Thursday, January 06, 2011

History hour: 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum

With the up coming referendum in May on the Alternative Vote (AV) I thought now would be an appropriate time to take a look at previous referendums in the UK. One useful example might be the 1979 referendum on Scottish Devolution.

The movement for a more independent Scotland had been around for some time. Right at the start of the post-war years in 1948 there was a two million strong petition for a Scottish Parliament and although the tide washed in and out on the issue the current never quite went away.

In the October '74 General Election the Scottish National Party (SNP) who'd never won a single MP in a General Election before that year, won over 30% of the Scottish vote and 11 MPs, mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. To put that in context in 2010 the SNP won 19.9% (an increase of 2.3% on the previous time). The issue was alight again.

There was no support for Scottish independence at (Labour) cabinet level but the new SNP threat had to be scuppered somehow, so a referendum on devolution was approved, primarily as a way of heading off full scale independence.

One London Labour MP (George Cunninghame) successfully moved an amendment insisting that not only did the referendum have to pass with a simple majority at least 40% of the electorate had to vote in favour, effectively turning abstentions into no votes. A similar Parliamentary proposal was put forwards for the AV referendum last year incidentally, but it found little support.

The campaign in favour was split. SNP activists were divided between those who (understandably) saw the devolution question as a way of preventing independence and more pragmatic SNP activists who thought devolution was a step towards their goal.

Likewise, although Labour was officially in favour of the proposals they themselves had initiated high profile MPs, like Robin Cook, placed themselves firmly in the NO camp. The forces who would expect to have been in the YES lobby were horribly split among themselves culminating in two official YES campaigns (the SNP one and the one for everyone else) which enjoyed only lukewarm support at best from the hard line reformers.

Meanwhile the NO camp, with it's rather simple 'bollocks to it' message (that wasn't an official slogan mind) was united, clear in its message and, with a Labour government shuddering to a halt, a NO vote could be seen as a parting shot to the dying government from its detractors.

early polls had indicated a comfortable win for the YEs campaign but March '79 found the YES vote scrapping in by the skin of their teeth. 51.6% of those who voted, voted in favour. But George Cunninghame had his revenge because, on a 63.6% turnout, only 32.8% of the electorate had voted YEs and 30.8% had voted NO. The referendum fell on a technicality.

The referendum, having gone down to defeat, pulled the SNP down with it and later that year they went from 11 MPs to just two, so in many ways the halfway house of devolution DID put a hole in the SNP's historic rise.

Two light words of caution about drawing too strong a parallel with the AV referendum though. There are certainly parallels between the pro-independence campaigns of '79 and pro-PR people of 2011 - both are divided into 'step towards our goal' and 'attempt to head off our goal' groupings, but the fact that the devolution referendum lost does not in itself prove wrong those who said it would not lead to independence, even f you think they should have set their sights lower.

The second point is that while devolution falls short of independence it is an increase in the level of independence or autonomy of the Scottish nation while AV is not more proportional that First Past the Post (FPTP). In fact Av entrenches the concept that only those with majority support should be elected to Parliament at all - which is the opposite of the PR principle that minorities should still have a Parliamentary voice.

You can argue that demonstrating a willingness to reform, and reject FPTP, may make PR more likely (and I'd like to see that argument made rather than simply stated as a fact) you can argue that AV is preferable to FPTP - but what you cannot credibly do is argue that AV is more like PR than FPTP in the way that devolution certainly is more like independence than no devolution.

These caveats aside I think the '79 devolution referendum is instructive in a number of ways. It shows how a question posed deliberately in favour of a reform few were advocating is divisive among reformers. It shows how a divided campaign can lose ground to a united opposition and how, once a referendum is put, no matter what way the answer falls you've had your option for change for a generation.


Strategist said...

Great post and great analogy, Jim, but honestly I think you pull your punches a bit too much here.

The lesson of 1979 relevant to this year's AV vote is that anyone who campaigned for a No in the referendum as a means of protesting against the option of independence not being on the ballot saw their point utterly lost in the outcome. And thus it shall be for those voting against AV because they wanted PR on the ballot.

And those who saw a No as a means of giving a disliked Westminster govt a kick up the arse also saw their point utterly lost. It's particularly mad this year that people who want to hurt Clegg will hand Cameron & Osborne all they could have asked for.

Yes, the chance of devolution being approved by the referendum was stuffed when Labour rigged the rules of the ballot, but the lack of a big Yes win and thus clear moral victory consigned Scotland to the hell of Tory direct rule and the devastation of the country in the 80s.

Strategist said...

Jim, you say: "You can argue that demonstrating a willingness to reform, and reject FPTP, may make PR more likely (and I'd like to see that argument made rather than simply stated as a fact)"

Here's my go at that as posted earlier this evening on Socialist Unity:

"It seems to me the basic difference [between AV and FPTP] is that in AV the real first preference is revealed and then the triangulation/tactical voting comes in in the fight for the second preference vote. In FPTP the real first preference and the tactical voting are totally mixed up and no-one can say which is which - which suits Labour and Tory nicely. In my area of London, the Greens consistently poll 12-15% in London Assembly elections, and the socialist left around 3-4%. In FPTP elections this drops to around 2% and 1% respectively. This allows Labour and Tory to say that Greens etc have no real support and people only trust them for “serious” elections ie for borough council and Westminster. This isn’t true - it’s Labour pretending tactical votes for them are real first preferences for them.

AV wouldn’t help the Greens or any left party get the 60 Westminster seats they would deserve if they could get 10% of the popular vote - indeed, they could get 10% and no representation at all, but it would at least reveal that they enjoy a significant level of popular support and deserve representation, which might help ignite a campaign for proper reform."

Jim Jepps said...

I think you've made an articulate argument for why AV is better than FPTP here but the statement I'd like to see backed up is why AV is somehow a step towards PR, which is not the same thing.

I'm completely relaxed about the idea that AV might be a better system than FPTP despite the fact that it essentially guarantees that the hard left and the greens will never get substantive representation.

There definitely are parallels between the 'purists' of '79 and '11 but I do want to draw you towards a specific point of difference. Devolution *is* an increase in Scottish autonomy, AV *is not* more proportional than FPTP.

Scottish purists shunned the penny because they wanted a pound. PRistas are being offered a cycling certificate when they want a tumble drier.

If I'm voting in the referendum based on moving towards PR I need to know that voting AV somehow does that. This is an argument that has not been convincingly made (although it has been stated as fact without supporting evidence).

Anonymous said...

The 40% rule is often used in referendums - it is used in Denmark for instance. So I wish we could put to bed the notion that it is somehow a 'trick'. The Danish don't think so.

Strategist said...

"the statement I'd like to see backed up is why AV is somehow a step towards PR, which is not the same thing."

My argument is that under FPTP the lack of real first preference support for the two major parties is hidden by tactical voting (by those supporters of minor parties who decide to use the one voting preference they get as a means of ensuring the candidate they really don't like doesn't get in).

The likes of Cameron, John Reid and David Blunkett know this, and are desperate to keep it this way.

AV, although it doesn't help with representation of minor parties, at least makes the real level of first preference support for them visible.

My contention is that the dissonance between the real level of first preference support for minor parties and their lack of representation may ignite public anger and a much broader campaign for further reform and PR.

At the moment it's possible for the Establishment to say to the Greens, you got 0.9% of the national vote in May 2010 and 0.2% of the seats, so what's really the problem here? But they know that perhaps up to 5% of the vote both for Labour and the LibDems was really from Green-leaning voters who would have voted Green first preference under AV. If the Greens can show 10% of first preference votes, the discrepancy becomes too big to sweep under the carpet.

So, AV is a step towards PR only in that it may make the status quo more unstable and pressure for further reform more likely. By contrast, a vote against AV will be interpreted by the establishment on behalf of the nation as a vote in favour of FPTP, and the status quo will be set in concrete and untouchable for a generation.

Jim Jepps said...

God bless the Danish - I spent some time there personally, however, without compulsory voting turning a non-voter into a no voter (effectively) is an unnecessary distortion.

Strategist - thanks for that. I think that the Euro elections do this to some extent and help show that people vote differently in PR elections to FPTP ones.

Strategist said...

"the Euro show that people vote differently in PR elections to FPTP ones."

Yes, but the Lab/Tory duopoly get round the fact that Greens demonstrate 5-10% support at the Euros or the Londons by saying "yes, but this protest vote evaporates when it comes to the serious business of electing a Westminster government", as if the discrepancy is purely explained by the fact that it's an election for a different institution, rather than by the fact that it's a different voting system that makes tactical voting necessary.

It's a vicious cynicism that comes naturally to the Labour old guard and the Tories alike.

The Greens need to demonstrate that they are getting well over 5% of the popular vote at a Westminster general election before they can justify civil disobedience that they are getting 0 or 0.2% of the seats in the House. AV at least gives the Greens a chance of doing this.