1979 Scottish devolution referendum

The Scottish referendum of 1979 was a post-legislative referendum to decide whether there was a sufficient support for a Scottish Assembly proposed in the Scotland Act 1978 among the Scottish electorate. This was an act to create a devolved deliberative assembly for Scotland. An amendment to the Act stipulated that it would be repealed if less than 40% of the total electorate voted "Yes" in the referendum. The result was that 51.6% supported the proposal, but with a turnout of 64%, this represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate. The Act was subsequently repealed. A second referendum to create a devolved legislature in Scotland was held in 1997 under a newly elected Labour government, which led to the enactment of the Scotland Act 1998 and the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Scottish devolution referendum, 1979
Do you want the Provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?
Date1 March 1979
Votes %
Yes 1,230,937 51.62%
No 1,153,502 48.38%
Valid votes 2,384,439 99.87%
Invalid or blank votes 3,133 0.13%
Total votes 2,387,572 100.00%
Registered voters/turnout 3,747,112 63.72%
Results by region
Scottish devolution referendum, 1979 results.svg
  Yes     No


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In 1976, the UK's Labour government led by James Callaghan, which had won the previous general election in 1974 by just three seats, had lost its parliamentary majority entirely following a series of adverse by-election results. To recreate a voting majority in the House of Commons, the government made an agreement with the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru whereby, in return for their support in Commons votes, the government would instigate legislation to devolve political powers from Westminster to Scotland and Wales. This followed the findings of the Kilbrandon Commission, which had recommended the establishment of a separate Scottish parliament.[1]

The Scotland and Wales Bill was subsequently introduced in November 1976, but the government struggled to get the Bill through parliament. The Conservative opposition opposed its second reading, and on the first day of committee 350 amendments were put down. Progress slowed to a crawl. In February 1977, the Bill's cabinet sponsor Michael Foot tabled a guillotine motion to attempt to halt the delays. The motion was rejected and the government was forced to withdraw the Bill.[1]

Scotland Act 1978Edit

The government returned to the issue of devolution in November 1977. Separate bills for Scotland and Wales were published and support from the Liberals was obtained. In spite of continued opposition requiring another guillotine motion, the Bills were passed.[1] During the passage of the Scotland Act 1978 through Parliament, an amendment introduced by Labour MP George Cunningham added a requirement that the bill had to be approved by 40% of the total registered electorate, as well as a simple majority (50% + 1).[2]

Proposed AssemblyEdit

Had the Scotland Act 1978 entered force, it would have created a Scottish Assembly with limited legislative powers. There would have been a Scottish Executive headed by a "First Secretary", taking over some of the functions of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Meetings of the Scottish Assembly would have been held at the Old Royal High School in Regent Road, Edinburgh. The former school hall was adapted for use by the Scottish Assembly, including the installation of microphones and new olive-green leather seating. Members would have been elected by the "first past the post" system.

The Scottish Assembly would have had the power to introduce primary legislation to be known as "Measures" (rather than Acts) within defined areas of competence. This form of legislation would not receive royal assent like Acts of Parliament do. Instead, the legislation is signed via an Order in Council, which the monarch signs and appends to the assembly measure once passed. Some new offices would have been created, such as a Comptroller and Auditor General for Scotland.

The areas of responsibility included:

  • Education
  • The environment
  • Health
  • Home affairs
  • Legal matters
  • Social services

Responsibility for agriculture, fisheries and food would have been divided between the Assembly and the United Kingdom government, while the latter would have retained control of electricity supply.

Opinion pollingEdit

Polling organisation/client Sample size Yes No Undecided Lead
1 March 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, 1979 results 2,387,572 51.6% 48.4% 3.2%
27–28 Feb 1979 MORI/Scottish Daily Express 1,003 42% 42% 16% Tied
20–22 Feb 1979 MORI/Scottish Daily Express 1,037 54% 33% 12% 21%
12–14 Feb 1979 MORI/LWT Weekend World 1,015 55% 28% 16% 27%
5 Apr 1978 MORI/LWT Weekend World 1,002 63% 27% 10% 36%


Choice Votes %
  Yes 1,230,937 51.62
No 1,153,502 48.38
Valid votes 2,384,439 99.87
Invalid or blank votes 3,133 0.13
Total votes 2,387,582 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 3,747,112 63.72
National referendum results (without spoiled ballots):
1,230,937 (51.6%)
1,153,532 (48.4%)

By counting areaEdit

Region Turnout Yes No
Turnout (%) Valid votes Votes % of votes cast % of electorate Votes % of votes cast % of electorate
Borders 66.4 51,526 20,746 40.3 26.7 30,780 59.7 39.7
Central 65.9 130,401 71,296 54.7 36.0 59,105 45.3 29.9
Dumfries and Galloway 64.1 67,401 27,162 40.3 25.8 40,239 59.7 38.2
Fife 65.3 160,688 86,252 53.7 35.0 74,436 46.3 30.2
Grampian 57.2 196,429 94,944 48.3 27.6 101,485 51.7 29.5
Highland 64.7 88,247 44,973 51.0 33.0 43,274 49.0 31.7
Lothian 65.9 373,642 187,221 50.1 33.0 186,421 49.9 32.9
Orkney Islands 54.1 7,543 2,104 27.9 15.1 5,439 72.1 39.0
Shetland Islands 50.3 7,486 2,020 27.0 13.6 5,466 73.0 36.7
Strathclyde 62.5 1,105,118 596,519 54.0 33.7 508,599 46.0 28.7
Tayside 63.0 184,807 91,482 49.5 31.2 93,325 50.5 31.8
Western Isles 49.9 11,151 6,218 55.8 27.8 4,933 44.2 22.1
Total 63.0 2,384,439 1,230,937 51.6 [note 1]32.5 1,153,500 48.4 30.5

Source: Glasgow Herald, House of Commons Library.


The result was a majority in favour of devolution. A total of 1,230,937 (51.6%)[2] voted at the referendum in favour of an Assembly, a majority of about 77,400 over those voting against. However, this total represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate as a whole.[2] The Labour government held that the Act's requirements had not been met, and that devolution would therefore not be introduced for Scotland.

In the wake of the referendum the disappointed supporters of the bill conducted a protest campaign under the slogan "Scotland said 'yes'", officially launched in a Glasgow hotel on 7 March 1979.[3] In particular, the Scottish National Party (SNP) carried out a survey of the electoral register in the Edinburgh Central constituency. This appeared to show that the register was so out of date that even in an area where major support for a "yes" vote might be expected, achievement of 40% of the electorate was virtually unattainable. This was because the majority of electors lived in older tenements or newer Council blocks of flats where flat numbers were not specified. The work of electoral registration staff to obtain an accurate current register was almost impossible.

Under the terms of the Act, it could then be repealed by a Statutory Instrument to be approved by Parliament. The government's decision to abandon devolution led the SNP to withdraw its support for the Labour government. It was in a minority in Parliament and had relied on deals with the smaller parties, including the SNP, for its survival. After establishing that the Liberals and the SNP would vote against the government in a confidence motion, the Conservative opposition tabled a motion on 28 March. The government was defeated by one vote, and a UK general election was subsequently called. This was won by the Conservatives, and Parliament voted to repeal the Act on 20 June 1979.[2]

A second referendum to create a devolved legislature in Scotland was held in 1997 under a newly elected Labour government, which led to the enactment of the Scotland Act 1998 and the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The percentage of the electorate voting Yes was 32.5% on an unadjusted basis. After the electoral roll was adjusted for 40,200 ineligible voters (deaths; students and nurses registered at more than one address; prisoners), the % of the electorate voting Yes for the purposes of the Act was 32.9%.


  1. ^ a b c https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/devolution/scotland/briefing/79referendums.shtml
  2. ^ a b c d Taylor, Brian. "1979 Remembered". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  3. ^ "Liberals Get tough on devolution" By William Russel. The Glasgow Herald – 8 March 1979.

External linksEdit