The Origins of the SNP
The history of political parties with all their conflicts, splits, ideological positions, and power plays, is not my subject and it certainly is not any subject for a whisky blog (no matter how loosely I define that term). But and but … The formation of the Scottish National Party in the 1930s was an important part of the life of Neil Gunn is an interesting subject and needs to be examined.
The way the Scottish national movement grew in the first half of the twentieth century shows the way people sharing the same ultimate aim can come together, then split, go in a different direction, and then come together somewhere else (something that seems very pertinent to our current, troubled political times). As is common in many insurgent political movements, there were strong personalities and fundamental differences in both ideology and strategy. For example some people wanted a devolved independence, whilst the more radical wing wanted complete separation from England. There were people who were otherwise Conservative, Liberal, or Labour but shared a desire for independence. Some people thought it best to push for home rule from within existing British political parties and others who saw this as futile as the need was for a separate and distinct Scottish party.
Before the First World War hopes for Scottish Home rule were mostly expressed through the Liberal Party, but it was more of an adjunct to their more pressing concern of Ireland. Post-war there was an Irish settlement but nothing for Scotland and things slowed down, almost to standstill. The Scottish Home Rule Association was formed (actually reconstituted as the name had previously existed) to act as a pressure group to agitate, within the existing political system, and build momentum for the idea of home rule. However the failure of Parliament to support the remnants of the pre-war Home Rule Bill, and other disillusionments, led to a lack of faith in Westminster, which became starkly obvious with the failure of the 1927 Home Rule Bill which was given only a 45 minute debate. An insult which showed the existing UK political parties had no enthusiasm for the idea and another way had to be found.
There was however another group, founded in 1920, advocating the formation of a separatist party that would fight its own elections – The Scottish National League. This grew out of a group of Scottish Nationalists, living in London, who knew each other from the Highland Land League and other Gaelic organisations. They were left wing socialist, inspired by Irish nationalism and the idea that there was a family of Celtic peoples who shared the same cause. To varying degrees the members had a mixture of Gaelic romanticism, economic marxism and strong prejudices against the English. Together they hammered out many of the ideas that have been at the core of the Scottish Nationalism ever since and the magazine they founded, Scots Independent, still exists. However they were based in London and faced a geographical problem in spreading their message in Scotland, especially as they were trying to convince much of the population that they were in the grip of a false consciousness. Also, as they were mostly old friends, they behaved more like a club than a political organisation. Nevertheless by 1928 they had 1,000 members in 15 local branches, even if they did follow the normal pattern for all small radical groups by splitting on small points of principle. The major split, though, was personal: Lewis Spence had a spat with the treasurer and marched off to form the Scottish National Movement based in Edinburgh. They only came back together when different factions were united in the newly formed National Party of Scotland.
Getting groupings together in a way that would reconcile the devolutionists to the separatists, and allow those who wanted to work through the existing system to communicate with those who wanted to reject anything tainted by Westminster, was a difficult task. In the end it was facilitated by members of the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association led by John MacCormick, who injected energy into the project and a desire not to get bogged down in ideological debates. They adhered to a maxim of Tom Johnston (a Labour politician with Home Rule sympathies who became Secretary of State for Scotland during the War) who once said that “on nine out of ten things for the good of their country all Scots agree, but on the tenth they will cut one another’s throats, therefore let us forget the tenth and come together on the nine.”
In the end, in 1928, the National Party of Scotland was formed, with the aim of bringing everybody with an interest in Scottish home rule together to fight a concerted campaign. But kicking on from there and developing a organisation and growing the supporter base was a slow old process. John MacCormick took over the leadership and described the early days of visiting towns, giving talks to sparsely attended meetings in the hope of inspiring somebody to form a local branch and thus grow the network. At first the biggest, most influential, and well established branch was in London – it was after all the core of the SNL. It also had its own paper, Scots Independent, as a vehicle for spreading ideas, expanding debate, and initiating a programme of education. However the London branch was also home to ideologues who were regarded with suspicion within the wider movement. The most high profile of these was Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), one of the founders of the National League, who because of his literary renown and disputatious nature took to the battlefield and became something of an unofficial spokesman. This was unfortunate because some of his ideas were, by any standard, wild and inconsistent. He was a Gaelic Romantic who believed in the brotherhood of Celtic nations, who rejected anything English – anything, even though at the time he lived in the country. Even the idea of representative democracy was rejected, as he saw it as an Anglo Saxon concept. Politically he was all over the shop in that he thought of himself as left wing, and joined the Communist Party a couple of times, but he also admired Mussolini. Economically he diverged from the labour theory of value and supported the concept of social credit developed by Major Douglas. More problematically though, he promoted the idea of armed struggle with the creation of Clann Albann and the desire for a new species of Scottish Fascism. This really put him beyond the pale.
Things came to a head in 1933 when the leadership of the National Party sought to amalgamate with the Scottish Party, (which had a more conservative political outlook and represented a number of landowners). To the Scottish Party Christopher Grieve and fundamentalists like him were a sticking point, an anathema. To the London branch and other radicals, any softening the position of the NPS to accommodate Conservatives was a big step in the wrong direction. Then there was the problem of reconciling the fundamental idea of whether an independent Scotland and whether should be within the British Empire or outside of it. This question was at the heart of a stormy annual meeting in 1933. The London branch had been trying to strong arm people to support their cause and MacCormick had been getting a lot of personal abuse, so in the end he just wanted to be shot of them. He thought the fundamentalists were troublemakers, bringing the party into disrepute. In the annual meeting the fundamentalist heckled, jeered and used rowdyism as a tactic, and this gave him the excuse to call a special meeting on party discipline where there was a motion to expel the South East Area chairman and secretary for obstructionist behaviour and Angus Clark and W.M. McColl for writing letters and articles abusing members of the executive. A central matter of policy was thus turned into a matter of party discipline and the fundamentalists were expelled and the way was cleared for talks (which had already been taking place unofficially and unauthorised) with the Scottish Party to go ahead. These were successful and The Scottish National Party was formed on 7th April 1934.
For our purposes that would seem to tie the story up with a neat bow – but of course that wasn’t the case. There was no steady path between 1934 and the present day where the SNP have been in charge of a devolved administration for a number of years and might be close to their long term goal of full independence. You have to remember the general rule for all insurgent political movements: there will be splits, jealousies, and a flow of power back and forth as different factions and personalities attain ascendency. Betrayals – there are always narratives of betrayal. In this case the expelled fundamentalist their grievances were clear – they had been kicked out, there had been secret negotiations and the compromises made in the formation of the new party seemed like a betrayal of the left wing ideals of the NPS and even the objective of full independence from England. They have a point – a lot was given away by MacCormick in his efforts to unite the two parties On the other hand he genuinely thought some of his extremist were a barrier to progress and had to be jettisoned if the party was to become a credible electoral force.
Compromise and identity, pragmatism and purity, are are always in conflict, not only within political parties but also within individuals. Neil Gunn for example. He was firmly in the pragmatist camp when he supported MacCormick’s move to form the SNP but he was also uneasy with the move away from his left wing principles to make policy accommodation with landowners. For him splitting the nationalist vote might be have been the great the evil but keeping things together was the very devil. There was always the danger that being too inclusive would lead to such a dilution of ideas that the proposition would become wishy-washy. He argued that the party should offer a clear economic and social programme that would appeal to their likely supporters – something that would include public ownership and be for small holders rather than landlords. In other words he wanted to argue things out with the conservatives who had come over with the Scottish Party and offer a clear programme.
In the end the first phase of the SNP did not go very well: the president (Lord Montrose) announced he was taking the Liberal whip in the House of Lords , sparking a debate about whether it was legitimate for people to have duel allegiances; they performed very badly in their first electoral test in the general election of 1935; some became disillusioned with electoral progress and wanted to revive the idea of a national convention with the main UK political parties; there was weak internal discipline; the chairman A.D. Gibb (ex Scottish Party) was not only anti-Catholic he was becoming increasingly anti-semitic and was attracted to Fascism. Later on there was huge confusion in their attitude to the War – some wanted to assert the right of Scotsmen to refuse to serve in the armed forces, whilst others supported the war effort. It was a huge issue – a choice between what was considered more important: the fight against rule from London or the fight against the evil the that was Hitler. It was difficult keeping the party going in wartime when the UK parties had a pact of not contesting by elections – how do you build momentum but not seem unpatriotic. The SNP were not included in electoral pact but thought it dangerous to be accused of being against the war effort. At the same time they still had to show their supporters that they were still in the game.They found a compromise of only fighting against the Conservatives (who were against Home Rule) whilst MacCormick pursued a clandestine and complicated policy of trying to make agreements with Labour and Liberal so that they could unite to call for a plebiscite after the war. Disillusionment amongst the membership, who were excluded from the manoeuvrings, and saw a party unable to mount a challenge in a by election in Edinburgh in 1941, came to a head and the election in 1942 for chairman. It was won by Douglas Young, who was against the conscription of Scotsmen (whilst claiming not to be against the war against fascism – the ability of politicians to finesse a position is always a thing of wonder) and was against a national convention. It was a defeat for John MacCormick, who promptly seceded and caused a schism by taking a number of members with him.
The growth of a political movement, especially one based on a single ideal is never a straightforward. There are always problems of defining the ideal clearly in a way that satisfies everybody and the issue of ow much you compromise in the short term to make progress along the path or how much you dig your heels and say ‘if you don’t get everything you will have nothing’. Parties will continually remake themselves. The early years of the Scottish Nationalist movement show this.
Scottish Nationalism as a Literary Movement
We are all familiar with the way politicians talk and the range of subjects on which they will engage. Very rarely do they talk of culture. They are loath to talk about the arts, for fear they are seen as elitist and they are reluctant to talk of the deep culture, that gives people a sense of identity, for fear of seeming racist (the actual racists tend to imply their true meaning with dog whistles). But for any nationalist movement culture is very important – it is at its heart. It is about us and them, where the ‘us’ has to be clearly defined and the ‘them’ has to be shown to be an oppressor who weakens the sense of nationhood. These ideas need careful articulation, underpinned by stories of identity and a compelling narrative. In other words it is the work of writers and writers were very important in the fledgling Scottish nationalist movement. Figures like Hugh MacDiarmid and Compton McKenzie were prominent in the dominant London branch and MacDiarmid in particular was a high profile spokesman.
An early history of the Scottish nationalist movement was written by H.J.Hanham in 1969. In it he has a chapter entitled ‘the rise and fall of literary nationalism’ which talks about how the Scottish Literary Renaissance dovetailed into the independence movement. However this account is very much under in thrall to MacDiarmid’s magnetism. Hanham thought him the one true genius, supported by literary gents like Lewis Spence, columnists like William Power, successful novelists like Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, and eccentric literary figures like R.B.Cunningham. “Contemporary Scottish nationalism, in short, first became popular thanks to run of the mill literary handymen rather than as the work of prophets like Ruaraidh Erskine, John Maclean and Hugh MacDiarmid” was his rather sniffy judgement, whilst his overall conclusion was:
“The Scottish literary renaissance had stood for the principle that the Scottish nation needed a Scottish literary class to give meaning and depth to its culture and to put Scotland on the map of Europe. John MacCormick and Edwin Muir [with whom MacDiarmid feuded] preferred to opt for a purely provincial Scotland managed by local politicians without any sense of a higher national purpose. Celtic Scotland was not to follow Celtic Ireland into independence, but was to opt for second-class status within the United Kingdom, with its literary standards set by the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman or by the English press rather than by the national poets.”
An unstated part of this judgement and the dismissal of certain writers as second rate, is the attitude to England and the English language. For some, like Macdiarmid, being pro-independence was not enough, you also had to be vehemently anti-English. For some the use of the English language was part of continuing oppression that should be rejected on principle. MacDiarmid wrote in Lallans, a Lowlands dialect, others wanted to revive Gaelic. The dispute between Edwin Muir and MacDiarmid was started when Muir wrote an essay describing MacDiarmid’s use of Lallans as a futile gesture. Muir insistent on the need to write in English to gain as wide an audience as possible as well as being the language he and most other writers thought in. Gunn was the same, although he tried to learn Gaelic, English was his natural language. Within literary factions debates on language would obviously have heft but for most other people the plain reality was that the vast majority of people spoke English and the issue was arcane. It was another example of how idealism can collide with reality and divert attention away from the main objective. Hanham however wanted prophets and poets: a romanic vision of wild imaginative folk of strong conviction and those who opposed must, by definition, have dull minded.
In his book he did not mention Neil Gunn once. Not once. This is staggering, not only because of his prominent role within the hierarchy of the SNP but also because of his stature as a novelist. Perhaps it would have undermined his narrative of literary mediocracy. Gunn was far from run of the mill; he was one of the preeminent figures of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. He was not provincial, even though his subject was the Highlands, his aim was to uncover the universal by examining the particular, and was certainly not accepting of the second-class. Unlike some of the prophets he actually lived in the Highlands all his working life and it was the subject of all his work. He was rooted in the community and prided himself on his realism and knowledge of place, which informed his approach to nationalism. He was fully committed to the goal of independence but thought it could only happen if you took the population with you and were clear about practical issues. His commitment to the cause was just as fundamental as the ‘fundamentalists’ but he was more interested in finding consensus and building towards the objective.
Writers were significant in the founding of the Scottish nationalist movement, articulating its ideals and creating a narrative. But they were not united in their approach – far from it. There were many falling out. Writing is a solitary profession and writers are not necessarily the best at working in teams and cooperate with others in a spirit of give and take. Neil Gunn however was exceptional in being both a civil servant and writer. He could see things from both sides of the fence. He knew that sweeping visions were all well and good but any political movement had also to be well grounded in those duller subjects, such as economics.
The Role of Neil Gunn
The importance of Neil Gunn in first the NPS and in the formation of the SNP was a result of his friendship with John MacCormick. Their meeting and relationship was described, and how they met was described in MacCormick’s book ‘The Flag in the Wind’.
“Our organisation throughout the country was expanding . Although in most places it was difficult to attract more than a handful of people to our first meetings we usually succeeded in gaining a sufficient nucleus of enthusiastic recruits to establish a committee which would ultimately grow into an organised branch of the Party. Typical of our campaigning in those early days was a meeting that I held in Inverness in the autumn of 1929…. When we arrived at the Town Hall we had certainly no reason to be thrilled by our reception. A total audience of 26 people scattered sparsely through a hall with a seating capacity of 400 or 500. Probably because they were so widely separate from each other the members of the audience did not even mildly clap their hands but simply sat staring stonily at us. It was a difficult atmosphere to open what we had grandiosely described in our advertisement as the beginning of a great Highland campaign. …
Finally I appealed to any who were willing to discuss the formation of a branch to wait behind and, to my surprise, four people actually did so. One of theme was a young solicitor, Mr Duncan H. McNeill, and another was Neil M. Gunn, then an Excise officer who had one novel to his credit and fruits of the new stirrings of Scottish consciousness in all the arts. Both of them were to become my lifelong friends and play a leading part in the National movement, but then only after some hesitation did they agree to see what they could do about setting up a small committee in Inverness. Within a few months they were able to report the establishment of a branch with over 500 members and money in the bank! …
I loved this Highland campaigns and the new companionship which developed from them. Neil Gunn’s house in Inverness, Larachan it was called, became our unofficial headquarters and no matter how late our return from distant parts we would find him waiting for us , eager for our report and ready to sit up talking with us till all hours. As an Exciseman he was precluded from speaking at our meetings and, in any case, his own preference was to avoid the limelight, but, behind the scenes, he inspired us with his clear vision of the Scotland that should be.”
Our talks ranged over the whole field of Nationalism and beyond. We used to remark that as soon as the clock struck four in the morning we would find ourselves discussing the most abstract problems of the human soul and its relationship with God. Whether these discussions on that high plane ever reached any very definite conclusions doubtful but we began to formulate the ideas which have to a very large extent guided the development of the national movement in Scotland and, as I believe, made it something quite distinct and different from any parallel movement in other submerged European nations.”
Some things to note from this:
Gunn is primarily identified as an Excise man and this is understandable because at the time he had only published one novel and the breakthrough ‘Morning Tide’ was published in 1931. But it also useful in explaining his reticence at taking a highly visible role in a political movement.
Gunn’s nature was to work behind the scenes. This explains that, while he is mentioned in histories of Scottish nationalism, he probably has not had the attention his role deserved.
The growth of the Inverness branch meant the city became one of the powerhouses of nationalism. That was quite an achievement seeing as the starting point was 26 people.
Background roles are more varied than the administrative, some of the most important involve being a sounding board, a generator of ideas, someone who can give a wider view, being a confidant.
Friendship is a powerful thing.
Late night conversation was common at Larachan, even when MacCormick wasn’t there. Every Sunday there was a regular drop-in where friends gathered and talk was wide-ranging. (It was from one visitor, who talked about the history of the fishing industry that Gunn got the idea for one of his most famous novels:’ The Silver Darlings‘).
The important take out is that Neil Gunn was very effective behind the scenes. The growth and the importance of the Inverness branch is an obvious testament to that. From the beginning he enjoyed the excitement and frenzy trying to grow a fledgling movement into a force that can effect change. Duncan McNeill, who co founded the branch, described Gunn ‘as the engine – the petrol if you like’, a slightly confused metaphor that can’t quite make up its mind, but there was an aptness as Gunn owned a car and arranged meetings all over the North. In 1932 he joined the National Council of the NPS and drafted policy papers, principally on his concern for a clear progressive economic policy. Right from the beginning his position was clear: self government meant a Scottish Parliament with fiscal control and the authority to determine the nations future constitution and political status but this must first be supported by a majority of Scottish people. For this to happen the party had to broaden its base and avoid splintering.
It is thus entirely consistent that he had a major role in the merging of the NPS with the newer Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party. He was the main facilitator. He believed that nothing would be achieved by splitting the vote between rival candidates who despite sharing the aim of independence had otherwise different political views. His desire was for consensus and in working for that he was increasingly frustrated by ideologues as he wrote in a letter to T.H. Gibson
“That extremism in general stands for purity and courage is a species of self-delusion practised by the ego on itself a ’for its glory’. Division has been Scotlands arch fiend and has always stood on doctrinal purity. It may be that we are all like that and therefore any hope of our ever misgoverning ourselves may mercifully never be realised … At any rate we should by this time have learned from our history that if ever we are going to achieve a national aim it can only be by a major harmony that refuses to be wrecked by minority discord … It’s rather disheartening to think of our efforts resulting in no more than giving satisfaction to extremists a century hence as they proceed, complete with sporran, to lay wreaths on Scotland’s final Culloden”
He was approached by an advisor to Lord Beaverbrook (and Beaverbrook’s identification with Scotland but not England is an interesting subject in its own right) about the newly formed Scottish Party and floated the idea that there might be the prospect of rapprochement between the two parties. As Gunn was a close friend of the son of one of the founders of the new party, Sir Alexander MacEwan, it was easy to arrange preliminary talks and then later meetings. He smoothed the way for the two leaders to meet and ensured there were no misunderstandings. On a personal level he could be very persuasive. He also laid the groundwork by drafting proposals, consistent with NPS policy that could form points of agreement between the two parties. He set out a framework whereby the party could go back to basics and build foundations from which a political party could grow, without getting bogged down in too much policy making detail.
Would the unification of the two parties happened without Neil Gunn? Probably as it was a great objective of John MacCormick but undeniably he had a great role in making it happen. In the beginning, in his unofficial liaison, he made progress that was difficult to see happening in any other way.
After this it is difficult to trace his continuing efforts within the new party. It was more of the same backroom work and continuing to be a counsellor for John MacCormick. Little of it noted outside of the meeting rooms. But he was very concerned that the focus of the new party did not waver. He continued to argue the case for a clear economic policy that included the nationalisation of key utilities and reform of the law in favour of tenants and smallholders and he also though MacCormick’s policy of finding common cause with Labour and Liberal could be dangerous. However he had lost the excitement of the early years and now found nationalist politics increasingly tiring and from from1937 involvement lessened as withdrew from public life in Inverness and moved to a more remote area near Dingwall. In 1942, after John MacCormick and his followers resigned, he was in a difficult position. Personal loyalty was very important to him as shown by what he wrote to Douglas Young:
“Personally I am grieved that there has been any split. I have always done my utmost to keep the effort united. Scotland has been badly cursed by this fatal tendency to schism ….
You must understand that it’s difficult for me to follow remarks you have made about MacCormick and those who may now think of following him, because for years we worked together in the north, particularly organising Invernesss-shire where the fine and tireless work he MacCormick put in was very clear to me. In my view the amount the whole movement owes to him can hardly be exceeded, if indeed equalled by any other individual.”
He resigned from the Vice-presidency, but he refused to follow MacCormick and continued to be a party member. He had had his years working in a political engine room but his major work was, as it always had been, that of a novelist.
In the novel ‘The Serpent’ (written in 1943, after Gunn retired from front-line politics), Tom Mathieson leaves his Highland village for Glasgow, where he will learn to become a craftsman and presumably make a new life. However, after only enough time for him to learn new skills, under a mentor who also introduced him to socialism, atheism, and philosophical writings, he has to return home to help his mother run their croft, as his father has had a heart attack and is no longer capable of physical exertion. Back in the village the influence of the strict Presbeterian church is strong and oppressive: going to church is mandatory and any hint of atheism is seen as wickedness. Tom goes to church with his mother.
“Many a fellow in his position would have felt that he should have stood up for his new convictions and should not have gone to church. Tom never felt like that, nor was he made in any way miserable by the thought of his own weakness. The thought of weakness or self betrayal could not quite touch him. He was too evasive for it. When it tried he could smile at it, avoid its solemn touch. Always there was an untouchable core in him in such matters.”
When I read that it struck me that it might very welI describes Gunn’s attitude to his political belief. He had an untouchable core. He could make compromises and offer friendship to those who didn’t share all of his convictions but there was never any idea in his mind of selling out. It’s for other fellows to plant flags and draw red lines of observable principle. He just wanted to get on with the task of moving things forward. If that meant doing things behind the scenes – then so be it.
The photo at the head is of: 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).
Finlay, Richard J. Independent and Free : Scottish Politics and the Origins of the Scottish National Party, 1918-1945. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1994. [This is my main source of information on the history of the Scottish nationalist movement.]
MacCormick, John MacDonald. The Flag in the Wind : The Story of the National Movement in Scotland. London: Gollancz, 1955. [Tells the story from John MacCormick’s point of view]
Brand, Jack. The National Movement in Scotland. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. [ Its section on the easy years is comparatively brief]
Hanham, H.J. Scottish nationalism. London: Faber and Faber, 1969 [It is in thrall to romantic nationalism. Finlay is much better history]
Gunn, Neil M., and J. B. Pick. Selected Letters. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1987 [an invaluable resource]
Hart, Francis Russell., and J. B. Pick. Neil M. Gunn : A Highland Life. London :: John Murray, 1981. [The definitive biography of Neil Gunn]