An excerpt from Hamilton 1967: The By-election That Transformed Scotland, published by Luath Press, priced £8.99


THE SNP’s Hamilton victory did not come out of nowhere. There was nothing inevitable about the Hamilton result or its impact. There had been stirrings well before November 1967. Arnold Kemp, editor of the (Glasgow) Herald, was working at the Scotsman when the paper’s political editor came on the line seconds after the Hamilton declaration.

He recounted the “mood of excitement”. Hamilton “launched the SNP into the stratosphere of concentrated London media attention and from [Ewing’s] victory is often traced the party’s prominence”.

But Hamilton was not the beginning. It was the flowering.Kemp’s portrayal of Hamilton as a flowering captures well the developments before the by-election as well as the nature of the victory.

The excitement generated by the result went well beyond the SNP and included people who might never vote for the party. Reports that Scottish Office civil servants based in Dover House, London were jubilant on hearing the result, provoked Tam Dalyell to ask Willie Ross the rhetorical Parliamentary Question, “whether it was with his authority that officials of his Department sent a congratulatory telegram from Dover House to the Hon Member for Hamilton on Friday, November 3”.

Ross replied that he was confident that no senior official would ‘forget his professional code’ and he did not intend to conduct an interrogation.

Hamilton tapped into a mood that went beyond support for independence or home rule. Its impact on Scottish politics was greater than any previous or subsequent by-election in the 20th century, even the 1963 Kinross and West Perthshire by-election at which the Tory candidate was Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. Hamilton provoked a reaction in government, across parties and in the media that gave the SNP credibility and a base to build upon. There would not have been the same reaction if Labour had held the seat, even through a close result.

A good second place for the SNP would only have been a reprieve for Labour. The impact on the SNP was immense. Winnie Ewing articulated a brand of nationalism that the SNP stuck with subsequently.

She would occasionally question whether nationalism was an accurate or helpful term, especially in her years as a Member of the European Parliament. Her internationalism was offended by suggestions that she was parochial because she was a “nationalist”.

The SNP would later describe itself as civic and multi-cultural but the ideas had been given more prominence on platforms in Hamilton than ever before and took root inside the party.

Various explanations have been offered for the result, often reflecting contemporary concerns. A common explanation, especially after the SNP failed to live up to its own hype in the 1970 general election, was that Hamilton had been a protest vote, merely signalling criticism of the Labour Government.

A protest vote implies that voters are not voting for something but registering opposition and that they will return to the party they would normally vote for at the next election.

THIS has been common in by-elections. Most by-election defeats are over-turned at the subsequent general elections. By-elections offer an easy way to protest without bringing down a government.

Such protest vote interpretations of Hamilton emphasised the negative motives for voting SNP and reject the SNP vote as signalling support for independence or home rule. There is reason to find this convincing. The Labour Government struggled with unemployment, emigration and other major economic challenges. There was much to protest against, especially following Labour’s election promises of a better future which failed to materialise.

The Labour Party was publicly divided on key issues with some local MPs being highly critical of the Government. Peggy Herbison, well respected MP for a neighbouring seat, stood down from the front bench in 1967 complaining that the Government had failed to do enough for the poor. The SNP campaign emphasised these Labour failings Unemployment, emigration and the economic challenges were emphasised in SNP literature and speeches.

Protest was no doubt part of the explanation but this still leaves questions unanswered. Why was the SNP the beneficiary in Hamilton when the Tories already had a presence in the constituency and had taken seats from Labour in Cambridge and Walthamstow West the previous month, as well as winning Leicester South West and coming close in Manchester Gorton on the same day as Hamilton?

A protest vote is a temporary, or at least intermittent, phenomenon.

It was commonly assumed that this was the case when the SNP failed to make the breakthrough expected in the 1970 general election but a party’s own hype is a poor measure of success. Just as the SNP had misinterpreted Hamilton as signalling that Scotland would be “free by 73”, so did their opponents misinterpret the SNP’s defeat in Hamilton and failure to win a single mainland seat at the general election. Winning one vote in ten across Scotland in 1970 compared with one in twenty in 1966 can only be viewed as a relative success.

The party won its first seat at a general election and fielded almost three times more candidates than four years before. Again, we return to the question of how we measure success. Measured against expectations that the SNP set itself, 1970 was a setback, but by other measures it was an advance. What is clear from the vantage point of half a century is that the SNP’s advance was a slow, uneven and far from certain process.

IN the late 1960 and early 1970s, consideration was given to “relative deprivation” explanations. Relative deprivation is the “perceived discrepancy between what people think they should achieve and what they have indeed achieved”.

This suggests that Scots felt relatively economically aggrieved and had found a means of rectifying the grievance. A key work in the early 1970s argued that an organisation was needed to mobilise the sense of relative deprivation. It was not enough that a community was or perceived itself to be relatively deprived but there needed to be an alternative vision and an organisation making the case and mobilising support.

Runciman, in his classic work on relative deprivation, argued that four conditions needed to be met:

  • People need to be deprived of something;
  • They must know that others have it;
  • They must want it; and believe it can be obtained;
  • There would need to be evidence that each of these conditions existed.

In 1969, the future Scottish Office Chief Economist Gavin McCrone argued that “recent political developments in Scotland are closely connected with the state of the economy”. We might expect that an economist would look for economic explanations and McCrone provides ample objective evidence of Scotland’s relatively weak economic position and reason for voters to seek a means of expressing dissatisfaction. That would satisfy a protest vote explanation.

Voters would need to believe that Scotland was deprived compared with other parts of the UK, that this deprivation was unwarranted and that the SNP was the political vehicle with the solution and ability to mobilise support if relative deprivation explained the SNP’s rise.

The absence of opinion survey data from Hamilton limits our ability to test almost any explanation of the Hamilton result but subsequent Scottish public opinion research and the attitudes of leading SNP figures calls relative economic deprivation into question.

A STUDY in the early 1970s considered the extent to which Scots felt relatively deprived in five ways: the sufficiency of Parliamentary representation, job opportunities, discrepancies between Scottish and English standards of living, economic positions, and “style of living”. It concluded that the evidence was far from overwhelming.

That does not rule out some aspects of relative deprivation. Most likely, voters were well aware of Scotland’s relative economic weakness, not least as this was something Scottish Labour MPs including Hamilton’s erstwhile MP had frequently made much of, but it is unclear whether voters believed that this situation could be changed or, most notably, that the SNP had the answers.

Subsequent research suggests that while the SNP message consistently complained about the state of the Scottish economy, lack of opportunities for Scots and the high levels of emigration, there is less evidence that this was reflected in attitudes of SNP supporters.

It is not unknown for parties and their voters to diverge in their attitudes, views and policy preferences. But it seems unlikely that these criticisms did not have some impact, not least as they were shared by many people who did not vote SNP.

The SNP campaign also included an upbeat message in Hamilton. Contemporary informed speculation suggested that amongst those who were attracted to Winnie Ewing’s message were those who were younger, politically more footloose and optimistic. SNP voters were not necessarily jobless and/or intending to emigrate to Australia.