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Scottish National Party

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) are a centre-left political party who favour Scottish independence. They are currently the second most popular political party in Scotland.

Table of contents
1 Early Years
2 Party Growth in the 1960s
3 Highpoint in the 1970s
4 Factionalism after 1979
5 The 1980s and the Emergence of Jim Sillars
6 The 1990s, The Salmond Era
7 The Modern SNP
8 Party Organisation
9 Policy Platform
10 Party Ideology
11 Party Leaders
12 Electoral Performance
13 Further Reading
14 External links

Early Years

The party was founded in 1934 as the result of a merger between the National Party of Scotland (NPS) and the Scottish Party. The merger was the brainchild of leading NPS figure John MacCormick who desired unity for the nationalist movement in Scotland, and upon learning of the Scottish Party's emergence moved to secure it.

Initially, the SNP did not support all-out independence for Scotland, but rather the establishment of a devolved Scottish Assembly, within the United Kingdom. This became the party's initial position on the constitutional status of Scotland as a result of a compromise between the NPS, who did support independence, and the Scottish Party who were devolutionists. John MacCormick wanted a merger between the two parties and knew that it would only be through the support of devolution rather than independence that the Scottish Party would be persuaded to merge. However, the SNP quickly reverted to the NPS stance of supporting full independence for Scotland.

The 1930s proved lean years for the SNP. This was a difficult time to be a nationalist, with the rise of undemocratic nationalist forces in Europe in the shape of fascism in Italy and Spain and national socialism in Germany. Despite the SNP's aims being far removed from this type of nationalism many were quick to make a link between them and this, combined with other factors such as a lack of profile in the media made it difficult for the SNP to grow.

John McCormick left the party in 1942, owing to his failure to change the party's policy from supporting all out independence to that of a modicum of Home Rule at that year's SNP conference in Glasgow. McCormick went on to form the Scottish Covenant Association, a non-partisan political organisation campaigning for the establishment of a devolved Scottish Assembly. This Covenant in itself proved politically challenging for the SNP, as it stole their nationalist platform. It also deprived the party of many members who left with MacCormick. The Covenant managed to get over 2 million signatures to a petition demanding Home Rule for Scotland in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and secured support from across the parties, but it eventually faded as a political force.

The SNP's early years were characterised by a lack of electoral progress and it wasn't until 1945 that the SNP's first member was elected to the UK parliament at Westminster. The party's first MP was Robert McIntyre who won a by-election for the Motherwell constituency. However he lost the seat in the general election of that year.

McIntyre's brief spell did not particularly galvanise the SNP. The 1950s were characterised by low levels of support, and this made it difficult for the party to advance. Indeed, in most general elections they were unable to put up more than a handful of candidates.

A split occurred in the SNP in 1955 (although not as large as that of 1942) when a grouping styled the 55 Group started an organised campaign of internal dissent. This group was formed mainly of younger SNP members frustrated at the lack of progress of the party. There was also overt tones of anti-English sentiment amongst this grouping, epitomised by the publication of a leaflet The English: Are They Human?. This anti-English streak proved too much to bear for the SNP leadership and the 55 Group were expelled, with some of their members going onto form a new political party, a new National Party of Scotland. This split proved to be minor and involved only a few members, mainly located in the city of Edinburgh, and the new National Party of Scotland made no impact what so ever in the long-run.

Party Growth in the 1960s

Despite the poor record the SNP had in the 1950s by the 1960s they were beginning to make more impact. William Wolfe, who would become party leader in the 1970s performed very well at the 1962 West Lothian by-election, which Tam Dalyell won for Labour. The party began to grow quickly in the 1960s with a rapid growth in the number of recognised branches. For example, in 1966 alone the SNP National Executive recognised 113 new branches of the party. 1967 was the year that the party signalled they could begin to make an impact electorally. The party polled very well at the Pollok by-election, winning some 28% of the votes cast in a consitituency where they had never stood before. This signalled the beginning of an upward electoral trend for the SNP.

Later that year that the SNP scored an even greater electoral success, projecting them into the political limelight. Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton constituency in a by-election in 1967 and the SNP began to make a serious impact on the political scene. Ewing famously said on the night of her by-election victory, 'stop the world, Scotland wants to get on', and this spirit seemed to be embraced by many Scots. Her victory propelled the party into the popular conscience and many new members joined as a result.

A novel feature of the 1967 SNP Annual Conference was that the party leader Arthur Donaldson was challenged for the convenorship of the party. His challenger was Douglas Drysdale who was critical of the way Donaldson was leading the SNP. Donaldson overwhelmingly defeated Drysdale to retain his position.

In local elections the SNP were beginning to show they could compete also. In the 1967 Local Council elections the SNP secured over 200,000 votes across the country making 27 gains in the burgh elections, and 42 in the counties. They managed to take control of Stirling council where former party leader Robert McIntyre became Provost. The SNP then went onto secure the largest share of the national vote of any of the parties contesting the 1968 Local Council elections, winning some 40% of the vote.

Ewing's by-election victory and this improved electoral performance in the local elections helped to provoke the then UK Labour Government to establish the Kilbrandon Commission to set up the blue-print for the establishment of a devolved Scottish Assembly. It also prompted Edward Heath's announcement at the Tories' Perth Conference in 1968 that if he became Prime Minister he would establish a Scottish Assembly.

Scotland's unionist politicians were becoming increasingly worried at the growth of the SNP. The Labour Party in particular had cause for alarm as Scotland provided so much of their support base, and the SNP were now picking up support in their very heartlands.

At the 1969 party conference Billy Wolfe was elected SNP leader in place of Arthur Donaldson.

Highpoint in the 1970s

However, at the 1970 General Election the SNP did not make major advances. Ewing lost her Hamilton seat and the only consolation for the SNP was the capture of the Western Isles with Donald Stewart becoming their sole Westminster representative. Thereafter though the 1970s was a period of sustained growth for the SNP. They followed the pattern of the 1960s with a number of strong showings in individual by-elections.

There was a minor setback in the early 1970s when a small number of party members in Dundee left to form a Labour Party of Scotland. This new party contested the Dundee East by-election of 1973, and the number of votes they captured was more than the "official" Labour candidates margin of victory over the SNP candidate, Gordon Wilson. However, in the long-run this new party folded, and most of its members returned to the SNP.

They were bolstered by their capture of the Govan seat with Margo MacDonald as their candidate from the Labour Party in a by-election in 1973. This again signalled to Labour that the SNP posed an electoral threat to them and in the February 1974 General Election they returned 7 MPs. The failure of the Labour Party to secure an overall majority prompted them to quickly return to the polls to secure such and in the October 1974 General Election the SNP performed even better than they had done earlier in the year, winning 11 MPs and managing to get over 30% of the vote across Scotland. The main driving force behind the growth of the SNP in the 1970s was the discovery of oil in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. The SNP ran a hugely successful It's Scotland's Oil campaign, emphasising the way in which they believed the discovery of oil could benefit all of Scotland's citizens.

Former SNP leader Billy Wolfe has argued that along with this campaign, the SNP was aided by their support for the workers in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in, being led by Jimmy Reid, as well as supporting the workers at the Scottish Daily Express when they attempted to run the paper themselves and other such campaigns.

The SNP continued to ride high in the opinion polls throughout the 1970s, and many members are convinced that if the Liberals, led by David Steel hadn't supported the Labour Government of the time, the SNP might have made further electoral gains in the resulting general election. However, a general election did not come till 1979, by which time the party's support had dwindled.

Many figures lay the blame for there being a general election at all in 1979 with the SNP. It was the fact that the SNP Parliamentary Group voted against the Labour Government in a Vote of No Confidence that caused the dissolution of the government and subsequent election. The then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan famously described this decision by the SNP as, 'turkey's voting for Christmas'.

Factionalism after 1979

The party went into a period of decline after the failure to secure a devolved Scottish Assembly in 1979 and its poor performance in the general election of that year. A period of internal strife followed, culminating in the proscription of two internal groups, Siol nan Gaidheal and the left-wing 79 Group. However, several 79 Group members would later return to prominence in the party, including Alex Salmond who would later lead the party. It proved too much for Margo MacDonald though, who was defeated by Douglas Henderson for the position of party deputy leader at the 1979 party conference, and left the SNP, angry at the treatment of the left wing of the party, although she would later return to the party and be elected as a MSP.

There was also another internal grouping formed within the party, primarily as a response to the growth of the 79 Group entitled the Campaign for Nationalism in Scotland, with the support of traditionalists such as Winnie Ewing. This group sought to ensure that the primary objective of the SNP was campaigning for independence regardless of any traditional left-right ideology, and if it had been successful would have undone the work of figures such as Billy Wolfe moving the SNP to become a clearly defined social-democratic party in the 1970s.

The period of internal factionalism inside the SNP came to an end at the 1982 SNP Conference where internal factions were banned.

The 1980s and the Emergence of Jim Sillars

The 79 Group, despite their proscription were bolstered by the collapse of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) in the aftermath of the '79 election. This resulted in the SLP's leading figure, Jim Sillars deciding to join the SNP, as did a great number of other ex-SLP members. Sillars had been a Labour Party MP in the 1970s but, dissatisfied with the Labour Government's policy on Scottish devolution and their socio-economic programme, had in 1976 formed the SLP. This influx of ex-SLP members served to strengthen the left of the party, to which these new members naturally gravitated.

In 1979 Billy Wolfe stood down as SNP leader, and in the resultant leadership election Gordon Wilson was elected leader with 530 votes to 79 Group member Stephen Maxwell's 117 votes, and Willie McRae's 52 votes.

The 1980s offered little hope for the SNP with poor performances in both the 1983 and 1987 General Elections. Indeed even the party leader, Gordon Wilson lost his seat in '87. The party took stock of these results and started to analyse its policy platform. Sillars began to grow in influence in the party and the SNP was firmly placing itself on the left of centre.

Many old-style SNP members believed that the party should be above the old arguments of left and right and should focus solely on the independence argument. Sillars however argued that the Scottish people had to be given reasons as to why independence would benefit their lives and that this should involve a fully developed socio-economic programme. He argued against the idea that somehow the country could be guided in a 'tartan trance' to independence, as if the Scottish people could ignore the realities of the economic system they found themselves in. Sillars was also key in moving the party to adopting a position of Independence in Europe to alleviate the 'separatist' tag that the SNP's unionist opponents were ever eager to attach to them. Previously the SNP had been at best highly suspicious about Scotland's continued membership of the EEC, but the new policy which Sillars helped secure firmly committed the SNP to supporting an independent Scotland's membership.

There was a minor setback in 1987 when a few members on the left of the party broke away to establish a Scottish Socialist Party (not the same one that is in existence now), but in the long-run this small party did not establish itself and it folded without threatening to make a major electoral breakthrough.

As the 1980s wore on the party managed to re-group and in 1988 the SNP managed to win the Govan seat for a second time, with Sillars as their candidate. This was a huge upset, as the SNP overturned a Labour majority of around 19,000 and had not been expected to win. However, a hard fought campaign using the party's sizable activist base won through. Sillars oratorial capabilities and street campaigning methods also played a decisive role in the party's victory.

Sillars' victory provoked great alarm amongst the Labour Party hierarchy in Scotland, much as Ewing's had in the 1960s. Fearing that their strong Scottish electoral base was under threat, they helped establish the Scottish Constitutional Convention to set out a blueprint for devolution. Initially the SNP looked as though they would get involved and party leader, Gordon Wilson and Sillars attended an initial meeting of the convention. However, the convention's unwillingness to contemplate independence as a constitutional option persuaded Sillars in particular against getting involved and the SNP did not take part.

The 1990s, The Salmond Era

In 1990 Wilson stood down as leader and was replaced by Alex Salmond, who defeated Margaret Ewing for the post by 486 votes to 186. Salmond's victory surprised many as Ewing had the backing of most of the party leadership, including Sillars and the then party secretary and current party leader John Swinney, although he would go on to become a key ally of Salmonds. Ewing's prominent supporters made her many people's favourite to win the contest, but in the end Salmond was the convincing victor. He proved a capable leader with his witty and intelligent style of debate giving him a national prominence and boosting the SNP's profile.

The 1992 General Election had promised much for the SNP. It proved to be mixed in fortunes. The SNP held three seats they had won in 1987, but lost Govan. They had failed to make headway in terms of winning seats. However, their campaign proved a success in terms of votes won, with the SNP vote going up by 50% from their 1987 performance. It proved too much to bear for Sillars though, and he quit active politics, famously describing the Scots as '90 minute patriots'. It also signaled the breakdown of the political relationship between Sillars and Salmond.

The intervening years between the '92 and '97 general elections were marked by some SNP electoral success. In the 1994 elections for the European Parliament the party managed to secure over 30% of the popular vote and return two MEPs (Winnie Ewing and Allan MacCartney). The SNP also came very close to winning the Monklands by-election of that year, caused by the death of the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith. In 1995 they went one better, with victory in the Perth by-election, with current deputy leader, Roseanna Cunningham as candidate.

The Modern SNP

The 1997 General Election saw the SNP double their number of MPs from three to six and, with the return of the Labour Party to power at that General Election, saw the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament. This allowed for the SNP to firmly establish itelf as a political force in Scotland with the returning of 35 MSPs in the first Scottish Parliament Election. Later that year the party returned two members of the European Parliament, narrowly missing out on sending a third.

The first term of the Scottish Parliament did not offer the SNP much comfort. Two MSPs quit the party, the aforementioned Margo MacDonald and Dorothy-Grace Elder, citing the actions of some of their colleagues as reasons for their resignations. The SNP also peformed poorly at the 2001 General Election, with a reduced share of the vote from 1997, and one less MP.

Despite optimism that the party would at least retain the same number of MSPs they gained in 1999, a downturn in electoral fortune at the 2003 Scottish Parliament Elections Elections has weakened them somewhat. They currently have 27 elected members in the Scottish Parliament, making them the second largest party in Holyrood. They have five MPs in the Westminster Parliament and two members in the European Parliament.

The results of the election seem to indicate that the emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Scottish Green Party (both of whom also support independence) has undermined their vote a bit. It remains to be seen how the SNP will deal with the fact that they are no longer exclusively the party of Scottish independence.

Recent debate within the SNP has been marked by disagreements between the gradualist wing of the party, which believes in taking powers back bit by bit from the UK Parliament and returning them to the Scottish Parliament, as opposed to the viewpoint of the fundamentalist wing. The fundamentalists argue that a greater emphasis should be placed on the party's support for independence to enthuse their activists, as well as their core support. Former leader, Gordon Wilson has publicly stated that he believes it may be that these two wings find their views so irreconcilable that the party may split as a result.

Other political figures often characterise the SNP as trying to be all things to all people. They charge the SNP with trying to appear solidly left-wing in urban Central Scotland where they are trying to unseat the Labour Party, and with appearing more moderate in rural Scotland where their electoral challenge is more often than not against the Tories or the Liberal Democrats.

Current SNP leader (since 2000) is John Swinney MSP who defeated Alex Neil MSP by 547 votes to 268 in a hotly contested leadership election to replace Alex Salmond as National Convenor.

There has since the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary Election been much press speculation surrounding the future leadership of the SNP by Swinney, with many contrasting his more subdued style of debating technique with that of his charismatic predecessor, Alex Salmond.

This speculation culminated in the challenge for the leadership of the SNP by grassroots activist, Dr. Bill Wilson in the summer of 2003. Wilson was brodaly critical of what he argued were the centralising tendencies of the Swinney leadership, as well as a drift to the centre ground of politics away from the SNP's traditional position on the left of Scottish politics. At the party conference of that year the election took place with Swinney receiving 577 of the delegates votes that were cast and Wilson taking 111.

2004 did not get off to a good start for Swinney's leadership. On January 1 a former parliamentary candidate and a party activist in the Shetland Islands Brian Nugent announced that he was forming his own pro-independence party, the Scottish Party in response to what he perceived to be a too pro-European stance by the SNP.

Party Organisation

The SNP consists of various local branches of party members. Those branches then form an association in the constituency they represent (unless there is only one branch in the constituency, in which case it forms a constituency branch rather than a constituency association). There are also 8 Regional Associations to which the branches and constituency associations in each can send delegates.

The SNP's policy structure is developed at it's Annual National Conference and its regular National Council meetings. There are also regular meetings of its National Assembly which although they do not formally make policy allow for detailed discussion of what party policy should be.

The party has an active youth wing as well as a student wing. There is also a SNP Trade Union Group. There is also a monthly newspaper produced, The Scots Independent, which is highly supportive of the party.

The SNP's leadership is invested in its National Executive Committee (NEC) which is made up of the party's elected office bearers and 10 elected members (voted for at conference). The SNP Parliamentarians and Councillors have respresentation on the NEC, as do the youth wing, student wing and trade union group.

Policy Platform

The SNP's policy base is, by and large, in the mainstream European Social Democratic mould. For example, amongst their policies are a commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, progressive personal taxation to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, the eradication of poverty, renationalisation of the railway system, a pay increase for nurses and so on. They are also committed to an independent Scotland being a full member state of the European Union, as well as supporting Scottish entry to the single European currency, although there are some members that disagree with this.

Contrary to the expectations of many, the SNP are not an expressly republican party, although they are committed to holding a referendum on the issue following the attainment of independence. Most SNP members are republicans though, and both the party student and youth wings are expressly so. The SNP is committed to maintaining an independent Scotland within the Commonwealth of Nations.

The SNP has a clear left-of-centre policy base, although not as left-orientated as it once was. In the 1997 General Election campaign the Tories accused the SNP of being the most left-wing political organisation in Europe since the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. However such a view is more difficult to sustain in the present political climate with the SNP moderating many of its views on socio-economic issues, and the fact that they are no longer the most left-wing of the established political parties in Scotland with the emergence of the SSP.

Party Ideology

Although it is widely accepted that the SNP is in modern times a moderate left-of-centre political party this has not always been the case. From almost the instant the party was born there has been ideolgical tensions present within the SNP. This was by in large a product of the way in which the party was formed, as an amalgamation of the left-wing National Party of Scotland, and the right-wing Scottish Party.

This brought serious ideolgical tension immediately to the SNP. It was resolved in some way by the party officially taking no clear stance on the left-right issue and deciding to remain ambivalent on the issue.

However, by the 1960s the party was beginning to be defined ideologically. They had by then established their National Assembly which allowed for discussion of policy and it was producing papers on a host of policy issues that could be described as 'leftist'. Also, the emergence of Billy Wolfe as a leading figure played a huge role in the SNP defining itself as a left-of-centre social-democratic party. He recognised the need to do this to challenge the dominant political position of the Labour Party in Scotland.

He achieved this in a number of ways: establishing the SNP Trade Union Group; promoting left-of-centre policies; and identifying the SNP with labour campaigns (such as the Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in and the attempt of the workers at the Scottish Daily Express to run as a co-operative). It was during Wolfe's period as SNP leader in the 1970s that the SNP became clearly identified as a social-democratic political party.

Some attempted to cement this at the 1975 SNP conference where a motion to change the name of the party to the Scottish National Party (Social Democrats) was due to be debated. However, this motion was withdrawn at the last minute.

There were some ideological tensions in the 1970s SNP. The party leadership, under Wolfe was determined to keep the party clearly on the left, to put them in a position to challenge Labour. However, the party's MPs who in the main represented seats won from the Tories were less keen to have the SNP viewed as a left-of-centre alternative to Labour, for fear of losing their seats back to the Tories.

There was further ideolgical strife, after 1979, with the 79 Group attempting to move the SNP further to the left, away from being what could be described a 'social-democratic' party, to an expressly 'socialist' party. This brought with it a response from those opposed to this, who desired the SNP to remain a 'broad church' and apart from arguments of left vs right, in the shape of the Campaign for Nationalism in Scotland.

The 1980s saw the SNP further define itself as a party of the left, with campaigns against the poll-tax and so on. They have developed this platform to the stage they are at now, a clear, moderate, centre-left political party. This has itself not gone without internal criticism from the left of the party who believe that in modern years the party has moderated itself too much.

The ideological tensions inside the SNP are further complicated by the arguments between gradualist and fundamentalist. These arguments too go back to the very foundation of the party, with the merger between the pro-independence National Party of Scotland and the pro-devolution Scottish Party.

In essence, gradualists seek to advance Scotland to independence through devolution in a 'step by step' strategy. They tend to be in the moderate left grouping, although much of the 79 Group was gradualist in approach. However, this 79 Group gradualism was as much a reaction against the fundmentalists of the day, many of whom believed the SNP should not take a clear left or right position.

The position of fundamentalists within the SNP is further complicated by the fact that modern fundamentalists are unlike the old-style. They tend to be on the left of the party, critical of both the gradualist approach to independence and what they perceive as a moderation of the party's socio-economic policy portfolio.

This grouping of neo-fundamentalists have their roots within the Jim Sillars camp inside the SNP.

Party Leaders

Electoral Performance

1935 General Election - 1.1% of Scottish vote - 0 seats
1945 General Election - 1.2% - 0 seats
1950 General Election - 0.4% - 0 seats
1951 General Election - 0.3% - 0 seats
1955 General Election - 0.5% - 0 seats
1959 General Election - 0.5% - 0 seats
1964 General Election - 2.4% - 0 seats
1966 General Election - 5.0% - 0 seats
1970 General Election - 11.4% - 1 seat
1974 General Election (Feb) - 21.9% - 7 seats
1974 General Election (Oct) - 30.4% - 11 seats
1974 Regional Council Election - 12.6% - 18 seats
1974 District Council Election - 12.4% - 62 seats
1977 District Council Election - 24.2% - 170 seats
1978 Regional Council Election - 20.9% - 18 seats
1979 General Election - 17.3% - 2 seats
1979 European Parliament Election - 19.4% - 1 seat
1980 District Council Election - 15.5% - 54 seats
1982 Regional Council Election - 13.4% - 23 seats
1983 General Election - 11.7% - 2 seats
1984 District Council Election - 11.7% - 59 seats
1984 European Parliament Election - 17.8% - 1 seat
1986 Regional Council Election - 18.2 % - 36 seats
1987 General Election - 14.0% - 3 seats
1988 District Council Election - 21.3% - 113 seats
1989 European Parliament Election - 25.6% - 1 seat
1990 Regional Council Election - 21.8% - 42 seats
1992 General Election - 21.5% - 3 seats
1992 District Council Election - 24.3% - 150 seats
1994 European Parliament Election - 32.6% - 2 seats
1994 Regional Council Election - 26.8% - 73 seats
1995 Unitary Authorities Election - 26.1% - 181 seats
1997 General Election - 22.1% - 6 seats
1999 Scottish Parliament Election - 28.7% - 35 seats (7 for First Past the Post seats)
1999 Unitary Authorities Election - 28.9% - 201 seats
1999 European Parliament Election - 27.2% - 2 seats
2001 General Election - 20.1% - 5 seats
2003 Scottish Parliament Election* - 23.8% - 27 seats (9 for First Past the Post seats)

Further Reading

SNP:The History of the Scottish National Party, by Peter Lynch, 2002
The Flag in the Wind, by John MacCormick, 1955
Scotland Lives: the Quest for Independence, by Billy Wolfe, 1973
Scotland: the Case for Optimism, by Jim Sillars, 1985

External links