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29 January 2013

How the Scotsman
used to be a very
different newspaper

Paul F Cockburn

He was everywhere in 1978

If 'the days of our years' are indeed 'threescore years and ten', then 1978 is just half a biblical lifetime ago; and yet, while recently looking back at editions of the Scotsman from that year (while researching another article) I was often struck by just how distant a world it actually seemed. A place in which even the most common man was still accorded the dignity of the title 'Mr'; and where the Scotsman chose to place its financial and business, foreign, parliamentary and (even) farming news before anything brazenly domestic.

I was 14 in 1978 but didn't spend much of my time reading the Scotsman. I was more concerned about Doctor Who's search for the 'Key to Time', the horrendous ubiquity of 'Olivia-Newton-John-Travolta' in the charts and (on a personal note) the hairy consequences of puberty, which were in turn mildly complicated by my nascent homosexualist leanings. So, my recent reading of those 1978 editions of the Scotsman is grounded in hindsight rather than nostalgia.

Take, for example, the paper's report on how the then Liberal leader David Steel, being interviewed on BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show, 'dropped a delicate fly on the pool where the Tories lurk' by suggesting the possibility of a future Lib-Tory pact – as long as they were 'going to make a move towards electoral reform'. From the vantage point of 2013, three things are clear: firstly, the Tories didn't make any such moves, not then, not now; secondly, politicians were 'spinning' policy ideas outside of parliament well before the arrival of breakfast television; and, thirdly, today's news journalists are all-too-clearly lacking when it comes to the metaphor department.

Some terrible shadows now obscure other stories I glimpsed while skimming those many '3am editions'. Who can read about the Sex Pistol's bass guitarist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spengen electing to stand trial for possessing drugs without thinking of their subsequent crash and burn? Or how 'little-known actress' Elaine Paige winning the 'coveted' role of Eva Peron in the £400,000 musical 'Evita' is marred by that show's role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's domination of British musical theatre? Yet, of all the stories featured in the pages of the Scotsman that year, the most relevant to today is surely the slow, increasingly Laboured – pun intended – progress of the legislation attempting to shape a devolved Scottish Assembly in Edinburgh and arrange the referendum which would confirm its creation.

It's now difficult to believe, but the Scotsman in 1978 was both liberal and pragmatic. Its declared editorial preference was to see a largely self-governing Scotland within a federal UK, but it supported the proposed Scottish Assembly's 'inadequate and circumscribed powers' on the grounds that they were (a) better than nothing, and (b) a possible first step to an increasingly federal future. Even before the bill was – in the Scotsman's opinion – 'eviscerated by reactionary Peers', the paper admitted the proposals were 'far from satisfactory'; notable 'defects' included the assembly's lack of revenue-raising powers and the unnecessarily complicated division of executive responsibilities between it and the Secretary of State for Scotland.

However, it was the only show in town. So they supported it.

At the start of 1978 the Scotsman coolly reported on the still-nascent opposition, not least the Edinburgh Central MP Robin Cook's dismissal of the mooted assembly as an 'expensive albatross that is irrelevant to the real social and economic needs of the Scottish people'. But it was on the question of the referendum that the Scotsman almost lost its cool, most notably following an opposition-supported amendment which was passed – quite deliberately, we must assume – on 25 January 1978.

The now infamous amendment was introduced by the Labour MP George Cunningham – Scots born, but representing the North London constituents of Islington South and Finsbury: 'If it appears to the Secretary of State that less than 40% of the persons entitled to vote on the referendum has voted Yes…he shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council for the repeal of this Act'.

Cunningham would later insist – in an article published by the Scotsman – that his amendment simply ensured parliament would be able to reconsider the issue in the event of an 'inconclusive' referendum result. However, the Scotsman, along with many others, saw it as something quite different; as 'blatant rigging' of the result.

'It is interesting how a referendum, being a novelty in British constitutional affairs, attracts politicians who want to rig, manipulate and distort it for their own ends,' the paper commented, throwing about terms including 'unprecedented', 'shabby' and 'hypocrisy' with righteous fury. At the very least, the amendment introduced 'an entirely new concept into British politics – that those who do not vote influence the result'. Given that a simple majority was enough for even the earlier referendum on the UK's membership of the EEC, the paper seriously questioned the introduction of a 40% rule that, bizarrely enough, even Cunningham would have failed to pass within his own constituency.

'Why should Scottish voters put up with this invidious treatment?', an editorial thundered, admittedly focusing its ire on the many 'Bourbon Tories' who supported the amendment. 'The devolution debate in the Commons has gone on the assumption that we [Scots] are politically immature and will do the most foolish things unless devolution lays down myriads of restrictions on an Assembly. The extraordinary referendum amendment is the greatest insult so far to the intelligence of the Scottish people'.

Even before the furore over the 40% rule, however, the Scotsman had one other worry about the Scotland Bill, which has its echo today: the significant delay between the legislation starting its parliamentary passage and the actual holding of the referendum. Noting that the official 'No' campaign was initially holding back, preferring to get party conferences and local elections out of the way first, the paper feared – as, indeed, many do now – that delaying the all-important vote would lead only to apathy. 'Since the arguments for and against devolution have already been extremely well-rehearsed, the main danger is that this extension of debate will generate only boredom', the paper opined in early 1978. Regardless of whether our sympathies lie with YesScotland, Better Together or Still Undecided, can any of us really say we're actually looking forward to the arguments that must be stretched out across the next 18 months?

Things change over time, so it's perhaps unfair to expect even newspapers to hold the same political line in changing situations under very different owners. Yet, to those in the 'Yes' camp who dismiss today's Scotsman as no more than a unionist scaremonger, can I draw your attention to something the paper published back in 1978? It certainly seems just as relevant now as it was back then. 'The campaigners for devolution have a range of positive and hopeful arguments on their side,' an editorial stated in early 1978. 'From the "No" campaigners will come a bundle of negative and gloomy arguments, amounting in effect to appeals to leave the bureaucracy and Westminster to carry on in their present ways. That is not an inspiring prospect. We hope it will not appeal to voters.'

Paul F Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and copywriter who specialises in the arts, culture and disability issues