Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Scotland - A Concise History
To Be or Not To Be

By 1914 some 65 per cent of Scotland's people lived in the central belt of the country between the Firth of Forth and Clyde, and a steady drift from the countryside into towns and cities continued, until, by the 1930s, 80 per cent of Scots were concentrated in this area. The major employers were the 'heavy' industries - coal mining, iron and steel-founding, shipbuilding and engineering. More than 200,000 families derived their livelihood from these industries, and a further 150,000 were sustained by employment in textile production. Thus more than half the population was dependent upon labour-intensive manufacturing industry.

In the late 1800s and into the twentieth century, these industries were earning large profits, and great wealth came to the owners, who enjoyed, in late Victorian and Edwardian times, life-styles enviable for leisure and luxury. Unfortunately, though individual acts of charity were frequent, there was no official social conscience; and, in the presence of great riches, industrial workers lived lives governed by low wages, long hours and frequently unhealthy and dangerous working conditions. Away from the workplace, living conditions were, as came to be realised, a national disgrace. Housing, whether provided by employers or by builders planning to draw rents, was generally cheap in construction, poor in quality and grudging in space. If employers had provided high-quality housing, then their profits would have suffered. If builders had offered high quality rented homes, a low-paid workforce could never have paid the rents required. So, buildings were crammed into confined sites, often cheek-by-jowl with colliery and yard, factory and foundry; rooms were small, and around 53 per cent of families, no matter how numerous, lived in houses with one or two rooms. Indoor sanitation was absent or shared, and the effect of these conditions upon the health and life-expectancy of the people was bound to be damaging. Typhoid fever and even cholera survived into the twentieth century; epidemics of diphtheria and scarlet fever were virtually annual, and tuberculosis killed thousands. Poverty led to malnutrition, and diseases caused by diet deficiency, like rickets, were common. To make matters worse, the houses were themselves aging, and new building was quite inadequate to provide homes for the rising population between 1850 and 1900.

To make matters worse, though few could have realised it, Scotland's days of industrial success were already numbered. The appearance of economic success endured and examples of technological excellence (such as the building of the first turbine-powered steamer, King Edward in 1901) occurred, but the basis of Scotland's role as one of the world's workshops was weakening.

The resources of iron and coal upon which industrial growth had been founded, had been, or were becoming, exhausted. Many countries were able to exploit resources far beyond those available in Scotland, and were also better placed geographically to manufacture and trade. These emerging competitors commonly employed modern technology, having learned from and improved upon Scottish - and English - exemplars. Scotland's industrial experience proved the truth of Andrew Carnegie's remark that 'pioneering don't pay'.

The King Edward sailing on the River Clyde
The King Edward sailing on the River Clyde. (Photo: G E Longmuir)

To a great extent, therefore, decline arose from realities of mineralogy, geology and geography, for which no one can be blamed. Criticism can, however, be made of the owners and managers who persevered with old-fashioned equipment and methods, preferring unbroken production in the present to the prospect of greater productivity in the future.

Also, as had been the case in the 1700s, men who met with economic success in their chosen field tended to reward themselves by abandoning that field and adopting instead the life-style of leisured aristocrats. In Scotland's industrial heyday her industries were planned and operated by men who were technically expert, or, at least, well-informed. Men like Lord Kelvin could spend mornings researching and lecturing on the theories of physics and engineering, and the afternoons in the engineering shop, applying these theories to the practical task of producton. But as time passed, owners became remote, mere investors or administrators, detached from technological experience or experiment. The managers to whom they left the day-to-day running of industry, all too often showed the practical man's contempt for theory - 'mere' theory as the revealing phrase puts it. The close integration of theory and practice characteristic of the rise of Scottish industry - the tradition of James Watt and Lord Kelvin, and of Robert and David Napier, the virtual creators of the Clyde's greatness as a centre of shipbuilding and marine engineering - gradually disappeared.

This industrial decline was not, of course, clearly apparent at the time. Only in later years when statistics became available did it emerge that Scottish heavy industries reached, in 1913, a peak of production never to be achieved again. The decline was halted, temporarily, by the boost to productivity given by the Great War, but by the 1920s Scotland was distinguished by persistently high rates of unemployment and similarly high rates of emigration. The population was static and aging, and, in the post war world, the Scottish economy was clearly sick and failing.

Inevitably these developments had political consequences. Scotland was usually overwhelmingly loyal at election times to the Liberal party. That party was supported by employers and workers alike in industrial areas, while in the rural constituencies and in the Highlands, the influence of the Free Church, often victimised by Tory landowners, was exerted in the Liberal interest.

Towards the end of the century however, things began to change. The Liberal commitment to Home Rule for Ireland led to a split in the party, and to the formation of the Liberal-Unionists. This group - still Liberal in terms of economic theory - drew support from Protestant industrialists, businessmen and others of the middle-class, unwilling to support any diminution of British sovereignty and hostile to the placing of Ireland's Protestant minority under an all-Irish and, therefore, overwhelmingly Catholic parliament in Dublin. As a result, the number of Liberal seats in Scotland fell from 57 in 1885 to 39 in 1886. The Conservatives, who won only 10 in 1885, won 12 in 1886, and enjoyed the support of 16 Liberal Unionists.

As more working men joined the electorate, and as new issues like high tariffs and the threat of more expensive food arose, Liberal strength momentarily revived, and in the elections between 1906 and 1910 the Liberals enjoyed something like their old dominance. Events during and immediately after the war, however, disrupted the Liberals who suffered a fatally damaging split into rival factons. At the same time the ordinary voters, seeking political action to fulfil their hopes and remedy their grievances, began to turn to the Labour Party.

The basic idea, that working people ought to have, and to support, a party which was specifically theirs, preoccupied with issues relevant to them, was as old as the Chartists of the 1830s and 1840s. The idea revived in the 1880s in Scotland, with the formation of the Scottish Labour Party. This venture did not long survive the departure of its moving spirit, James Keir Hardie, to England, where, in 1893 Hardie and others formed the Independent Labour Party. This party, combining with some socialist societies, and with the support of a number of Trade Unions, formed firstly, the Labour Representation Committee, and then the Labour Party. This new party won two Scottish seats in the General Election of 1906. Its strength remained modest, seven seats being won in 1918; but in 1922, as the Liberals destroyed themselves by internal feuding, Scotland saw the election of 30 Labour members (to the Liberals' 16, Liberal Unionists' 12 and Conservatives' 15). The Liberals rallied briefly in 1923, but thereafter the Labour Party became the preferred refuge of anti-Conservative voters.

The MPs elected in 1922, characterised as the 'Red Clydesiders' in the press were, in these early days, an impressive contingent, representative of working class aspirations not only to power, but to dignity and culture and respect, which had been growing for thirty years and more. Men like John Wheatley and Tom Johnstone were to prove themselves in Cabinet office. James Maxton, though never holding any executive responsibility, was throughout his career a loved and admired orator and tribune of the people. George Buchanan had a political career long enough to allow him to make a valuable contribution to the 'Welfare State' legislation of 1945-50. Not all important figures were in Parliament or enjoyed successful political careers. One man, seen by later generations as deserving of the greatest respect, was John MacLean, a Glasgow school-teacher who taught and preached the values and merits of socialism, suffering imprisonment and persecution culminating in his premature death.

John MacLean James Maxton
John MacLean. (Photo: Glasgow Herald)  |  James Maxton. (Photo: Glasgow Herald)

Such men were the main personalities in Scottish politics in the years of industrial strife and political change which followed the war.

Strikes in the coal-fields in the 1920s had brought great suffering and apparent defeat to the miners, fighting against attempts to worsen their conditions of employment. In 1926 the miners took the lead in the General Strike, and persevered in their resistance for a year after their allies in other unions had given up.

It was difficult to maintain the rights and interests of industrial workers as post-war unemployment mounted, culminating in the experiences of the Depression which struck in 1929. Hardest hit were the industries upon which Scotland especially depended - shipbuilding and engineering, for whose products there was now no world market. Demand for coal and steel thus fell, and as workers thrown idle struggled to live within their means, demand for furnishings, household goods, clothing and similar products fell also, and the whole population was caught in a web of poverty and fear of poverty.

The Labour government which had taken office, with Liberal support, in 1929, could not agree upon a policy to meet the crisis. Its leaders co-operated in the formation of a 'National Government' supposedly all-party but in reality dominated by Conservatives, in 1931. In that year a General Election gave that government a huge majority, as voters turned in panic to the methods, financial policies and presumed expertise of the Conservatives. In Scotland 58 supporters of the National Government were elected, with only 8 Liberals and 7 Labour members surviving in opposition.

Despite this apparent collapse, the Labour Party in the long run benefited from the events which followed. Relief payments, given as unemployment insurance benefit for some weeks, and then as 'National Assistance' or 'dole', were ungenerous and grudging; and dole payments were attended by harsh and humiliating surveillance as the 'Means Test' was applied, with inspectors empowered to enter homes and pry into the circumstances (and even the cooking pots) of the unemployed to ensure that their dependence upon relief was genuine and total. So, though the Depression had, initially, driven voters into the arms of the Conservatives, the memory of the 'Means Test' became a great national folk-myth from which the Labour Party was ever afterwards able to draw advantage. A determination never to return to the conditions of the '30s, and never to permit mass unemployment, was fundamental to Labour's policies until the 1970s.

The National Government did take measures to revive the economy. Regions of severe unemployment were designated 'Special Areas', and industrial estates, producing such items as clocks and electrical goods were established in places like the Vale of Leven, Hillington near Glasgow, and in Dundee. Symbolic of the government's willingness to use state funds to revive industry, was the provision of finance to enable work to restart upon the great new Cunard liner, begun in 1930, which had lain rusting at Clydebank since 1931. In 1933 work began again on this vessel, Yard number 534, which was launched in September 1934 as the Queen Mary.

Despite these efforts, the new industries came nowhere near to absorbing the numbers of unemployed workers, and only the approach of war and the rearmament programme, which revived the heavy industries, ended the years of idleness.

Scottish factories, yards and foundries made a massive contribution to the British war effort, while the Clyde estuary became the major anchorage for merchant ships arriving in convoys, bringing food, materials and troops from around the world, especially from America and Canada.

Britain's capacity to survive depended upon the Atlantic routes being kept open, and Greenock was strategically placed to shelter and service warships and merchant ships engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic. Though Scotland as a whole never came under sustained attack from the air, sharp attacks in March and May, 1941, virtually destroyed Clydebank and inflicted heavy damage and casualties upon Greenock.

Launching of the Queen Mary at Clydebank
Launching of the Queen Mary at Clydebank. (Photo: Glasgow Herald)

The waging of modern war had brought the people under closer government control than ever before. Conscription and direction of labour, the organising of civil defence services, and rationing of food and clothing, all entailed centralised decision-making and centralised administration. The experience of wartime merely rounded off a tendency towards centralisation and a gradual diminishing of local distinctions which had been progressing throughout the century. More aspects of life were seen as being 'the government's business', and were subject to parliamentary decision and legislation - pensions, insurance arrangements, housing standards for instance. Technology had made such changes in communications that communities, which for centuries had lived a unique life of their own, now were linked with distant places by road, rail and sometimes air; their people read the same newspapers with the same news and the same advertisements as were read by people several hundred miles away; they listened to the same radio broadcasts, and viewed the same films, and they could pursue social or economic discussions over the telephone. In all these ways the people of Scotland were being influenced into feeling an identity not only of interest, but of personality, with all other parts of Britain. Labour's nationalisation programme after 1945 centralised control of transport and major industries in London, where the headquarters of banks and private industries already tended to be.

Both major parties governed on the assumption that Britain was, and ought to be, a centralised unitary state; and both played down, for their different reasons, any lingering notion that Scotland had any special identity in the modern world. For Conservatives, Britain commanded patriotic loyalty, while the Labour party thought in terms of class rather than nation. Labour had once shared the old Liberal commitment to Home Rule, but, after 1945, Mr Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, explained that since Scots now enjoyed a Labour government they had no need for Home Rule, and the commitment was abandoned.

Political support for Home Rule had existed after a fashion ever since the 1790s. As the 1800s proceeded, the Liberal Party and early Labour pioneers were pledged to Home Rule. Pressure groups grew and withered, but by 1920 there was ample reason to assume that, with the Liberal Party in ruins and Ireland in revolt, Scottish Home Rule was a mere dream.

Then in August 1922, there appeared The Scottish Chapbook, in which the young poet Christopher Murray Grieve demanded that Scots writers should begin to 'speak with our own voice for our own times.' They should engage in a serious examination of profound themes seen through Scottish eyes. Thanks to Grieve - or 'Hugh MacDiarmid' as he called himself - and a generation or more of men and women inspired by his example, Scottish writing ceased to be provincial and trivial as it had become for some fifty preceding years, becoming rather the source of a new national intellectual reawakening, reminiscent of the days of the Enlightenment. What followed might be unfamiliar by English standards, but in Europe and Ireland a cultural revival followed by political action was a familiar experience.

first public meeting of the National Party of Scotland
The Duke of Montrose, Compton Mackenzie, R B Cunninghame Graham, Christopher Murray Grieve, James Valentine and John MacCormick at the first public meeting of the National Party of Scotland, St Andrews Halls, Glasgow, 1928. (Photo: Glasgow Herald)

Several organisations favouring Home Rule functioned in the 1920s. The Home Rule Association had indeed been formed in the 1890s; and it was now joined in its work by the Scots National Movement and the Scots National League. The former was profoundly influenced by cultural developments, while the latter was more anxious to get on with the work of building up a force which could challenge the existing political parties at election time. Just as the Labour Party emerged when enough people saw the need for a class to have a party of its own, so now the League based its appeal on the need for a nation to regain the power to devise policies and arrange priorities in the best interests of the people of that nation. These and other groups combined in 1928 (following upon the rejection of a Home Rule Bill in Parliament in 1927), to form the National Party of Scotland; and later, after another accession of support, the Scottish National Party.

The new party, after some initial doubts, followed the strategy line of the Scots National League, and proceeded to challenge the established parties at the polls, with results varying from the ridiculous to the reasonably encouraging. The war was a setback for a party trying to capture public attention, and the party's prospects were not improved when a powerful faction abandoned the policy of election-fighting, and adopted instead the older tactic of seeking to influence existing parties to adopt measures which tended towards eventual self-government, at least on all matters of domestic policy.

This breakaway group and its leader John M MacCormick, a founder and long-time secretary of the Scottish National Party, met with considerable success in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They organised a series of annual National Assemblies, and produced the 'Scottish Covenant' inviting signatures of support from all who would pledge themselves to place Home Rule above partisan loyalties. Some two million signatures were secured, but the Covenant Association had no means of compelling politicians to respond to moral pressures. The politicians, with cold cynicism, responded that only votes cast at General Elections were acceptable as indicators of the electorate's wishes. The initiative on the Nationalist side was thus restored to the SNP which had remained committed to the election process. They had indeed enjoyed their one success when in April 1945, at a by-election in Motherwell, Dr Robert D McIntyre became the first ever Scottish Nationalist MP.

The post-war years were bleak for the SNP, as the Covenant commanded attention from friendly countrymen, and when party political loyalties for most took precedence over national sentiments. But gradually political developments began to play into Nationalist hands.

The Labour government of 1945 became unpopular surprisingly quickly. Though the feared post-war unemployment did not materialise, voters were indignant at the years of hardship and 'austerity' which had followed the war, instead of the joyous comfort which many had thought would come with victory. Surviving the 1950 General Election by the skin of its teeth, the Labour government fell at the next hurdle, the election of 1951. There followed thirteen years of Conservative government, and Conservative support in England rose steadily at the elections of 1955 and 1959. In Scotland however, the Conservatives reached a peak of success in 1955, winning thirty-six seats to Labour's thirty-four, but declining fairly rapidly in subsequent elections. Scottish voters were in fact beginning to behave in a very different fashion from their English counterparts.

Dr Robert MacIntyre, the first SNP MP
Dr Robert MacIntyre, the first SNP MP. (Photo: Gordon Wright)

The reasons for this divergence lay in the economic policies pursued by the Conservatives and their consequences. As the government sought to free the economy from the constraints which Labour had seen fit to impose upon it, there were recurring crises as the economy around London expanded rapidly and inflation threatened. At such times the Treasury would impose restrictions, growth would slow down and inflationary pressure would ease and all was then thought to be well. But in Scotland, growth had hardly begun when restrictions were imposed, and increasingly it seemed to many that one policy did not really meet the needs of different parts of Britain. Also, to an increasing extent Scottish factories were branches of English firms. When times were hard and these firms felt the need to economise they would close their branches and draw back towards their centre. The result for Scotland was recurring outbreaks of unemployment and feelings of injustice and discrimination.

Reading the political signs and responding to the decline in their support, the Conservatives by 1960 had begun to try to placate Scottish opinion by abandoning their insistence upon one single policy for all, and instead extending special favours to Scotland. The car industry, lost to Scotland since the early 1900s, was virtually directed by government pressure and incentives, to Linwood. A road bridge over the Forth, long dismissed as an idle dream, became a reality, and a Tay road bridge was also sanctioned.

All was politically too little too late however, and Scottish voters gave decisive support to Labour in 1964 and 1966 when Scotland returned 43 and then 46 Labour members to the Conservatives' 24 and 20.

In 1966 Scottish voters clearly trusted Labour to extend prosperity to Scotland, and their disappointment was intense when the new Labour government promptly faced yet another economic crisis, which they sought to meet by using the same methods as those employed by the Conservatives. At this moment of maximum disillusion with both political parties a by-election was called in Hamilton. This was seen as a safe Labour seat. It had been held for Labour even in the disaster of 1931, but now, in 1967, it was won by Mrs Winifred Ewing of the Scottish National Party with a majority of 1799.

It was widely remarked after this event, that Scottish politics would never be the same again. Political parties, television companies and newspaper owners all fell over themselves to show interest in, and concern for, Scottish sensitivities and ambitions. It was all rather hectic, and it didn't last. In 1970, though Scotland supported Labour loyally, and Mrs Ewing lost her seat, a Conservative revival in England brought them a victory which few had expected or predicted. The SNP suffered a setback in its progress, but it managed to keep a parliamentary presence with the election of Donald Stewart in the Western Isles constituency.

At this point fate took a hand, and the SNP enjoyed a dramatic upturn in its fortunes. The argument against the SNP put forward on doorsteps by Labour and Conservative canvassers was essentially that Scotland was too small, too poor and too inexperienced for its people ever to contemplate independence. The Scottish voters had obviously agreed with this assessment. But in 1970 oil companies prospecting in the North Sea found reserves of first gas and then oil. Oil in modern times has an almost magic quality, linked as it is in the public imagination with the spectacular wealth of American tycoons and Arab potentates. The oil was admittedly on the continental shelf in international waters, but it was in a sector allocated by international agreement to Britain, and it was nearer to Scotland than to anywhere else. The SNP gleefully proclaimed 'It's Scotland's Oil', and Britain's politicians found that Scotland could not be made to seem too poor for independence any more. They did their best. They argued that the oil belonged to the oil companies and not to Scotland, ignoring the real point which was not ownership but the right to tax and draw royalties. They argued that there was only a tiny amount of oil, and that silly Scots were getting excited about nothing, but time proved that that argument was erroneous. Becoming subtler they then appealed to the Scots' better nature, encouraging them to feel ashamed and greedy if they were to persevere in their claim to the oil. The SNP meantime hammered away on the theme of the marvellous things which could be done for the Scottish economy and society with the revenues from the industry.

In 1972 and 1973 the SNP came close to victory in by-elections in Stirling and Dundee East before winning another in Govan. In February 1974 seven Nationalist members were returned at the General Election, and when later that year the minority Labour government sought a safer mandate to govern, the Nationalist contingent rose to eleven.

That election was crucial, and though many Nationalists were delighted with their progress, their success was more apparent than real. The Labour Party had managed to retain its seats in Scotland, though they had to promise a Scottish parliament and in other respects steal the Nationalists' thunder. Between 1974 and 1979 the SNP was out-manoeuvred as parliamentary experts dragged out interminable discussions on the Labour plan for a Scottish Assembly. The SNP helped in their own downfall by innocently acting as though the fight was won, and they could enjoy the luxury of ceasing to make greedy noises about oil, and turn instead to talk of problems such as the plight of single-parent families.

Meanwhile the Labour leadership found that they could not command the voting loyalty of a number of their English members. The Bill to grant Scotland an Assembly was firstly, made to be subject to a referendum, and then a requirement was added that the Bill would become effective only if 40 per cent of the total Scottish electorate supported it in the referendum. Labour and Conservative opponents combined to fight for a 'No' vote in the referendum, and as time dragged on the Scottish voters became increasingly bored with the whole business. In any case the Labour government was becoming increasingly unpopular, and the Bill suffered in popularity as a result. When the referendum was eventually held in March 1979 it was supported by a majority, but not by 40 per cent of the electorate.

Prime Minister Callaghan was caught between the SNP members, whose votes were necessary for the survival of his government, and a number of his own members who refused to allow the Scotland Act to be accepted. The Nationalists then threatened that unless the government would see the Bill through the Commons they would support a vote of no confidence in Callaghan. Just as in 1707 an attempt at political blackmail went wrong, so now in 1979 the SNP, acting on the most righteous principle, voted with the Conservatives, and the Labour government fell.

the eleven SNP MPs elected in 1974
Douglas Crawford, George Reid, Gordon Wilson, Douglas Henderson, Winifred Ewing, Donald Stewart, Margaret Bain, Hamish Watt, Ian MacCormick, Andrew Welsh and George Thomson, the eleven SNP MPs elected in 1974. (Photo: Gordon Wright)

The Conservatives won the General Election which followed, and their further victories in 1983, 1987 and 1992 gave them a prolonged period in office, enabling them to carry through a programme which changed many aspects of British society profoundly. By the time the Labour government ended, the economy of Britain was seen as unsatisfactory. Productivity was poor, inflation was running at an alarmingly high rate and the Labour party seemed unable to call upon either loyalty or discipline which might change matters for the better.

Conservative supporters were increasingly ready to argue that the consensus between the major parties, based on a desire to compensate people for the suffering of the depression and the hardships of war, should now end, because new economic policies were required. The new thinking blamed Britain's economic ills upon the structure of industry and utilities, much of it nationalised and influenced by powerful Trade Unions, whose leaders resisted change in working practices and rejected restraint of wages. Perceived excesses by the unions and also by Labour-controlled municipalities played into the hands of the Conservatives, who enjoyed popular support in the quarrel which they proceeded to pick with those strongholds of Labour support.

A programme of legislation broke the power of the unions by curbing the power of their leaders to embark upon strike action, and government power to regulate the income of municipalities steadily reduced the ability of local councils to devise and pursue policies which were at odds with the wishes and purposes of central government. With unions subdued and councils restricted, the government was better able to pursue its wish to cut public spending and then cut taxes, an achievement which they believed would win them continuing electoral support.

Their belief was well justified as far as voters in England were concerned. As the decade proceeded, much of England enjoyed a surge of prosperity and the fortunes of the Conservative party under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prospered accordingly.

However, where traditional, labour-intensive industries persisted, and where Labour municipal power was correspondingly strong, the response of the voters was very different. Scottish voters saw very little affluence, but rather a very alarming decay in cities, with rising unemployment and deepening poverty. In these circumstances voters put their trust in the Labour party, the traditional protector of industrial workers and their Trade Unions. This rallying round Labour was encouraged by tough economic talking from the government which sounded very like social indifference and which made the governing party and in particular its leader, profoundly unpopular.

Though a majority of Scottish voters had turned in their distress to Labour, there was very little Labour could do as an Opposition. Before they could effectively bring help they would have to become the Government, and that meant winning a majority of seats in Britain as a whole. This prospect was remote after the humiliating and disastrous defeats suffered in 1983 and 1987, and there developed a growing support for the belief that instead of waiting for England to turn to Labour, it would bring quicker rescue for Scots, if they were to claim the right to self-government. If Scotland were to be self-governing then Labour, as things stood, would be entitled to govern. Some Scottish Labour MPs and many activists, suggested claiming the power but their hopes were quickly crushed by the Labour leadership. The party was Unionist on principle and its objective at elections was to win power in Britain. Also, in terms of practical policies, if Labour were to win a positive majority in the House of Commons, they would require the election of the MPs which Scotland and Wales could be expected to provide. So, to keep alive the hope of some day governing Britain, Labour had to deny its loyal Scots their opportunity to escape from Conservative policies.

While Unionists resignedly accepted the fact that Scots were governed by a party which they had clearly and perseveringly rejected, Nationalists tried to make capital out of the perceived injustice. The SNP had paid a bitter price for their purity of principle in 1979, returning only two of their eleven members - Donald Stewart in the Western Isles and Gordon Wilson in Dundee East. In 1983 they held only these two, while in 1987, following Mr Stewart's retirement, they lost these two, winning three others by way of compensation.

The SNP was not alone in seeking to bring greater fairness to Scottish policies. After 1979 there had been created a 'Campaign for a Scottish Assembly', formed by supporters of Home Rule who, for one reason or another, could not bring themselves to support the SNP. This Campaign had drifted along, arousing no very great interest, but after the 1987 defeat, and consequent restlessness in Labour's ranks, there was more support on hand from Labour for the Campaign. Thus enlivened, the Campaign drew upon past precedents and invited all parties, municipalities, public bodies and organisations - trade unions and churches for instance - to send representatives to a Constitutional Convention. The intention was that suggestions for the better government of Scotland could be put forward and discussed and an agreed set of proposals might then be presented to the government for consideration.

Beginning at a somewhat leisurely pace, the proceedings of the Convention speeded up after the 1988 by-election victory in Govan, won by Jim Sillars for the SNP. After the consequent surge of interest in the issue of Scotland's constitutional future, the Convention extended renewed invitations to join in its work. The Conservatives, denying the need for any such body, refused. The Labour and Liberal parties were already present in strength, and co-operating in control. The SNP at first sent representatives with considerable misgivings and in the face of much opposition from its members. These members still smarted from the betrayal, as they saw it, which had been their lot in 1979 when Labour dissidents had effectively destroyed the devolution plan. They now resented Labour's domination of the Convention; they distrusted Labour's good faith, and they doubted the ability of Labour's leadership to impose obedience upon those who might repeat the sabotage of 1979. When they found that their beliefs and suggested options would not be accepted for possible adoption by the Convention they then withdrew their representatives.

For doing so they were subjected for the next few years to a barrage of criticism from journalists and academics who were sufficiently remote from practical politics to have an innocent belief in the obtainability and virtue of an agreed consensus. In the meantime the leading personalities of the Convention, and of the Labour and Liberal parties all argued that their proposals were best because they alone would save the Union from destruction. It seemed odd that the SNP should be attacked for its refusal to support the very institution which it sought to terminate.

In the absence of their opponents at either extreme, the Labour and Liberal coalition produced a Home Rule scheme which would give a Scottish Parliament a measure of power, excluding international relations, defence and the fundamentals of economic policy. Opinion polls suggested that this plan would enjoy the support of a majority in Scotland, outstripping the support for independence or for no change. The Labour party committed itself to legislation in the first year of a new Parliament if the next General Election should place them in power.

All this activity meant that the constitutional issue would be high on the list of topics around which the election campaign would revolve, and indeed the campaigning had already begun by 1995 even though the election might be two years away. The SNP especially felt the need to liven things up, fearing no doubt that too much tranquillity would benefit either the government or the Convention parties, with their programme packaged and ready, and appearing to be widely acceptable even if not ecstatically received. Their pugnacity was rewarded by a good performance in regional elections, as also in the elections to the European Parliament. There Winifred Ewing had been re-elected to represent the Highlands and Islands, and she was now joined by Allan McArtney who had enjoyed a handsome victory by courtesy of the voters of North-East Scotland. These encouragements were further enhanced by a by-election victory gained by Roseanna Cunningham in Perth and Kinross.

All parties now awaited the date and outcome of the General Election which had to happen before April 1997. All had their hopes. The Conservatives, though enduring some dreadful opinion polls and a succession of by-election defeats, would know that the longer they could postpone the election the better would be their chance of recovery. The Liberals would be expected to hold what they had, and Labour were expected to win, having shed old principles like nationalisation and some of their more electorally unhelpful factions.

As for the SNP, they would have to wait upon events. What would happen to them depended on what would happen to others. If the Conservatives won again would there be this time a substantial shift in the Labour ranks towards independence because only escape from England would offer a realistic prospect of escape from Conservatism?

If Labour won, but failed to carry out its pledge to introduce a Scottish Parliament, would Scottish voters rise in wrath and defect to the SNP; or would they, as in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992, just grin and bear it and try again in another few years? And, if Labour won and did bring into being a Scottish Parliament, however inadequate, would the voters then feel prompted to move further along the road to Independence - the 'slippery slope' as Unionists called it. Or would they instead relax to enjoy their gain and their new-found recognition, consigning the SNP and its insistent protest to years of oblivion? All possibilities existed.

One thing had not changed. Scots had to give their answer to the essential questions - 'Do you believe that a Scottish nation exists? and, if so, do you wish it to have a political state of its own?' Existence without such a political identity had continued from 1707 until the last few years of the twentieth century. That continued existence, not in a political state, but purely in the hearts and minds of the people, was almost incredible, but after three miraculous centuries Scotland may go under at long last.

The economic indications of 1910 are appearing again and Scots face these symptoms of decline with their confidence weakened by almost a further century of self-doubt and self-ridicule; their struggle to preserve an identity denounced, by politicians and other moulders of opinion, as folly and anachronism. How long Scots can be expected to maintain their self-awareness under such pressures and in the face of such hostility, must be open to question. The race is on between political reform and its alternative, the final ending of the 'auld sang'.

Previous | Contents Page | Next


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus