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Dr Robert D McIntyre
Chapter 20 - Politics & Economics In The 1950’s


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 the SNP.

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 divided party.

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 Westminster Abbey.

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 the Party.

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 shipbuilding.

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.

Arthur Donaldson 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 few votes.

However, other 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 priorities.

Aneurin Bevan’s 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 box.

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.


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