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Scotland may soon vote to leave the United Kingdom, becoming an independent country. If not, she is nonetheless guaranteed to receive significant additional power as a devolved nation, thanks to promises recently agreed by all the major Westminster parties.

The date of the independence referendum is Thursday 18 September 2014. Commentators have already made much of this, noting how the vote occurs in the same year as both the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. This unprecedented feast of Scottishness, some have suggested, may well help to propel the “Yes” campaign over the winning line.

But what no one has remarked upon yet is the fact that the referendum also coincides, almost to the day, with the 40th anniversary of the first-ever British Government proposals for Scottish devolution, which were published by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration on Tuesday 17 September 1974.

Scotland in the 1970s was a part of the United Kingdom without any democratic devolution whatsoever.

Scotland in the 1970s had no democratic devolution whatsoever. Source: Michael Edwards.

Extended excerpts from these proposals are reproduced below. Given how far the devolution/independence debate has come, there is now something quaint, even antiquated, about the document. In particular, it is hard to miss its entirely matter-of-fact attitude towards “the separatism option”, which it dismisses simply on the basis that “the people of Scotland […] consider themselves to be British”. Did they? In 1974 most probably did, but that is by no means clear now.

Additionally, one of the key reasons that Wilson’s government advances for preserving the Union is the need for “central management of the economy” and, with it, the “redistribut[ion of] resources [to] less prosperous areas” of the country. 1970s Labour still wanted the opportunity to address what it described as “imbalances” arising from “the first Industrial Revolution”!

Harold Wilson published the proposals just a few weeks before the second general election in 1974, in which he hoped (but failed) to win a strong majority.

Harold Wilson published the proposals just a few weeks before the second general election in 1974, in which he hoped (but failed) to win a strong majority. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

But what also strikes the modern-day reader is the longevity of certain preoccupations: in particular, anxieties over differential rates of tax; the return of Scottish MPs to Westminster; and control of oil and gas wealth.

As Scotland prepares to take its biggest decision ever, it is worth contemplating for a moment the 40-year-old plan that politicians thought would be enough to meet Scottish ambitions for self-determination once and for all. What is it that has changed in the interim to make this groundbreaking set of proposals seem so inadequate to so many?


In 1968 the Government announced their decision to set up the Royal Commission on the Constitution. The Prime Minister said at the time that an important reason for appointing the Commission was “the strong feeling, not only in Scotland and Wales, but in many parts of England, of a greater desire for participation in the process of decision making, moving it nearer – wherever this is possible – to the places where people live”. The Commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon, reported in October 1973. It was unanimous in rejecting separatism and federalism and in recommending directly elected Scottish and Welsh assemblies, but was divided in the rest of its recommendations. The Queen’s Speech on 12 March 1974 said the Government “will initiate discussions in Scotland and Wales on the Report of the Commission on the Constitution, and will bring forward proposals for consideration” […] The Government are now able to report on the outcome of the consultations they have undertaken during the Summer of 1974 and, in the light of them, to set out their discussions of principle as a basis for further development.

The Government agree wholeheartedly with the Commission on the Constitution in rejecting separatism and federalism as a solution. The Government, like the Royal Commission, regard it as a vital and fundamental principle to maintain the economic and political unity of the United Kingdom. This is not just a matter of tradition and sentiment, important though they are. The unity of the country and of the economy is essential both to the strength of our international position and to the growth of our industry and national wealth. That unity is thus crucial if we are to play an effective role in international negotiations, whether political or economic; and it is crucial for the central management of the economy and so to the redistribution of resources in favour of all the less prosperous areas of the United Kingdom.

It does not follow, however, that each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom must be treated in exactly the same way. While the people of Scotland and Wales, as the Royal Commission noted, consider themselves to be British, they are also deeply conscious of the fact that they are Scottish or Welsh. Nor does it follow that Scotland and Wales must be treated exactly like each other. They have differing histories, backgrounds and cultural traditions. Because the circumstance of the two countries are so different, they present arrangements for their government are not the same and it will not be surprising if their future systems of government are different. What is important is that the needs and aspirations of the Scottish and Welsh people are properly met. […]

While recognising the benefits to Scotland and Wales of the existing system, the Kilbrandon Commission unanimously concluded that directly elected assemblies ought to be established for Scotland and for Wales to meet the legitimate desire of their people for greater control over their own affairs. The Commission was not agreed, however, on how this objective should be achieved, and in the main Report and the Memorandum of Dissent four schemes were set out for implementing this decision in relation to Scotland (Schemes A, B, C and E in the Consultative Document) and Wales (Schemes A, B, C and D). The Government invited all interested organisations and members of the public to comment on these schemes.

The response of individual members of the public was disappointing; only about 170 letters or papers, some quite brief, were received. Of these there was no clear majority for any one solution, and indeed a significant number expressed no specific view.

On the other hand over 60 organisations, including the political parties, submitted written views. Among these there was considerable support for Scheme A and variations of it. While very few indeed favoured Schemes B or C, there was some support for Scheme E. […]

During July and August 1974 a series of discussions was held in Scotland by Scottish Ministers, accompanied by the Government’s constitutional adviser, Lord Crowther-Hunt […] Bodies consulted in this way included the Scottish Council of the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Council (Development and Industry), the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Council of the Confederation of British Industry in Scotland, the Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland and various local authority representatives.

In a matter of this kind it is not surprising that, as the consultations have demonstrated, there are diverging views […] The Government’s continued studies during recent months have shown that any substantial scheme of devolution raises difficult problems; and a number of very important matters remain to be resolved […] The major issues are:-
a. Finance and Economic Management
In any scheme of devolution the financial arrangements would clearly be of fundamental importance. Any major change in the present board arrangement has to be reconciled with the maintenance of a general uniformity of approach in the Kingdom as a whole to the allocation of resources, to taxation arrangements and to the overall management of the economy. […]
b. Trade, Industry and Employment
There is still a great deal of doubt about whether and if so how far executive powers in these fields could be devolved […] without prejudice to the essential economic unity of the United Kingdom […]
c. Local Government […]
d. The Secretary of State
There is a strong desire both in Scotland and in Wales to retain an effective Secretary of State. Major changes and a diminution in their present powers would be an inevitable consequence of a substantial measure of devolution; careful thought will have to be given to their precise role. […]
e. Representation in the United Kingdom Parliament
There is a great reluctance to see any reduction in the number of Scottish or Welsh Members of the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster, with a consequent weakening of Scottish or Welsh influence in United Kingdom affairs.

[…] For Scotland and Wales the Government now propose the creation of directly elected assemblies.

While these new institutions will have certain common characteristics and relationships to the central Government, they will naturally have to reflect the differences in governmental structure between Scotland and Wales which already exist. […] The Government have therefore concluded that the Scottish assembly should have a legislative role and have legislative powers within fields in which separate Scottish legislation already exists such as, for example, housing, health and education. […]

The membership, functions and procedures of the assemblies will call for detailed study and consideration. The Government’s provisional proposals on some key aspects are as follows:-
a. Membership will be on the same system as members of the United Kingdom Parliament, i.e. a single member elected for a geographical area. […]
b. The assemblies will assume some of the executive functions of the Scottish and Welsh Offices […]
c. The financial allocation for the functions over which the assemblies have responsibility will be in the form of a block grant voted by the United Kingdom Parliament under arrangements which will take account of both local needs and the desirability of some uniformity of standards of services and of contributions in all parts of the United Kingdom. It will be for the assemblies to judge among competing priorities within Scotland and Wales in the light of their own assessment of their communities’ needs: as between, for example, hospitals and roads or schools and houses. […]

The discovery of oil and gas deposits in the North Sea and Celtic Sea promises – though there is much to be done before the promise is fulfilled – new economic and industrial opportunities for the less prosperous areas in Scotland and Wales and England. The Government have already acted: the headquarters of the Offshore Supplies Office of the Department of Energy is being transferred to Glasgow and the new British National Oil Corporation is to have its headquarters in Scotland. Still more important in the Scottish context is the Government’s intention to establish a Scottish Development Agency […]

The Government is determined that the community as a whole and the regions in need receive their full and fair share of the benefits resulting from the exploitation of these new energy resources. This must mean that maximum benefit goes to redress the regional imbalances in Scotland, Wales and England which have followed in the wake of the first Industrial Revolution. […]

In its approach to devolution the Government is concerned to foster democratic control over the increasingly complex processes of modern government and to bring government closer to the people. The people and their representatives must have a full share in the decision-making process. This is the main objective – to make a reality of the principle of democratic accountability. The Government has now decided in principle the way in which this should be accomplished in Scotland and Wales.

The Government intends to legislate for the establishment of Scottish and Welsh assemblies as soon as possible. Much work still remains to be done and many critical decisions taken on which the Government will wish to have the widest consultations. But when detailed schemes have been worked out and implemented the Government believe that this will bring great benefits to the people of Scotland and Wales. They will be able to have a decisive voice in the running of their own domestic affairs. At the same time the political and economic unity of the United Kingdom will be preserved – with all the attendant benefits from that unity which accrue to the people of Scotland and Wales no less than to the people in the different parts of England. […] The Government are […] confident that, given the will to make devolution work, the proposals here outlined provide a framework which will give full scope for the creative energies of all our people.