Nationalism and Unionism in Scotland (1945-1985)

By Peter Wilson

In 1913 a Liberal MP stood before the House of Commons and advocated a change in the political relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. He was knowingly echoing another Liberal MP from nearly 20 years before, who had wished for Scottish Home Rule “while retaining intact the power and supremacy of the Imperial Parliament.”[1] In 1976 Malcolm Rifkind called for “a better deal for Scottish people within the United Kingdom.”[2] Nearly a century had passed, and the wish was for the same thing: a recognition of Scottish political autonomy within the existing framework of the United Kingdom. Yet between 1955 and 1985, it is possible to see a significant shift in Scottish identity when it comes to Britishness and the politics surrounding that identity. In 1955 the Scottish Unionist vote stood at 50.1%, but in 1983—a year, it is worth remembering, which was a disaster for the Labour party and other parties of the British left—the Conservatives polled only 28.4%.[3] In 1974 the Scottish National Party (SNP) polled 30.4% in the October general election.[4] A referendum on devolution in 1979 saw a majority of Scots vote in favour of devolution, although not by the amount required to trigger the formation of a Scottish assembly. By the mid-1980s, the Conservative government—so strong elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and particularly in the South-East of England—had been decisively rejected at the polls by the Scottish electorate.

In this article, I will examine the reasons for the change in Scottish identity and political expression in relation to the Union between 1955 and 1985, and answer the dual question of whether a due recognition of Scottishness required the break-up of Britain, if, indeed, that is what happened. In order to understand a number of themes running throughout the debate, however, it is first necessary to briefly examine the evolution of British identity, beginning with the formation of the United Kingdom through the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.

      (i) A United Kingdom

The Act of Union did not create a ‘British’ identity. Nor, when it became clear that a British identity had emerged, did that identity replace existing national identities. Linda Colley observes that “Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time.”[5] In line with this truism, a nascent Britishness allowed the national identities of the constituent nations the space to flourish.[6] Thus did British identity superimpose itself on the sub-national identities of the United Kingdom. In their 1996 book, Politics and Society in Scotland, Alice Brown, David McCrone, and Lindsay Paterson argue that “Britishness sat lightly on top of constituent national identities.”[7] A man could be Scottish and British in equal or unequal measure. Brown and her colleagues suggest that the continued autonomy of the church, education, and legal systems in Scotland reinforced an identity which had no trouble surviving the events of 1707. “Feeling Scottish was not a sentimental left-over of previous independence, but derived from the day-to-day workings of Scottish civil society as it affected people directly.”[8]

The foundation stone of British identity was a series of wars with France, meaning that Britishness constructed itself in relation to the ‘Other’, and in particular in relation to contact with the ‘Other’: “Once confronted with an obviously alien ‘Them’, an otherwise diverse community can become a reassuring or merely desperate ‘Us’.”[9] It is perhaps for this reason that British identity at home has been strongest when the United Kingdom has faced an external threat. But British identity was helped by the Empire. For the duration of the Empire, Britishness was truly international in scope, shared by English, Scottish, Welsh, and even Australian, Canadian, and New Zealander alike.[10] The Empire provided middle and upper-class Scots with international career opportunities as well as a sense of partnership in the Empire with England and Wales.[11] It has been argued that with the decline of Empire some Scots felt the British aspect of their dual nationality was somehow diminished.[12] This is, however, in my view an elite discourse. Being a race of Empire Builders may have appealed to the professional classes and aristocracy,[13] who had based their own identity on notions of Scottishness and Britishness, but for the working classes attention was not on the Empire but on housing, social conditions, jobs, and other domestic concerns.[14] With the demise of Pax Britannica Scottishness within Britishness—or vice-versa—effectively moved down a rung of the class ladder.

      (ii) Scottish Unionism

Even within this setting Scottish nationalism could exist, but it existed within the Union, and for the sake of the Union, a position “semantically impossible” in more recent years.[15] Liberal MP Sir Henry Dalziel’s proposal for Scottish Home Rule was made not only in terms of Scotland remaining in the Union, but to allow the Imperial Parliament to focus on running the Empire, as it could not “adequately cope” with legislating for all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.[16] Despite the difference in the phrasing, there are a lot of similarities between this speech and the one made by Conservative Malcolm Rifkind MP in 1976, when, after harking back to the early twentieth century Home Rule sentiment, he stated that “[Scottish] national sentiment still exists, but added to it is the need for good government, good administration, and a better deal for Scottish people within the United Kingdom.”[17] By omission, Sir Henry Dalziel was asking for very much the same thing, albeit in different terms. However, the sentiment was identical: a wish for a devolved assembly to look after Scottish affairs within the United Kingdom. Party politics in Scotland has always been about translating Scottish and British political agendas to each other,[18] and many have argued since the Union that the best way to do so was through the good governance of a devolved Scottish assembly, which would not necessarily mean the break-up of Britain. Indeed, as has been seen, devolution has most often been put in terms of the continued supremacy of Parliament in Westminster, but with Scottish people looking after Scottish interests through a Scottish assembly. The Scottish Covenant of 1950 highlights this point: it received two million signatures, asking for Scottish control of Scottish affairs “in all loyalty to the Crown and within the framework of the United Kingdom.”[19] Murray Pittock suggests five forms of crisis within the state: identity, participation, distribution, penetration, and legitimacy.[20] The Home Rule debate prior to 1955 had precipitated none of these. Scottishness, as suggested by Ward, could be asserted in terms of Britishness and vice-versa within the political sphere without being a nationalist with a separatist political programme.[21]

Between 1955 and the late 1960s, British identity in Scotland was consolidated. The Second World War had strengthened a sense of “mutual Britishness”[22] and had created a “myth-kitty” of Britishness[23]. Once again, a strong sense of Britishness solidified following an external threat; instead of the French, however, Britishness had been defined against the external ‘Other’ of Nazi Germany. The sub-current of hostility to the Union from nationalists had largely disappeared following the end of hostilities.[24] Arthur Marwick suggests that British society had reached a consensus following the Second World War which would last until at least 1957.[25] Christopher Harvie suggests that Britishness even “went deep on the Celtic fringe, too, until the mid-1960s, with nationalism dismissed as repressive.”[26] This dismissal of nationalism was reflected at the ballot box; Britain-wide opposition to the constitution was marginalised, with 95% of the electorate voting for the two main parties, Labour and Conservative/Unionist, up to 1964[27], with this statistic almost holding true for Scotland in the same period—the only reason why the 95% barrier was not broken in every election was due to a small percentage of voters voting for the Liberals (5% in 1945, 6.6% in 1950, 2.7% in 1951, 1.9% in 1955, and 4.1% in 1959)[28], who were hardly a nationalist party. In the same time, support for the SNP never rose above 1.2%, and even that was in 1945, a year with a low turnout of 69%.[29] The year of the strongest vote for the main parties was 1955. Labour took 46.7% of the votes, winning 34 seats. The Unionists won a bare majority, with 50.1% of the vote and winning 36 seats. Combined with the Liberals, 98.7% of all votes cast went to British parties who had been in government over the previous 40 years.

The reasons for this electoral expression of Britishness can be seen following the war. Although government intervention had increased in the 1930s, throughout the economic depression, it was only following the war that it reached its fullest expression. After experiencing deep distress in the 1930s, industrial Scotland went through something of a revival: first, the war brought factories to the industrial heartlands of Scotland, then, following the end of the war, government policy actively tried to bring industry to Scotland. The basis of post-war Scottish prosperity lay in the revival of heavy industry.[30] Outside of the industrial centres of Scotland, new life was brought to the Highlands by the North of Scotland Hydro-electricity Board. On a wider scale, the introduction of the welfare state across the United Kingdom gave people social security, access to better education, social housing, and healthcare in the form of the newly-created National Health Service. Scottish interests were being placed in Scottish hands by successive governments. In 1959 Lady Tweedsmuir stated, “The Prime Minister has also placed Scotland’s affairs—wherever possible—in Scottish hands, for we do not want too much central control. Above all—we do not want nationalisation.”[31] Although she stresses nationalisation, in truth it was a plea against voting for centralization, in the form of the removal of Scottish interests from Scottish control. The Unionists, therefore, positioned themselves as a Scottish nationalist party against Labour’s Britishness.

Labour, which had previously been in favour—on paper—of Scottish Home Rule, had gone into the 1950 general election for the first time without a pledge for Scottish self-government, and not soon after formally adopted unionism, favouring the existing constitutional arrangements.[32] However, 1955 was a one-off. By 1964 the Unionist vote, in the last election fought under the old Scottish party name before changing to Conservative, had slipped to 40.6%, with the loss of 12 seats.[33] Richard J. Finlay has argued that “the creation of the Health Service, access to higher education, social security and other aspects of the Welfare State were all new British institutions. And it was to these institutions…that most Scots owed their identification with the British state.”[34] No longer was Scottishness and Britishness a thing of Empire and the landed gentry. The break-up of Empire did not, as Tom Nairn would claim, result in the break-up of the United Kingdom.[35] With Britishness effectively moving a rung down the ladder, it was being reinforced by the penetration of the state into people’s daily lives.

In 1966 unionist left-wing Labour took 46 seats on 49.9% of the Scottish vote.[36] There had been little agitation for any kind of constitutional change since the war, and that which had been had been on the same terms as the attempts to establish Home Rule before the First World War: Scottish interests within the United Kingdom managed by Scottish people. The Scottish Covenant of 1950 did not agitate for independence. Scottish separatist nationalism was a non-issue to the extent that Labour had dropped pledges for Scottish self-government from all its election manifestos since 1950 and still gained nearly half the vote. The period from 1955 to 1966 can be regarded as the days when unionism and ‘Scottish Britishness’ were at their height due to ongoing government intervention in the economy and a lack of economic and political centralisation. Britishness flourished in the post-war years, meaning that no break-up of the Union was necessary to recognise Scottishness; Scottishness was already a part of the British national identity.

      (iii) The Rise of the SNP?

The Scottish National Party won its first seat in the House of Commons in a by-election in 1945, but would not win another until Winnie Ewing’s stunning success in Hamilton in 1967. The victory marked the beginning of a new age in Scottish politics, though the success of the Scottish National Party in the years from 1967 to 1985 was more down to an increased level of organisation at party level than a rise of nationalist sentiment. Before 1962, there were only 20 branches of the SNP and 2,000 members; by 1968, there were 484 branches with 120,000 members.[37] On the face of it, this looks to mark a significant rise in nationalist sentiment and participation, but a look at polling statistics suggests otherwise. Where nationalist candidates had stood prior to Winnie Ewing’s election, they had received a steady 15% of the vote; where Scottish nationalist candidates stood—in more seats—after Winnie Ewing’s election, they received a steady 15% of the vote.[38] The voting pattern had not changed; it had simply become nationwide rather than confined to a small number of seats where the impact on the national voting trends would be minimal. 85% of all voters still voted for the unionist parties in Westminster elections. Nationalist sentiment, although suddenly more visible, was hardly a force to dominate Scottish thinking.

In October 1974, however, the SNP took more than 30% of the vote in Scotland, pushing the Conservatives into third place and winning eleven seats. The vote was no accident, but neither was it to be matched again. The vote reflected a short-term crisis in British politics, and not a steady rise in nationalist voting preferences.[39] Few Scots, Tom Devine points out, wished to dismantle the Union; the aim was to instead improve it to Scottish advantage.[40] The SNP had positioned itself—perhaps unintentionally—as a classic protest party for those disillusioned with the two-party system.[41] Although it had attracted its own core support (“the sort of mildly stroppy individualists who, in other parts of Britain in the 1960s, gravitated to Liberalism,” according to Andrew Marr),[42] the vagueness of SNP policy on a number of issues made the party “an appealing vehicle for those who wanted a focus for a range of political discontents.”[43]

All the same, the perceived threat of separatist nationalist sentiment in Scotland was enough to frighten the establishment in Westminster into action. In 1968 Ted Heath made the Declaration on Perth, committing the Conservative party—to the horror of many Scottish Conservatives—to a devolved Scottish assembly. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson—who had been put into power in 1966 by Scottish votes[44]—set up a Royal Commission ‘to consider the Constitution’, a tactic to halt the tide of nationalism that seemed to work, with the nationalist vote being cut from the 34% in local elections in 1968[45] to 11.4% in the general election of 1970.[46] Although the SNP recorded a vote of 21.9% in February 1974 and 30.4% in October of the same year,[47] the elevated vote can be put down as a protest vote: first, the Heath government had tried to launch an assault on the interventionist economic policies that had sustained both of the main parties since the end of the war, and second, the credibility of the government was undermined by economic crisis and industrial action.[48] Although the SNP had gained some political influence through its exploitation of the discovery of oil in the North Sea, the vote was still a case of ‘neither of the above’. Just nine years later, and in another year where a large protest vote went to a party which were neither of the above—in this case, the Liberal Democrats[49]—the SNP recorded a vote much closer to its baseline: 11.9%.[50]

Although the vote for the nationalists was vastly increased in 1974, it was not down to a rise in national separatist sentiment. The attack by the Conservative government on British institutions and interventionist policies and the subsequent Scottish rejection of these policies shows Scottish acceptance of a British identity alongside Scottish individuality. Certainly, the statistics show that at the time of the 30% SNP vote only 12% of Scots were in favour of independence—once again, the overwhelming majority of Scots being in favour of the Union in one way or another. The challenge of nationalism had raised the profile of Scottish separatist sentiment, but it had not changed the nature of Scottishness in relation to Britishness. The rise to prominence of the SNP did, however, force a change in thinking in Westminster, with the main parties considering a form of Home Rule for Scotland for the first time since 1945.

The failure of the Scottish public to endorse devolution in a referendum in 1979 is possibly the clearest illustration that at this time a due recognition of Scottishness did not require the break-up of Britain. Although a slight majority of those who did vote voted in favour of a devolved assembly, the turn-out was only 63.8%, meaning that less than a third of the Scottish electorate had voted in favour of devolution and a change in the constitutional arrangements between the United Kingdom and Scotland.[51] In order for devolution to become a reality, 40% of the electorate needed to have voted in favour of it. Although the SNP launched a ‘Scotland said yes’ campaign, and Pittock argues that the de facto truth that Scotland had indeed voted in favour of devolution was lost behind a legal technicality,[52] the truth was that Scots had not turned out in sufficient force or taken sufficient interest to secure devolution. More than two-thirds of the electorate had either voted against or, more often, not voted at all on the issue. In 1979, the Scottish people had taken the decision that a due recognition of Scottishness could take place within the existing constitutional framework of the United Kingdom. Agitation for independence was low, and devolution had failed to generate sufficient interest. Scots still had control of the British institutions they identified with the most, and had made their feelings about withdrawal of British government intervention known with their votes in 1974. Unionist thought and sentiment remained dominant despite the challenge of the nationalists.

      (iv) Thatcherism: Building Borders

One of the defining features of pre-Thatcherite Conservative unionism was how it could present itself as being a Scottish nationalist ideology. As has been seen with Lady Tweedsmuir, it was interested in keeping Scottish matters in Scottish hands; a fact also demonstrated in 1950, when Winston Churchill said, “If England became an absolute Socialist State, owning all the means of production, distribution and exchange, ruled only by politicians and their officials in the London offices, I personally cannot feel Scotland would be bound to accept such a dispensation.”[53] Scottish national interests (normally in the form of decentralisation) were protected by the Conservatives. It had been the Conservative Party who had moved the Scottish Office to Edinburgh in 1939, and upgraded the status of Secretary for Scotland to Secretary of State in 1926. But Conservative support in Scotland had dropped following the highs of the 1950s, with the bedrock support of the Protestant working class and influence from the Kirk waning.[54]

The protest vote of 1974 showed Scottish interest in Britain remained linked to its own fortunes rather than the fortunes of the wider country.  Five years later, when Margaret Thatcher swept to power, the Scottish Conservative vote remained only just over 30%[55]—hardly a ringing endorsement for the Conservative government. Thatcher was a new type of unionist: one who disregarded the shibboleths of her predecessors in favour of unionist nationalism in opposition to Scottish nationalism, rather than unionist nationalism as an historic form of Scottish nationalism.[56] The nationalists were able to paint her as an essentially ‘English’ nationalist,[57] not least because of her woeful misjudgements when it came to the economic temper and civic identity of the people of Scotland. If Thatcher thought that Scotland would approve her call for greater individual independence from the state, she was to be proven wrong; Scotland had a strong civic identity[58], identifying with the British state intervention. What had happened to Heath in 1974 should have served as a warning. That is not to say that there was not some acceptance of Thatcherite policies, with more than 74,000 Scots buying their council houses in a miniature rejection of the welfare state,[59] but in general, Thatcherism had a problem with legitimacy, following successive heavy defeats in the polls in Scotland despite UK-wide success, and penetration,[60] as opponents gravitated toward the civic identity of Scotland, which needed an assembly of its own to represent the wishes of the Scottish people.[61]

The major difference between Scotland under Thatcher and the Scotland of years before was one of Scottish interests no longer being controlled by Scottish power. When Heath allowed the factories to fail, Scotland responded by giving him a pounding at the polls. Thatcher was rejected at the polls on multiple occasions for similar reasons. Her changes to unionism also created a significant problem with regards to legitimacy. Scotland could not identify with someone who did not promote Scottish interests, especially in light of the growing disparity between England and Scotland.[62] Under Thatcher, the state was a long way away, “down there.”[63] The United Kingdom, under Thatcher, was as disunited as it had ever been since the war.


For the overwhelming majority of the time between 1955 and 1985, Scottishness was a part of Britishness, and the same was true in reverse. Despite calls for devolution prior to 1955, these had always been in relation to gaining good governance for Scotland and putting Scottish national interest first, but within the existing framework of the United Kingdom. There was no break-up of Britain being mooted. Even though an undercurrent of Scottish nationalism has always existed, and rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s following years in the wilderness, its rise was not down to a loss of unionist sentiment, but rather as a result of nationalist organisation.

It was only when Margaret Thatcher changed the definition of unionism for the Conservative Party following their election in 1979 that Scottishness and Britishness began to move apart. The break-up of Britain was not necessarily required to ensure a due recognition of Scottish national identity during the Thatcher years, but some concession was needed due to her uncompromising unionist nationalism, which was constructed in opposition to Scottish nationalism. The Thatcher government’s problems with legitimacy and penetration left Scotland in need of some form of recognition, perhaps on a devolved stage. Even then, the break-up of the Union could not be said to be inevitable.

Peter Wilson is a postgraduate history student and law graduate from the north of England. He specialises in regional identity and the history of sport, as well as criminal law, civil liberties and jurisprudence.

Image courtesy of the Young Fabians.


[1] HC Deb 03 April 1894 vol.22 c.1287

[2] HC Deb 16 December 1976 vol.922 c.1833

[3] Alice Brown, David McCrone and Lindsay Paterson. Politics and Society in Scotland, Basingstoke (1996), p.9

[4] Ibid.

[5] Linda Colley. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, Yale (1996), p.6

[6] John M. MacKenzie. ‘Empire and National Identities: the Case of Scotland’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 8, 1998, p.230

[7] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.205

[8] Ibid.

[9] Linda Colley. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, Yale (1996), p.6

[10] Murray G.H. Pittock. Scottish Nationality, Basingstoke (2001), p.8

[11] Ibid.

[12] Andrew Marr. The Battle for Scotland, London (1992), p.52

[13] Paul Ward. Britishness Since 1870, Oxford (2004), p.149

[14] Richard J. Finlay. ‘The Rise and Fall of Popular Imperialism in Scotland, 1850-1950’, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 113:1, p.19

[15] Pittock. Scottish Nationality, p.9

[16] HC Deb 03 April 1894 vol.22 c.1288

[17] HC Deb 16 December 1976 vol.922 c.1833

[18] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.142

[19] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.96

[20] Pittock. Scottish Nationality, p.11

[21] Ward. Britishness Since 1870, p.143

[22] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.105

[23] Christopher Harvie. ‘The Moment of British Nationalism, 1939-1970’, Political Quarterly, 71, 2000, p.331

[24] Harvie. ‘The Moment of British Nationalism’, p.329

[25] Arthur Marwick. British Society Since 1945, fourth edition, London (2003), p.xi

[26] Harvie. ‘The Moment of British Nationalism’, p.329

[27] Ibid.

[28] Brown et al, Politics and Society in Scotland, p.9

[29] Ibid.

[30] Marwick. British Society Since 1945, p.8

[31] Reproduced in Ward. Britishness Since 1870, p.154

[32] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.105

[33] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.9

[34] Finlay. ‘The rise and fall of popular imperialism in Scotland’, p.20

[35] Tom Nairn. The Break-up of Britain, London (1977)

[36] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.9

[37] Marr. The Battle for Scotland

[38] W.L. Miller. ‘The Death of Unionism?’ in T.M. Devine (ed.), Scotland and the Union 1707-2007, Edinburgh (2008), p.176-177

[39] Miller. ‘The Death of Unionism?’ p.177

[40] T.M. Devine. ‘The Challenge of Nationalism’, in T.M. Devine (ed.), Scotland and the Union 1707-2007, Edinburgh (2008), p.146

[41] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.118

[42] Ibid. p.117

[43] T.M. Devine. ‘The Challenge of Nationalism’, p.146

[44] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.106

[45] T.M.Devine. ‘The Challenge of Nationalism’, p.143

[46] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.9

[47] Ibid.

[48] T.M. Devine. ‘The Challenge of Nationalism’, pp.152-154

[49] W.L. Miller. ‘The Death of Unionism?’, p.175

[50] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.9

[51] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.161

[52] Pittock. Scottish Nationality, p.123

[53] Quoted in Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.113

[54] Devine. ‘The Challenge of Nationalism’, p.151

[55] Brown et al. Politics and Society in Scotland, p.9

[56] Miller, ‘The Death of Unionism?’, p.184

[57] Ibid. p.185

[58] Richard J. Finlay. ‘Thatcherism and the Union’ in T.M Devine (ed.), Scotland and the Union 1707 to 2007, Edinburgh (2008), p.164

[59] Ibid. p.161

[60] Pittock. Scottish Nationality, p.12

[61] Finlay. ‘Thatcherism and the Union’, p.164

[62] Marr. The Battle for Scotland, p.168

[63] Ibid. p.170