The Rise of the SNP and Political Nationalism

The 1960s marked the emergence of significant substate nationalism in Scotland and Wales, as indicated by a significant surge in electoral support for SNP and Plaid Cymru as explicitly nationalist parties. In the case of the SNP, this began with the 1967 Hamilton by-election victory by Winnie Ewing followed by winning an 11.4 % share of the Scottish vote in the 1970 general election. This was followed by major electoral success in the 1974 October general election, when the SNP won over 30 % of the Scottish vote, returning 11 members of Parliament to Westminster. The overriding goal of the SNP in this period, as it is today, was to achieve independence for Scotland. Alongside this, during the 1960s, the party began to emphasise economic interests, often drawing attention to Scotland’s weaker economic performance relative to the rest of the UK.

Prior to its electoral breakthrough, after the Second World War, the party’s membership and core support was primarily drawn from the professions and small business (Mitchell et al. 2009) , those in small town locations (Hanham 1969) and more generally from those of a Presbyterian/Protestant background. With its largely middle-class support the SNP resembled the Scottish Conservatives as much as it did Scottish Labour, and this similarity would lead some in the Scottish Labour Party to refer disparagingly to the SNP as ‘Tartan Tories’ [see Hassan (2009) and Keating (2014) for discussions of this phrase]. The religious cleavage between working-class Catholics in industrial parts of Scotland and middle-class Protestants continued to intensify the antipathy between the SNP and Scottish Labour. Certainly, in the immediate post-war period, there was political cooperation between Tory opponents of state nationalisation and supporters of home rule, the latter viewing nationalisation as shifting state control towards London. Although not wholly right wing, the SNP at this point can be described, at best, as ambivalent on the matter of welfare redistribution (Maxwell 2009). Seawright and Curtice (1995) suggest that public attitudes to economic nationalisation during the 1950s were no more favourable in Scotland than they were in England. Support for the Conservative Party in Scotland remained strongly linked to Scottish consciousness and pro-devolution policies, and Scottish nationalism was used by Scottish Tory politicians as a weapon against British nationalisation (Miller 2008; Seawright 2002).

One explanation sometimes offered for Scottish nationalism in the late 1960s concerns the rise of post-material values. Such a view places emphasis on the growing appeal of identity-based cleavages, such as gender, ethnicity or indeed national identity, as well as post-material concerns about quality of life, the environment and human rights. McCrone (2001: 118-121), for instance, states that ‘the rise of the Scottish

National Party in the 1960s was related to the upwardly socially mobile and as a consequence was related to the post-material world’. Certainly this period saw the emergence of a new generation of SNP members and core supporters who were young, university educated and middle class, disillusioned with state centralisation and heavily influenced by social movement activity (Brand 1978). Issues such as nuclear power, not least the decision of the Labour Party to site nuclear weapons in Scotland, gave the SNP a certain attraction for anti-nuclear and other New Left activists sympathetic to the anti-colonialist version of nationalism that emerged at this time. However, the premise that the rise of nationalist politics was associated with people whose concerns were primarily post-material rather than material is misleading. To begin with, it ignores the fact that underlying the SNP’s aim of independence were material concerns of economic governance and control, symbolised above all by the development of North Sea oil. Moreover, by the 1970s the SNP was experiencing a rapid growth of support from sections of the working class, especially young skilled workers in manufacturing industries. According to Brand (1978), at its peak in the mid-1970s the SNP was receiving the vote of over half of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in Scotland, the majority of whom were skilled workers and trade union members. To understand the rise of Scottish political nationalism, we need to refer to the wider economic changes, and their effects on class structures, that were also happening at this time, as well as some failure in the Labour Party to hold on to its potential core vote. In particular, the regional economic interventions of the British state and their failure to meet heightened expectations provide an important context.

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