Two meetings, 40 years, and a journey of hope.
This is the tale of two meetings – and what happened in between them.
It is October 1974 and I am sitting at a shoogly table in the back room of what was once a plumber’s shop on the Southside of Edinburgh..
When I look round the table, this is what I see: an old man in a kilt and a tweed jacket, a young woman and her brother, recently returned from Australia, an economics lecturer with a London accent, a middle aged man wearing a deerstalker and plus fours, a Norwegian engineer and his Scots wife, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer, who has parked his three wheeled, yellow, Reliant Robin outside, an Irish Politics and History Professor, several “Morningside ladies”, a middle aged woman who runs a painting and decorating shop, and myself – with a passable Lancashire accent after a childhood spent away from my Edinburgh birthplace down south, and my American girlfriend – both of us students.
The names still remain: Dougie Stewart, Roseanna and Chris Cunnigham, Gavin Kennedy, Jim Campbell, Arve and Louise Johannsen, Kerr MacGregor, Owen Dudley Edwards, the Potters, Mairi Stewart, Mairigold Roche.
There were a few others with whom we constituted the activist core of Edinburgh South SNP – but I record their names because they were the folk who welcomed me into the SNP, who gave me a sound political grounding, and, most importantly, who had kept the party’s flag flying through hard times as well as good.
In later years, there would be many more folk I would have cause to thank and to celebrate the fact I had the chance to know and work beside them: Bob Shirley, Allan Lawson, Valli Shirley, Stephen Maxwell, Kenny Macaskill, Greg McAra, Iain Thorburn, Fiona Hyslop, Alison Purser. There were more whom I have forgotten – and many of these, no doubt, will have forgotten me.
The fact was – as that original list suggests, in my earliest days in the party, the SNP was composed of an extraordinary mixture of characters – unlikely and otherwise – and it would be fair to say that this was sometimes reflected in our ‘welcome’ in the streets and on the doorsteps.
A major motivation for my activism – on the doors or behind the keyboard – over the years was the Labour party agent in our constituency at my first “count” in 1974. We were chatting to the Labour candidate when the agent came up and said: “Oh – talking to the kiddies are we?” It was a sneering attitude which many in Scottish Labour still espouse, and played its part in this week’s crushing defeat.
However, in one respect, he was probably not far wide of the mark. Despite the expertise of various individuals, there was an overall political innocence about the party in those days, which, in one sense, could be charming, but, in another, limited our potential to win votes – or, at least, seats. We did the legwork up and down the multistorey flats, but we also shouted at people through poor loudspeakers on top of that Robin Reliant and introduced pipe bands to housing scheme shopping centres at 10 am on Saturday mornings. The party’s image – and probably its major appeal in those days – was related to a vague kind of patriotism, coupled with a desire for more social justice. It was fairly ill-defined and quite similar to the picture unionist parties have sought to paint of the current SNP. But it was forty years ago, and a relatively young and inexperienced organization.
Then came the Garscadden by-election in April 1978. Though the SNP needed a 10% swing to take the seat, the press promoted it as a near certainty to fall to the Nats. When a young Donald Dewar won the seat for Labour, the media suggested the wheels had come off the SNP bandwagon. Certainly, opinion polls suggested our support had fallen from over 30% to under 20% and in the 79 Election 11 MPs became 2 and, with a little help from George Cunningham’s anti-democratic 40% rule, the 79 referendum was ‘lost’.
Times became hard for the SNP. I am still proud of my 79 Group m embership card and of the fact that it led to my expulsion from the party for being ‘too left wing’. But lessons were learned, as they must be if there is to be progress.
Ultimately, the party took the time to rebuild, to listen and to reflect. Building from a low position, it realized that connecting with folk and addressing their concerns was the only way forward for a truly social democratic movement. If you have a cause you believe in, it deserves to be presented in a professional manner and you need to attract the best talent to do that. People – and their persuasion – should never be taken for granted.
The media often portrayed the SNP’s development as “Fundamentalist” v “Gradualist” – but it was more sophisticated than that. Nicola Sturgeon is representative of young folk who joined the party at that time –and she said last year that, for her, independence was important in its own right, but more so because it was a means of bringing social justice to Scotland. It is this point of view which has transformed the party – a point of view brought about by an openness to new ideas and a willingness to let the membership decide issues. The unionist press frequently make disparaging reference to the SNP’s ‘party discipline’ as if it was a repressive machinery. They fail to recognize the difference between organizational discipline – which leads to electoral success, and politically controlling discipline which tends to lead to internal strife and electoral losses.
The burden of the party’s approach was as follows: if you are looking for social justice in Scotland, you are pushing at an open door, because a large percentage of Scots share that aspiration; the only thing blocking that door was the unwillingness of a controlling Westminster parliament to follow such a progressive agenda. Scottish Labour believed that, as part of a UK movement, that equality would come sooner or later. The problem was, post New Labour, that was not the way the London party was operating – winning middle England votes was their alternative agenda, and one which led, inevitably to a sort of ‘Tory-lite’ approach.
The result of the SNP’s slow but thorough re-birth has been a kind of unstated pact between them and the Scottish voters – especially those who had previously voted Labour as an article of faith.
In post industrial Scotland, Labour’s role was less clear than previously, its patronism less pervasive, its effectiveness hindered – especially by the New Labour project. Hubris replaced principles and they continued to view themselves as an immutable working class establishment, secure in their position.
The voters, starting to feel taken for granted, and seeing little benefit in voting for a party which pursued Westminster power before serving its people, and predicated policy on the focus group divined wishes of middle England, they started to ‘test’ the SNP.
In the Scottish Parliament, they gave them five years as a minority government – and liked what they saw enough to vote them in next time as a majority government. This should have been a warning to Labour, who had set up the Scottish parliament in a manner to preclude this eventuality ever happening. However, having viewed the Scottish legislature as a minor institution, most of Scottish Labour’s ‘talent’ were focused on Westminster – and, in Scotland, it showed.
Meanwhile, for many Scottish voters, the SNP were “passing the test”. A support for independence which had hovered around 30% for some time moved towards 45% in the 2014 Referendum – a sign, perhaps, that the voters were now looking for something more than the status quo if not outright autonomy – and when Westminster, and Scottish Labour, failed to divine that movement in aspiration – or at least dismissed it, the scene was set for a further rise in trust of the SNP’s position, and this time in a Westminster setting.
Which brings me to my second meeting.
This was at the Mound, on Edinburgh’s Princes St on Wednesday morning of this week – an eve of poll meeting which Nicola Sturgeon would address.
When I arrived there about 9.30am there was already a large crowd – most were activists, but as time passed and passers by enquired what was happening, the numbers grew exponentially. Eventually, there must have been five or six hundred gathered – not a bad number for a work day morning.
I had time while waiting to look around and reflect.
There was an understated professionalism about the set up which was a long way from Robin Reliants and wee men in kilts. A small stage was set up, and a PA system, protected from the incipient rain by two see through ‘Stronger for Scotland’ umbrellas, while a sound man checked it was working effectively. A couple of security guys protected the space around it. At the back of the crowd a table had been set up to distribute party merchandise. There was a sense of purpose rather than excitement, a confidence rather than any sense of entitlement.
I suspect the location was chosen for its central position but it was also quite redolent. We were next to a couple of famous Scottish institutions: the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. Above us on one side was Edinburgh Castle with its Union Flag reminder flying from the battlements, on the other was the towering presence of the Bank of Scotland headquarters – an icon of what has come to be of priority for the elite in the UK state. Just along from us was the Scott Monument – a gothic pointer to the realisation of how far Scotland has come from the writer’s Bagpipes and Stags version of nationhood.
However, it was the people who most took my eye.
Compared to that back room in Grange Loan forty years before, the demographic was far wider: young and old, prosperous and less so, hipster and staid, folk who looked like business people and many who could be students, tradesmen, tourists or professionals. In short, the gathering reflected modern Scotland; it was beyond pigeon holing. Granted there were a few folk who could have graced the front page of a Sunday Magazine in their glorious idiosyncrasy, but, by and large, there was little remarkable about the people around me – they were representative.
When Nicola Sturgeon arrived – accompanied by husband Peter Murrell , the party’s national organiser, and a couple of assistants, there was no big fanfare – just an appreciative applause. She stopped and spoke to those around her en route to the stage, and after a stock stump speech, she stayed for ages to take the famous selfies, sign autographs and chat to the people who had turned up. It was as unlike a 2015 election event as you could imagine – no minders, no stage managed moments –simply a politician meeting voters – and those, like the tourists, who can’t vote, on the main street of a capital city.
Despite the best attempts of the mainstream media to portray it as otherwise, this is not demagoguery, not an artificially managed media event – those who attended were there to see and hear her, and she was happy to speak and meet with all of them. At one point somebody asked for a picture of her and Murrell together; she borrowed an SNP placard, handed it to her husband and gave the photographer a shot in which he was holding a sign saying #I’mwithNicola. As she satisfied the seemingly endless demand for selfies, she said to me (yes I did get one!) “I’ve First Minister’s Questions in half an hour (in the Scottish Parliament) I don’t think the Presiding Officer would accept ‘I was taking selfies’ as an excuse if I’m late!”
People warm to her because what you see is what you get with this particular leader; they also recognise that she is a conviction politician who cares, and knows, about people and their lives. It is quite a rare phenomenon in modern politics.
As I left the meeting, I felt quite emotional. I’ve stuck with the SNP, in good and bad times, for the policies I support and those with which I’m less enamoured, for a lifetime. I’m proud that it has never veered away from its belief and principle that the good of the people in Scotland is best served by their taking control and responsibility for their own country and playing their full part alongside the nations of the world – and I still anticipate the coming time when it can be a force for good rather than a ‘region’ separated from the world through the decisions of another country’s parliament. It is good to have politicians of whom we can be proud.
Forty eight hours later, coming to terms with an incredible general election result, those two meetings, and all that happened in between, came strongly back to me.
And I thought of a wee man in plus fours and a deerstalker who took the trouble to come all the way up to my student’s residence room on a Saturday morning in December 1973 and give me my branch membership card.
“I just wanted to welcome you to the SNP!” he said.
Thank you to Jim Campbell, to all those folk round the table in that shop backroom, and the thousands of others who have worked tirelessly over the years to maintain the SNP’s message, its principles, and its integrity.
You all made this election result possible.
Now’s the hour!