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Dr Robert D McIntyre
Chapter 26 - Two General Elections in One Year

Having slumped in the 1970 General Election, the SNP could not really expect to recover its position in a short period of four years, but that is just what happened.

By-election results in the period were no real guide to the change in electoral fortunes. As we have seen, Stirling, Falkirk & Grangemouth was held by Labour in 1971 and the successful candidate, Harry Ewing, went to Westminster to see on 28th October, 1971 sixty-nine of his Labour colleagues cast their votes in favour of the Conservative Government’s terms on Europe. This group of Members included former Labour Ministers like Roy Hattersley and Roy Jenkins and, of course, a future leader of the Party, John Smith, then MP for North Lanarkshire.

In embarking on this action, they defied a "THREE LINE WHIP" (the Tories having been given a free vote) and many subsequently were put under severe pressure by their constituency parties and sponsoring organisations. It is fair to ponder what would have happened had these individuals not acted in such a fashion and the UK had stood aside from the EEC once again. There is a valid point in relation to defining the nature of the acceptable terms, but the chance of getting the best terms was passed up in the 1950’s and it is obvious that, whatever subsequent terms were put to the UK, these would not be equal to those which could have been attained earlier, and the further delay and hostility which would have arisen if the 1971 terms had been rejected would almost certainly have ensured that worse terms would have been offered in any future negotiations.

However, there is no gainsaying that Harold Wilson, as Labour Leader, had a most difficult job of holding his Party together - a task which he considered to be of supreme priority - and the conflict between Wilson and Heath had the effect of giving a substantial portion of the electorate a jaundiced opinion of politics and politicians.

In this atmosphere, it might be expected that the SNP would prosper but a by-election in Dundee East in March, 1973 saw Labour hold on. Later in the year, there were contrasting circumstances for the SNP in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Tories held on in Edinburgh North, where Willie Wolfe was the SNP candidate, but, in Govan, Margo MacDonald won by 571 votes and made her way to join Donald Stewart at Westminster - albeit for a short period. Her sojourn in the House of Commons was not easy for Margo, given the intense political rivalry of the time, and the industrial situation highlighted by the conflict between the National Coal Board and the Miners’ Union.

She displayed a high standard of debating skill and not a little courage, as the House of Commons was not inclined at this period to sustain a listening mood and, if the new MP did not wholly understand all the complexities of a subject, her opponents showed little patience.

As 1973 drew to its close, the issue which Heath sought to put before the electorate was that of, "Who governs you, the National Union of Mineworkers or the elected Government?" Wage negotiations between the NUM and the Coal Board had been handled badly and the result at the end of 1973 was an intensifying of their dispute, which resulted in a state of emergency being declared and the declaration of the three day week, in response to the NUM’s overtime ban: all this on top of the Yom Kippur War in October and OPEC’s oil prices hype.

But a General Election has a momentum of its own and cannot be restricted to one issue. What transpired was that the whole of Heath’s government record was the issue in February, 1974 and the electorate’s pronouncement was anything but clear. They did not like the Tories, but they were not really ecstatic about Labour either. Labour attained 301 seats and 37.2% of the vote and the Tories 297 seats and 38.2% of the vote. The result was a hung Parliament and, after some hesitation on Heath’s part, Harold Wilson returned to office as Prime Minister.

For the Scottish National Party, the result produced a transformation in the level of support in parliamentary representation, reaching nearly 22% of the vote and winning seven seats. Whatever tactics the SNP were employing, the electorate was favourably impressed and giving support. A key element in this was the issue of North Sea oil and its potential. benefits, mainly of a fiscal nature. Party leaders gained expertise in the understanding of the economics and politics of oil production. Among those who were most prominent in this connection were Gordon Wilson and Douglas Crawford. But the Party as a whole used the issue to dispel fears relating to the ability of an independent Scotland to pay its way. The February, 1974 Manifesto suggested that oil and gas revenues would be used to finance, "... what would otherwise be a budgetary deficit". (It is no injustice to state that all the experts in the SNP could not have anticipated just how many hundreds of billions of pounds would accrue to the Exchequer to finance deficits and underwrite the failures of successive UK governments).

But, in No 10, with Liberal backing was not a situation which Wilson could tolerate for long and he thus chose the earliest opportunity for Labour to return to the electorate in October, 1974.

After the dramatic increase in the SNP vote in the Burgh’s by-election in 1971, it was natural that Dr Mcintyre would be the Party’s candidate in February, 1974. Again, the vote was increased, on this occasion to 17,836 votes, and Labour’s majority was reduced to 3,849. The trend was going in the right direction and it certainly looked as if, given reasonably favourable circumstances, the SNP could take the constituency in a future contest.

Since Hamilton in 1967, increasing attention in Scotland had been focused on "the constitutional issue" and part of Labour’s response to this in government was to set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969. Its remit was comprehensive and designed to deal not only with the "functions of the central legislature and government in relation to the several countries, nations and regions of the United Kingdom; but also to embrace developments in local government organisation and administration".

Originally under the chairmanship of Lord Crowther, after his death that responsibility passed to Lord Kilbrandon, the Committee fulfilled the epithet given to Royal Commissions in that they "sat for years to take minutes" reporting eventually in 1973 in favour of a directly elected single chamber assembly possessing both legislative and executive powers.

Running almost parallel to these developments relative to the Labour Government were the outpourings from the Conservatives. Heath, as Leader of the Opposition, had made his Declaration of Perth in 1968 and had set Sir Alec Douglas-Home the task of devising suitable proposals. He had come forward with what amounted to a third tier of a Scottish "legislative" process. An elected Assembly of 125 members should meet in Edinburgh to deal with certain stages of Scottish legislation, leaving the final decision to the Westminster Parliament. However, even this weak proposal was too much for the Scottish Tories who rejected it in 1973.

Despite the advocacy of the Kilbrandon Report, Labour in Scotland went into the February, 1974 election with no manifesto commitment to devolution and thus, with the Tories, appeared to set itself against any changes in the constitutional position of Scotland. To both the major British parties, the February, 1974 result in Scotland proved a shock and an embarrassment, While the Tories were inactive, Labour began the task of re-appraisal. Within their ranks in Scotland, feelings were stirring up that the Party might change it stance. But it was an uphill struggle, as illustrated when a poorly attended meeting of Labour’s Scottish Executive in June, 1974 voted by 6 votes to 5 to reject all the schemes for devolution which the Government proposed.

This rebuff was not accepted by the Labour hierarchy who virtually insisted that steps be taken to have the Executive’s decision reversed and to have a Special Conference called.

This Conference met in the Dalintober Street Hall, Glasgow of what was then the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society. In a strange sense, the hall fitted the occasion. The SCWS had foundered on the inability of the Society to control the operations of its leading bank official and its affairs had to be taken over by the Co-operative Wholesale Society in Manchester. The Dalintober Street hall was where the meetings of the SCWS shareholders (i.e. the retail co-operatives) were held to discuss the affairs of the Wholesale Society. With its demise, they would have to take instructions from Manchester, as the Labour Party took instructions from London.

Labour, in Scotland, on this warm September day discussed a series of motions, the result of which was to ensure that it would go into the oncoming election committed to setting up "a directly elected Assembly with legislative powers within the context of the political and economic unity of the UK.

Barely a month later, on 10 October, 1974, the election was held which produced an even greater shock than the ballot of February and, in many ways, October was a re-run of February, 1974, with the obvious proviso that the UK political leaders had to adjust their position. When the UK result was finally declared, Labour had a majority of 4 seats, with a reduced vote, but the Tories had lost 20 seats from their February total.

From the viewpoint of the campaign in Scotland, there were some indications of shifts in policy positions. Labour was committed to "devolution" and was moving towards a referendum on the issue of the "renegotiated" terms for Europe. The Tories under Heath made little change from the earlier election, as was also the case with the Liberals.

The SNP made a few adjustments partly, it appears, in order to combat the accusation of selfishness on the profession of, "ITS SCOTLAND’S OIL". They appeared to move towards conservation and a willingness to constrain production to meet Scotland’s domestic and revenue needs. While these elements had been there in February, what now was apparent was a change of emphasis.

On Europe, the SNP made it plain that, "The Scottish people must have the right to choose for themselves in a referendum whether or not they wish their country to be part of the Common Market".

When the results came through, they had a seismic effect on Scottish and British politics. The SNP had won eleven seats and achieved 30.4% of the vote. Additionally, the Party was placed second in forty-two of the remaining seats. While some of the majorities were narrow, 30 in Galloway and 22 in Dunbartonshire East, the overall performance was stunning but, for some who might have, with good reason, thought that they could win, there must have been some tinge of regret amongst the celebrations. In West Lothian, Willie Wolfe surely felt the pangs of disappointment in having raised his vote from 21,690 in February to 24,997 in October, to see Labour still in command by 2,690 votes.

Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth saw an even closer contest. Labour must have thought that they had gone with a tide which surrounded them. Dr Robert McIntyre’s vote had increased from 17,836 to 20,324 but Labour retained the seat by 1,766 votes.

A number of factors could be said to have gone against the SNP. The Liberal Candidate polled 1,477 votes, whereas that party did not challenge in February, but one cannot set aside the fact that, in an area with intense local rivalries, the role which Dr McIntyre played in the advocacy of Stirling’s cause, notably with regard to the new University, did not necessarily go down well in the other Burghs.

The result was a Party triumph, but there were some understandable personal misgivings which could be best assuaged by doing what Robert McIntyre had done all his life- get on with the tasks in hand: in this case, his medical work and continuing to serve the SNP and the Burgh of Stirling. Unfortunately, in the latter case, this had not long to run.

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