Devolution occupied huge quantities of parliamentary time in the late 1970s, as the Labour Government struggled to persuade its backbenchers to support legislation establishing elected assemblies in Scotland and Wales.
Many ministers were themselves less than enthusiastic about devolution, but had little room for manoeuvre because their party had manifesto commitments and its tiny parliamentary majority had disappeared entirely by March 1977, leaving it dependent on minor parties which favoured the legislation.
The Conservatives had supported the principle of devolution since 1968 when Edward Heath had surprised most of his colleagues by suddenly making the commitment in a speech at Perth. But by the time MT became leader, many in the parliamentary party were privately lukewarm, dubious or downright hostile. They feared devolution might damage or lead to the break up the United Kingdom, foresaw a backlash against the policy in England and predicted big tactical advantages in opposing the government's plans, so making life even more difficult for Labour. MT was certainly a sceptic about the Perth commitment, though she feared that a sudden reversal of policy would cause internal divisions, particularly with those still loyal to Heath and in Scotland where the whole party establishment was strongly devolutionist.
The issue came to the crunch at the end of 1976, when the government's Scotland and Wales Bill reached Second Reading in the House of Commons, the point at which the principle behind the legislation is examined. What should the Conservatives do?
One suggestion came, remarkably, from the Scottish National Party. A Conservative Whip, Jack Weatherill (later Commons Speaker) tells how he was secretly approached by the Scottish Nationalist MP, Hamish Watt, urging MT not to vote against the Second Reading , on the ground that: "If she does it will be impossible for the SNP to have any working arrangements with us". According to the note, Watt - who was a former Conservative parliamentary candidate - saw common ground between the two parties, particularly if (as many expected) the Conservatives were to become the next UK Government with the SNP a strong presence in Scotland. Whether he spoke for himself alone or for any of his colleagues was unclear. Certainly there is no evidence in her files of a Conservative response, and when (two years later) there were press reports of Conservative efforts to reach a deal with the SNP to remove Labour on a confidence motion, MT made an immediate on-the-record denial.
Monday, August 25, 2008
When the SNP Wanted a Deal With the Tories
The row in Scotland over the Alex Salmond interview with Total Politics and his views on Thatcherism is even more interesting when you consider that in 1976 the SNP made covert approaches to Margaret Thatcher over the Labour government's devolution bill. I've just been reading a page in the Margaret Thatcher Archives, which reveals all...