The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency … Part III

by Stephen Tall on January 19, 2010

As trailed here, over the next few weeks I’m publishing ‘The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency’, the thesis I wrote as an undergraduate some 12 years ago. You can catch up with what’s been published to date here.

‘Beginning to be converted to the least possible’: devolution launched

Hamilton and the SNP upsurge

Scottish demands for home rule did not originate in 1967; but it was from this date they once more gained Parliamentary momentum.

It was in 1928 that the National Party of Scotland emerged from the cross-party Scottish Home Rule Association as a reaction against Westminster’s repeated failure to legislate for home rule. Gradually, the party drifted towards a vague espousal of independence. Within six years it had merged with the much smaller Scottish Party, which advocated home rule, to form the Scottish National Party.

Under John MacCormick’s moderating leadership from its inception, the SNP abandoned any commitment to separatism. But the amalgamation of two opposing conceptions of nationalism left the movement unstable, the inevitable conflict erupting in 1942 on the pretext of the party’s attitude towards wartime conscription.

The real rift, however, was between those members of the SNP who felt it should be a movement (cooperating with other parties to embrace the maximum amount of support for home rule in Scotland), and those who were convinced it should be true to its name and remain a party (battling against other parties to win independence for Scotland through the ballot box). (See A. Marr, The Battle for Scotland (1995), p.92).

This intra-party warfare did not mean, however, that the Scottish people lost all interest in the issue of home rule. Indeed, the first ever nationalist MP. Dr Robert McIntyre, was elected in April 1945 at a by-election in Motherwell; though his victory can be ascribed principally to the absence of a Conservative candidate due to the prevailing wartime electoral truce. (P. Addison in C. Cook & J . Ramsden, By-elections in British politics (1997), p.147).

Motherwell formed part of a British pattern, the tiny Independent Labour and Common Wealth parties both performing well in England, frequently taking over 40 per cent of the vote and winning several seats. (Cook & Ramsden, By-elections, Appendix A, pp.281-83).

But it remained, undeniably, a morale-boosting success for the Nationalists, inspiring MacCormick – who had resigned fro the SNP in 1942 to form the campaigning Scottish Convention – to launch the ‘Scottish National Assembly’ in 1947. This organisation, which included delegates from other bodies, churches, trade unions and town councils, drafted the first Scottish Covenant in April 1949, grandiloquently stating:

We, the people of Scotland, who subscribe this Engagement, declare our belief that reform in the constitution of our country is necessary to secure good government in accordance with our Scottish traditions and to promote the spiritual and economic welfare of our nation. … we pledge ourselves, in all loyalty to the Crown and within the framework of the United Kingdom, to do everything in our power to secure for Scotland a Parliament with adequate legislative authority in Scottish affairs. (Quoted in Marr, Battle for Scotland, pp.96-7).

It was, however, the victory of Winnie Ewing in the Hamilton by-election of November 1967 – winning 46 per cent of the vote, transforming a 16,576 Labour majority into a 1,799 SNP majority, and so taking Labour’s second safest seat in Scotland – which catapulted Scottish nationalism to the forefront of the political agenda. On polling day itself, The Scotsman had concluded the outcome was a formality, reporting (under the headline, ‘Another Wilson looks set for Westminster’):

Hamilton constituency would have to be turned head-over-heels beforw any candidate other than the Labour nominee, Mr. Alex Wilson, is elected and the atmosphere in both burgh and landward areas gives no indication that this has happened. (Scotsman, 2 November 1967, p.7).

The result was made all the more fantastic by the SNP’s unimpressive track record in the constituency. In 1959, the party polled just 6.2 per cent, and in neither 1964 or 1966 did it field a candidate. It was a massive jolt to Labour, although Dick Crossman recorded that Tam Dalyell, a close but critical observer of the SNP, ‘had predicted this to me very strongly.’ (R. Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister (1976), ii, pp. 550-51).

As in any by-election, local factors did come into play. For example, the poll was the result of the departure of Labour MP, Tom Fraser, for a high-paid job as Chairman of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. The Labour campaign was further marred by a bitterly contested battle for the candidacy.

The SNP was assisted by the resignation of prominent broadcaster and author Ludovic Kennedy from the Liberal Party to speak for Ewing, even though the Liberals had declined to fight the seat. His move attracted widespread publicity. Two days before the poll, Kennedy was quoted on The Scotsman’s front page declaring, ‘In the course of time, I may join the SNP.’

At that time, Kennedy was one of future Liberal Party leader David Steel’s constituents in Roxburghshire, and it was from his constituency party that Kennedy resigned. Steel, who was abroad at the time, observed: ‘Had I been around, I would have advised him to do as he wished … It was a great boost to the SNP and an unnecessary blow to us.’ (D. Steel, Against Goliath (1991), p.73).

The Times remarked in its analysis of the result: ‘One swallow, even such a pert, persuasive bird hitting all the right notes, does not make a Nationalist summer.’ (Times, 4 November 1967, p.2).

But this was not an isolated electoral catastrophe for Labour. It followed on from a Glasgow Pollok by-election in March in which the SNP gained 28.2 per cent of the vote, and a 34 per cent poll in May 1968’s municipal elections, at which it gained the balance of power in Glasgow. Such victories made a tremendous impact because they came from nowhere.

After the ephemeral victory of Motherwell the SNP had slunk back into obscurity. In 1955, the party fielded just two candidates, who attracted 12,112 votes between them. Even in 1966 its 23 candidates could garner only five per cent of the total votes.

So, what caused this meteoric rise without trace, membership surging from 2,000, in 1962, to 120,000, in 1968? (Marr, Battle for Scotland, p.116).

Next week … The economic transformation of Scotland