IT WAS in November 1967 that Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election to become the Scottish National Party’s second MP.

It was a truly historic victory which can be summed up thus – before Winnie and Hamilton, the SNP had one member of the UK Parliament, Dr Robert McIntyre, who held the Motherwell seat for 84 days after a by-election in 1945. After Hamilton, the SNP has always been represented in the House of Commons.

I will write further about Winnie, as I consider her to be one of the greatest Scottish women of recent decades.

This column concentrates on the by-election. For those who want to delve more deeply into the subject, I recommend Professor James Mitchell’s book Hamilton 1967 published by Luath Press.

The by-election has to be put in context first. When Willie Wolfe came second in the West Lothian by-election in June 1962, the SNP began a resurgence.

Party membership began to grow so that a record 15 candidates stood at the General Election in 1964, which entitled the SNP to a five-minute party-political broadcast on September 29, 1965. In the March 1966 General Election the SNP took 5% of the Scottish votes, by far the party’s best performance in a General Election.

Labour, however, took almost 50% of the Scottish vote and were by far the dominant force in Scottish politics.

SNP membership stood at around 25,000 in 190 branches by the end of 1966, and in March, 1967, George Leslie came third in the Pollok by-election with 23.8%, while in the local elections the SNP won seats across the central belt, many for the first time.

Things were moving for the SNP, helped by the failure of the Labour government to maintain the economic boom of the early 1960s.

A by-election was rumoured to be coming for Hamilton where, in a piece of sheer arrogance by Labour, the sitting MP Tom Fraser was allowed to resign to become head of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.

Letting such a sitting MP resign was a grave piece of misjudgement by prime minister Harold Wilson who, to be fair, was advised by his Scottish party leaders that Hamilton was absolutely safe territory.

More pertinently, Wilson also did not have a clue about the SNP’s formidable candidate. No one outside the SNP did, and many in the party also did not know her.

Winifred Ewing was 38, and the “vivacious mother of three young children” as the Guardian described her.

She had no real political experience and had not even held a council seat. Instead she had made a career as a formidable lawyer and academic, who, among other attainments, was a fluent Dutch speaker.

Despite her lack of experience – this would be her first campaign – she won selection as prospective parliamentary candidate from the local branches in September, 1966, and the National Executive endorsed her.

When Fraser hinted he would resign in May, 1967, the party locally was ready to fight the campaign.

That month also saw a resurgence in Scottish feelgood factor as Celtic won the European Cup and Rangers reached the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup while the previous month Scotland beat world champions England at Wembley – in football, at least, Scottish confidence was riding high, and it did feed into the national psyche.

Much was made about the fact that Ewing was a woman standing in an area dominated by male politicians, but in fact Lanarkshire already had two female Labour MPs – the then current government minister Judith Hart and the formidable Peggy Herbison, who resigned as minister for social security over the government’s record on poverty in July, 1967, adding to the feeling that Wilson was losing the plot. In the same month, Fraser resigned.

The campaign was longer than usual for by-elections.

In John McAteer, Ewing had an election agent of genius who would become the party’s national organiser, and he put together a brilliant campaign strategy which involved Ewing emphasising SNP positivity and internationalism.

The local branches in Hamilton, Larkhall and Blantyre were constantly campaigning day and night and party activists came from all over Scotland to work the streets and knock on doors.

Mike Blackshaw of the Edinburgh Yes Hub recalls travelling to the constituency and being moved on by the police when he and fellow activists started a street sing-song that stopped the traffic – “I felt we were going to win after that,” he says.

Labour’s constituency party chose miner and local party stalwart Alex Wilson as their candidate – they rejected a certain John Smith – while the Tories selected lawyer Ian Dyer and the Liberals did not even stand.

Wilson didn’t even bother to start his campaign until mid-October and took one day off work before the count.

Though most of the debate was conducted in the press – Ewing impressed even the Unionist media – Ewing’s direct appeal to the public she met on the streets began to work.

On every issue, Ewing wiped the floor with Wilson and Dyer, but on polling day, November 2, 1967, the bookies had Labour as strong favourites. For once they were wrong and Labour’s complacency against a superb candidate and campaign haunts them to this day.

Ewing polled 18,397 votes, or 46% of the vote, against Labour’s 16,589 and the Conservatives’ 4986. The shock was felt all the way to Westminster and the SNP was in business.

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on,” Ewing famously said. Surely it’s just a matter of time before we do exactly that.