The second half of the
twentieth century opened with a period of intense political activity and
rivalry. A general election took place in February 1950, and the turnout
of 84% in itself gives some indication of the nature of the contest.
Labour obtained well over
13 million votes and the Tories 12¼ million. The seats won respectively
were 315 to 298.
Robert McIntyre was back
in Motherwell as one of the quartet of SNP candidates in the election.
Dominance in Britain by the two unionist parties was minored in Scotland
and circumstances were not favourable to the SNP. It could be argued
that the very spirit of the time was against the political approach of
Labour sought to convince
the electorate that it had delivered on its promises. As to Home Rule,
their candidates in Scotland argued that the degree of economic
intervention by the Government had produced benefits to Scotland and
that the changes in the procedures for Scottish legislation had also
been of value.
All thoughts that, next
to the defeat of Japan, there was no issue more important than a
Scottish Parliament had disappeared from Labour’s thinking. In terms
of seats, in Scotland, this had little effect with Labour holding 37 of
the 71, but the Tories and allies made a gain of 3 seats to hold 32
Scottish seats, with 45% of the votes.
Churchill, now in his
seventy-sixth year, facing a Labour Government tired and exhausted,
could now realistically expect to return to power.
What was the Tories’
response to the situation in Scotland?
Some might have thought
that Churchill, who had represented Dundee from 1908 until 1922 and had
commanded a Scottish battalion in the First World War, might have
understood the Scots quite well. As it was, he endorsed the views
expressed in a letter from James Stuart, Chairman of the Scottish
Unionist MPs, who replied to a letter and questionnaire sent
by John MacCormick in the terms which included the
view, "Having carefully considered these documents, we wish to make
it clear to all. If the people of Scotland were ultimately to decide in
favour of a Scottish Parliament, no one could gainsay them."
But there was a rejection of the concept of a
plebiscite or a "number of signatures" in a document to
determine the issue.
Labour’s response was,
if anything, more guarded and Hector McNeil, the then Secretary of
State, made it clear that, "It is our view that constitutional
change in this country is considered and settled by the normal process
of Parliamentary democracy".
With Labour’s narrow
parliamentary majority, a further general election could not be long
delayed and internal squabbles and resignations made Labour seem a
For the nationalist
movement as a whole in Scotland, the highlight of the interim period
between the elections was the removal of the Stone of Destiny from
However much this
symbolic act was deplored by the establishment and considered by some as
a pointless gesture of frustration, the fact that it buoyed the morale
of many of the younger generation was of considerable importance. But
there was little immediate evidence that it brought much needed new
members and finance to the SNP.
Another general election
in October 1951 saw Labour defeated and ushered in thirteen years of
Tory rule. Churchill, one month short of his seventy-seventh birthday,
was again Prime Minister, and his Government’s response in power to
the situation in Scotland was to make Lord Home Minister of State at the
Scottish Office and to set up a Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs
under Lord Balfour.
Before Labour could
return to power again in 1964, Scotland was presided over by three
Secretaries of State, James Stuart, John S Maclay and Michael Noble, all
Scottish landowners, all educated in England.
These years were
extremely difficult for the SNP. Although armed with a new constitution
in 1948, the Party was not able to project itself on to the Scottish
political scene in which the two unionist parties were so dominant. Some
writers have asserted that, in the period from 1945 until about 1960,
the SNP "went through its darkest years". At this time, an
informal alliance of young members attempted to challenge the leadership
and James Halliday had the onerous position of Chairman of the Party
thrust upon him. The activities of the "1955 Group" were
contained and, for reasons which are extremely difficult to analyse, in
the late 1950’s, a, number of young people began to make their way in
Part of the explanation
of this increased attention can be explained by the parlous situation of
the Scottish economy. The immediate post-was activity had masked the
run-down condition of the major industries like shipbuilding, coal and
steel. Other nations, especially those which had been defeated in war,
were catching up and passing Britain in key areas of output, e.g. Japan
In 1961, an ‘Inquiiy
into the Scottish Economy’ by the Scottish Council (Development &
Industry) under John Toothill produced a report - which, after
considerable analysis, put forward certain proposals aimed at promoting
growth points to assist the diversification of the Scottish economy -
which it claimed had too large a share of the old declining industries
and too small a share of new growth industries. Unemployment, then at 3%
(under 100,000), was considered as the symptom of the problem, the real
problem was lack of growth.
Those who were keen to
make a change in the situation and who could not find a comfortable
political base within the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Parties had
the SNP to look to and, given certain constraints, a party in which they
could make a rapid advance.
Membership drives are
legion in all political parties. Most of the time they start off with
great enthusiasm and are quickly forgotten because of the strains of
attracting new members who will actively support the organisation.
succeeded James Halliday as Chairman in 1960 and, by good fortune, this
coincided with the entry of new spirits into the SNP Vital to the
gaining of new members was the work of Ian McDonald and Dr James Lees.
McDonald, an Ayrshire farmer, joined the SNP when a student at Glasgow
University. In the late 1950’s, he became a member of the National
Executive and proceeded to develop techniques to recruit new members and
build up branches.
Dr James Lees returned to
Scotland, after a long period of medical work as a pathologist in
England, in 1961. He was "shocked by the state of Scotland"
and immediately made contact with Dr Robert McIntyre and set about
establishing branches in Fife.
His estimate is that, at
this time, the Party had about a dozen branches with around 2,000
members and a few local councillors.
Dr Lees soon became a
member of the National Executive and, with the new constitution of 1964,
vice-chairman in charge of organisation.
Ian McDonald took the
bold step of selling up his Ayrshire farm and devoted his time to
working for the Party on the organisation side on a full-time basis.
McDonald also saw the
need to contest parliamentary elections and was the Party’s candidate
in a by-election in Bridgeton (Glasgow) in 1961. His description of
becoming the candidate is straightforward. "There was not really
much choice - no one else seemed willing to go forward." In the
election, he received 18% of the vote and, more importantly, learned the
lesson that "The Scottish people wanted Scottish government, but
would not vote for the SNP until it was clear that the Party had a
serious chance of winning."
Maybe Bridgeton was not
such a great achievement, but it certainly was a turning point. Arthur
Donaldson saw it as such later on and contrasted the situation of the
Party in the last years of the Sixties with that of the beginning.
"As we entered the 1960’s we had no money, few members, little to
show for our achievements, and no prospects. After Bridgeton, black days
were to come but the SNP has not looked back".
There may even be a great
degree of exaggeration in the statements about the growth of membership
and branches in the period. Donaldson claimed 100,000 in 1968. Lees
states, "By 1967, the Party had 550 paid-up branches, about
two-thirds formed by Ian and on-third by me, and over 20,000
members." Other estimates range from 30,000 to 54,000. Whatever
figure is chosen, and much depends on judgements of active members
(paid-up) and branches, the SNP made rapid and decisive progress in the
Scottish political scene in the 1960’s, most notably in by-elections.
The general elections of
1964 and 1966 saw a doubling of the SNP votes from 65,000 to 130,000,
with an increase in the number of candidates.
1964 saw Labour back in
power with Harold Wilson as Prime Minister and Willie Ross as Secretary
of State for Scotland. Ross epitomised much of what is good in the
Scottish character, mixed with a bunkered view of the world in general
and a considerable inability to spend much time considering new ideas,
especially from those in his own Party who did not share his opinion on
the future of Scotland.
Harold Wilson had
succeeded to the leadership of the Labour Party after the death of Hugh
Gaitskell, who had lost badly as leader in 1955 and 1959 but, by the
time of his death at the age of fifty-six in January 1963, bad succeeded
in getting over to the public the sincerity of his personality and his
innate sense of enjoyment at being in people’s company.
Illness and retirements
had brought about changes in the Tory leadership. Churchill had been
succeeded by Anthony Eden who, in turn after the Suez Affair, had given
way to Macmillan (Wonder Mac). Macmillan’s flair and commanding
"middle way" approach had a considerable electoral appeal and
his ability, as Harold Wilson is reputed to have averred, of holding up
the banner of Suez while leading his Party away from Suez, had the stamp
of genius about it.
Macmillan fell victim to
illness and, in 1963, had to resign and was succeeded by Lord Home who,
on relinquishing his peerage, had to find a seat. This was accomplished
by George Younger standing aside as candidate in Perth and Kinross and a
by-election being held in 1963.
Arthur Donaldson was the
SNP candidate in this by-election, which won the Party many friends but
by-elections in this period put a somewhat different complexion on the
political face of Scotland - most significantly that in West Lothian in
June 1962 in which Billy Wolfe attained 9,450 votes and just under 24%
of the poll.
And although the SNP did
manifestly less well in by-elections in Woodside (Glasgow), Dundee West
and Dumfriesshire, West Lothian brought to the party an enormous degree
of enthusiasm and expertise and a desire to develop new electoral
techniques, plus the beginnings of a development of policies related to
the changing times. Billy Wolfe’s view on the matter shows his
concern. "The SNP policy document which we had used in the 1962
by-election had been drafted in 1947. It was a sound document but it
needed to be up-dated and I determined in 1962 that I would make it one
of my priorities to have, if possible, such a policy document ready for
the forthcoming General Election."
Obviously, going into
detailed policies for a party like the SNP, poses considerable problems
and challenges. To frame policies for a range of economic and social
issues means the gathering and analysing of information and then - the
considerable obstacle for any party - of obtaining agreement on
dictum.. "... that the language of priorities is the religion of
Socialism" might sound fine, but the devil is in the detailing
these priorities and providing the means to obtain the desirable ends.
But a party seeking
electoral support for an Independent Scotland and which claimed to
"Put Scotland First" has, in the circumstances, to go beyond
the slogans and provide a detailed and considered programme which, in
addition to seeking to negotiate for independence, would allay fears and
prove to the Scottish People that independence was not only right and
justified, but also economically, socially and politically beneficial.
As events were to show, this is not an easy task because it not only
opens up the argument within a party but also gives opponents and an
unfriendly media the opportunity to miss-interpret your aims. But this
is part of the necessary price in living in a "free" society
and desiring to attain your ends by peaceful means - through the ballot
To his credit, Billy
Wolfe, with considerable encouragement from within the Party, laid much
of the foundations for the future development of policy for the SNP.