Focus: Plus ça change… for SNP and the rest of us

'OUR first most urgent task is to recover the sense of Scottish nationality. The process is going steadily forward. It will be completed when the people of Scotland realise that the Scottish National party is demanding self-government, not on sentimental grounds, but as an essential instrument to a policy of national reconstruction which holds out to all classes the hope of social justice and progress within the framework of national traditions."

Thus the Scottish National Party, or SNP, was born 75 years ago today. Arguably the party's "most urgent task" – the recovery of Scottish nationality – has been achieved three-quarters of a century later, while its idealistic talk of "national reconstruction" and "social justice" still seem pertinent in the early 21st century.

For the SNP was formed amid an unprecedented global economic crisis. The Depression was in full swing, and political parties of all persuasions struggled to articulate a response. As Karl Marx wrote of the Napoleonic era: "History repeats itself, once as tragedy, and again as farce."

The SNP – formed from the fusion of the right-leaning Scottish Party and the more radical National Party of Scotland (NPS) – was also borne of political compromise. Two campaigning organisations working towards the same goal made little sense, although the means of each did not necessarily justify the same ends. Indeed, the more "moderate" (in constitutional terms) Scottish Party became the dominant partner.

At its first conference in Glasgow's St Andrew's Halls on Saturday, 7 April, 1934, Sir Alexander MacEwen – the SNP's first leader – explained the party's objective of "self-government for Scotland on a basis which will enable Scotland, as a partner in the British Empire with the same status as England, to develop its national life to the fullest advantage".

In other words, the SNP did not envisage separation on the Irish model, but Dominion status, firmly within the mighty British Empire, on a par with Canada or New Zealand. While in 1988 the party would commit itself to "Independence in Europe", in 1934, its goal was more akin to "Independence in the Empire" with foreign policy and defence still the province of the Imperial Parliament in London.

The Scotsman of the day concurred. "The spirit which prompts the Scottish National party will be appreciated by all who still regard themselves as patriotic Scots," judged an editorial. "But the danger of separatism…must be avoided."

It continued: "It would probably be safe to say that the movement is still largely on the intellectual lane that Scottish self-government is as yet little more than drawing room politics."

Yet that "drawing room politics" included some prescient chatter. "The question of banking and finance is also dealt with," reported The Scotsman of the first SNP conference. "Experts differ as to the right method of curing the present chaotic state of affairs; but (Nationalists are] certain that Scotland will never thrive until she has control of her own banking and finance."

That first conference was attended by past and future leaders of the National Movement. The Duke of Montrose rubbed shoulders with Roland Muirhead, one of its founding fathers, and John MacCormick, who later founded the Scottish Convention and its related Covenant. There were some unlikely fellow travellers. Elected the first convener of the party's press and publicity committee was Robert Hurd, whose nephew and future Tory foreign secretary Douglas was then just four years old.

Leading them all was Sir Alexander MacEwen, a devout Anglo-Catholic, writer of poetry, and former provost of Inverness. For most of his life, he had been a Liberal, although the publication in 1932 of The Thistle and the Rose – still lively and relevant 77 years later – marked his final conversion to the cause of self-government for Scotland.

That same year, he formed, with the Duke of Montrose, the Scottish Self-Government Party, of which he was elected chairman. In 1933, after fraught negotiations between the Scottish Party and the NPS, Sir Alexander stood as their joint candidate in the Kilmarnock by-election. He polled a respectable 6,098 votes.

Sir Alexander was not a Nationalist in the 21st-century sense. "No separation from England and the Dominions," read one of his election addresses, "except legislative and financial separation."

As he concluded in another book published on the eve of the Second World War: "The opinion is growing that a moderate system of federal devolution would be the surest way to develop a sense of nationhood in each of the nations that constitute the British Isles."

Sir Alexander's belief in self-government was simply guided by the situation Scotland and the world found themselves in 75 years ago. "I am convinced that self-government is essential to the development of any nation," he wrote, "and that Scotland and Wales are no exception to this rule."

"But over and above this, I believe that the best hope for the solution of the world's economic and social troubles lies in the development of co-operative democracy, infused with a national spirit. The world to-day is worshipping the idols of Bigness and Materialism. This may result in a great increase of production, but it cannot bring happiness or good will to the nations."

In politics, there is nothing new under the sun.