The MP who launched an accidental coup

A minority government daily teetering on the brink of collapse. A radical opposition leader poised for power. A political establishment at loggerheads in the wake of a divisive referendum.

The atmosphere is febrile. The air carries a whiff of hysteria. No one is quite sure who is running the country or whether the country is being run at all. Things are falling apart.

Not Westminster 2018, but Westminster 1979. Before Theresa May, there was James Callaghan. ‘Sunny Jim’ succeeded Harold Wilson to the premiership after the latter’s sudden resignation in 1976. Labour’s three-seat majority had been gobbled up by defections and by-elections. A pact struck with the Liberals had fallen apart. Labour was forced to beg for votes day in, day out to keep itself in power. The turbulence at Westminster seemed to reflect the gales of anarchy blowing through the country, as union militancy crippled industry after industry. Even the gravediggers went on strike, leaving the dead unburied.

Before Jeremy Corbyn, there was Margaret Thatcher. She too was cut from a different mould to her predecessors. She too rejected the centrist consensus upon which politics had come to function. The scale of change she wished to bring was not yet known but the more insightful government ministers could sense she was a revolutionary.

Into this tension-drenched stalemate, stepped the nagging question of devolution. Momentum for home rule had gathered in Labour’s ranks after Plaid Cymru won the 1966 Carmarthen by-election and Winnie Ewing took Hamilton for the SNP the following year. Both nations were given the chance to vote for a devolved assembly on March 1, 1979. That St David’s Day, the Welsh voted No by a 60 per cent margin. In Scotland, the Yes campaign won the referendum but not the battle.

The vote that counted had taken place the previous year in the House of Commons. At Committee Stage, an amendment was attached to the Scotland Bill requiring the Yes campaign to secure not only a simple majority of votes cast but the support of 40 per cent of eligible electors. The proviso became known as the Cunningham amendment after the man responsible for it, Islington South West MP George Cunningham.

Cunningham, an unassuming man who stumbled into history, died last Friday. The Scot was, wrote the veteran political journalist Michael White, ‘probably the finest parliamentary proceduralist I ever saw at work’. It was that keen understanding of the Commons rulebook that allowed him to amend the Bill against the wishes of his fellow Labour MPs. Cunningham and a handful of Labour rebels colluded with the Tories to wreck the Bill. The conspiracy was soon branded the ‘Burns Night plot’. It was pure, old-fashioned skullduggery of the kind once dreamed up nightly in the bars and smoking rooms of Westminster. Little did he know at the time, Cunningham’s amendment had toppled the first in a row of dominoes that would end with his ousting from Parliament.

The 1979 referendum split Scotland down the middle, not as pungently as 2014 but Scots were still pitted on opposite sides of the constitution. On the night, Yes scraped a narrow victory — 51.6 per cent to 48.4 per cent. However, Cunningham’s trap had been sprung. Once the threshold was applied, the pro-devolution vote fell to 32.9 per cent and with it hopes of a Scottish Assembly. Arguably, the outcome vindicated Cunningham. Six regional authorities voted for and six against; in none of them did the Yes vote meet the 40 per cent threshold. The devolutionists may have won on headline figures but two-thirds of Scots had either voted No or stayed at home. This was not (yet) a country crying out for constitutional change.

His Labour comrades didn’t see it that way and the SNP certainly didn’t. Refusing to accept the outcome of a referendum isn’t something Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon pioneered. They were merely following Nationalist form. As they saw it, more than 1.2 million votes had been no match for George Cunningham. That he was a London Scot — back then, the worst kind of Scot in SNP eyes — only made the insult greater. The Nationalists swore vengeance on Labour and got their pound of flesh, and then some, before the month was through.

What followed remains a vital lesson in the law of unintended consequences, a law which no amendments can wreck. For Cunningham’s ploy led directly to the defeat of his party’s government. Shorn of its majority, the Callaghan administration relied on the good will — and willingness to be bribed — of the smaller parties. After the assembly referendum, the SNP withdrew cooperation. With a weakened prime minister in her sights, Margaret Thatcher went in for the kill.

The Opposition leader tabled a ten-word motion before the Commons: ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’. This was, in effect, the government’s death warrant and the Iron Lady was passing it round for signatures. The SNP enthusiastically added its name.

The government bartered for its life. Cabinet minister Roy Hattersley knew the Northern Ireland MPs could make or break it. Two republicans said they would abstain because they didn’t like the Northern Ireland Secretary of the day. Some Ulster Unionists offered their votes in exchange for a pipeline. Others struck a deal on a separate price index for Ulster, though they insisted a new agreement be drawn up after Hattersley signed the first one in green. Such absurdities must be indulged when every vote counts.

The Labour whips needed one more man to get them over the line. Their only hope was Sir Alfred Broughton, Labour MP for Batley and Morley, who was mortally ill in hospital. He offered to travel to the Commons by ambulance even after his doctors told him he might die en route. Sick MPs can vote anywhere within the precincts of the House and the proposal was that Sir Albert’s ambulance park in the courtyard, his vote be recorded, and he be sent back to hospital to die. Callaghan and his whips could not bring themselves to accept, even though they knew they were sealing their fate.

Finally, the appointed hour came and the House divided. The first Labour government was brought down by a censure motion; Callaghan’s ministers were preparing to be the second.

The Speaker called for order.

‘The Ayes to the right: 311. The Noes to the left: 310. The Ayes have it.’

The Tory benches were vertical in a flash, roaring and waving their order papers like the standard of a conquering army. Labour MPs broke into a consoling chorus of the Red Flag. The government had been brought down by a single vote. Sir Alfred could have saved them. He died five days later.

Callaghan was defiant: ‘Now that the House of Commons has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country.’

That night has gone down as one of the most dramatic in British political history, an event foreordained by one of the government’s own MPs. It was not the only unintended consequence of George Cunningham’s amendment.

Labour was swept into opposition in the ensuing General Election, where it would lurk and sulk and fight and split until Tony Blair came along and returned the party to power 18 years later. The government’s defeat boosted the far-Left, which argued that Labour’s 1979 manifesto had been insufficiently socialist. Callaghan was succeeded as leader by Michael Foot, an intellectual and a gentleman but markedly to the Left of the average voter and a dismal communicator.

The Bennites — devotees of the Marxist aristo Tony Benn — and Trotskyite sect Militant rampaged through the party and targeted MPs on the Labour Right — including one George Cunningham. It was an unjust label, for Cunningham was generally progressive, so much so that, as Labour’s Commonwealth Officer, he once penned a communique threatening military action against Rhodesia, though Harold Wilson intervened before the telegram could be sent.

He quit the Labour whip in 1982 and later joined the new Social Democratic Party but was narrowly defeated for re-election the following year. Another go in 1987 ended the same way. In spiking the Scottish Assembly, he had wrecked his own government and his own political career.

Years later, he re-emerged to warn of the dangers of a Scottish Parliament and called for the 1997 Holyrood referendum to be a UK-wide vote. Even after all that had happened, Cunningham had not lost his knack for infuriating the Nationalists with constitutional jiggery-pokery. This time his suggestion was not taken up, although his admonition that devolution would lead to independence — an argument oft-mocked at the time — looks decidedly less outlandish today.

Nor was Cunningham the only one to learn lessons the hard way. The SNP had enjoyed its best ever result in the October 1974 election: 30 per cent of the vote and 11 seats. MPs voted down the Callaghan government confident they would return after the election in even greater numbers. Sunny Jim said it was, instead, ‘the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas’. And it was: the SNP lost all but two seats and spent the next decade in the political wilderness. They had taken revenge but in the process cooked their own goose.

Depending on your view, George Cunningham was either a hammer of the Nats (and the Red Nats in his own party) or he was a luckless soul who devised his own gallows. Whichever is closer to the truth, he was undeniably a colourful character, perfectly suited to that late Seventies milieu of suspicion and simmering chaos. He was the Scot who blocked a Scottish Assembly, the Labour man who ushered in the era of Thatcherism, and the moderate who gave the Left the opening it needed to attempt a takeover of the Labour Party.

Are there still George Cunninghams stalking the shadowy corridors of Westminster today? Trouble-makers willing to pull a procedural stunt against their own government for a cause they believe in? Jaded lobby hacks and sketch writers hope so because bedlam is more interesting to report than finely ordered dullness. One woman, however, would take dullness over another Cunningham any day. As a vicar’s daughter, she may even pray for it.

Theresa May finds herself in much the same scenario as Jim Callaghan. No majority, dependant on a pact with a smaller party, and facing an opposition offering a stark alternative. Things are much worse for her, though. She has a small battalion of recalcitrant backbenchers even more animated about Brexit than George Cunningham ever was about devolution. If the Prime Minister brings back a Brexit deal they don’t like, some might decide to do a little wrecking of their own. The law of unintended consequences is already limbering up to teach them a lesson too.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at

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