Lessons of Hamilton 1967

By David MacEwan Hill, Written after the anniversary of the Hamilton by-election win.

The 50th anniversary last week of Winnie Ewing’s victory at Hamilton made me think deeply about the significance of the event and what has changed since. When you look closely there are very marked differences we have to address in political attitudes in Scotland today.

I was there at there at Hamilton contest as a young(ish) activist, teaching in a local school, having experienced political baptism of fire as a candidate for the SNP at the local elections. One of the biggest differences, then to now, was the amicable relationship of particularly the Labour Party members and the SNP in central Scotland. There was no serious opposition in the Labour ranks to “home rule” for Scotland. The usual reaction when we bumped into each other as we canvassed round the wards or chatted over a pint in the local club after a night round the doors was “Aye, It’s no a bad idea, son. But we’ll never get it.”

The Labour Party, of course, is not constitutionally a unionist party and this is still an unlocked door in the constitutional corridor we are making our way along. Hamilton however changed a lot more than we realised then and now.

The Labour Party in Scotland had an unconcerned attitude to the SNP till then because they had posed no threat across the Labour heartlands. Hamilton changed that. And the first real sight of this was at the Hamilton count. But the events leading up to the by election had shaken some in the local Labour party. A young Labour activist had come over from Ayrshire a couple of days before the vote and told them they were losing. Most had laughed at Jim Sillars but the more engaged had found him expressing their very real concerns. The local Labour party machine was moribund. Since the cloth cap Tory vote with its significant sectarian element had been seen off in the late fifties working class central Scotland was Labour’s empire. They didn’t have to work at it –and they didn’t . There was virtually no sign of a Labour campaign in Hamilton. But the SNP was everywhere. The huge lift the party had received from George Leslie’s campaign and nearly 30% of the vote in the Pollok by election earlier in 1967 had translated into activity. Activists saw a huge opportunity for serious advance and another decent result. (To put this into context the SNP celebrated long and hard when it actually saved a deposit and came in narrowly behind the Unionist candidate in a Bridgeton by election in 1961). In Hamilton huge SNP car cavalcades criss-crossed the constituency. Activists came from all across Scotland and canvassed and leafleted. As the word got out that things were going well the activity accelerated. We had a fabulous candidate. We knew momentum , that strange things that grips campaigns ,the people in it and the population at large. (Do we fully recognise the effectiveness of high visibility and identification today or do parties in power forget about it? We certainly saw its potential in the independence campaign in 2014.)

As election day approached we knew something was happening. Our canvassing returns were encouraging but it was the reaction of the people in the streets that told us more. When you get waves and cheery hellos and thumbs up and toots from passing cars you know you are motoring, so to speak. What had actually happened was that the voters had decided we could actually win. That was the defining sentiment in Hamilton. The SNP could win. It wasn’t a wasted vote . But we were operating in a very different Scotland then. And that is the very important point. We were operating in a proud Scotland. We were operating in Scotland in which you could be proud to be British but immensely proud also to be a member of a Scottish nation that was contributing and was acknowledged to have contributed more than its share to Britain’s “greatness”. We were, we all knew then, a resourceful, clever, industrious and hugely able race. This was a universal truth and belief. Had you suggested to any Scots then that they were in receipt of English hand-outs you quite likely would have been punched. What a difference today!

Then all over Scotland people were perfectly happy for the SNP to win at Hamilton. There was no notion that we weren’t able to run our own country. It would be quite nice to signal our confidence in our own ability. Britain was grand but maybe we should go our own way now. No hard feelings but it might be interesting and better for us. There was no virulent anti SNP sentiment across the country. “Aye, It’s no a bad idea, son. I thought we’d never get it. Maybe we will.”

We knew we were not far from winning when we got to eve of poll. We had booked an eve of poll public meeting at Hamilton Town Hall. Expected a couple of hundred people. Then Ludovic Kennedy declared for Independence and agreed to address the meeting. I had the unnerving experience of then chairing the meeting facing an excited and enthusiastic estimated 2000 of an audience. So polling day was a day of nervously subdued hope. We knew we were doing well. Every polling station had crowds of SNP enthusiasts. It was wet, but nobody was going home. The count that night at St John’s Grammar however was when we unfortunately felt the fist inklings of what was to come. But in continuous pouring rain there was a crowd of several hundred SNP supporters outside the hall singing and chanting. I had a larger blue kipper tie with huge white dots. I had told some of the activists that I would come out onto the balcony after the count was settled down and if I gave a wave or two on the tie they would know we were doing well . After an hour I went out and gave them a wee wave. With about 15 minutes to go and us over 1000 ahead on our calculation I went out and gave it a big wave and the sodden crowd below went wild .

That was the good bit. But that was the first we felt of what was to come from the Labour Party in coming years. They were mortified. They were enraged. Worse. They were deeply embarrassed. And some people in that hall hated us from that moment on . They believed they were safe in Lanarkshire and much of their Central Scotland fiefdom. Then along came this SNP and blew that notion out the water. And set the scene for what the Labour Party in Scotland has become. The behaviour of the Labour Party (Emrys Hughes MP excepted) in Westminster and in Scotland to Winnie Ewing was appalling and shameful. Very soon such as “the SNP is an Orange, Masonic organisation” and the like surfaced and started getting peddled round the doors in chosen areas. Yet nobody worked harder for Hamilton than Winnie did. We would have a constituency surgery at our shop at Peacock Cross on a Saturday morning at 11 am and she on occasion would still there late at night. But Labour was in overdrive against her and against the SNP. But it wasn’t opposition to independence. It was opposition instead to an SNP that could take their power away. I was Winnie’s organiser when she lost at the following general election. But it was the SNP that actually lost it. The Labour Party threw everything at the seat. It looked like every taxi in town was going round the schemes of Hamilton digging out support for Labour (services freely given we were told). The daft SNP left Hamilton SNP on its own to hold the seat . But the virulent attack on the SNP from Labour continued and then racked up to a higher level as Scottish oil came into the picture. That was when the London establishment realised it had to smash the confidence of Scotland if it wanted to hold onto us. We had the unedifying spectacle of Scotland’s Labour Party and every one of its MPs colluding with the UK establishment to betray the people who voted for them by hiding the McCrone Report. And the process that started in the 1970s to destroy the confidence of Scotland has continued and been amplified to this day.

This – before all else – is the issue we have to resolve. Scottish confidence and self esteem.

If the confident Scots that we had in the 1960s who elected Winnie Ewing been faced with our referendum in2014 we would now be independent. This is the measure of what has been done to us. And that is what our enemy knows it has to do to us. It has to remove our pride and our confidence and our identification as Scots. That is what is going on at the moment. The case for independence grows daily so it’s into overdrive. We are being Brittified continuously while concurrently being told that we are too wee and to poor to be anything else.

So what we have to do urgently is to halt and reverse the process. We have to remind Scotland that this is a clever country with a huge history of innovation and advance. We have to establish that we have the natural resources, the ambition and the imagination to thrive. We have to establish that any present day struggle is actually caused by us being trapped in a failing UK state. We have to illustrate clearly that we are comfortably self supporting. We have to re establish pride in our identity, our abilities and our history. And we win. It’s as simple as that.

Do we understand this?

David McEwan Hill.