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Devolution: Twenty years since Scotland's decisive vote

STV News has talked to key figures from period in a series of interviews.

By STV News

Published 20 Jul 2017.

The people of Scotland backed the creation of a devolved parliament in a historic referendum result 20 years ago.

Scots were asked two questions on their ballot paper: Should there be a Scottish Parliament and should that body have the power to raise or lower taxes?

When the votes were counted on referendum night, 74.3% of the country wanted the parliament and a slimmer majority of Scots (63.4%) consented to it being empowered with tax-varying powers.

The blueprint for the parliament was published on St Andrew's Day two years earlier in 1995 by the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC).

As the nation looked ahead to the 1997 general election it seemed certain Scotland would have a devolved parliament if Tony Blair walked into Downing Street, with Labour backing and helping to shape the SCC's proposals.

That certainty was cast into doubt when in June 1996, 11 months before the general election, Labour announced if elected they would not legislate for devolution until a referendum was passed on the plans.

The decision was a U-turn on party's previous stance.

"What we had to do," remembered former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001, "was to make sure we got the people of Scotland to decide the principle first so that we could use the legitimacy, if you like, to get the legislation through".

Not all agreed with decision in private.

"I think what you had there was the schism in a sense between Scots, especially Donald Dewar, and English Cabinet ministers - and probably the Prime Minister," says former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish.

In contrast to McLeish's talk of schisms, Dewar's special adviser Wendy Alexander said the late First Minister was "very comfortable" with Blair's decision.

Another Labour veteran, Lord Foulkes, pointed to Blair when asked who made the decision.

"Tony Blair insisted with the two questions," he said.

He added: "Tony Blair wanted to make sure that first of all it was going to be a powerful parliament and that we would not have constant pressure to have another referendum for tax-raising powers."

When Mr Blair walked into Downing Street on May 2, 1997, the stage was then set for a vote on devolution.

Opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the vote showed a large lead for the Yes-Yes side.

McLeish remembers the referendum fondly.

"It was a great time in Scotland," he said.

"I think we turned a corner there but I think we may have lost some of that in terms of the tribalism and partisanship which still mars Scottish politics."

Former SNP parliamentarian Sir George Reid sensed a change in the public's attitude to devolution during the campaign.

"I was reasonably confident it could be done all the way through," he says.

"I have always represented - both at Holyrood and Westminster - Clackmannanshire and in the first referendum I would walk down Shillinghill in Alloa and people would not look me in the eye.

"I knew it wasn't that right, their mind was somewhere else. Second time round everyone smiling, approaching and happy, and so it turned out."

Scotland was a changed nation two decades on from the first referendum in 1979.

Two months after the unsuccessful vote, Margaret Thatcher came to power and the anti-devolution Conservatives governed the nation for 18 years.

While the cooling towers of Ravenscraig and other industrial sites across Scotland crumbled, support for Scottish self-government grew.

Nothing is certain in politics and events can change public opinion.

With only days to go until polls opened the nation was shocked by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car accident in Paris.

Campaigning was halted as a mark of respect towards the late princess. No one knew in what direction public opinion was swinging towards as the referendum entered the home straight.

"Diana's death, while shocking the nation at the time... Fundamentally people had 20 years to think about whether they felt Scotland had been served well by not having its own parliament through all of the 1980s and 1990s," Alexander judges

"The die was cast and come the day they expressed their view."

And expressed their view they did.

On September 11, 1997, almost three centuries of total government from Westminster was buried under a devolution landslide.

The Scottish Parliament was created in 1999, just in time for a new millennium and a new chapter in the country's history began.