TWO car loads of SNP supporters left Arbroath in the early hours of the morning of the Hamilton by-election in November 1967. One car included a couple who had married the day before, on the bride’s birthday. Tam and Ruth Walker, along with Jim McGugan who would be SNP candidate in many elections over subsequent years, were founder members of the Arbroath branch of the SNP. The honeymoon couple spent polling day handing out last minute leaflets in the rain in High Blantyre.

The unexpected weather meant that a Mary Quant-style plastic raincoat had to be bought for Ruth. A photograph of the couple appeared in the next day’s Daily Record. They represented an important part of the explanation for the election of Winnie Ewing as SNP MP for what had been one of Labour’s safest seats in Parliament. There was an enthusiasm and energy in the SNP ranks that was absent amongst the main parties.

The couple offered their ‘eye-witness’ account of events outside the count at St John’s School in Hamilton in their branch newsletter.

It captures the excitement and idealism of these young SNP supporters.

They thought that every car in the car park appeared to be covered with ‘Vote Ewing’ posters and reported that SNP leader Arthur Donaldson thought the SNP had a ‘strong chance’. Pipes and guitars were being played despite heavy rain and SNP activists were singing the 1960s protest song, ‘We shall overcome’.

The crowd kept calling on Winnie Ewing to come out as they awaited the declaration. The count was over about 15 minutes after midnight and journalists rushed to phones to call news desks but the crowd outside could still only speculate. Even when the returning officer appeared with a smiling Ewing, the Arbroath members reported, ‘We know we have won yet we do not know’. The Tory candidate followed and spoke to Ewing while Labour’s Alex Wilson stood back, understandably deflated.

When the result was declared, though the precise figure was muffled by the crowd, the emotional energy of a small fringe party that had not seen victory since a by-election in the very unusual circumstances of the closing stages of the Second World War, was released, ‘Dancing, singing, shouting, drunker than any alcohol could ever make us. Drunk with joy and victory.

One young woman is helped away in tears streaming down her cheeks. Another Nationalist wanders about dreamily, carrying half a banner staff.’ But these foot soldiers, who remain the SNP’s main strength, were aware that this victory was only the start. As quoted from an article by Magnus Magnusson that had appeared in The Scotsman earlier in the week supporting Ewing, ‘Now let the real battle commence’.

Few are aware that the campaign started well over a year before polling day. The issues raised are largely forgotten and the extent to which victory was cause or effect in the growing support for the SNP has never been disentangled.

There have been competing interpretations of the SNP success with some emphasising macro-level developments including the decline of Empire and Britain’s place in the world, signifying a weakening of British nationalism; major socio-economic changes disrupting traditional patterns of political behaviour; the context of the swinging Sixties when new political and social movements arose; the unpopularity of a Labour Government that had over-promised at the previous year’s general election and struggled to cope with major challenges; the greatly improved organisational capacity of the SNP.

Other explanations focus on the party, its activists and, of course, the candidate herself. We do not have opinion poll data from Hamilton, or even for Scotland, that can assist the study of the event. Local election results gave little hint of the SNP victory. The evidence in assessing the causes of the SNP breakthrough is necessarily speculative and it therefore must be treated with care. Assertions have been made and become accepted wisdom that need to be questioned.

Some claims prove to be inaccurate or at least exaggerated on inspection.

Hamilton 1967 raises many ‘What ifs…?’ What if John Smith, later leader of the Labour Party, had won the Labour nomination having it made to the short list? What if there had been a snap by-election, rather than more than a year-long campaign? What if Harold Wilson’s cabinet of impressive intellects but massive egos had managed to cohere better and given a better appearance of competence in difficult circumstances? What if the Liberals had stood a candidate?

None of these questions can be answered with full confidence but each is another way of asking why the SNP won.

It is tempting to focus simply on the decline of the coal industry and view the area as a place on the verge of post-industrialisation but Hamilton was buzzing with activity in the mid to late 1960s. There is as much, indeed probably more, evidence of reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic than might be imagined.

Viewed from when events unfolded leading up to the by-election, many people in Hamilton were excited and hopeful about the future. The SNP message was as mixed as was the mood of the times — critical of government failure but offering a positive alternative.

Many of the issues then being discussed remain with us today.

Harold Wilson’s Government had applied for membership of the European Economic Community and the UK’s relations with Europe was a recurring theme at the time. Scotland’s constitutional status and whether Scotland should have its own voice in negotiations has resonated down the years. The role of women in Scottish politics was discussed. The issue of young voters and the age of majority would arise in the by-election and afterwards.

As today, the mid-late 1960s were a period of political and economic turbulence. Old certainties were being questioned and old loyalties strained. These phenomena were not restricted to Scotland. Hamilton was, in this sense, emblematic of the age.


BY-ELECTIONS come and go, attracting immediate attention, much speculation and exaggerated interpretations of their impact. New dawns beckon and minor parties assume, or at least hope, that a by-election success signals a breakthrough. In 1962, the Liberals’ much awaited revival was thought to have been signalled by victory at Orpington. That came to little; though the Liberals did go on to win more seats, including David Steel’s victory at the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election in 1965.

In the 1980s, the Social Democrats scored a number of by-election victories suggesting that a major realignment was underway in British politics. In the event, it fizzled out. By-elections are not good guides as to what is likely to happen at any subsequent general election. Spectacular by-election gains more often than not return to the party that had lost the seat and by-election victories rarely tell us much about underlying political developments.

But equally, by-elections are more than just local concerns. They can be important media events not only because they may be the only electoral show in town and may highlight, in exaggerated form, some underlying trends. Carefully considered, along with longer term trends and other evidence, by-elections are tests — tests that need to be repeated to be sure that they are not occasional political spasms. Before devolution, by-elections had a significance in Scottish politics.

They were uniquely Scottish political events. General elections were British political contests with the Scottish dimension overwhelmed by the debate on who should be Prime Minister. Scottish local elections rarely attracted the same attention but a by-election was Scottish theatre, rarely performed but often with an interesting cast. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament removed this distinction and by-elections are now less significant than they were pre-devolution. The evolution of interpretations of the Hamilton by-election has been cyclical. In its immediate aftermath, it was widely thought to signify major change in Scottish politics but within three years

Hamilton was dismissed as a protest vote. Within another four years, Hamilton 1967 again assumed significance as the harbinger of major change but by 1979 was once more being dismissed. Today, it is seen as significant but whether as cause or consequence of longer term change is not always clear. There have been ebbs and flows but the SNP has had a continuous presence in the House of Commons since Hamilton.

Even if a by-election tells us less about underlying trends than might be immediately imagined, such interpretations can themselves create change. Hamilton 1967 was thought to be significant by the Labour Government and Conservative Opposition at Westminster and thereby caused change. There had been periodic spasms of support for home rule with Government reactions developing Scotland’s position in the Union, but the reaction to Hamilton set Scotland on a long, though far from certain, route to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Labour and Conservative Parties set up enquiries, dabbled with constitutional change and emphasised their Scottish credentials.

Whitehall woke up to the Scottish Question in 1967 as never before.

The idea that there was a Scottish political system caused an increase in the amount of media attention paid to Scottish politics.

Titled Hamilton 1967: The by-election that transformed Scotland, the book is out now from capital publisher Luath Press and is priced at £8.99.