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May 16th 1968

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Tories bend in the Scottish wind

In a by-election in 1967, Winnie Ewing of the SNP won the supposedly safe Labour seat of Hamilton. Politically, the effect was electrifying. Recruits poured in to the Party and by the next year there were almost five hundred branches in Scotland. At the local elections the Nationalists made almost one hundred gains and there was something approaching panic in both the two main Unionist parties. In Perth, the SNP fielded only three candidates, but all three were elected.

This was the time when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and Labour was in power. The secretary of State for Scotland was Willie Ross, a staunch Unionist and a dominant force in Scottish Labour politics. Because of his opposition, the attitude of the Party towards the Nationalist surge was both hostile and dismissive.

Ted Heath as leader of the Conservative opposition took a different view. Always a man of great confidence, he did not even feel obliged to consult Scottish Unionist opinion before making his famous speech to a startled Scottish Tory conference at Perth in 1968.

“Let there be no doubt about it,”  he said, “the Conservative Party is determined to effect a real improvement in the machinery of government in Scotland.”  He proposed to set up a Constitutional Committee to examine proposals for the reorganisation of Scottish government. “The Tory Party,”  he went on, “would propose to such a committee the creation of an elected Scottish Assembly to sit in Scotland.” 

Reactions to the speech among the Scottish Tories was a little mixed ranging from the ecstatic support of Esmond Wright MP “The December laration of Perth has the significance of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in the United States, the significance of an Act of Union like 1707, the significance of the December laration of Arbroath of 1320.”  to the pained dismay of a Mr Rankine. “It seems to a Conservative that the establishment of a truly Conservative government for the United Kingdom would make most of the factors underlying the cries for partition, federalism etc. irrelevant.” 

The Constitutional Committee was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Alec Douglas Home, and sat regularly for the next eighteen months. Its proposals were made public before the 1970 General Election and were included in the election manifesto. The proposals were indeed modest and though the 125 elected members would meet regularly in Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament was not to be able to initiate legislation of its own but could only discuss those issues which Westminster decided were Scottish-specific ones. Tax raising powers were not mentioned.

The 1970 General Election resulted in a change of government with the Conservatives under Ted Heath returning to power. The expected SNP surge did not materialise , Winnie Ewing lost her seat in Hamilton and only Donald Stewart of the Western Isles managed to keep the Nationalist flag flying. So what about the new Scottish Assembly promised by Mr Heath? Surprise, surprise, his enthusiasm for devolution quickly withered away. The reform of local government, he felt, was really more important than devolution and in any case it would be wiser to wait for the findings of the Royal Commission set up under Lord Kilbrandon (originally, before his death, under Lord Crowther) to consider constitutional reform.

In spite of Esmond Knight’s enthusiasm, the December laration of Perth did not have the significance of the constitutional Convention of 1787, the Act of Union of 1707 and certainly not the significance of the Declaration of Arbroath. Perhaps it had no significance at all except to demonstrate the cynicism of certain politicians and political parties in dealing with Scottish affairs.

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