Ian Smart is a lawyer and blogger who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1974.
On the 28th of March 1979, the Labour Government led by Jim Callaghan lost a vote of confidence by a single vote, triggering a general election which will no doubt be of very fond memory to those of my readers old enough to remember it.
Most however will have largely forgotten exactly how that election came about. But not in Scotland we haven’t.
At the previous October 1974 General Election, the SNP had achieved their then-best ever result, returning eleven of Scotland’s (then) seventy-one MPs. Almost as significantly they were the second party, behind the Tories or Labour in just about every other seat in Scotland.
Opinion polling indicated that had there been an election in 1976 or 1977, they might well have secured a majority of Scotland’s seats.
They had got themselves here by, in electoral terms, being a sort of super-Liberal Democrats: all the localism, plus the added factor of a flag. If you wanted to oust a Tory incumbent (then more bits then than you might think) in bits of Scotland where Labour wasn’t really challenging locally, then you could vote SNP.
More worryingly for my own party, who then bestrode Scottish politics, the same thing happened where the Tories weren’t contenders. And we had much more to lose.
But underlying this there was still an assumption among the electorate that the SNP were ultimately (like, dare I say it, the pre 2010 Liberal Democrats) an anti-Tory party.
So let us return to the 28th of March 1979.
On the 1st of March there had been the first devolution referendum. A narrow majority had voted for the creation of (what would then have been) a Scottish Assembly.
But this still counted as a loss, thanks to a provision that victory required at least 40 per cent of the electorate voting Yes. This was introduced to the Bill by George Cunningham, a Labour MP, and passed because of support from a significant number of other Labour MPs also voting against their own Government.
And the extremely narrow and ultimately inadequate margin of victory for ‘Yes’, which pre campaign had been assumed to be a shoo-in result, was because many of the most prominent No campaigners had been from the Scottish Labour Party: Robin Cook, Brian Wilson, and, probably most famously, Tam Dalyell.
So, suffice to say, post-referendum relations between Labour and the SNP, never good, were at a long-term low. When Callaghan announced that he couldn’t simply ignore the 40 per cent rule, the Nationalists lost the plot and put down a vote of no confidence.
Margaret Thatcher, spotting the moment, took it over. By-elections had long since deprived Callaghan of an absolute majority and, all attempts to cobble one together having failed, the Tories, with the support of all eleven SNP MPs, won the vote. The rest is history.
What happened next is why this little history lesson holds a vital lesson for today’s Labour leadership – and a warning for Conservatives who complacently assume they will be able to re-run their brutally effective ‘Vote Miliband, Get Salmond’ campaign from 2015 at the next election.
The 1979 election is engraved in the hearts of Scottish Nationalists. They lost nine of their eleven seats, holding one of the others only by a whisker (and then because Labour, perhaps not entirely wisely, fielded a candidate who had only recently left the Communist Party).
More significantly still, Thatcher got down to the job.
The 1980s should have been a golden era for the SNP: the spectre of permanent Tory rule; their deep hostility to devolution; and a raft of policies which were not, to put it mildly, universally popular in Scotland.
But their efforts to capitalise on it were hamstrung by the fact, which Labour never stopped pointing out, that the Conservatives were only in power because the Nationalists had put them there.
The Nationalists simply could not get a hearing and at the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections there was no speculation as to whether they would gain seats, only whether they would even keep the two they had.
Even the very minor revival, to six seats, they enjoyed in !997 was very much in the undertow of the Blair landslide in parts of rural Scotland which even the maestro could not reach and on the clear understanding that the SNP would never again vote to bring down a Labour government.
That understanding remains to this day and believe me, getting that to be formally acknowledged will be a central focus of Scottish Labour’s next general election campaign.
Now, having dealt with the past, let us deal with the future.
I don’t want to annoy my readership here so I will only say that if you were a betting man or woman you might think the current most likely outcome of the next general election is a Labour plurality but without an overall majority. It is certainly much more difficult for us to win without Scotland.
But you see we would have Scotland whether we win there or not. For the SNP could never vote to bring down a Labour Government, even less so if the alternative were saving Boris Johnson’s bacon. If they did, they would pretty much lose all their seats (again).
This means that come the campaign, Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t need to offer the Nationalists “radical federalism” or indeed anything else. For what, in the event of a hung parliament, could they possibly do? If we’re far enough ahead in England and Wales they might just be able to abstain on our Queen’s speech but, if not, they’d just have to vote for it.
In 2015, Ed Miliband could not escape the trap the Tories dug for him in part because he couldn’t admit in advance that his party was about to get crushed in Scotland. Starmer has no need to hide from the facts, and this means he can take a very clear line on how he will conduct himself in the event of a hung Parliament.
This helps him both ways both ways. In England and Wales, we can rebut any suggestion by the Conservatives that Starmer would sign up to a deal which either undermined the Union or saw the Nationalists getting lots of extra cash when voters all over the country are grappling with the cost-of-living crisis.
And if the SNP object, Scottish Labour can pin them down on the question of whether or not they would support his Queen’s Speech.
That puts Sturgeon in a tricky spot: either she says her MPs will back it without conditions, disarming the Tory trap in England, or she sends left-of-centre voters in Scotland a clear signal that Nationalist MPs might stop Labour booting Boris Johnson out.
She won’t want to do that. The SNP haven’t forgotten 1979 – or what happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2015. So if the Tories are waiting for Starmer to play into Johnson’s hands on this, I suspect they’ll be sadly disappointed..