The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Chapter 17
1979, Edinburgh and Glasgow:
Devolution Deferred

Cairns Craig

On 1 March 1979, the Labour Government of the United Kingdom held a referendum in Scotland on proposals to establish a devolved Scottish parliament that would take responsibility for those local issues which, since the Union of Scotland and England in 1707, had been the responsibility of the Westminster parliament in London. The proposals were the Labour Party’s response to the success, since the late 1960s, of the Scottish National Party, which campaigned for the dissolution of the Union and the re-establishment of an independent Scottish state. The referendum outcome, however, was indecisive: although a small majority voted in favour, the total vote was split in almost equal proportions between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘didn’t vote’. Labour refused to proceed with its proposals; the Scottish Nationalists withdrew their support for the Labour government, forcing a general election; and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party swept to power, dismissing all issues of separate Scottish political representation as irrelevant to the creation of an ‘enterprise’ economy that would re-establish Britain’s world importance. With each of her following election victories cultural activists in Scotland predicted a ‘doomsday scenario’ a massive Conservative victory in England, a massive Conservative defeat in Scotland which would culminate not only in the destruction of Scotland’s industrial infrastructure but in the elimination of Scottish cultural identity.

Devolution’s failure posed fundamental questions about the nature and history of Scotland. If it failed to vote for even limited self-government was it really a nation at all? Had Scotland, divided as it was between the three languages of Gaelic, English and Scots, and divided between Highland and Lowland, ever fulfilled the minimum requirements of a national culture? Had the Union induced a culture of deferral to English values that made the Scots incapable of taking responsibility for their own future? Or had Scottish culture succeeded, as some argued, only in periods when it had adopted and accepted English cultural norms? In the 1920s and 1930s there had been a Scottish cultural revival, based on the revitalisation of the traditions of writing in Scots (as in the work of Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and on a return to the Celtic roots of Scottish tradition (in the novels, for instance, of Neil Gunn, in the art of J. D. Fergusson and in the Gaelic poetry of Sorley Maclean), but this so-called ‘Scottish Renaissance’ had neither the political impact of the Irish Revival movement, nor the international impact of Irish writers such as W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Its weaknesses underlined, it was suggested, fundamental

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