Ross Lydall: 1967 and all that: is history about to repeat itself?
THEY dubbed her Madame Écosse – more to patronise than to praise her in the end – and Winnie Ewing milked it for all she was worth.
She was the SNP's first great self-publicist, having caused quite a sensation when she arrived at Westminster, having sparked the Nationalists' first "political earthquake", when she defeated Labour in the 1967 Hamilton by-election.
Her fame spread further when she made it to the European Parliament in 1975, and it was there she earned the sobriquet from Le Monde.
She was not the first SNP MP. That honour went to Robert McIntyre, who won a by-election in Motherwell in April 1945 (64 years ago this week, by chance).
But, as a fascinating documentary broadcast by BBC Alba on Monday made clear, her legacy has been longer lasting. Her time in politics was bookended by two great soundbites. In 1967, she declared: "Stop the world – Scotland wants to get on." Some 32 years later, as the oldest MSP elected to the new Scottish Parliament, she opened proceedings with the words: "The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened." Both were sentiments that could bring a patriotic tear to the eye of even the staunchest unionist.
Two thoughts sprang to mind as I watched the documentary. One was the hope that it would be broadcast on BBC Scotland (plans are said to be afoot to mark Winnie's 80th birthday in July). The other concerned the status of the SNP and Labour now, and the potential similarities with the situation four decades ago.
Then, Harold Wilson was in his second term as prime minister and Scotland was in the ascendancy, and not only on the football field (Celtic won the European Cup and Scotland crowned themselves unofficial world champions by beating England). The Clyde yards were building the best ships in the world, and North Sea oil exploration had begun.
Winnie's victory was unique because it heralded the rise of nationalism – at Westminster, she joined Plaid Cymru's Gwynfor Evans, elected a year earlier as the first Welsh nationalist MP.
She lost her seat in 1970 (though Donald Stewart won the Western Isles for the SNP) but returned in 1974 in Moray and Nairn, where she defeated the sitting Tory Scottish secretary Gordon Campbell. In that year's February election, Winnie was one of seven Nationalists; come October, she was one of the "football team" of 11.
According to Alex Salmond, she changed Scottish history. Ian Paisley saw her as a John the Baptist figure. Tam Dalyell compared her to Rosa Parks.
Victory had gone her way in 1967 because Harold Wilson had found the sitting Hamilton MP, Tom Fraser, a job at the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. According to Mr Dalyell, the voters didn't like to see an MP being handed a "cushy number" and punished Labour at the by-election. Winnie's chances were also enhanced by the first appearance of Sean Connery on the campaign trail.
But she was not made welcome at Westminster. Not only was she a woman, she was seen as an enemy of the state – the two-party state. Labour's Scottish secretary Willie Ross was said to be particularly hostile. The tribal loyalties of the Scottish Labour Party are nothing new.
By the end of 1974, Wilson was back in power, but with a majority of only three. This gave the SNP great bargaining power, and led to the 1979 referendum. But, despite the Yes vote, the "dirty trick" of a 40 per cent threshold of registered voters was not breached and the Scotland Act fell. Then came Margaret Thatcher, and the Nats themselves fell – badly out of fashion.
What lessons can we find for today in Winnie's story? Forty-one years after her by-election success came another SNP earthquake: John Mason's victory in Glasgow East. There is certainly every possibility his unexpected victory will also be followed by Labour's replacement in government by the Tories (and a Tory party that may also survive only one term). But, at the same time, things are very different. In 1966, Wilson had been re-elected with a commanding majority of 96. Eight years later, his majority had all but disappeared, and minority parties were in the ascendancy.
Currently, Gordon Brown's majority is more than workable; but David Cameron may not enjoy such luxury. The Nationalists will expect to add to their seven MPs come the general election, even if they fail to hit their target of 20. Such a group – with the added might of half a dozen Plaid Cymru MPs – could easily hold the balance, especially with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats struggling to preserve even half of the 63 Lib Dems elected (one at a by-election) under Charles Kennedy's leadership.
But can one imagine the SNP daring to cosy up to the newly elected Tories when their bigger goal would surely be an outright Holyrood majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections? A Labour slogan of "Vote SNP, get Tory" would surely be doing the rounds if there was any threat of that.
There is also the added confusion that Scots voters will be able to vote against two governments in 2010 (or whenever the general election is called) – Mr Brown's administration in London, and Mr Salmond's minority rule in Edinburgh, from which much of the shine and excitement appears to have been lost.
Unlike Mr Salmond, of course, Winnie never had to bear the responsibilities of power.
Much depends on how the Tories position themselves in Scotland, and Mr Cameron has shown no public desire to rule without consent from London.
What he will have less say in, though, is in the level of Conservative representation north of the Border once the votes are counted.
Two or three Tory MPs in Scottish constituencies does not a mandate to govern make. They have only one MP in Scotland just now, and major advances are unlikely.
Interesting times beckon – Winnie would have loved it.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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