Arthur Donaldson’s view
that the crisis of May 1942 Conference was a clash of personalities is
much too simplistic an explanation, and is only excusable on the basis
of his own strongly held opinions.
From the beginning of the
War with Germany in 1939, the strain of conscience and obligation had
been in conflict with ill-defined Party policy. John MacCormick, as
Secretary realised that it would not be in the long-term interests of
the Party to have members shut up in gaol and, more particularly, incur
public disapprobation of being in conflict with the bulk of public
opinion which supported the war against Hitler.
Others, like Douglas
Young, while not pacifists, sought to make ajustifiable distinction in
relation to conscription in that this exceeded the legal authority of
the Government, and were willing to make a challenge on this ground.
Yet another section,
spearheaded by Roland E Muirhead, held long-established pacifist views
and were willing to support this conscientious route of opposition to
the Government of the day.
Of course, personalities
came into play, as must be the case in political challenges and
aspirations. But the aims and goals of those engaging in dispute cannot
When a leader is faced
with a party in conflict, the worst thing he can do is to let the party
stand still. The best that he can do is to choose a course of action
which will unite it in moving forward in a desirable and agreed course.
Naturally, the problem is in devising such a course, and MacCormick’s
failure was that his desired course was calculated, in the end, not to
unite but to divide.
After fourteen years of
activity on the nationalist course, it is not a criticism of him to say
that the desire to be liked and to move in salubrious circles had an
attraction for him. This is amply illustrated in his own words in "The
Flag in the Wind".
There is no doubt that
MacCormick was a brilliant organiser and an articulate and able public
speaker, but the strain of fighting elections and inter-party conflict
was beginning to tell on him.
In "The Flag in the
Wind", MacCormick recalls that, "Prior to the Conference, I
had placed a resolution on the agenda to the effect that the Party,
having served its pioneering purposes by fighting elections against all
other parties should now regard itself as the agency which might unite
Scottish opinion, irrespective of Party differences, behind an agreed
measure of Scottish Home Rule."
What is perhaps
surprising about this resolution is that it was set down against the
background of the Party’s success in the Argyll By-election of April
1940, in which William Power had achieved 37.2 per cent of the poll and,
in the opinion of Robert McIntyre and others, could have won had the
German attack on Norway not occurred shortly before polling day, and
thus produced an upsurge of support for the Conservative candidate, D
McCallum, in this straight fight.
From the mid-1930’s,
MacCormick had been trying to get a convention-type movement going, and
his analysis of the changing political situation in the early War years
lulled him into the belief that, "It was essential to try to make
use of the growing sympathy towards our point of view, which was, at
this time, manifesting itself on all hands and even in Parliament. Tom
Johnston was now Secretary of State in Churchill’s Cabinet and,
largely through his influence, a new and constructive spirit on matters
affecting Scotland was developing among the Parties."
Johnston’s position in
the Churchill Cabinet was one of considerable importance and influence,
and few would dispute that he used it to good effect.
He had a long-standing
commitment to the Home Rule Movement but, like all politicians, he
desired the substance of power rather than the illusions.
Returning to Westminster
in 1935 as MP for West Stirlingshire, Johnston had indicated to his
Constituency Party that he would retire at the next general election,
but this decision was not acted on as quickly as he might have had in
mind due to the outbreak of war.
After a brief spell as
Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence in Scotland. Tom Johnston was
appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in the Churchill Government in
February 1941. He thus had a favourable opportunity to use his
imaginative and inventive mind and to display his political and
One of his many
innovations was to bring together in a "Council of State" a
group of ex-Secretaries of State who would act as a sounding board for
legislative and administrative purposes. This was an extremely useful
ploy to adopt, in that, once the group had reached agreement, it was
difficult, particularly in time of war, for the Cabinet proper to
overthrow its agreed proposals.
Among the Council’s
first efforts was to initiate inquiries into the further development of
hydro-electricity in Scotland, the mining industry and hill sheep
farming. Later in 1941, it turned its attention to the condition of
industry in Scotland and, specifically, the imbalance in terms of the
failure to attract new and secure industries to Scotland in time of war.
His undoubted ability to
get things done, albeit in a war-time setting where the chief and
clearly identified objective was to win the war, persuaded many that
Scotland’s task was to show economic competence and then Home Rule
Robert McIntyre, while
acknowledging Johnston’s gifts, gives his own opinion. "He
(Johnston) gave the feeling and impression that by administration,
things could be done. He also said to me ‘You’ve got to sort out the
economy. Once we’ve got the economy going a Parliament will follow.’
McIntyre’s reply was, "It’s the other way about. Your
propositions may have been true in Victorian times but now politics
dominate the economic situation".
While, later on, McIntyre
was to practise "consensus politics", in local government, his
different order of priorities had him at variance with MacCormick on the
role and nature of the Scottish National Party.
MacCormick was always
looking for consensus, and this drove him to seek to influence opinion
in terms of endeavouring to unite political parties and opponents
towards a common aim of Home Rule.
McIntyre, on the other
hand, thought that MacCormick, with whom he claimed good personal
relations, was "politically wrong and that we had to have an
independent Party fighting for Home Rule and a Scottish
He saw that as a major
disadvantage of covenant-style activities in that these could easily be
brushed aside even if one gathered 2 million or more signatures.
Mcintyre’s reasoning was that such devices had "no sanctions
behind them. "He comments,"... if you are fighting elections,
you have a certain amount of pull related to the support you got at the
election. The threat of putting out the present crowd ...".
This conflict of strategy
and aims, and the fact that MacCormick’s candidate lost in the
Conference of 1942 set the SNP on a distinctive path to building up an
organisation to fight at Local and parliamentary elections to achieve
While the resolution of
the conflict at the Party Conference in May, 1942 seems to have been
determined by voting for the office of chairman, an analysis of the
split gives no such clear-cut view.
The candidates for the
chairman’s office were Willie Power and Douglas Young. Power was a
respected journalist and author with a Glasgow background. He had been
an excellent candidate in the Argyll By-election but, as he was no
longer in the full flush of youth, this would not have induced a great
support from the younger elements who were desirous of a more
adventurous role for the Party - a line which the members of the active
Motherwell branch advocated.
Douglas Young, on the
other hand, could claim youth and activity on his side. He was a
lecturer in Greek and was appealing against a sentence of twelve months
imprisonment for resisting the National Service Act, claiming that such
a statute exceeded the powers of the UK Parliament in terms of the
Treaty of 1707.
An irony of Young’s
stance on this issue is that it would have been most unlikely that he
would have been fit for military service due to his precarious health
but, as Robert McIntyre acknowledges, Young would have been extremely
useful in intelligence work.
The debate on the
respective merits of Young and Power seem to have been very lively, and
certainly bordered on acrimonious. At the end of the voting, the result
was Young 33 votes, Power 29.
It matters little that
MacCormick’s account states that, "Willie Power was defeated by
two votes. Discounting the margin of defeat, MacCormick appears to have
concluded that, "There must be a parting of the ways for the two
sections in the Party" and, after a brief speech to the Conference
he went his own way declining to continue as secretary of the Party, a
post which he had occupied, in effect, since 1929.
After such an upheaval,
there were the recriminations. MacCormick’s energy and organisational
ability could now be devoted to the "Scottish Convention" and,
later, he stood as a Liberal candidate for Inverness in 1945.
Young, as we shall see,
was to have something of a chequered career in the SNP Arthur Donaldson
was extremely loyal to him in his period of conflict with authority and
subsequent imprisonment. This loyalty was not entirely reciprocated
because Young eventually joined the Labour Party. A flavour of the depth
of feelings surrounding the split is given in the bitterness of Arthur
Donaldson’s riposte to a letter sent out by MacCormick. Writing in the
August, 1942 issue of Scottish News & Comment (a monthly survey of
events which Donaldson sent our costing one penny) Donaldson penned an
OPEN letter to J M MacCormick:
In a ‘private’ letter
to Professor A Dewar Gibb, which seems to have had a circulation fully
equal to that of most of your public statements, you wrote with respect
to your recent debate at the SNP Conference:
‘I understand moreover
that during the past year or so the whole group responsible for Young’s
nomination have held frequent meetings with others outside the Party who
held a similar point of view, such as Oliver Brown, W D MacColl, J H
Miller, Arthur Donaldson, etc., and that some of these meetings,
attended by Dr McIntyre himself, have actually taken place in the
offices of the pacifist Socialist Party in Burnside St.’
I doubt if it is
necessary to tell you that this, in so far as it refers to me, is
It would seem in fact
that, far from there having been a successful conspiracy to unseat you,
the result was as big a shock (but more pleasant) to your opponents as
it was to you. It would appear to have been due, first to a general
realisation within the Scottish National Party that a continuation of
your dominance, however disguised, meant an early demise for the Party;
and, second, to the ineptitude, petulance and, latterly, vindictiveness
shown by you at the Conference.
I do not set any value on
an apology or retraction in this instance ... but if Mr MacCormick, the
politician, is contemplating any similar indiscretions in future, he
would do well to consult very carefully with Mr MacCormick, the lawyer.
Otherwise, you will yet overstep too far the bounds of truth and
tolerance of other people’s contempt.
However, as was to be
expected, MacCormick was not without sympathisers, albeit at a distance,
like Neil Gunn who wrote in reply to Douglas Young from Dingwall.
"Personally, I am grieved that there has been any split in the
Party. I have always done my utmost to keep the effort united. Scotland
has been badly cursed by this fatal tendency to schism.
You must understand that
it is difficult for me to follow remarks you have made about MacCormick...
because for years we worked together in the north, particularly in
organising Inverness-shire where the fine and tireless work MacCormick
put in was very clear to me. In my view, the amount the whole movement
owes to him can hardly be exceeded, it indeed equalled, by any other
individual, and, partly in that aspect which brought the whole issue as
a united and live one before the Scots public."
Another irony of the
situation which was to emerge was that Young’s position, in terms of
desiring that the SNP should be more of an all-embracing movement rather
that a distinct political party, was much nearer to that of MacCormick
than that of Robert McIntyre and Arthur Donaldson. Robert McIntyre had
voted for Young at the 1942 meeting but their views were to differ
sharply on the path to be followed by the SNP.
Young pointedly suggests,
in examining the SNP in the 1950’s, that the Party, under McIntyre and
Donaldson, had become narrow and exclusive and states: "Whereas
earlier nationalist organisations had sought all-party membership in
pursuit of their aim, the McIntyre-Donaldson line was to build up a
party completely cut off from the major UK parties the support of at
least one of which is necessary to get legislation through both Houses
Young was correct in that
both McIntyre and Donaldson sought to organise an independent party
capable of fighting and winning parliamentary and local elections on its
own ticket and, through this process, illustrate to the Scottish people
the value and capabilities of self-government. He was wrong in thinking
that the leaders of the SNP were inward looking and exclusive, and his
criticism is more odd when one acknowledges that he joined the Labour
Party which, for good reasons, did not allow members from other parties
- not even the "Red Clydesiders" like Maxton whom Labour stood
against in 1935.
After June, 1942, McIntyre and Donaldson
saw there was no going back. Nothing could be gained by standing still.
As Secretary now, Robert had the difficult task of trying to hold the
Party together and sustain its branch organisations and finances.
Donaldson kept up his constant stream of
writing and speaking activities from his Ayrshire base.
These were not easy years for the SNP
leaders especially, if, like McIntyre, you had a more than full-time job
and, for Donaldson, you had to support a wife and family.