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Dr Robert D McIntyre
Chapter 22 - The SNP on the Move

Over-simplification is a risk worth taking in matching the internal changes in the Scottish National Party with the pattern of change in Scotland as a whole in the 1960’s.

A restlessness was beginning to take hold of the electorate. Something new was desired but few could discover quite what! Macmillan had his catch phrase, "The wind of change" and Harold Wilson coined, "The white heat of technology".

Within the SNP new forces and new possibilities were stirring. Gordon Wilson, a lawyer with a great deal of political energy, got going "Radio Free Scotland" and, as a portégé of Arthur Donaldson, set out a redrafting of the Party’s constitution, with the desire of making it more in keeping with the demands of a growing membership and a more professional outlook.

James Halliday was Chairman from 1956 to 1959, with Dr McIntyre as President. Arthur Donaldson became Chairman in 1960 and, while the presidency still was retained by Dr McIntyre, it was made clear - and he accepted it - that the Chairman was the executive head of the Party.

Both in terms of the realities of the Party organisation and the facts of ability and time to cater for the tasks ahead, this was the right decision and, happily, the mutuality of respect of Arthur and Robert contributed to smooth relationships.

While the SNP was gaining support in general elections, by-elections gave them the best opportunity to exploit the growing discontent with the government of the day

The death of the Labour Member for Pollok early in 1967 presented such an opportunity to capitalise on the dissatisfaction with Labour’s achievements. In the 1966 general election, Labour had increased its majority and had come forward with seemingly dramatic schemes for national recovery, based on a close inter-relationship between industrial and commercial needs and economic policy. Like most economic plans, it looked good on paper, but governments do not - and perhaps should not -have the means to carry out such interventionist schemes.

While few in the Pollok constituency could have read Labour’s schemes, many, particularly those in the vast housing schemes of Househillwood, Nitshill and Pollok were beginning to cavil at the lack of amenities and opportunities provided in the areas.

After an intense campaign to which Labour devoted considerable resources, including the efforts of several Cabinet Ministers and the unhelpful intervention of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (with his stricture on licences for "Barking Dogs" aimed at curbing unruly members of the Parliamentary Labour Party which was not helped by the fact that the SNP candidate, George Leslie, was a vet determined to put down Labour) the campaign resulted in a victory for the Tories by 2,201 votes over Labour. But, in the public mind, it was an SNP triumph and the Party’s supporters celebrated in boisterous fashion, indeed, in over-boisterous fashion in the mind of the defeated Labour candidate, who was left to shield his wife as they exited from the Pollokshaws Burgh Hall after the count, the Labour Party officials having left the scene hurriedly to close their Party’s election headquarters.

Worse was to come for Labour at the end of the year, Tom Fraser, the Labour MP for Hamilton, had resigned his seat to take up the Chairmanship of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. This meant a by-election in what looked like a safe Labour seat with a majority of 16,576 over the Tories. As in all by-elections, the choice of candidate is important. In this case, the local SNP organisation’s views were apparently given scant consideration by the hierarchy, and the choice of Winifred Ewing, a Glasgow solicitor, former university lecturer and secretary of the Glasgow Bar Association, was made. Robert McIntyre’s views on this matter appear to have been crucial. He knew Mrs Ewing and was impressed by her ability considering her to be an excellent candidate for the by-election fight.

Dr James Lees was prominent in the organisation of the campaign and a considerable degree of credit is due to him.

The eventual result was astonishing. To come from nothing, having failed to contest the seat in 1966, to obtain 18,397 votes and a majority of 1,799 over Labour, was nothing short of magnificent although it could be considered that there were some special features in operation, e.g. the electorate’s dislike of having to vote again due to the Labour Member going off to another job (in what now maybe classed as a quango) and the seriousness of the economic situation, exemplified by the timing of the decision to devalue sterling two weeks after the by-election result.

But none of this can take away the effect of Winnie Ewing’s victory on Scottish politics. She was young, aged 38 at the time, and extremely articulate, in sharp contrast to Labour’s candidate, Alex Wilson, an ex-miner, and much more in harmony with the spirit of the times. The Hamilton victory made the SNP truly marketable in political terms and the wave of publicity which engulfed Mrs Ewing brought many new adherents to the Party making it possible to mount a major campaign in the 1968 local elections. This had some short run benefits, but the inexperience and lack of expertise of many who gained office did considerable damage later on.

Having made such an impact in Pollok and Hamilton, it is natural that there was room to misinterpret the signs, but results in the following years should have alerted the Party to the situation. Labour held the Gorbals constituency in Glasgow in the 1969 by-election, although the SNP forced the Conservatives into third place. This suggested that the bandwagon was slowing. Further evidence of this tendency was exhibited by the result of the by-election in South Ayrshire when Jim Sillars was elected for Labour with a majority of 10,886, down only 1,167 from that achieved in 1966. In the general election of 1970, the SNP contested 65 seats and polled nearly 300,000 votes: but there were 42 lost deposits. Hamilton was regained by Labour with a majority of 8,582 and the Party’s sole, but important, consolation came in the result from the Western Isles when Donald Stewart finished first by 726 votes.

Absence of a strong parliamentary presence was to have an important effect on two main issues of the time in which the SNP claimed a distinctive approach - North Sea Oil and gas and membership of the European Community.

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