The rise, fall and rise of party and movement and the Changing Idea of Scotland

The National Movement in Scotland, Jack Brand, Routledge.

The SNP have been in existence for a long time and a serious electoral force since the 1960s. But at the same time there have been few studies of the party that have contextualised it within the wider nationalist movement and the changing nature of Scotland, and that have attempted to analyse and understand the dynamics of this relationship.

The National Movement in Scotland by the late Jack Brand, a political scientist at Strathclyde University, is a landmark study of the party and wider currents, first published in 1978 and now given a timely republication by Routledge in its ‘Routledge Library Editions: Scotland’ series alongside an impressive number of titles earmarked for bringing back into print.

Brand’s study came at a critical time in not just the evolution of the SNP but of the constitutional debate – and in Scotland’s understanding of itself. It caught the SNP on a rising tide of support and momentum, which had become evident from the mid-1960s, that saw them breakthrough electorally in 1974 when devolution become one of the central issues of Scottish and British politics. Brand’s book goes up to the year before the ill-fated 1979 devolution referendum and ascendancy of Thatcherism – all of which put Scottish politics in cold storage for a period including the SNP.

Brand explores a variety of factors to assess if they potentially contributed to the rise of the SNP and the nationalist movement. He addresses the changing nature of the Scottish economy and in particular growth and unemployment in relation to the rest of the UK; class politics and voting; Scottish identity; literary nationalism and the role of intellectuals; younger people and generational change; and the role of Scottish institutions such as the media, churches and football.

Even with the passing of time this is a riveting study, offering insights into thinking on the Scotland of the 1970s that shed light on the present and on current debates. Brand contends that the old traditional Scotland before the rise of the SNP was ‘a leaderless nation’ – a place with distinctive authorities and institutions but where a large part of elite society defined themselves in relation to England and London where political and economic power sat.

Brand’s opines that numerous actors contributed to the rise of the SNP. There was the post-war relative economic divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK around the period 1958-59 when Scottish unemployment hit 100,000 for the first time post-1945, against the backdrop of Macmillan’s Toryism boasting that ‘you’ve never had it so good’ – a comment which didn’t translate well into a Scottish environment. The subsequent UK 1959 election produced a Tory majority of 100 seats but saw Scotland deviate from the UK pattern and swing to Labour: a pattern which continued in 1964 when Labour were returned across the UK.

This was in the context of class politics changing, dissatisfaction with the Conservative and Labour parties; and the older institutional anchors such as religion and deference beginning to wither. All of this contributed to a new political landscape emerging – one conducive to the SNP which the party aided from the early 1960s onward by becoming an organised, disciplined force that could run campaigns and make an impact at by-elections even before Hamilton.

Remaking the idea of Scotland

The sum of this was that Scotland was remade as a political space and nation, as Brand observed of the 1960s: ‘For the first time since the late 1920s Scotland was the centre of her own stage undistracted by foreign wars or worries.’ Discussions about Scotland’s relative economic performance brought forth a debate about the role of the UK Government and economic policy, while intervention by Scottish agencies such as the Toothill Report of 1961 contributed to a growing awareness of Scotland as a nation and economic territory: Brand writing that this ‘made Scottish people more and more conscious of Scotland as an economic unit.’

One observation of Brand’s argument with the passing of time is that beyond the political and economic he is more general and less specific about this evolution of the idea of Scotland. For example, he cites the changing behaviour of football crowds at the Scottish men’s national team, moving from in the mid-1960s singing ‘God Save the Queen’ to by the 1970s booing it and subsequently replacing it with ‘Flower of Scotland’. 

Also touched upon is the revival of folk music in the 1950s and 1960s and the role of the likes of Hamish Henderson and Maurice Blythman, and the connection to the emerging anti-nuclear weapons movement in Scotland and the rest of the UK over the same period – which produced a counter-culture where new songs of folk resistance were needed such as ‘Ding Dong Dollar’.

What Brand doesn’t fully address is the substance of the UK Government decision to place nuclear weapons in Scotland – with the US asking the UK for basing rights in November 1959, the first deployment at Holy Loch occurring in March 1961, and the decision on British Polaris confirmed in March 1963. The timing and salience of this issue overlapped with the economic debate about Scotland and contributed further to a growing awareness of a distinctive Scottish political culture, it being no accident that the rise of CND contributed to a new generation of radical young voices identifying with the SNP. 

Another dimension that Brand doesn’t explore at length is the geo-political and international framework of Scotland. Instead, he draws from an approach focusing on the internal dynamics of Scotland, leaving unexplored a detailed exploration of external factors. This discussion was alive at the time Brand was writing in numerous debates – including between historian T.C. Smout and Immanuel Wallerstein where the latter positioned Scotland’s experience in changes in the global system of political economy, capitalism and imperialism. In this, the return of the idea of Scotland as a political force is linked to the crisis of Empire and the world system theory of capitalism.

Brand’s account is commendable – and even more so in hindsight – as we can locate it in a contested transitional place about the decline of the old Scotland, its place in the UK and within the global economy. In the period preceding this a host of prominent Scottish writers were prone to apologise for the state of the country or underplay its potential. 

James Kellas who was a trailblazer in academia and making study of Scottish politics respectable wrote in his 1968 Modern Scotland that: ‘Only a leisured, wealthy society can support organised culture, and Scotland has never had such a society’ – so much for ‘the swinging sixties’ in Scotland. Similarly, the nationalist writer Moray McLaren wrote in 1965 that ‘a national movement … [has] no place in the brief history of the Scottish nation’ – this being despite his wish to will one into existence.  This world was turned upside down by the breakthrough of the SNP in the 1960s, that scholars like Brand were trying to find a counter-explanation to the above sentiments.

Scotland from the 1970s to the present

More than forty years after it was written The National Movement in Scotland is still relevant, reaching down through the years to the present, providing historic insights centred on a critical period of flux and crisis that speak to current considerations.

Brand’s main areas of concerns – the nature of the SNP’s appeal, the relationship of the SNP’s fortunes to the appeal of independence, the characteristics of the nationalist movement, how party and wider movement relate to each other, and placing all of this in the wider terrain of how Scotland has been seen and contested – are as alive and relevant today as when Brand examined them in the 1970s.

All these subjects need to be debated and examined in the present, and remain the subject of serious discussion and rigorous research and writing. It is true that in the years since Brand’s study, and particularly since the advent of the Scottish Parliament and the ascent of the SNP as the dominant party of Scotland, that a veritable academic industry has arisen offering in-depth studies of the SNP and the effectiveness of devolution.

But even allowing for this there remain huge gaps and inadequacies in relation to the SNP and independence and the dynamics of party-movement relations; the different currents in the latter over time; the shifting balance between political and cultural nationalism; and recognising the need to understand the limits of nationalism and any debate dominated by its different expressions – particularly alongside the decline of the older Labour, Tory and Lib Dem traditions. 

Then there are the practical questions which need serious work: the atrophying of democracy too evident in everyday life; the concentration of power in the Scottish Government; the incorporation of numerous public institutions and the groupthink which affects too many walks of life; and the thinness and lack of depth of many policy debates and research.

The answers to these are challenging and complex, but go beyond partisan party politics or positions on independence. It is salutary to remember that the old Labour order in its latter years was upheld by a mindset of judging whether people were for ‘the party’ or against it – and such an outlook never ends well anywhere. 

Brand’s account is in many respects from a different Scotland: a world where the old Scotland was dying but was still present and visible, where the SNP as an electoral force were still a relatively recent phenomenon, and where the emergence of the Scottish question could be framed without referring to Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism. 

The book provides an illuminating portrayal of the leadership culture of the party, characterised by Brand as collective, writing that the SNP would never present themselves to voters as ‘the party of William Wolfe’ who was leader then. This underlines how far the SNP have travelled and changed culturally, in power, within the party – and how they do leadership and present themselves in the age of Nicola Sturgeon (and before that Alex Salmond).

This brings forth the observation that is a necessity to reclaim and excavate substantive Scottish political and social texts that have contributed to charting and understanding the journey we are still on. This should be a more ecumenical exercise than just continually dragging out the same well-worn texts such as Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain, The Red Paper on Scotland, George Davie’s The Democratic Intellect and shrinking our understanding of past debates.

A recent comment from The Times’ columnist Kenny Farquharson inadvertently underlined the threadbare intellectual nature of much public life when he observed: Andrew Marr’s The Battle for Scotland was ‘the best book on 20th century Scottish politics and the rise of the home rule movement.’ In response to this, many – myself included – observed that it is a book with little substantive research and a superficial understanding of post-war Scottish debates. Understanding and remembering books of the quality of Brand’s could be part of a process of a richer, deeper discussion that goes past the usual reference points.

Underlying the arguments of The National Movement in Scotland is the notion of the remaking of Scotland as a collective idea, and in Brand’s analysis ‘a gradual restructuring of the political consciousness of the Scottish electorate’ – a fundamental shift that led to the rise of the SNP the impact of which still affects us.

There are many contested ideas of different Scotlands and many Scotlands in play all the time as old interpretations die and new ones are born. The re-emergence of Scotland as a political, democratic, social and communicative space is but one expression of that, and a Scottish political debate and culture of self-determination which recognised and nurtured this would be the richer for this – as would all of us. 

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Comments (13)

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  1. Graeme Purves says:

    This is an excellent piece. Many thanks Gerry!

  2. David McCann says:

    Good analysis Gerry and a good read.
    Another book worth mentioning is ‘Through the Maelstrom’ a history of the SNP 1945- 1967, by Paula Somerville, published by Scots Independent.

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      Thanks for the comment David. I know that book well.

      Always looking out for recommendations for books for review; and in particular the strand of Bella Classics revisiting, reclaiming and reappraising older Scottish titles. And they don’t have to be politics in the narrow sense; they can be history, culture, fiction.

      1. David McCann says:

        Have you managed to read ‘Grasping the Thistle’ by Michael Russell and Dennis MacLeod, published i 2005/06 by Argyll Publishing?

  3. Chris Ballance says:

    I note that the 1963 LP with all the anti-Polaris songs such as Ding Dang Dollar and We Dinnae want Polaris was called “Scottish Republican Songs” – not “CND songs.” The link between opposition to nuclear weapons and to the Union has a long history.
    Interesting article, thanks – though surprised to see no reference to Jim Sillars’ breakaway Scottish Labour Party which moved the independence debate into the Labour Left in 1974, or the Scottish Patriots of Wendy Wood – the twin strands of radicalism and tartan flag-waving which united in 2014.

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      Thanks for those comments and that is an interesting point abt the Ding Dong Dollar collection.

      Good points abt Jim Sillars and Wendy Woods; Sillars doesnt appear in Brand’s book but Wendy Wood makes several appearances and at the time had quite an impact. Brand makes the argument that she was a lone operator and publicist – and all her platforms were used to advance these attributes – making her less of a ‘national movement’ person.

  4. Joe Middleton says:

    Over 40 quid on Kindle? Yikes! Sounds interesting but too expensive sadly.

  5. Dougie Harrison says:

    Many thanks for this Gerry. It’s not the first time you’ve alerted me to something I must read. So I will.

    By far the best exploration of the issues I’ve read so far is ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ (EUP 2012). But since you co-authored it, I imagine you’ve already read it!

    1. gerry hassan says:

      Thanks for the kind words.

  6. florian albert says:

    Gerry Hassan is correct that we can now assess the rise of the SNP from the ’60s on as a historical event. However, looking at it this ways leads to one conclusion; the driving force was not the SNP – still less events such as the folk revival – but the decline in Scots’ identification as British.; understandable given the collapse of Britain as a world power.
    The SNP had, before Alex Salmond, a succession of unimpressive leaders; it had economic policies which were incoherent and it failed to make serious inroads into Scotland’s populous Central Belt.
    It took 40 years for the impressive by-election result at Hamilton to be translated into victory at a national level in 2007.
    The example of football supporters is instructive. There was certainly a turn towards a more aggressive support for Scotland from the 1970s on. However, this change was mirrored almost exactly in England within 20 years.
    Even with the atrophy of British identity, the referendum in 2014 was lost. It is far from certain that – if it happens – Indyref2 will produce a different outcome.
    ‘Remaking Scotland as a collective idea’ may well fall at the hurdle of voters being unwilling to pay the economic price required, as happened in 2014.

    1. gerry hassan says:

      Thanks for those observations. You make a number of points I agree with such as the length of time it took the SNP to win a national election. However in the road to 2007 the SNP had the twin peaks of 1974 & 1999. Also the SNP were a key part of the anti-Tory consensus of 79-97.

      Of course folk music didn’t change Scotland on its own. But the economic debate; relative economic differences between Scotland & rUK; nuclear weapons; and wider cultural and generational change of which the folk music scene was a factor – all played a part. British identity went into decline; Scottish identity rose & was & is connected to self-government. And of course it is all more complex & fluid than that sentence sounds.

      BTW Scottish football fans cleaned up their act from 1980 onward as England developed a hooligan problem.

  7. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks for this overview and a reminder of various texts that have been on my bookshelves for many years. I might have another go at trying to make meaning out of Tom Nairn’s often opaque, dense and elliptical writing style!

    A point which you have not raised and which requires more objective study is the fact that the SNP has been in power in Holyrood for approaching 15 years, with 10 of them being either in a majority on its own or in an informal agreement and, now, formal, agreement with the Greens. In addition, it is the major party and administration in many Councils. The combination of these two is that the SNP has been managing Scotland for a significant period. I do not intend any malign meaning in my use of the word ‘managing’; all governments and councils throughout the world have to manage much the day-to-day affairs of public life.

    For voters under 30 years old in Scotland, none has experienced other than an SNP Government. However they interpret that experience this period of time will impact on the views of many. The SNP has had to manage Scotland during two significant crises – the consequences of the financial crash of 2008 and the Covid 19 pandemic (which is continuing).

    So, we could do with some significant objective research on the experience of nearly 15 years of SNP governance. And, we could also do with the electoral victors writing their history of that period. Although the latter will be partisan, it is nonetheless a necessary counterbalance to the narrative of the unionist media during that period.

    The Labour Government of 1997/2010 had a number of significant achievements that were redistributive and which benefited millions, but, it failed to publicise these adequately and, so, unlike Mrs Thatcher, it failed to challenge her hegemony and make explicit what its own was. This, to my mind was one of the Bodger’s most significant failures. He likes to present himself as an ‘intellectual’ and, in many ways he is, but as PM he failed signally to set out any vision (other than ‘British Jobs for British Workers’.) When Labour lost the 2010 election, Cameron and Clegg were able to dismantle most of Labour’s achievements pretty rapidly and with the seeming approval of a large swathe of former Labour voters in England.

    There is a warning there for supporters of independence in failing to highlight the achievements of the SNP governments and Councils. Sadly, far too many focus only on what they see as ‘failures’ and ‘sell-outs’. Debate and dispute is important, but, it must include the positives.

  8. Mike Fenwick says:

    A recent article in The Atlantic by Tom McTague is entitled: How Britain Falls Apart …

    He travels the UK to form his thoghts, and for me it is intersting and I hope cogent to this overall post, is that one of his conclusions/observations reads:

    “Unless people in Scotland believe that they are also British and that the British government and state is their government and state, nothing else matters.”

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