of Commons, in a famous speech, Callaghan lambasted the Scottish nationalists and the Liberals, who also voted against the government, as “turkeys voting for Christmas”.

“We can truly say that once the Leader of the opposition discovered what the Liberals and the SNP would do, she found the courage of their convictions,” Callaghan said.

“So, tonight, the Conservative Party, which wants the Act repealed and opposes even devolution, will march through the Lobby with the SNP, which wants independence for Scotland, and with the Liberals, who want to keep the Act. What a massive display of unsullied principle!

“The minority parties have walked into a trap. If they win, there will be a general election. I am told that the current joke going around the House is that it is the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas.”

Callaghan did seek and win the support of the three Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalist) MPs by offering them support for slate quarries, an important factor in two out of three of the Plaid Cymru MPs’ constituencies.

Labour whips also attempted to convince Callaghan to agree to a pipe line to Northern Ireland to secure the votes of Ulster unionists, and there were also discussions about increasing the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland that would boost the number of Ulster unionist MPs.

Callaghan apparently refused these deals too, but two Ulster Unionist MPs did vote with the government because they got a new deal from Hattersley on Northern Ireland’s prices policy.

The flirtation with the Ulster unionist MPs was part of the reason that two moderate Irish republican MPs voted against the government, which was the deciding votes in defeating Callaghan.

The story about how Frank Maguire abstained from voting is notorious. Maguire was known to be sympathetic to Labour, but was on strict orders from republicans not to back the government. When he travelled over to vote he was rushed into meetings with Labour party whips and pressured to vote with the government.

Gerry Fitt, the other independent republican MP, spoke during the debate, saying it would be “despicable” if Maguire voted with the government. Maguire’s wife was in the public gallery, and as soon as she heard the speech she found her husband and rushed by this stage a very drunk Maguire out of the parliament and back home.

There was one final way Callaghan could have secured the vote. Dr Broughton MP was fatally ill and in hospital, but wanted to come down for the vote as he was loyal to the party and knew he was going to die anyway. He could have voted from the ambulance in the court, but Callaghan said no.

5.) “If you are given a promise by a UK party, don’t believe it”

And the rest, as they say, is history. It was the first time a government had been brought down in a vote of no confidence since 1924. What lessons are there for today?

Wilson says he doesn’t think it likely SNP MPs will face a similar situation in the next government, but does concede that a vote over Trident renewal as part of a government budget, for example, could create a similar dilemma as in 1979.

The possible political permutations are difficult to follow: it’s not clear, for example, that trident renewal would be part of the government’s budget, and therefore it’s possible that the SNP could support the government on a “vote by vote basis”, as Alex Salmond has described it, and support the government’s budget while voting against it on other votes, like over trident renewal.

The complications arise from the simple fact that the Westminster system is not predicated on clear rules: almost everything is subject to political machinations.

Wilson’s advice for new SNP MPs entering this Machiavellian political cauldron is not to get “caught up in Westminster politics not relevant to Scotland”, and to make sure decisions that are taken are “to the benefit of the people of Scotland, and seen to be so”.

“And also,” Wilson adds, “if you are given a promise by a UK party, don’t believe it.”

6.) Salmond and the ’79 Group

Wilson says that one of the outcomes of the SNP’s decision vote against the government was the rise of a new generation of SNP politicians in the left-wing ’79 group’, a faction within the party with Alex Salmond among its leading figures.

“One of the ’79 group’s issues is they were very defensive about bringing down the Labour government, and they didn’t want to get into that position again,” Wilson said.

Dennis Canavan, who was a Labour MP at the time of the 1979 vote of no confidence before later leaving the party and leading the Yes Scotland campaign in the referendum debate, believes the SNP has “learned from past mistakes”.

“Many people, especially traditional Labour voters, never forgave the SNP for voting with the Tories and it took the SNP a long time to recover from their 1979 blunder,” Canavan tells CommonSpace.

“But a lot of water has gone under the brige since then,” Canavan says. “Labour has lost its soul, whereas the SNP is proposing a social democratic anti-austerity agenda and is standing by its commitment to get rid of trident. Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have also made it absolutely clear that they will never do a deal with the Tories.”

Time will tell if Salmond, a keen student of political history, will take different decisions to his predecessors, and whether those decisions will fundamentally shape Scottish and British political history, like on 28 March 1979.

Picture courtesy of Keir Hardie