I was at secondary school when I really became aware of the SNP. Margo McDonald made big news by winning the Govan by-election in 1973. Both Winnie Ewing and Donald Stewart had previously won Scottish seats but the winning of a Glasgow parliamentary seat in Labour’s heartland made big news. The fact that the winner was a young working class woman whom the media quickly dubbed ‘The Blonde Bombshell’ was important too. There were two general elections in 1974. In the first the SNP secured 7 seats and in the second 11.
It was clear that a seismic change had taken place in Scottish politics with the Nationalists winning over 30% of the vote in the October 1974 election. There seemed little ideology behind the new political force. Labour called them ‘Tartan Tories’ and the Conservatives portrayed them as Scotch Socialists but really neither was true. Their romantic view of Scotland centred on an annual rally at Bannockburn. This was a party of tartan, haggis, whisky……and oil. It was no coincidence that their new popularity was born on the back of the discovery of the black stuff in the North Sea.
Their message seemed to be striking a chord throughout Scotland, except for in the vital central belt where the traditional Labour vote was holding up well. However the SNP continued to do well in local elections during the 70s.In 1979, the SNP Parliamentary Group voted against the Labour Government in a Vote of No Confidence, causing the dissolution of the government and subsequent election. The then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan famously described this decision by the SNP as that of “turkeys voting for Christmas”. After the 1979 general election, the SNP had only two seats, representing a net loss of nine seats. Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s Prime Minister.
Although this did at first seem a disaster for the SNP, subsequent events would see Thatcher preside over the annihilation of the Conservative party in Scotland and establish the SNP as Scotland’s second party.
Despite the SNP’s losses at the general election, the 1979 referendum produced a 51.6% vote in favour of the setting up of a Scottish ‘assembly’ to allow devolution within the United Kingdom. However, due to a clause in the Scotland Act, the assembly never came to fruition. The clause stated that 40% of the total electorate would require to vote in favour. This was never a realistic prospect as the 51.6% represented 32.9% of the total. The issue of devolution was temporarily kicked into the long grass whilst the complete dismantling of manufacturing industry took place in Scotland in the 1980s
The Chrysler factory at Linwood, British Steel’s Ravenscraig works, Invergordon’s aluminium smelter, the coal mines, British Leyland’s truck plant at Bathgate and others were allowed to fall to the free market politics of the government. The only intervention seemed to be to hasten the death of these industries rather than to prevent or defer them.
As part of their free market ideological fervour, the Thatcher government seemed hell bent on privatisation of everything that wasn’t nailed down. British institutions, which I had grown up with and took for granted were national assets, were sold off to institutional and private investors. British Petroleum, British Telecom, British Rail, British Steel, British Coal and British Gas were sold off. It seemed to me that Britain was being carved up and sold off and not even to the highest bidder -it was being sold cheaply. Former Conservative Prime Minister Harold McMillan accused the Thatcher government of selling off the family silver – probably his second most famous quote next to ‘You’ve never had it so good’.
Another thing being sold cheaply was the UK’s council housing stock. The Conservative plan to have people who had never before owned shares or heritable property, converted to their cause seemed to be working just fine and dandy – at least for those who could afford it.
Meanwhile the SNP was being riven by political division. The ’79 group, a left leaning faction within the party which included a young banker called Alex Salmond, were expelled from the party.
Despite the downright hostility that was fermenting towards the Tories in Scotland, the 80s was a bleak time for the SNP. Labour argued that the only way to get rid of the Tories was to vote Labour. With no devolution, this seemed a logical argument. The SNP was caught up in an internal battle on whether to return to their 1970s single issue stance or whether to progress as a left of centre party. The decision of Jim Sillars to dissolve his Scottish Labour Party and join the SNP was a vital factor in the political direction of the party, as was the defection of Labour’s Dick Douglas to the Nats.
Sillars won a sensational victory at the Govan by-election in 1988. In 1990, against expectations and two years later former ’79 group member Alex Salmond scored a election victory over Margaret Ewing to become party leader.
The 1992 General Election had promised much for the SNP. It proved to be mixed in fortunes. The SNP held three seats they had won in 1987, but lost Govan. They also lost Dunfermline West, but this was not helped by the sitting MP Dick Douglas deciding to stand against Labour MP Donald Dewar in his Glasgow seat instead of defending the seat he had represented for years.
The SNP had failed to make headway in terms of winning seats. However, their campaign proved a success in terms of votes won, with the SNP vote going up by 50% from their 1987 performance. It proved too much to bear for Sillars though, and he quit active politics, famously describing the Scots as ’90 minute patriots’. It also signaled the breakdown of the political relationship between Sillars and Salmond.
The intervening years between the 1992 and 1997 general elections were marked by some SNP electoral success. In the 1994 elections for the European Parliament the party managed to secure over 30% of the popular vote and return two MEPs (Winnie Ewing and Allan MacCartney). The SNP also came very close to winning the Monklands East by-election of that year, caused by the death of the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith. In 1995 they went one better, when the Perth and Kinross by-election was won by Roseanna Cunningham who later became the party’s deputy leader.
The 1997 General Election saw the SNP double their number of MPs from three to six. More importantly it brought the Labour party to power in the UK. They promised in their manifesto to hold a referendum in Scotland with a view to setting up a Scottish Parliament.
Next – “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead” and “Do you bloody well think so?”
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