It's always bemused me that there are two opinions about the SNP's history that seemingly nobody is allowed to express because the self-appointed experts have already long since decided that they are wrong. Those opinions are:
1) That the SNP did the right thing by withdrawing from the Scottish Constitutional Convention after initial discussions.
2) That the SNP did the right thing by voting in favour of a motion of no confidence in the Callaghan government in 1979.
The first opinion is actually very easily defensible, and indeed in my view is probably correct. Labour were refusing to even nominally allow independence to be considered by the Constitutional Convention as a valid possible outcome. Therefore, by staying in the Convention, the SNP would have been endorsing an explicitly anti-independence endeavour. That would have been a strategically foolish thing to do, because the constitutional proposals of all the main non-Tory parties would have become identical. Why would anyone have bothered voting SNP when you could back exactly the same devolution policy by voting for a Labour government? As it turned out, the SNP were electorally more successful in the 1990s than they were in the 1980s (their 32.6% share of the vote in the 1994 European election was at the time a new record high), which would tend to suggest that leaving the Convention and retaining their USP was extremely wise. And of course devolution happened as quickly as it would have done if the SNP had been inside the Convention. Indeed there's an argument that it happened more quickly, because external electoral pressure from the SNP helped keep Labour honest.
The 1979 question is more finely-balanced, because it's fair to say that neither the SNP nor Scotland gained anything by the decision to vote against Callaghan. But here's the thing: it's not at all clear that anything would have been gained by not voting against Callaghan. Which is probably why Tommy Sheppard said the unsayable a few days ago by noting that, even with the benefit of hindsight, he would have voted the same way if he had been an SNP MP in that position. The Daily Record then provided a helpful reminder that they remain a completely unreformed Labour fanzine by leaping on that comment with the disgraceful headline "Senior SNP MP slammed for claims nationalists would vote for Thatcherism again". Sheppard of course had said no such thing, because the SNP did not 'vote for Thatcherism' in 1979 or at any other time. The vote against Callaghan was not a vote for a change of government, but was instead a vote for hastening a general election in which the British people could elect any government they liked. The public could, for example, have significantly improved Callaghan's position by re-electing Labour with an outright majority. If they had done so, would it have meant that the SNP had "voted for Callaghanism"? No, it would still have meant that they voted for a slightly earlier election and for nothing else.
The subtext of Scottish Labour's decades-long whinge about the 1979 vote is that the SNP allowed the British people to overrule Scotland's wishes by installing Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. It's hard to know where to start with hypocrisy like that. Suffice to say that Labour believe as a matter of principle that the British people should be able to overrule Scotland's choice of government, and the SNP categorically do not. When Labour campaigned for a No vote in the independence referendum, they were shamelessly campaigning to allow the 1979 scenario to play itself out again and again and again and again into infinity. If we had a media worth its salt, that point would be put to Labour every time the subject is raised.
But leaving Labour's nonsense aside, did the SNP make the right call in 1979? Look at it this way. For years, they had used their voting power within a hung parliament to attempt to bring about an elected Scottish Assembly. They had done so by repeatedly backing the Labour government in confidence votes on the condition that devolution legislation would go ahead. What actually happened is that dozens of Labour MPs sabotaged the Scotland Bill by inserting the 40% rule, and Callaghan let them get away with it by indicating he was not going to respect the majority Yes vote in the 1979 referendum. (Contrary to popular belief, the Scotland Act 1978 did not say that a failure to reach the 40% threshold would automatically lead to repeal. The Secretary of State was required to table a repeal order, but Callaghan could then have whipped Labour MPs to vote against it, which if done successfully would have meant devolution going ahead as planned. He chose not to do that.) The informal agreement between Labour and the SNP had therefore been broken, and it had been broken by Labour. Were the SNP really supposed to react to that state of affairs by saying "oh it doesn't matter, we'll reward your broken promises and continue propping up your government in return for absolutely nothing?"
Four decades on, Labour's answer to that question, and indeed the Labour-supporting media's answer to that question, is "yes". I would suggest that's not remotely a realistic answer.
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