The road to parliament: a timeline of Scottish devolution

On the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum that led to the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, CommonSpace looks back at the key events leading to the historic vote

20 YEARS AGO, Scotland voted to re-establish its parliament, which had been abolished following the Act of Union in 1707.

In a speech marking the anniversary, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon drew parallels between the political and social struggles which led to the Scottish Parliament’s creation, and those that continue in modern day Scotland.

Sturgeon said: “Even though there is still disagreement – passionate disagreement – about the final destination of our constitutional journey, we should nevertheless seek a new spirit of consensus to match that achieved in 1997.”

She called on all parties to defend the devolution that Scotland has, by democratic right, held for two decades. Below, CommonSpace looks back on some of the key events on the road to Scottish devolution, and which provide the context and the continuity for life in our country today.

“Even though there is still disagreement – passionate disagreement – about the final destination of our constitutional journey, we should nevertheless seek a new spirit of consensus to match that achieved in 1997.” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

1942: Following the Scottish National Party’s switch from demanding a Scottish assembly to seeking all-out independence for Scotland, home rule advocate John McCormick left the party and established the Scottish Convenant Association (SCA). A non-partisan pro-assembly campaign group, the SCA inherited the case for Scottish constitutional reform from such 19th century bodies as the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, the SCA would collect over two million signatures in favour of a devolved Scottish assembly.

Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, the Scottish Convenant Association would collect over two million signatures in favour of a devolved Scottish assembly

1968: Following the revitalisation of Scottish nationalism after the discovery of North Sea oil, and the subsequent election of the SNP’s first MP Winnie Ewing in 1966, Prime Minister Ted Heath reacts by announcing he will commit the Conservative Party to creating a Scottish assembly. However, his government fails to follow through on the pledge.

1979: In response to the report from the Royal Commission on the Constitution, better known as the Kilbrandon Commission, James Callaghan’s Labour government passed the Scotland Act 1978, which would theoretically establish a Scottish assembly. However, the Act required a post-legislative referendum in Scotland approving it before it could be put into effect. A controversial amendment attached to the Act while passing through Westminster required that approval at the referendum reflect at least 40 per cent of Scotland’s electorate. The 1979 referendum won a narrow majority, but at 32.9 per cent, fell short of the required turnout. As a result, devolution was not introduced.

The Claim of Right was signed in Edinburgh’s General Assembly Hall on 30 March 1989, and is widely regarded as one of the most significant documents in Scottish political history

1989: As a result of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, formed in the aftermath of the unsuccessful 1979, a committee of prominent Scottish politicians, writers, activists and members of civic society drafted a Claim of Right for Scotland, a document declaring the sovereignty of the Scottish people. The Claim of Right was signed in Edinburgh’s General Assembly Hall on 30 March 1989, and is widely regarded as one of the most significant documents in Scottish political history, and along with the formation of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and its demand for an elected assembly, an important step on the road to devolution.

1997: Following the election of Tony Blair, the New Labour government fulfilled its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Executive (now known as the Scottish Government). The referendum featured two proposals: whether to establish a parliament, and whether that parliament should have tax-varying powers. A majority voted in favour of both.

“Inventive, original, philosophical, its institutions mirror its beauty; then without shame we can esteem ourselves.” Iain Crichton Smith

1999: Following Scotland’s first parliamentary election on 6 May 1999, the first meeting of parliament took place on 12 May, with its new powers being transferred from Westminster on 1 July. Scottish broadcaster marked the occasion with a reading of Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, “The Beginning of a New Song”. “Let it be true to itself and to its origins,” the poem reads. “Inventive, original, philosophical, its institutions mirror its beauty; then without shame we can esteem ourselves.”

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Government

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