LAST week, I showed how the Scottish Covenant of 1949 came into being and today I will demonstrate how successful it was, even if it did not achieve its aim of gaining a Scottish Parliament. It’s worth repeating the wording of the Covenant drawn up under the guidance of “King” John MacCormick, co-founder of the SNP who left the party in 1942 to campaign for home rule with the Scottish Convention that he founded along with several dozen activists and which by 1949 had grown to be a nationwide body with representation in many places across Scotland.

MacCormick himself stood for Parliament for the Liberals and failed but managed to press his “home rule” message which was contained in the Scottish Covenant: “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.”

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The wording was approved by the National Assembly of the Scottish Convention in April 1949, and careful preparations for its publication got under way.

The Covenant project was obviously based on the great National Covenant of the Church of Scotland from 1638, so it was fitting that on October 29, 1949, the General Assembly Hall of the Kirk in Edinburgh hosted 1200 delegates who were the first people to sign this new political Covenant. Speaker after speaker from all walks of life in Scotland came forward to say why they were signing.

Their voices were different and I suspect the late great Donald Dewar had them in mind when he addressed the opening of the Scottish Parliament 50 years later: “The shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards: the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land; the discourse of the enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe; the wild cry of the Great Pipes; and back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.”

With all their different accents, Scotland spoke with one voice. The first signatory was the Duke of Montrose, just as his ancestor had been one of the first to sign the original Covenant 311 years previously. It burst upon Scotland like a flash flood. The equivalent today would be “going viral’ on the internet, but back then people had to put pen to paper and the Covenant became an utter phenomenon, signed by 50,000 people in the first week – so many that MacCormick had to order 10,000 more copies for signing – while more than 3000 people attended a signing meeting in St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow, with thousands more queuing up patiently outside.

It took less than six months for the Covenant to be signed by one million people. Buoyed by the success of the venture, the Convention called another National Assembly which took place in April 1950. Citing the Covenant and its mass signatures, the Assembly unanimously agreed that commissioners should be appointed to go to the prime minister, Clement Attlee, and the leader of the opposition, Winston Churchill, to seek assurances that the will of the people of Scotland would be accommodated.

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A second resolution was that if no satisfactory assurances could be obtained at Westminster, a petition should be presented directly to King George VI. Attlee and Churchill would not meet the commissioners personally but sent two representatives, respectively the secretary of state for Scotland Hector McNeil and the future secretary of state James Stuart.

Rather than respond with the simple “no” of Theresa May or Boris Johnson, McNeil promised to establish a committee to look into the financial relationship between England and Scotland, while the Unionist Party, as the Tories then were, produced a pamphlet called Scottish Control of Scottish Affairs – that’s right, the Conservatives/Unionists responded more positively and indeed pledged to appoint a Royal Commission to examine all the functions of government in Scotland.

Please remember these words as they direct my conclusions – MacCormick records in his memoirs: “It is only by such small yet significant stages that the parties entrenched in power can be moved by public opinion. The important thing, however, and the thing which justifies even an imperfect democracy, is that they can be moved at all.”

The Convention continued to gather signatures and then demanded a national plebiscite for Scotland – effectively a referendum on the issue of a Scottish Parliament. The Labour government replied: “It is our view that constitutional change in this country is considered and settled by the normal process of parliamentary democracy.”

It is worth quoting at some length the reply from the man who was effectively shadow secretary of state, John Stuart. Writing on behalf of the Scottish Unionist members committee that he chaired he wrote: “Having carefully considered these documents we wish to make a position clear to all. If the people of Scotland were ultimately to decide in favour of a Scottish Parliament no-one could gainsay see them.

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“We do not, however, hold the view that such extremely complex matters can probably be determined either by plebiscite or by reference to the number of signatures are fixed to any document. The constitutional message by which the people in our democracy can make their wishes known and effective are well understood, generally respected, in constant use and available to all shades of opinion.”

These responses show that even back then Better Together was the way of things for the Unionist side.

The international media began to take an interest in the Covenant when the one million signature mark was reached. A delegation from the Convention even went to the USA and Canada to explain what it was trying to do. At home, however, a split was emerging in the ranks largely because, in the face of government and opposition refusal to countenance a referendum, the Convention’s leadership was not exactly sure what to do.

The Convention may have been stuck but nationalist students at Glasgow University were determined to make their point. They nominated MacCormick for the rectorship of the university and he was duly elected in October 1950. Among his supporters were Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Alan Stuart and Gavin Vernon who, on Christmas Day 1950, with MacCormick’s active support, repatriated the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey. It was given back, of course – well some version of it – but the Stone adventure helped boost the Covenant signature total to more than two million. The point was made but in the end it was ignored by Westminster.

The first part of the Covenant is today held by the National Records of Scotland, with the catalogue entry noting that it was donated by one Mr Ian Hamilton QC in April 1998.

The main body of signatures, except the 160 on the first page, is now in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. They are contained in thousands of separate sheets which were donated in 1970 by Madame Ecosse herself, Winnie Ewing.

The Convention would be just part of the legacy of John MacCormick, whose health declined in the late 1950s, but not until after he and Ian Hamilton had memorably challenged the numeral of Queen Elizabeth II in a country that had never had an Elizabeth I. They lost, but the Appeal Court memorably judged that the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament had no counterpart in the law of Scotland – that judgment, it should be noted, was part of the reason why Joanna Cherry and her colleagues were able to defeat Boris Johnson and his government over the prorogation of Parliament. MacCormick also left the nationalist cause a family legacy – his elder son Iain, who died in 2014, was the SNP MP for Argyll from 1974 to 1979 and was a founder member of the Social Democratic Party. His younger brother, Sir Neil MacCormick, who died in 2009, was a distinguished professor of law and vice-principal of Edinburgh University as well as being an SNP MEP from 1999 until 2004.

John MacCormick was also the uncle of the late respected journalist and broadcaster Donald MacCormick.

As Ian Hamilton has testified, after that case of the Queen’s numeral, MacCormick was forced out of his solicitors’ practice, and was refused permission to become an advocate when he was more than able to be so. His health deteriorated badly, with liver and kidney problems, and, after years of constant pain, John MacCormick died on October 13, 1961. He was just 56. His funeral was held in the chapel of Glasgow University.

I promised last week that, at the end of this brief history of a seminal event in the development of Scottish politics, I would give my opinion on what lessens can be learned by contemporary independence activists and supporters from the tale of King John MacCormick and the Scottish Covenant. At this extraordinary moment in Scottish life, we should follow the example of MacCormick.

MacCormick wrote in his memoirs The Flag in the Wind: “I would say of Britain ... that I would rather be in a minority in this island than anywhere else in the world. We grumble and complain against the powers that be; we prove to our own complete satisfaction that we are unfairly stifled and repressed; but we go on talking and by infinitesimal stages our talk pushes our unwilling rulers along the road we want to go.”

The Scottish Covenant was an important development in the long-running battle to win the Scottish Parliament, as it made home rule a live issue, which people discussed, but we did not get our Parliament back until 50 years later. Now, 20 years on we are on the brink of winning independence, but it may take longer and be a more complex struggle than some people would have you believe. We need more than ever to be patient and to be united in our commitment to independence, and we should keep the message of the Yes movement to precepts as simple as MacCormick’s.

History shows we don’t need white papers, we just want a simple message – give us independence. We can sort out issues like currency, monarchy or republic, in the European Union or not, by remembering what MacCormick won in court and which has been confirmed in the Claim of Right approved by the House of Commons – that the people of Scotland are sovereign.

Let them be so. Let the people choose, but first of all, in order to have those choices, we have to have independence, and we can win it with persuasiveness and cleverness – King John’s greatest qualities.