2007 - 2022

The story of the national movement in Scotland

John M. MacCormick, The Flag in the Wind: The Story of the National Movement in Scotland, first published London, 1955, reprinted Edinburgh, 2008. This is part of Bella’s classic books series, where we take a second look at a seminal text.

John MacCormick was one of the most influential figures in the early nationalist movement. He was a founder of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, a leading figure in the Scottish National Party from 1934 until 1942 and the Chairman of the Scottish Covenant Association which collected two million signatures in favour of the establishment of a Scottish parliament in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was also the Rector of Glasgow University at the time of the ‘liberation’ of the Stone of Destiny’ from Westminster Abbey. In essence the book is a personal account of these events.

MacCormick’s political legacy has been a mixed one.  He had a natural tendency towards moderation and the middle ground, which manifested itself as an ambivalence as to whether Scotland should be an independent state or remain within a devolved United Kingdom. He settled for the latter towards the end of his political career although he always argued that the Scottish parliament had to be an ‘independent’ one.  And although he was a prominent member, he never really believed in the utility of a separate national party that would contest elections in order to secure an electoral mandate.

The poor electoral performance of both the National Party of Scotland and subsequently the Scottish National Party in the 1930s pushed him towards other avenues that would demonstrate and mobilise popular support for self-government. The decision to stand as an independent candidate at the Paisley by election in 1948 with the Tories and Liberals standing down to give him a clear run against the Labour candidate was seen by many as a mistake in that it obviated his claims that home rule was a non-party political issue and antagonised the then Labour Government into a hard line stand against self-government.

Electoral defeat and the subsequent failure to convince either the Conservatives or Labour that the Covenant was a legitimate mandate for a Scottish parliament left the SNP as the sole bearers of the nationalist cause.  At the end of the day, there was no way round the difficulties associated with contesting elections to demonstrate a mandate. MacCormick’s legacy has been mixed.

 As MacCormick clearly states in the introduction of the book, this is an account based on his own memory of things and as it is written from the standpoint of an active participant, so it was not meant to be an impartial narrative of the events behind the development of the early national movement.  It is well-written and pacey.

As might be expected, MacCormick tends to be dismissive of those with whom he disagreed politically. Those who were emphatically in favour of the creation of a independent Scottish state get short shrift, described as impractical romantics who alienated ‘moderate’ opinion and actually held back the cause of self-government.

He claimed Hugh MacDiarmid ‘has been politically one of the greatest handicaps with which any nationalist movement could be burdened …  his woolly thinking … were taken by many of the more sober-minded of the Scots as sufficient excuse to condemn the whole cause for Home Rule out of hand’.

MacCormick is not even-handed and fails to cast an equally critical eye on those within the Scottish establishment such as the Duke of Montrose or Sir Alexander MacEwen, whose pursuit of ‘moderation’ effectively neutered the national movement as a political party and alienated the rank and file. A recurring theme in the history of the SNP. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. A negative way of reading the book would be to say that this is an account driven by a need to vindicate a political career that kept making the wrong choices. So does the book serve any purpose? 

Scottish nationalism at peak unionism

One of the strengths of the book is that it gives us an insight into the mind of one of the solidly middle-class nationalist activists in the first half of the twentieth century. MacCormick was as bourgeois as they come and it is often forgotten that the movement, as with most political parties, drew it its leadership from the professional middle class. The book offers an insight as to what it was that made some from solid and secure backgrounds gravitate to a political cause that had, at that time little support, and little prospect of success.

Culture, history and notions of a distinctive Scottish political culture shaped MacCormick’s outlook and it gives a fascinating insight into the now vanished world of the protestant middle class Scottish patriot of the early twentieth century. Also, and more importantly, historians (this one included) have tended to see the divisions within the early nationalist movement as being driven by ideology and in particular over the question of fundamentalism and moderatism or between devolution or home rule and independence, with MacCormick being seen as a flag bearer of the former camp.

What this does is that it tends to rather awkwardly map on to the past contemporary concerns without setting out the ideas in their proper context and in so doing tends to magnify the divisions and obscure the fact that much of this was about strategy and tactics rather than a clash of fundamental ideals.  Although MacCormick was by his own definition was a home ruler or a federalist, this is not as straight forward a proposition as it first seems. 

Firstly, the main reason that home rulers like MacCormick argued that Scotland should have a parliament was that it was a nation that had its own law, its own culture and history and that just like other nations, it ought to have some form of government to promote and protect its national interest. This might be described as a sense of national dignity which is largely absent in current devolutionist ideas of Scotland. For MacCormick, a nation without its own parliament was an aberration, something unnatural.  The intellectual journey from home rule to devolution after the 1960s was largely about taking the nation out of constitutional change, hence the terms Scottish Assembly and Scottish Executive. This would have been an anathema to someone like MacCormick. 

Secondly, the distinction between home rule or devolution and independence was not as clear cut as it seems today because constitutional battle lines have become drawn in the sand over the issue of independence. This far and no further, although it is forgotten that the original scheme for home rule in the 1920s would have had Scotland as a member of the League of Nations. The term most commonly used in MacCormick’s time was ‘self-government’ which had the advantage that it could be used by both camps. But also, the term was most usually used in a wider British imperial context to refer to the self-governing colonies; in other words the white dominions.

One of the reasons why Conservatives were implacably opposed to home rule or self-government was that most saw it as a process that did not have predetermined end point and would ultimately lead to a separate state. The point was made by Parnell, the leader of the Irish home rulers when he stated that ‘no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.’  By 1931, the dominion nations had full control of foreign policy and although the monarch was the head of state, to all intents and purposes, they were independent nations. This also explains why die-hard imperialist Tories like Winston Churchill, were utterly opposed to the India Government Act of 1935 which advocated a degree of autonomy in local government. The creation of a Scottish Parliament was the beginning of a journey without a fixed terminus and for many at the time, possibly including MacCormick, the important thing was to start the journey and worry about the destination later. 

All of which related to a third point, which was the issue of democracy in that the decision whether to stick with a devolved parliament or to go further to full independence was something for the Scottish people to decide.  Like many of that generation of home rulers, MacCormick regarded the creation of a Scottish parliament as more important than the question of whether there should be independence or not, indeed he may have regarded it as a distraction, because without the necessary forum to have the debate, it was a pointless exercise.

Stepping stones and the importance of sovereignty

A key component of the overlap between home rulers and those who advocated independence was that a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom was a necessary first step on the road to independence because it would remove the risks associated with building a state apparatus from scratch. This ‘stepping stone’ policy was part and parcel of the debate at the time. The fact that many home rulers accepted that this was an inherent aspect of much of the support for the creation of a Scottish parliament was resolved by an acceptance of the right of the Scottish people to choose their own constitutional outcome. There was a consensus between those in favour of an independent state and those supporting a more devolved relationship that democracy trumps all.  

Arguably most importantly, MacCormick was instrumental in cementing the notion that sovereignty lay with the Scottish people, which is the cornerstone of the ability to debate the Scottish constitutional future. Without this central tenet, the question is should Scotland be an independent nation, not can Scotland be an independent nation. A distinction that is often lost in the heat of contemporary debate.

As a thinker, MacCormick has tended to be ignored. He did not leave a lot of personal papers, nor did he publish a steady output of articles both of which are the historical building blocks most commonly used by historians in constructing an intellectual reputation. Furthermore, he has been overshadowed by his son, Neil, who as Regius Professor of Public Law at Edinburgh University was one of the leading thinkers in the SNP.

John was better known as a skilled orator and never took himself nor political causes too seriously. ‘King John’ was a public performer known for his wit and quickness to respond to hecklers and was very much at home in the irreverent and rumbustious world of student politics in the 1950s which was not known for its association with deep thinkers.  Yet, he gave one of the earliest statements that clearly articulated the idea of the sovereignty of the people, although he did not actually use this phrase.  This was at the Bannockburn Day parade in 1930 and it is worth quoting at length:

Another thing has happened during these two years. Not for the first time and act has been passed – The Local Government (Scotland) Act- which is a contravention of the Treaty of Union entered into in 1707, and we find that there is no court or tribunal which can test the validity of that Act. We are found that we are bound to accept whatever law England cares to force on us in spite of the safeguard of a bargain, and we have therefore decided once and for all without any ambiguity that there is only one authority to which we are appealing, to set up our independent parliament in Scotland, and that is the authority of the people. I find it very strange and amusing when I am asked to propose what to do if England will not give us self-government. We are not concerned whether England will give us it or not. England has nothing to do with it. It is for us to make up our minds whether we want it, and if we want it, we are going to have it, and in this Covenant we declare our belief and bind ourselves to act on it that the authority of a majority of Scottish citizens is sufficient for setting up an independent Scottish Parliament.

The idea of the sovereignty of the people was reinforced by the idea of a convention which would culminate under MacCormick’s leadership in the early fifties when it collected two million signatures in favour of setting up a Scottish parliament.  The idea harked back to the National Covenant in 1638 when in protest at the Anglicizing policies of Charles I, Scots signed a pact with God to defend their religion.  Although claiming to support the King, the Covenant used God as a higher authority than the state and by having people sign the agreement, it effectively enforced a form of social and political solidarity. Ulster Unionists used the model of the Covenant against Irish home rule in 1912, but by the 1950s this was largely forgotten in Scottish society when MacCormick used it for home rule.

The idea that sovereignty resided with the people is the natural conclusion of the Convention idea when God is taken out of the equation and MacCormick received an endorsement of such a view from the leader of the Scottish Unionist Party, James Stuart, who wrote ‘If the people of Scotland were ultimately to decide in favour of a Scottish Parliament no one could gainsay them’.  Stuart, however, did not believe that such matters could be demonstrated by a collection of signatures and the Labour Party Secretary of State for Scotland, Hector McNeil argued that a Scottish parliament could only be conferred by ‘the normal process of parliamentary democracy’.  A clear fudge at that time on the issue of Scottish sovereignty.

MacCormick was a firm believer in the idea that Scottish nationhood had to be reinforced by promoting its traditions and its historic sense of its self. One aspect of this issue that tends to be overlooked is that nations have an inherent sovereignty associated with the right of self-determination according to the United Nations and so reinforcing the idea that Scotland is clearly a nation becomes a way of asserting this inherent sovereignty.

This manifested itself with the coronation of the new Queen in 1953 and her use of the numeral ‘II’., which as many pointed out at the time, only applied to England as the Scots have never had a Queen Elizabeth. MacCormick made a legal challenge to the use of the Royal Title and although he lost, it did result in the famous judgement of Lord Cooper that:

… the principle of the unlimited sovereignty of parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law…. I have difficulty in seeing why it should have been supposed that the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament by none of the Scottish Parliament, as if all that happened in 1707 was that Scottish representatives were added to the Parliament of England. That is not what was done.

Arguably more than anything, it was the vacuum created by Lord Cooper’s judgement that enabled the idea of the sovereignty of the people to gain the traction that it did in the post war era.

The Flag in the Wind is worth a look to get an insight into the thinking of one of the most influential figures in the early nationalist movement. Although it has its flaws and partisan perspectives on elements within the movement this is more than compensated for the wider perspective MacCormick takes on Scottish history, politics and culture. It is one of the few first-hand accounts we have of Scottish politics in the immediate post-war era.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    Thank you for this Richard. It’s most helpful to be reminded, in the day-to-day ignorance of politics, of the fact that many of the issues we face today were at least seriously discussed by some of our forbears.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Yes, I concur with that comment.

      Much – but by no means all – of politics involves the circumstances of the time, which is what gives some of it a ‘tale told by an idiot’ aspect, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But, Shakespeare was a dramatist – a politically motivated one, of course – and the lure of the epigram was attractive. So, the sound and fury does not signify nothing, it sometimes signifies something of significance, kernels of concepts that remain after the heat of the moment have passed.

      So, thanks for presenting a longer historical perspective.

  2. Ray Bell says:

    I find it ironic that this is in the Arts and Culture section. The 20th century Scottish independence movement came out of the Scottish Culturral Renaissance, yet MacCormick helped marginalise and sideline the cultural side. That mentality is still to be found in the SNP and elsewhere today. Unionists tend to argue in mainly economic terms (occasionally defence etc), and Yes Scotland allowed themselves to be led by the nose when they concentrated on those. I think we need to be able to move the independence debate beyond “You’ll be £5 better off a year”. Scotland can be economically viable, if it is properly run.

    1. Thanks Ray, good points – its in this section because its a book review feature

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