December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

SNP topples Labour PM Callaghan in 1979

4 min read
In 1979, SNP MPs toppled the Labour government of James Callaghan opening the door to over a decade of Margaret Thatcher as Tony McMahon discovers
Callaghan Scotland

Two parties brought the Labour government of Jim Callaghan to its knees – the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists. Both might have ended up wondering if they’d done the right thing. The SNP was furious at Callaghan for not pushing through Scottish devolution.

In 1979, Callaghan let Scotland vote on whether to have a devolved assembly under the terms of the 1978 Scotland Act. But if less than 40% of the total Scottish electorate voted, then the act would be repealed and the assembly wouldn’t happen. Well, the vote was 51% in favour of an assembly and 48% opposed on a 64% turnout. Get your pocket calculators out! Because that 51% of 64% did not meet the 40% threshold and therefore the act was repealed. There would be no return to the question of devolution until the Blair government elected in 1997.

This 40% threshold was the result of an amendment to the Scotland Act when it was making its way through parliament by the anti-devolution and Scottish-born Labour MP, George Cunningham. He would later defect from Labour to the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Another voice against devolution was the Scottish MP Robin Cook who would change his tune as a minister under Tony Blair arguing fervently for an assembly.

FIND OUT MORE: When Scottish MP Ron Brown confronted Maggie Thatcher

The SNP didn’t have to wait long to get its revenge on Jim Callaghan and the Labour government. On 28 March 1979, Thatcher tabled a vote of no confidence in Callaghan’s administration and when the eleven SNP MPs at Westminster trooped behind the Tories, that was the end for ‘Sunny Jim’. Ever since, Labour MPs of the time, including Jeremy Corbyn, have accused the SNP of opening the door to over a decade of Thatcherism that would devastate Scotland. Callaghan himself described their action as the turkeys voting for Christmas.

The SNP has been on the defensive over the years arguing that they were not responsible for Thatcher getting the keys to Downing Street. However, there was little doubt in Callaghan’s mind that the Tories were emboldened by the SNP’s fury at Labour repealing the Scotland Act. Callaghan confronted Thatcher over this in the House of Commons as she tabled the vote of no confidence:

“The right hon. Lady, the Leader of the Opposition began by recalling the circumstances in which our debate on the motion of no confidence is taking place. As she said, it follows directly from my proposal last week that in the light of the devolution referendums, and especially because of the result in Scotland, there should be a limited period of discussion between the parties before Parliament debated the orders that would repeal the Scotland and Wales Acts once and for all.

The right hon. Lady did not immediately reject that proposal. She waited for the well-advertised move by the Scottish National Party. Its Members told the world what they would do, and they did it. They tabled a motion censuring the Government. For what? For not immediately bringing the Act into force”.

Callaghan fumed that Thatcher was using Labour’s spat with the SNP over devolution to table its vote of no confidence even though the Tories didn’t support the idea of the Scottish Assembly at all.

“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.”

The Labour leader took his fury at the SNP on to the campaign trail in Scotland. The Scottish Nationalists expected to be rewarded for bringing down Callaghan over his torpedoing of devolution. But the Prime Minister continued with his suicidal turkeys line and urged Scottish Labour activists to destroy the SNP and “carve them up in the polling booths”. Throughout the UK, Labour’s vote declined by just over 2% in the 1979 general election, but the Liberals saw a fall of over 4%. The SNP’s vote slipped and they lost nine out of eleven of their MPs at Westminster. The Tories took constituencies like Galloway, Perth and Aberdeen East.

Here’s how Scotland looked after the 79 election. Red for Labour. Mustard for the SNP and yellow for the Liberals. Blue for the Tories. Note the industrial heartlands of Scotland still came out solidly for Labour.

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