The first in a two-part examination of the party’s history

WITH the General Election just around the corner and everyone predicting that the SNP will lose seats, it is worth looking back to see how far the party have come in a relatively short space of time.

In the first of a two-part look at the SNP’s electoral history we will see how the party fared up until the 1940s. Next week we will consider what has happened from that era to the present day. We will consider only elections as they are factual, while other polls are always merely a matter of opinion.

Many historians and pundits correctly consider the greatest turning point in the SNP’s electoral fortunes to be Winnie Ewing’s sensational victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election and its aftermath.

There have been many other by-election wins as we shall see, but that Hamilton win really was a game-changer for the SNP and it’s a fact that the party has been represented in Westminster ever since to a lesser and greater extent.

Why the SNP’s history at this time? It matters, that’s why. So few Scots know the history of the party they have voted for and that’s an omission we must try to correct. It matters also as a piece of Scottish history because if you believe the mainstream Unionist media’s wishful thinking, the current SNP dominance of Scottish politics is just a blip and we will soon be back with Labour and the Tories fighting it out. In that case we had better write down the history because it will all be forgotten when we get back to “normal” as some proprietors and editors see it.

Fat chance, because as this examination will show, the SNP will remain the most powerful party in Scottish politics after the election and for the foreseeable future, just as, sadly, the Tories look set to run Westminster for the next 10 years or so, with all the damage that will do to our society, especially if Theresa May gets the 100-seat majority she is looking for.

In that case, she will embark on her real odyssey, which is to make herself Margaret Thatcher the Second. I and every Scot who lived in the Thatcher era knows what a large majority of English Tories in Westminster means … catastrophe for Scotland. This time it is different, however, precisely because of the rise of the SNP and the Yes movement – they are not one and the same, and it would do the SNP leadership good to remember that from time to time.

The Yes movement is a little over five years old – it was formally created on May 25, 2012, but hardly anybody noticed the anniversary – and for what it’s worth, this commentator on history feels we really need to see someone or some people getting a grip and creating a new broad-based organisation to start building the inevitable indyref2 campaign now. The SNP, however, are now more than 80 years old, formed from the merger of the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party in December 1933. The formal inauguration of the new party was on Saturday, April 7, 1934, and at first there was no organisation to speak of, so that no less than five by-elections came and went before the SNP put its manifesto to the public in 1935.

Eight candidates contested seats in that election and polled 25,652 votes, or 1.1 per cent of the total. One of the best performances was by “King” John MacCormick, considered the driving force between the two parties’ merger. He stood in Inverness and managed to gain 4273 votes or 16.1 per cent of votes cast. Most candidates lost their deposit but Sir Alexander MacEwen, former provost of Inverness, did best of all with 28.1 per cent, or 3704 votes, in the Western Isles. He lost to Labour’s Malcolm Morrison, who represented the constituency for 35 years – he will recur in our story next week.

The party in the late 1930s got press coverage, most of it fair and respectful, but had no real electoral success, though Professor Andrew Dewar Gibb came second in the January 1936 Combined Scottish Universities by-election, caused by the death of Unionist MP Noel Skelton. Quite incredibly, he had retained the seat in the 1935 General Election despite having died three days before the vote.

This was the time of the National Government and its former leader, the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, won the by-election to get back into the Commons from which he had been ejected by the voters of Seaham the previous November. MacDonald won comfortably enough, but Gibb, the regius professor of law at Glasgow University, surprised everyone by polling 31.1 per cent of the votes, some 9034 in all, up 16.9 per cent on the previous November.

Could this be a way for the SNP to make their mark? Given the paucity of the party’s resources, it was clear that it simply did not have the candidates or the money to do well at a General Election, so it was thought that the SNP would target by-elections and pour its efforts into them – in those days, by-elections were much more frequent than they are now as MPs were no different from the rest of the population in those pre-antibiotic days and many died at a comparatively young age. It might possibly have been a good tactic except that it wasn’t really tried – the records show that the SNP contested just two of the 10 by-elections in Scotland from Gibb’s bid in January 1936 to the end of 1939. The fact is the SNP were going through the first of several internal divisions over policy, particularly whether to stand for outright independence or home rule, ie devolution of sorts.

John MacCormick came to favour the latter option and by 1939 he was trying to set up the Scottish Convention when Adolf Hitler intervened. The major parties decided by-elections would not be contested during the period of the war, but the SNP did not agree and put up William Power, later the party leader, in the Argyllshire by-election of June 1940 when he won 37.2 per cent of the vote but lost to the only other candidate, the Unionists’ Major Duncan McCallum.

The war mostly overshadowed politics but in 1942 after the annual conference elected Douglas Young as leader and rejected William Power, John MacCormick walked away from the SNP to found the Scottish Covenant and join the Liberals. The party fought two more by-elections during the war and the second of them, in Kirkcaldy in February, 1944, almost produced a sensational result as Dr Douglas Young, a giant of a man who stood 6ft 7ins, finished a close second to Labour’s Tom Hubbard, gaining 41.3 per cent of the vote – the SNP’s best performance to date.

Yet it would be overtaken in the very next by-election in Scotland. Labour’s James Walker, MP for Motherwell, was killed in a car accident and the SNP turned to its national secretary Dr Robert McIntyre, then the port boarding medical officer based at Greenock, to fight the by-election on April 12, 1945.

It would be a day that would live in history for the SNP. McIntyre was Motherwell born and bred, a distinguished doctor and a formidable organiser of the party in the war years, quietly building up its branch structure and membership.

We are indebted to for their fascinating account of the by-election which contains many of McIntyre’s political ideas.

In a well-received and widely read pamphlet on Some Principles for Scottish Reconstruction McIntyre set out tenets which are still relevant today.

“What country will we make it?” he asked. His answer should stand today: “National freedom based on self-government for Scotland and the restoration of national sovereignty by the establishment of a democratic Scottish government, whose authority will be limited only by such agreements as will be freely entered into with other nations, in order to further international co-operation and world peace.”

He added for good measure: “The community of Scotland cannot enter into its rightful inheritance while the wealth of the country is in the hands of an alien government, international finance and private monopolies.”

The party’s other driving force at the time, Arthur Donaldson, put together a fighting fund and knowing the power of publicity and celebrity endorsement, the actor Duncan Macrae was persuaded to help launch the SNP campaign.


The National:


McIntyre, above, who was just 31, was combative when he needed to be. The Scottish secretary of the Labour Party, John Taylor, compared the SNP to the Nazis and McIntyre went ballistic, unsurprisingly. The threat of court action shut Taylor up and the accusation backfired on Labour’s candidate Alexander Anderson, a local teacher, who knew he was in a tough scrap.

The SNP made great play of the fact that a number of local women had been forced to move south to do factory work during the war. That played well with the female portion of the electorate.

The Communist Party intervened on behalf of Labour and that, too, annoyed Anderson. They wrote in an “election special” leaflet: “It is because of the intelligence of the majority of the Motherwell electors and their ability to distinguish between serious politics and political buffoonery, it is extremely unlikely that the Nationalist Candidate will save his £150 (deposit) to divide the Labour Movement in any other constituency.”

How wrong could they have been – when the votes were counted, Scotland had its first SNP MP. McIntyre gained 11,417 votes or 51.4 per cent of the votes, a majority of 617 over Labour’s Anderson.

What happened next, as soon as the SNP stopped celebrating, was utterly disgraceful.

As Winnie Ewing recorded in the obituary she wrote when McIntyre died in 1998: “The press at the time (never a friend of the SNP) accused him wrongly of refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. In fact, he could not find the requisite two sponsors. So he walked down to the Speaker’s chair alone. The Speaker refused to recognise him. This episode reflected badly on the House of Commons and two sponsors did emerge.”

Coatbridge Labour MP and pacifist James Barr and Alexander “Sanny” Sloan, Labour MP for South Ayrshire, eventually agreed to be his sponsors and McIntyre entered Parliament.

His stay there was to be brief as the General Election of July 1945 swept Labour to power and saw Anderson defeat McIntyre comfortably. Still, his three-month sojourn in Westminster proved that the SNP could be an electoral force.

Dr Bob Mac would go on to be leader and president of the SNP and earned the title “father of the party”. His name is written in British political history as the first SNP MP, and though it took some time, thankfully he was not the last.