WITH numerous election victories and more than a decade in government, the SNP has become the dominant political force in Scotland. Just over a century ago, the idea of a party dedicated to securing the right to rule Scotland itself had not even been born.
The absence of a voice for Scotland had not gone unnoticed. In 1884 a newspaper article titled A Scottish Parliamentary Party declared that it was a failure that Scottish MPs did not act together as a party.
“Each man fights for his own group and pays very little heed to the actions of his neighbor,” he said.
But it took more than four decades before the first Scottish political parties were formed.
The National Party of Scotland was founded in 1928 and the Scottish Party four years later.
Regarding the question of why they emerged at this particular time, historian Professor Richard Finlay of the University of Strathclyde points to one factor as being the Versailles peace settlement which had been signed at the end of the First World War.
“It states that all nations have the right to self-determination, which leads to the creation of many new nations in Europe,” he says.
“You had all these nations that were created and a lot of people in Scotland thought – we’re an older nation and a more established nation, and yet we’re not represented.”
In the aftermath of World War I, it also became increasingly difficult for Britain to hold onto the Empire, with countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all getting their autonomy in 1926.
Finlay says these countries had also been included in peace negotiations and the League of Nations, created to resolve disputes after the war.
“Scotland was kind of left out, and for a lot of people in Scotland it was a bit of a shock because they had always assumed Scotland was a nation,” he says.
“What happens after 1919 is that the idea of nation and state is very reinforced, and unless you have a state you can’t really be a real nation.
“That’s one of the big psychological factors behind the modern independence movement – they saw that without a state, the nation was in question.”
He adds: “There were a lot of things that happened at that time – for example the League of Nations was putting out educational material for school children and saying here are the national dresses of the world, but Scotland, which has a lot of these visible markers, is not included.
“So even at this very basic level, a lot of people were like, ‘well, there’s something wrong here’.”
It was also an issue that had gained momentum in the years leading up to the First World War. In 1894, the Scottish Home Rule Association was formed with the aim of establishing a devolved parliament in Edinburgh.
The Young Scots Society, an offshoot of the Liberal Party which also supported the Home Rule, had amassed 10,000 members by 1914.
In 1913, Liberal MP Sir William Cowan presented a Scottish Home Rule Bill to Parliament, which passed second reading but failed due to the outbreak of war.
In his plea, Cowan said an example of the lack of power in Scotland concerned the issue of temperance reform, which the Scots had “demanded”.
“To my knowledge there has been a Scottish majority in this Assembly in favor of Scottish temperance reform since 1885 – a majority which, being a minority in the Assembly, has always been rejected by English Members of Parliament,” said he declared.
“Thus, the Scottish MPs found themselves unable to give effect to the mandate entrusted to them.”
He added: “If this measure had been given to Scotland a generation ago, much could have been spared Scotland – neglected children, homes in ruins.”
Although there was pressure to secure a Home Rule mandate in Westminster, Finlay says others thought it would be problematic because it would still depend on parties with an “incorporated” English majority.
“So the only way to guarantee or demonstrate that there was real support was to create a separate political party for the express purpose of winning an electoral mandate in Scotland,” he says.
IN 1928 a number of groups came together to form the National Party of Scotland, a left-wing organization that attracted creatives and intellectuals – members included poet Hugh MacDiarmid and author Neil Gunn.
Four years later Scotland’s smallest party was formed in support of Scottish self-government, a more right-wing and devolutionary party which included figures such as James Graham, 6th Duke of Montrose and Sir Alexander MacEwen, who became the first leader of the SNP.
In 1934, it made sense to merge the two parts to work together. The first annual conference was held in April in Glasgow, at which MacEwen was elected president.
He told the meeting: “This is a historic day in the Scottish national movement. The merger of the two parties was not done by pressure or by intrigue.
“It was a spontaneous movement resulting from the desire of people of different shades of opinion to work together for the cause of self-government.”
Finlay says the use of the term “self-government” was one that included those most in favor of devolution, as well as people who believed in independence.
“It was as much for strategic and pragmatic reasons as anything else,” he says.
“But while the [British] The Empire is now just a distant memory, this is the kind of context in which it evolved.
“It was the idea that from an imperial point of view, self-government was the way other places had established themselves as independent entities.
“The only exception was of course Ireland which went into revolution, and there were people who wanted to follow the Irish model and others who thought, well, the Irish model is bad.”
He adds: “The debate around nationalism until around the 1990s was probably always framed in an imperial context, then once the [Berlin] The wall descends and then fits into a much more European perspective.
As for how the fledgling SNP was perceived, Finlay says he tried to paint an “incredibly boring” image.
“It was Presbyterian toughness personified because they wanted to be taken seriously.”
But there were a number of “larger than life” characters and famous names that often became the center of attention.
Compton Mackenzie, author of Whiskey Galore, was a founding member of the SNP. He was one of a number of party members who attracted the interest of MI5 over the years – in his case it was triggered after revealing embarrassing secrets about the security and intelligence services in a memoir by his experiences as an MI6 officer during the First World War.
WENDY WOOD, an early National Party of Scotland and SNP member, was known for stunts such as the 1932 Bannockburn Rally where she led a group of well-wishers to Stirling Castle to pull down the Union Flag and replace it with a Rampant Lion.
Writing to a newspaper about the incident, she said: ‘I want to stress that while I dislike the fact that any flag other than a Scottish flag is flown over a Scottish garrison or building of national significance, myself and the large number of nationalists who were responsible for the action felt particularly strong resentment against a conglomerate flag flying above Stirling Castle on Bannockburn Day.
“There was clear evidence that the people of Stirling approved of the change.” However, the National Party of Scotland made its disapproval clear, with Vice-Chairman Lewis Spence saying he had “no mandate” from the party to take down the flag.
He said: “I also believe that all well-meaning Scotsmen and women will reject such an act entirely. They have not the slightest desire to upset the English nation.
Wood resigned from the SNP in 1949, then formed his own organization, the Scottish Patriots.
In 1942, a major split within the SNP saw the departure of John MacCormick, who had been instrumental in founding the party, but left after failing to convince him to adopt a more devolutionary than independenceist position.
He then formed the Scottish Covenant Association – which had collected two million signatures on a petition demanding Home Rule in the early 1950s, although this had little political impact.
Three years later, the SNP won its first seat when Dr Robert McIntyre secured 50% of the vote in the 1945 Motherwell and Wishaw by-election. This proved to be a short-lived victory, however, as he held his seat for just 84 days before losing that year’s general election.
It took two more decades for Winnie Ewing’s victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election to finally give national prominence to the SNP. She rocked the political establishment after securing what had previously been seen as a safe Labor seat, saying after her victory: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to go on.”
His words ring true since since then the SNP has always had representation in the House of Commons.
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