November 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Winnie Ewing's election as the first SNP MP. Here is the late Arnold Kemp’s account of some of the history of the SNP in Parliament after that iconic moment. (Excerpted from "The Hollow Drum" and the anthology of his journalism “Confusion to our Enemies” )
The devolution years really began for me in 1967. It was after midnight and on the Scotsman we were holding the Glasgow edition for the result of the Hamilton by-election. Seconds after the declaration – a stunning victory for the SNP candidate Mrs Winifred Ewing over Labour – David Bradford, one of the political editors, came on the line and bawled out the intro which I took down in longhand and sent to the composing room. I can remember that it began with the phrase, ‘The rising tide of Scottish nationalism ...’ and it expressed the mood of excitement. Mrs Ewing, though she lost the seat later, launched the SNP into the stratosphere of concentrated London media attention and from her victory is often traced the party’s modern prominence.
Hamilton was not the beginning. It was a flowering. But its impact was dramatic. For the first time the party received sustained attention from the London media. Mrs Ewing arrived in London in triumph. Dover House was besieged by her supporters most of whom had patriotically driven down in Hillman Imps built at Linwood.
Back in Scotland, Hamilton produced a flood of new members. The fissile tendencies of the party reasserted themselves. The 1970 general election was regarded by the party as disaster although it doubled its share of the vote from 5 to 11.4 per cent. The SNP had got itself into another classic nationalist scenario, that of heightened expectations punctured by reality. Gordon Wilson, former national secretary whom I first met at university in the 1950s, remembered: ‘We had hopes not in the urban areas but in the rural areas. We hoped to keep Hamilton. That was Verdun, that had to be defended, ils ne passeront pas. In the event they did’.
On the Sunday morning after the election, Wilson recalled, they had gathered in an atmosphere of despair. ‘As we waited for the Western Isles result, Douglas Henderson suggested that we might resort to prayer. Anyway, Donald Stewart sneaked in and kept our parliamentary presence and credibility alive. He was the first nationalist to win a parliamentary seat at a general election and he kept us in the game. That was crucial.’
The period of 1970-74 saw the increasing agony of the Heath administration. The SNP capitalised on a growing loss of public confidence in the competence of government. It was a time of genuine ferment. The 7:84 Company’s satire on the economic exploitation of Scotland, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, was the theatrical expression of contemporary nationalism and it struck a deep chord in the public mind.
In 1973, Margo MacDonald surged to victory in the Govan by-election with 42 per cent of the vote. She was sensational, a ‘blonde bombshell’ charming the nation on television.
In the general election of February 1974 the SNP caused further consternation. It got 22 per cent of the vote and seven seats. Between the elections of February and October, Douglas Henderson, the SNP parliamentary whip, sustained the Labour Government almost single-handed.
The SNP was now ready for its greatest moment. On 7 September 1974, the first Labour White Paper on devolution proposed assemblies for Scotland and Wales. On 18 September an election was called for 10 October. The SNP achieved 30 per cent of the vote and acquired four more MPs. The SNP’s advance was almost a decisive breakthrough. But in it lay the basis of the party’s later difficulties. The electoral wheel of fortune determined the composition of the group that was summoned to Parliament and the group that stayed behind. Into Parliament went 11 disparate personalities of uneven abilities.
John Smith, when we talked, said: ‘The SNP group was pretty hilarious. There was a constant party. They were well known on the Terrace. They affected disdain for Parliament but when you have 11 people you become an important force. I don’t think they understood the role they were playing, the importance of it. They weren’t unintelligent people but there was a festive mood about them.’
By the time that parliament limped to its end in 1979 very severe tensions had broken out between the parliamentarians and the thinkers and publicists back home. One question was whether devolution was a prize, or a trap. There were those who believed in the ‘big bang’ theory and those who believed in the ‘slippery slope’, a progressive devolution. The party was ambivalent.
After the second election of 1974, the Labour government retained office, owing its majority of four to its Scottish seats. No further evasion was possible.
The Harold Wilson Government pressed ahead with devolution despite serious misgivings. The Cabinet Office began to work on the details and devolution spread like a blight, pervading all branches of Government.
Wilson abruptly resigned in 1976 for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Michael Foot as Leader of the House and Lord President of Council took charge of the devolution legislation and John Smith, as Minister of State for the Privy Council went in to do the hard work of detail.
The first Bill died in March 1977 when 22 Labour rebels voted down a timetable (or guillotine) motion to curtail debate and secure the Bill’s progress.
Smith recalled that when winding up the debate in March 1977 which killed the first Bill on the guillotine motion, he was handed a note from the Chief Whip saying the Government had lost. ‘I had to pretend we were going to win. We were defeated and that was it.’ Enoch Powell said, ‘There’s a terrible stench in the chamber. Will someone please take this dead Bill away?’
The following month the Lib-Lab pact was announced, promising the Liberals regular consultations on policy, and the Government survived a no-confidence motion by 24 votes.
This moved the leverage from the nationalists to the Liberals. It took the SNP out of the limelight. The longer the Parliament continued, the weaker the SNP grew.
The crucial parliamentary session was that of 1978-79. The Government ploughed on with separate Bills for Scotland and Wales. But the Labour rebels found a way through. On 25 January 1978, George Cunningham, an expatriate Scot who sat as a Labour MP for Islington South-West, successfully introduced an amendment inserting the 40 per cent rule. This stipulated that if less than 40 per cent of the registered electorate endorsed the Scotland Act an order would be laid before parliament to repeal it. The amendments incorporating the rule were carried against government wishes.
Smith had been ill advised of the mood of the House. A timetable or guillotine was in operation, and they calculated that the amendments would not be voted on at all but talked out. Cunningham, heard of what he later called their skulduggery, and rushed to the Chamber. By chance a number of people had drifted back into it, and it was one of these rare parliamentary occasions when a member actually sways the House by what he says.
In two divisions in rapid succession the Government was defeated thanks to an informal cross-bench alliance. The amendment – stipulating that unless 40% of those entitled to vote endorsed the Scotland Act an order for its repeal would have to be laid before Parliament – was carried by 15 votes.
The Whips were mortified, and sought to prevent a third amendment from coming to the vote – the Jo Grimond amendment which would have excluded Orkney and Shetland from the devolutionary scheme. The Whips knew that if they could delay this division it would fall under the timetable. There seems no doubt that they resorted to excessively robust tactics. Cunningham later wrote: ‘But they reckoned without Myer Galpern, the ex-Lord Provost of Glasgow, who was in the chair that night. Myer dispatched the Serjeant-at-Arms into the division lobby, sword in hand, to sort out the Whips.’
Walter Harrison, Labour’s deputy chief Whip at the time, sorcerer’s apprentice to the chief wizard Michael Cocks, recalled that he found himself ‘pinned against the wall’.
Cunningham continued: ‘As Big Ben started to strike eleven Jo moved his amendment and the Government went down to another heavy defeat. As one member of the press lobby said, it was a Burns Night massacre.’
The Cabinet’s acute embarrassment is recorded in Tony Benn’s diaries. There were other forces at work, of course. But the 40% rule became an insurmountable hurdle, confused an already troubled Scottish public and created the scenario in which the Callaghan Government, exhausted and demoralised, finally went to the wall.
The referendum was held on March 1, 1979, and Scotland voted Yes by a majority miles short of the 40%. After the indecisive devolution referendum, a new parliamentary game began. The failure of the Yes vote to achieve 40 percent in the referendum meant that under the terms of the Cunningham amendment the Government was obliged to move an order repealing the Scotland Act. Cunningham estimated that 200 Labour backbenchers would not follow the party line. The 11 SNP MPs made their demand that Callaghan proceed with the motion and put on a three-line whip.
The refusal of the Callaghan Government to move the repeal order lead the SNP to table a vote of no confidence. ‘This was not done with the intention of bringing down the Government,’ said Wilson. It was done in the hope that the prospect of a hanging would concentrate the mind. When the Callaghan Government fell, it did so on the Conservative motion of no confidence which had, in Henderson’s phrase, hi-jacked the resolution tabled by the SNP.
Perhaps Callaghan came close to blaming Cunningham for his Government’s defeat in the 1979 election. But the industrial troubles of the winter of discontent more gravely damaged confidence in its competence. Strikes by lorry drivers and 1.5 million workers in the public sector coincided with a winter of exceptional severity. The nation’s television screens were full of apocalyptic visions of anarchy and incompetence. It was a pivotal moment in British politics.
When the vote of confidence took place on 28 March, according to Henderson, Callaghan had been advised he would win the vote or at least tie. The whips calculated that two SNP doubters might abstain.
In the circumstances every vote was vital but Labour’s Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison decided that the Labour MP Dr Alfred Broughton, who had heroically offered to be present was too ill to travel from Yorkshire; he died the following Saturday. Michael Foot believed that Dr Broughton’s absence and the failure of the SDLP member Gerry Fitt and the Irish Republican MP Frank Maguire to support the government was the ‘double blow’ that brought it down.
Maguire made a rare excursion from Fermanagh to London. According to the account of Henderson and others, the whips locked him up in their office with liberal quantities of whisky. They escorted him into the chamber in time for the division. He was smiling broadly and all seemed well. But when the time came he stood behind the Speaker’s chair with his arms folded and refused to move. Henderson recalled that the whips tried to pull him into the lobby but he stood firm. Through his bluff, according to this account, he had the satisfaction of bringing down the government. Later he told Henderson; ‘I came to abstain in person!’.
Something more serious may have been in question. According to some accounts, the real explanation for Maguire’s failure to support the government was that he was intimidated by terrorists. Robin Cook in 1993 recalled that on the day of the crucial vote he was followed to Westminster from Ireland by his wife and ‘two men in raincoats’. They never left his side.
Harry Ewing had no recollection of this but found it perfectly credible. In those days security in parliament was still relaxed. Fitt himself dismissed the idea of IRA intimidation. He did say that Maguire was close to the IRA. The men in raincoats, I infer, could have been IRA ‘minders’. Cook’s view that their presence was minatory was corroborated by deputy chief whip Walter Harrison. On the night the Government fell, Harrison had hidden away somewhere in the Palace of Westminster – even 14 years on he would not tell me where – two Ulster Unionist MPs. They voted with the Government.
He had been given the promise of their votes and was trying to prevent the operation of what whips call ‘the revolving door’. A whip may secure the vote of one MP but his support may repel another.
Harrison feared that if Maguire or Fitt found out about the Ulster Unionists there was no chance of their supporting the government. There was little chance anyway, as Harrison recognised early in the day. He never tried to wheedle Maguire or Fitt. He took no for an answer from Fitt without further argument and conscious of the men in raincoats, marked down Maguire as pretty doubtful. Foot had an enormous regard for Fitt’s courage but thought when we talked in 1993 that it would have been more than his life was worth to have supported the Government.
Harrison advised the Chief Whip that he thought the Government was about three short. But he took his two Unionist birds away to a secret nest while his colleagues worked on Maguire and Fitt. Sufficient ambiguity may have then entered the calculation to encourage Callaghan to take the gamble but his dismissive reference to the SNP also suggested that he was pretty fed up anyway and did not much care if it worked.
Smith said: ‘I think it was true Callaghan was fed up. He thought we might win the vote. Maguire was supposed to come. It was close enough to gamble.’ But he continued ‘He thought there was a price you did not pay, a kind of unseemly hanging on to office with all sorts of curious deals. That sort of thing, trying to be a Smart Alec, did not appeal to him.’
The motion of no confidence was carried by 311 votes to 310. Harrison who had hoped for the votes of at least two nationalists – Hamish Watt and George Reid and perhaps another, recalled that there had been much whispering among the SNP. He had addressed them as a group three times during the course of the evening.
Watt told me that he spent an absolutely miserable evening. His constituency party had mandated him to vote with the Government. He had been elected in Banff by Labour voters and knew they would reject him, as indeed they did, should he help to bring Mrs Thatcher to office. Watt had the impression that Walter Harrison thought the Government had sneaked through and did not so much care what the SNP would do. After the division some SNP and Labour members thought the Government had just won. A teller gave a misleading thumbs up. When Watt realise the truth, it is said he tried to cancel his vote – permissible if you can get to the other lobby in time.
He made a dash for it but it was locked just as he reached it. According to the folklore, he beat despairingly at it, demanding entry in vain. In conversation he told me this was not true; he did discuss reversing his vote with the Labour whips but the lobby door closed before any conclusion could be reached.
John Stradling Thomas, Number Three in the Tory Whips office, apparently dined out an anecdote from that night. Using a pre-arranged code he indicated to Mrs Thatcher that they had won by one vote by raising a finger. He used to remark that he was forever grateful they had not won by two.
And a bittersweet moment for Arnold Kemp when, after so many years of campaigning, the Scottish Parliament reconvened for the first time since 1707 in May 1999.
It was new and yet it seemed as if it had been there for ever, perhaps because it was meeting in the Assembly Hall where in 1948 the world rediscovered Sir David Lindsay’s Three Estates. No Flattery or Divine Correction, no bawdy abbesses revealed in undergarments of lurird purple, just men and women dressed as if for church and Tommy Sheridan in a suit which said that Trotskyite socialism is compatible with elegance.
Like most people of my generation I could scarcely watch the opening of the Scottish Parliament, designedly low key though it was, without a twitch of emotion. I thought of the many people who had campaigned for it but did not live to see it and of the hundreds of increasingly plaintive editorials I had penned down the lean years.
I thought of my father who, when we were children, would take us to Parliament Hall where the advocates walked with their clients. For him, and therefore for us, it was full of echoes of a lost sovereignty.
There was many a time, in the Eighties in particular, when I gave up hope that home rule would come in my own lifetime, so implacably hostile was Mrs Thatcher to it and so permanent seemed her grip on power. But through the Thatcher years, the flame was kept alight by Canon Kenyon Wright and his fellow campaigners, and sustained by Labour’s decision to join the constitutional convention. As a result much of the theoretical work, that led to the Scotland Act, so great an improvement on its aborted predecessor, had been done by the time Tony Blair moved to complete John Smith’s unfinished business.
And so we were entitled for a moment at least, to savour last week’s images of a sober and unpretentious institution full of a quiet determination to win respect for itself in the larger world and avoid the petty insults of Westminster.
But, of course, malice and rancour are as resilient as rats and have already boarded the parliamentary ship. When Donald Dewar, after his election as First Secretary, shook everybody’s hand but that of Dennis Canavan, the independent MSP neatly rebuked him by offering him his own in a gesture of conciliation that Dewar could not refuse.
Soon, however, sweetness was in increasingly short supply. As the coalition talks came to an uneasy conclusion, Donald Gorrie, that Lib Dem of venerable service in local government, quickly broke with Westminster tradition but not in the way the more pious had expected: in an exasperated comment to journalists he denounced Labour as ‘the biggest bunch of liars you could ever meet.
In 2002, in a column in the Observer, Kemp defended Holyrood from attack.
The more that its implacable critics attack the Scottish Parliament and the more they attempt to discredit it upon whatever pretext comes to hand, the more they seem to feed the case for independence. If they calculate that Scotland will be persuaded to renounce what devolution it has and return to the full embrace of the Union Parliament, they are surely misguided. The result might be just the opposite.