In some of my previous 50 entries for Scottish Review
, I have explored the twists and turns of what I believe to be one of the most pivotal of the 'dramatic episodes', which Sir Tom Devine and Jenny Wormald argue characterise Scotland's recent history: the 1 March 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly.
There is a convincing argument to be made that Scotland's first devolution referendum was a moment of 'high politics' – dominated by intrigue, skulduggery and late-night manoeuvrings at Westminster. However, a recent flurry of archival research at Glasgow Women's Library and my beloved National Library of Scotland has led me to reconsider the contribution that civic Scotland made to this much-lamented moment in our constitutional story. As Ken Macintosh, the then Presiding Officer, wrote in 2019, the 'third sector' has a well-deserved reputation for shaping the political agenda north of the border and providing 'insight born of experience on the issues that really matter'.
Despite The Boston Globe's
famous quip that British politics in 1979 was 'like Gilbert and Sullivan without the music, and with only unintentional jokes', the Assembly was a genuine constitutional innovation, made more remarkable by the desperate straits that the government found itself in by the time of the referendum. In the 18 years of Conservative government that followed, the Assembly could have presented Scots with a divergent path from the rest of the United Kingdom, deciding on issues important to Scots in Scotland for the first time in nearly three centuries.
During the United Nations' 'Decade of Women' – which started at the inaugural 'World Conference on Women' in Mexico City in June 1975 – a plethora of voluntary organisations were founded to campaign for a better lot for Scottish women. While a higher-than-UK-average 5.6% of Scotland's parliamentarians were women after October 1974, this decreased to 1.4% in May 1979 (a single woman out of 72 MPs) and made extra-parliamentary action the more likely route by which women could, as the Scottish Convention of Women advocated, 'indicate the kind of Scotland to which they aspire and to contribute towards a more responsible society'.
Scotland in the 1970s was a nation on the move, grappling with deindustrialisation, a decade of nationwide industrial strife and the discovery of North Sea oil, although it was also, arguably, still what William Knox described as an overwhelming 'male, skilled industrial, Protestant' nation. Although exact figures for 1979 are hard to come by, later data from the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) show the scale of the challenge facing the country's approximately 265,000 female trade unionists. While women's average hourly earnings as a percentage of men's in England and Wales was 73.7%, women received just 70.8% north of the border.
Additionally, despite being statistically less likely to take time off work, the STUC estimated that 68% of all women workers in Scotland were low paid and over 140,000 working women were 'lone mothers with sole responsibility for dependents'. Even though women were the sole earners in over 400,000 households across the UK, the notion that 'if God had intended women to think, he'd have given them better jobs' – the infamous satirisation by Viv Quillin, who took up cartooning believing it to be the 'most effective way to get across feminist ideas' – was not uncommon in the 'Decade of Women'.
In addition to raising awareness of the economic challenges facing women, other groups campaigned to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence towards women, with the Scottish Women's Charter (published by the Women's Legal and Financial Independence Group in 1978) noting that domestic abuse constituted a quarter of all reported violent crime in Scotland. In keeping with the 'Fifth Demand' of the Women's Liberation Movement, the Charter proposed to end the 'laws and social policies which make women dependent legally and financially on their husbands, lovers and fathers'.
The Charter also urged the government to directly fund Women's Aid refuges – as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh's rape crisis centres which had opened in 1977 and 1978 – and called for new legislation to allow men to be convicted for marital rape. As well as this, the Charter suggested that the government should forbid discussion of a victim's sexual experience in court, which finally reached the statute book two decades later with the passage of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act in 1999.
The most significant branch of the Women's Legal and Financial Independence Group was founded in October 1975 – publishing guides such as 'housing for women, particularly in Clydeside' and making connections to charities including Women's Aid and the Salvation Army – but the Scottish Convention of Women (SCOW) had the more decisive impact on the referendum campaign. Founded in 1977, SCOW campaigned for greater rights to the 'matrimonial home', statutory compensation for 'battered women', increased women's representation on public bodies, and tried to raise awareness about Scotland's slapdash family planning and rehousing services.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, SCOW established working parties to consider gender inequality in education, the status of women in the media, the 'exile of British wives' during Timothy Raison's efforts to tackle illegal immigration in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, and even established its own trial after-school centre to provide evening and holiday care for approximately 40 children over the age of five. SCOW contributed to public debate on how marital engagements were increasingly little more than 'a personal and social commitment', and argued that married couples should no longer be taxed as a unit, and supported increases in child benefits to £4.50 per week in 1981.
In 1979, the Women's Legal and Financial Independence Group did not endorse either a 'Yes' or 'No' vote and consistently referred to 'the Assembly', while later women's groups labelled Holyrood 'our Parliament'; SCOW unofficially endorsed the Assembly, with its chair, Maidie Hart, joining George Foulkes (then director of Age Concern Scotland) and the Kirk's Reverend Frank Gibson in a 'Yes' campaign press conference in Edinburgh. Likewise, just days before 'Referendum Day', Hart's deputy, Kath Davies, told Julie Davidson that although the convention had not made an explicit 'public commitment' to a 'Yes' vote, 'its executive, with one or two exceptions, badly want the Assembly'.
However, while SCOW's founding documents state that it sought to provide a means whereby women's organisations 'may relate to a Scottish Assembly', it is noteworthy that its surviving minutes contain very little on the referendum itself, despite its impression that the country was about to 'embark on a new phase in the history of Scotland with opportunities for new beginnings'. Indeed, one note during the campaign devotes more space to whether their opposition to any cuts to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra should be recorded at its forthcoming AGM, than it does to the Assembly.
SCOW's most substantial contribution to the referendum campaign came in the form of a working party on devolution, which sought to shape the main parties' manifestoes for the first round of Assembly elections. SCOW highlighted the continuing imbalance in the number of men and women candidates in Scottish elections and the under-representation of women on parliamentary committees at Westminster. It also asked how each party would recruit more women into the Civil Service, whether they would establish a Scottish Equal Opportunities Commission, and sought their views on the creation of a Voluntary Services Unit to strengthen the new executive's relationship with charitable organisations.
While gender and women's social justice is now in the mainstream of Scottish politics – even if, as Meryl Kenny argues, women's representation has not retained 'high salience' for the major parties since 1999 – SCOW and the Women's Legal and Financial Independence Group's example demonstrate the scale of the challenge that previous generations of women's activists faced.
We now mark a series of historic anniversaries for women in parliament and public life, including the 35th anniversary of Diane Abbott's election as the UK's first black woman MP and 30 years since the first woman, Betty Boothroyd, was elected to Speaker of the House of Commons. It is important, however, to remember that, as Rosemary Goring wrote in Scotland: Her Story
, the fact that 'their deeds are rarely found in print does not mean that women held a minor position' in the recent history of the Scottish nation.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh