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...

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.


Anonymous said...

The SNP were always known as the Tartan Tories!

Anonymous said...

You're an abosulute Diamond Geezer.
Salmond is the ultimate opportunist. He doesn't acyallly beleive in anything but he knows that life is hard course and you may as well try. He is very charming in person. I know. I've met him. GB isn't, I know. I've met him.

I never met Sir John Major, but I did see him once in the street when he wasn't expecting me. The totally natural grin, the personal warmth he gave off... well, it made you glad to be alive. It made you glad that he was alive.

Anonymous said...

This is a great "what if" scenario! While the Tories did become the next government, the SNP suffered an absolute caning in the 1979 GE. The Tories did very well in Scotland that year and the fallout from the SNP's defeat saw Alex Salmond, Roseanna Cunningham and other prominent SNP leftwingers form the 79 group. Despite disapproval from the party hierarchy and expulsion, they eventually came to dominate the SNP in coming years. So maybe, if the Tories and the SNP had done some sort of deal over devolution in 1977, then could the Callaghan government have fallen then? How would history have been different then? If the SNP hadn't been so heavily defeated then perhaps Salmond and co would never have become the force they are today? The Tories didn't go for trade union reform until after the winter of discontent due to the influence of people like Jim Prior, if they'd gained power in 77 it wouldn't have been on the agenda, probably not to the degree that they eventually pushed through.

This is a good one!

Anonymous said...

anonymous at 4.18 pm

I can't see anything in this story that involves AS--your favourite bogeyman obviously!

Iain, your headline suggests "the SNP" wanted to do a deal with the Tories, but further on you admit it was ONE MP (himself a former Tory candidate) who made an approach or didn't. Make up your mind.
Your little bit of publicity in Scotland the other day has gone to your head.

Anonymous said...

I have frequently thought that the 'Nationalist' parties could and should get together to do in Labour forever at the next election.

Labour will be wiped out in the South East, North and Midlands cathedral cities and rural areas by Tories, wiped out by SNP in Scotland and wiped out by Plaid in Wales

It seems to me that the only way for Labour to survive is for the Fabian/Liberal wing of the party to split and go to the LibDems.

Cleg is right. He is is going for the North and Midlands seats where Labour is wobbly but still in charge. He will not win the next election but might come away from it with a lot of Northern Labour MPs and voters willing to switch allegiance and he will be de facto the official opposition leader.

Anoneumouse said...

"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"

Oh yes the price of treachery.

In 1968, Heath supported devolution as a condition of EU membership, a means to create the EU 12 regions of the UK.

Anonymous said...

tells how he was secretly approached by the Scottish Nationalist"

Cor Iain! 30 years ago??

Youve had to go back a long long way to find any perceived "dirt" re the SNP havent you?

Youve nothing a bit more recent, have you, tosh??

You unionist saddo!

Iain Dale said...

It's not dirt, nor was it meant to be! I happen to think Salmond and the SNP are doing a good job in Scotland, as I have repeatedly said on this blog.

Anonymous said...

hink Salmond and the SNP are doing a good job in Scotland, as I have repeatedly said on this blog."

So, Iain-by implication, ARE YOU SUGGESTING that the 3 other parties are NOT doing a good job??

pray tell?? Giving reasons??

Iain Dale said...

You are twisted.

Anonymous said...

The SNP's enemy is Labour. They have to utterly wipe out Labour (particularly in the urban central belt - SNP have never been strong there before) to place themselves in the position of standing any chance of winning an independence referendum, which is the ultimate goal - never forget that, no matter how much the public Braveheart style rhetoric may have been toned down. Having said that, the constitutional debate is now a lot different in the context of devolution and Europe and there may no longer be a simple choice of Union or no Union, with plenty now lying between the two positions.

The annihilation of Labour is nearly complete. The SNP don't need to fight the Tories and may need to reach some sort of agreement on further devolution of powers. This may fit with both philosophies as the Tories should be the complete opposite of Labour centrists. The SNP need to deliver on scrapping the Council Tax and have made a significant achievement by capping it for 2 years. Salmond is no fool, clearly the most capable politician in the UK, and was an oil economist in his early career. He is also the ultimate opportunist as pointed out. He knows how the economy worked (he hasn't wrecked the Scottish economy yet and has made some very hard-nosed decisions)and will happily work with the Tories to pursue further devolved powers. He recognises that the Conservative party contains many English Tories who would be quite content with an English parliament and a separate Scotland.

I support the SNP, I came to the conclusion that I would rather see an independent Scotland than a Labour Scotland, and the SNP are the only way of taking the fight directly to Labour.

Anonymous said...


David Lindsay said...

Voting SNP has always been voting Tory really, and not just ideologically speaking. Though never more so that at the forthcoming General Election.

Anonymous said...

Voting SNP is a means to an end ...