IT is always a pleasure to be asked to help a reader and I was pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail the other day from a regular correspondent asking if I could explain the Scottish Covenant of 1949.

Wow, what a big subject. Indeed it is going to take two columns to give a proper account of the Covenant and the man who inspired it, “King” John MacCormick.

The reader explained she had just signed the petition for independence which, at the time of writing, is just 14,000 signatures short of the 500,000 target – yup, there’s nae appetite for independence or indyref2 ...

Her question was this – do petitions of this kind do any good, given that the Scottish Covenant did not actually attain the goal of a devolved parliament until 50 years later?

I will give my answer to that question next week at the end of this brief history of what I have long believed to be a seminal event in the development of Scottish politics.

It is impossible to write about the Covenant of 1949 without giving an outline of the life and work of the man whose inspired idea it was, the man nicknamed “King” John MacCormick, one of the founders of the Scottish National Party.

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John MacDonald MacCormick was born in 1904 at 12 Leslie Street in Pollokshields in Glasgow, the son of Donald MacCormick, a sea captain originally from Mull, and Marion née Macdonald, a nurse.

He was what I often call a “born Scot”. From early childhood he loved his native land with a passion, as he recalled in his memoir A Flag In The Wind.

He wrote: “I cannot remember any time even in my childhood when I was not conscious of a strong feeling of pride in Scotland and of at least a vaguely realised idea that somehow my own country had been thwarted in the fulfilment of her destiny.”

As the child of native Gaelic speakers, MacCormick was conscious from a young age of the entirety of Scotland. As a keen student of Scottish history, as well as being an eager and competent painter, he had a very visual acuity about the state of the nation in which he was growing up. In Glasgow and its environs as well as the highlands and islands where he spent numerous summers, MacCormick was seeing a Scotland that was both ancient and modern, and above all one that was changing.

As he would write many years later: “Out of almost imperceptible beginnings, an immense change has already taken place, a change which has affected all classes of the people and which, whatever its final outcome, is bound to influence the future political development not only of Scotland but also of the British Isles and the Empire and perhaps of Europe as well. For better or for worse the experiment which began in 1707, of completely fusing two distinct nations and making them one, has failed. Now the task of statesmanship is to devise a new and better form of Union which will not deny to either party the right to be itself.”

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As I said, lessons from history must be learned. But to return to our man’s personal story.

MacCormick was educated at Woodside School before going on to Glasgow University to study law. At university, MacCormick developed his public speaking skills and became a quite brilliant orator – quite by chance, as he related later, having gone by accident to a student debate where he made his first contribution and found he had a natural talent.

The National: MacCormick (standing) speaking at the Glasgow student unionMacCormick (standing) speaking at the Glasgow student union

It may come as a surprise that MacCormick, who was at the heart of all the major developments of the nationalist cause prior to World War II, was originally a Labour man. An office bearer in the student Labour Club, he took part in many debates in the student union and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) – the party of Red Clydesiders James Maxton, John Wheatley and Davie Kirkwood.

Yet despite the ILP’s policy of support for home rule, MacCormick was drawn more and more to the concept that “home rule” – a devolved parliament at the very least – needed to be fought for by a political group dedicated to the end alone.

Thus he was the main man when the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association (Gusna) was formed in 1927 – Gusna itself is still going strong and its former members include Winnie Ewing, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and MacCormick’s son, the late Sir Neil MacCormick.

I am reliably informed that the actor Robert Carlyle did an excellent job of interpreting MacCormick in the 2008 film Stone of Destiny but the Stone incidents were far in the future when MacCormick acquired his nickname. He was heckled during a debate with the question: “If Scotland becomes a kingdom again, would you be king?” That piece of student humour stuck and King John MacCormick was his moniker ever after.

IN April 1928, the National Party of Scotland (NPS) was formed, with Gusna and MacCormick the driving forces. He became the party’s first national secretary and persuaded the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, Eric Linklater, Compton Mackenzie and Neil Gunn to join the new party whose first president was the author, adventurer and politician Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, who had also been a founder of the Labour Party after leaving the Liberals.

The NPS chose its first chairman well – Roland Muirhead, a businessman from Lochwinnoch who Labour Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston would describe as “the greatest patriot to come out of Renfrewshire since William Wallace.”

Under Roland Muirhead’s leadership, the party put up candidates for local councils, by-elections and the 1931 General Election. Their five candidates gained a total of 21,000 votes – not much, but a start.

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The rather more right-wing Scottish Party was formed in 1932 by a group of Unionists determined to fight for a “dominion” Scottish Parliament within the British Empire. MacCormick was always wary of the fundamentalists within the NPS and could see the benefits of working with the Scottish Party, even though he knew it was going to be difficult to combine former Unionist conservative-minded types with socialist and liberal elements.

Largely because of his pushing, the two parties decided to merge, and on April 7, 1934, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was formally created in Glasgow with RB Cunninghame Graham as its first president. The principal founders included MacCormick, who again had the job of national secretary, the Duke of Montrose, Roland Muirhead, Andrew Dewar Gibb, Tom Gibson, John McNicol, John Kevan McDowall, and the party’s first leader, Sir Alexander MacEwen.

Within a few short months the new party had 10,000 members and was able to contest some seats in the 1935 general election, winning just under 30,000 votes. Better news came in the by-election for the Combined Scottish Universities in January, 1936, with Andrew Dewar Gibb, a law professor at Glasgow University, coming second to former prime minister Ramsay MacDonald. MacCormick himself came a poor third in the 1937 Hillhead by-election, but in the following year he had a great personal success in his marriage to a fellow nationalist, Margaret Miller, with whom he had four children – Iain, Neil, Marion and Elspeth. We’ll learn more about that remarkable family next week.

With war looming and membership plummeting as political parties joined in the common cause, the SNP looked to be down and out until a remarkably good showing in the Argyll by-election of April 1940 when it took 37.2% of the vote against the only other candidate, the Tory Duncan McCallum.

While MacCormick had kept things going before the war, the SNP struggled during it – partly, as we shall see, because of MacCormick. The party rarely contested by-elections during the war, but in February 1944, there was nearly a shock when Douglas Young came a close second to Labour’s Tom Hubbard in Kirkcaldy Burghs.

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Then came the breakthrough when Dr Robert McIntyre won the Motherwell by-election of April 12, 1945. Even though he lost his seat at the general election a few months later, it gave Dr McIntyre his place in history as the first SNP MP.

By then, MacCormick was himself history, at least as far as his membership of the SNP was concerned.

In his time as national secretary, MacCormick had worked hard to push the case of “gradualism”, the school of thought that independence could be won by first of all gaining a devolved Scottish parliament in a new “federal” arrangement of the UK’s constitution. Yet he failed to convince enough party members of the gradualist case and there was also trouble with a minority of members who were not convinced that the SNP should fully back the war – the party had an anti-conscription policy and some had joined the Scottish Neutrality League, while senior member Arthur Donaldson had been arrested and held without trial for six weeks for his protests against the conscription of Scottish women for work in English factories.

In truth there were also elements of personality clashes and it all came to a head at the SNP annual conference in 1942, when MacCormick dramatically resigned from the party to pursue an all-party approach to winning home rule for Scotland within the UK.

This was not a new idea – in 1939 when the Westminster government carried out a devolution of sorts by building the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, MacCormick had first set out his ideas for a national convention that would bring together all those across Scottish politics and society who believed in home rule. Incredibly, he managed to organise a meeting for early September that year, only for Adolf Hitler to intervene. By that fateful conference in 1942, MacCormick was no longer “king” in his own castle, but now he was free to pursue his idea of a national convention. After the war he convened several “national assemblies” and by 1949, he was ready with his biggest idea – a new National Covenant to be signed by the people of Scotland.

It was given its major public launch in October and read as follows:

“We, the people of Scotland who subscribe to this Engagement, declare our belief that reform in the constitution of our country is necessary to secure good government in accordance with our Scottish traditions and to promote the spiritual and economic welfare of our nation.

“We affirm that the desire for such reform is both deep and widespread through the whole community, transcending all political differences and sectional interests, and we undertake to continue united in purpose for its achievement.

“With that end in view we solemnly enter into this Covenant whereby we pledge ourselves, in all loyalty to the Crown and within the framework of the United Kingdom, to do everything in our power to secure for Scotland a parliament with adequate legislative authority in Scottish affairs.”

Next week I will show what happened with the Covenant and conclude my account of MacCormick’s all too brief life, and I will demonstrate why all of us who believe in Scottish independence must learn the lessons minted for us by MacCormick and his Covenant.