A Burns NIght ‘massacre’ – failure of devolution in 1979

The Herald, Editorial Ntebook, 25 September 1993.

SIR Myer Galpern, who died this week, was a Lord Provost of Glasgow and a Labour MP. But he will be remembered because of his time in the chair of the House of Commons as Deputy Speaker.

On Burns Night, 1978, he presided over the humiliation of the Callaghan Government when it suffered a series of defeats in the division lobbies. The result was the 40% rule which turned the devolution referendum into a mountain too high to climb.



The Labour Government, with no majority, had to rely heavily on the Whips. It is generally accepted by parliamentarians that the Labour Whips of that period brought the black arts of their calling to a high pitch.

Veterans of the period speak with scorn of Mr Major’s difficulties with a majority of 17. This is probably unfair. A majority of 17 allows a certain latitude for rebellion; it gives the rebels leverage. No majority at all concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Thoughout that Parliament, sustained in its last few years by the Lib-Lab Pact, the Whips cajoled, bluffed, threatened, bullied, pleaded, did deals. And, in tight divisions, they would hang about the division lobbies. Euphemistically they were there to make sure that members went into the correct lobby. In reality their task was to bully them into it if necessary.

That night, things got out of hand. Michael Foot and John Smith, in charge of the devolution legislation, had been ill advised of the mood of the House. A timetable or guillotine was in operation, and they calculated that the amendments would not be voted on at all but talked out.

The then MP for Islington South-west, George Cunningham, heard of what he later called their skulduggery, and rushed to the Chamber. By chance a number of people had drifted back into it, and it was one of these rare parliamentary occasions when a member actually sways the House by what he says.

In two divisions in rapid succession the Government was defeated thanks to an informal cross-bench alliance. The amendment — stipulating that unless 40% of those entitled to vote endorsed the Scotland Act an order for its repeal would have to be laid before Parliament — was carried by 15 votes.

The Whips were mortified, and sought to prevent a third amendment from coming to the vote — the Jo Grimond amendment which would have excluded Orkney and Shetland from the devolutionary scheme.

The Whips knew that if they could delay this division it would fall under the timetable. There seems no doubt that they resorted to excessively robust tactics. Cunningham later wrote:  ”But they reckoned without Myer Galpern, the ex-Lord Provost of Glasgow, who was in the chair that night. Myer dispatched the Serjeant-at-Arms into the division lobby, sword in hand, to sort out the Whips.”

Walter Harrison, Labour’s deputy chief Whip at the time, sorcerer’s apprentice to the chief wizard Michael Cocks, recalled that he found himself ”pinned against the wall”.

Cunningham continued: ”As Big Ben started to strike 11 Jo moved his amendment and the Government went down to another heavy defeat. As one member of the press lobby said, it was a Burns Night massacre.”

The Cabinet’s acute embarrassment is recorded in Tony Benn’s Diaries. There were other forces at work, of course. But the 40% rule became an insurmountable hurdle, confused an already troubled Scottish public and created the scenario in which the Callaghan Government, exhausted and demoralised, finally went to the wall.

The referendum was held on March 1, 1979, and Scotland voted Yes by a majority miles short of the 40%. Callaghan failed quickly to table the repeal order and require his MPs to oppose it — Cunningham reckoned that up to 100 would have disobeyed him. The SNP tabled a vote of no confidence, the Conservatives hijacked it, and the Government fell by one vote. Devolution disappeared in a puff of smoke; Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, Labour descended into a pit of internecine strife, and the Conservatives have been in power ever since.

What would have happened if Sir Myer had let the Labour Whips away with it? Probably not much. The 40% amendments had been passed by the time the Whips got rough. Thanks to his intervention, the Grimond amendment was passed; but it was removed at a subsequent legislative stage anyway.

It remains a glorious example of impartial chairmanship, without which no democratic chamber can work. The tradition is maintained today by Betty Boothroyd. The broadcasting of Parliament has not done much for the reputation and image of MPs. The public perceives them as spoiled bairns, hooligans, and layabouts. But ”market research” shows that Madam Speaker stands high in the public esteem.

When the news of Sir Myer’s death came on Thursday, they brought out the picture file. There were three envelopes showing Sir Myer in his various manifestations — Lord Provost, MP, Deputy Speaker — and in the company of various dignitaries.

It gives you a spooky feeling, to leaf through old pictures like that; there is a sense of hovering shades and spirits. Life was more orderly then. The ”photo-opportunity” had not yet been invented. The photographers were still in a subservient role and the public figure was seen in all his greatness.

Nowadays lords provost jump through hoops for the snappers: for every celebrity who shuns the camera there are 10 who woo it and ”media skills” have become a necessary item in the portfolio not just of politicians.

Sir Myer did not sacrifice his dignity for the camera. Today, no doubt, some PR man would advise him to take a course in camera presence. As a politician he never really made the top grade. But as a parliamentarian he cut himself an honourable niche in history.