Scottish political history

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National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights, 1853–6

The National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights, established in 1853, was the first body to publicly articulate dissatisfaction with the Union since the Highland Potato Famine. It was closely associated with the Tories and was motivated by a desire to secure more focus on Scottish problems in response to what they felt was undue attention being focused on Ireland by the then Liberal government.

It argued that the United Kingdom should always be designated 'Great Britain' and that Scotland ought to send more MPs to Westminster. These were relatively minor issues, and presented no serious challenge to the Establishment. Public supporters of the movement included Lord Eglinton, who moved a petition on behalf of the Association in the House of Lords in April 1854, and Professor William Aytoun of the University of Edinburgh. The short-lived body attracted few notable figures and was wound up in 1856.


It was resentment that the Irish were receiving a better deal than the Scots during the debates over Irish Home Rule that once more triggered interest in Scottish constitutional reform.

The Home Rule Association created in 1870 in Dublin wanted a Parliament responsible for domestic affairs. At this stage the Prime Minister, William Gladstone (who was of purely Scottish ancestry despite being born and brought up in Liverpool), was not yet convinced and, in Aberdeen in 1871, he said that if home rule was granted to Ireland then the same should apply to Scotland. After his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned as leader of the Liberal Party.

Scottish Home Rule Association

After the 1880 election, when he formed his second ministry, the Earl of Rosebery memorably remarked that Scotland was 'mumbling the dry bones of political neglect and munching the remainder biscuit of Irish legislation'.[1]. Soon a fully-fledged and politically significant Scottish Home Rule movement was under way.

In 1869 Scottish MPs had asked Gladstone to appoint a Scottish Secretary with responsibility for the boards, but the post of Secretary for Scotland, and with it the Scottish Office, were not created until 1885.

In 1886, the Scottish Home Rule Association was set up as a nationalist organization close to the Liberal Party. This was no radical attempt at separation or even federalism. The Association sought to devolve Scottish business to Edinburgh in order to make the sovereign Parliament in London more efficient. After all, at this time, most Scottish commentators believed that the Union was vital to the nation’s progress, an enlightened act which had liberated the country from the pre-1707 anarchy, poverty and fanaticism which to them had scarred the country.

At the beginning of Gladstone's third term of office, in early 1886, he proposed Irish home rule but this was defeated in the House of Commons in July. The resulting split in the Liberal Party helped keep them out of office, with one short break, for twenty years. In 1892 Gladstone formed his last government at the age of 82. The Second Home Rule Bill passed the Commons but was defeated in the Lords in 1893. Gladstone resigned in March 1894, in opposition to increased naval expenditure.

Tory rule, 1895–1905

Scottish Home Rule was not on the political agenda of the Conservative Government (they were against it).

Liberal Party

The Liberal administration after 1906 became one of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century but the question of Scottish Home Rule did not arise immediately. The government's priorities were the introduction of old age pensions, unemployment benefit, and the beginning of organised medical care. There was also the Irish Home Rule legislation which was passed in 1912.

Reasons for Liberal decline

The Great War was a turning point. At first, the trade unions and most workers were united with the government against the Germany enemy, but the terrible carnage on the Western Front soon changed the collective mood.

  1. War casualties. As the endless list of casualties grew inexorably, the Liberal government attracted growing criticism for its inept handling of the conflict and failure to bring it to a conclusion. Scotland provided more voluntary recruits in proportion to population than any other part of the UK. What's more, the casualty rate among Scots soldiers was higher as they were regarded as excellent, aggressive shock troops who could be depended upon to lead the charge. Of the 557,000 Scots who enlisted in all services, 26.4 per cent lost their lives, compared with 11.8% for the rest of the British Army between 1914 and 1918.
  2. Clydeside strikes. Introduction of mass production methods and unskilled labour in the Clydeside engineering firms provoked strikes and disputes in 1915. When Lloyd George deported leading shop stewards from the west of Scotland, and suppressed the Labour newspaper, Forward, it looked as if the Liberal Party was on the side of the bosses and against the workers.
  3. Rent strikes. An influx of 20,000 munitions workers and the stoppage of building intensified already notorious overcrowding in Glasgow and led to a steep increase in rents in some districts. Provoked a deep sense of injustice as landlords were seen to be profiteering at the expense of families whose sons and husbands were serving their country at the front. By the end of 1915, 20,000 tenants were refusing to pay the increases (of up to 23%). The government finally acted to peg rents for the duration of hostilities.
  4. Internal splits. Asquith formed an all-party coalition in 1915 but, at the end of 1916, Lloyd George split the party by forcing him out of office. Most Scottish Liberal MPs remained loyal to Asquith, partly because Lloyd George created a ministry dominated by Tories.

Second Scottish Home Rule Association

After the war, a 2nd Scottish Home Rule Association was created for the first one became inactive. The objectives remained the same: more autonomy and not independence. Not a political party and no candidates. Will to remain non-partisan. Means used: putting pressure on the Government and on the MP representing Scotland in Parliament.


  • 1874 — Share of the vote in Scotland = 70%
  • 1886 — Liberal Unionist Party established; a faction, led by Lord Hartington (later the Duke of Devonshire) and Joseph Chamberlain, that formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long, coalition Unionist Government 1895–1905 but kept separate political funds and their own party organisations until a complete merger was agreed in May 1912.
  • 1895 — Liberal Party lead cut back to just 8 seats.
  • 1900 — Share of the vote in Scotland = 51%. Conservatives achieve their first ever majority since 1832, party due to Liberal splits over the Boer War.
  • 1906 — Liberals win landslide victory in Scotland, trouncing Conservative and Liberal Unionists by 58 seats to 12, with Labour picking up its first two Scottish victories.
  • 1910 — Liberal support consolidated in the January and December elections in contrast to England where the Conservatives staged a recovery.
  • 1912 — Scottish Unionist Party formed out of Liberal Unionists and Conservatives.

Among the working classes, Labour was the party likely to benefit most from the Liberal problems...


Radical Liberalism and early Scottish socialism also shared a number of common principles such as temperance, pacifism, a belief in evangelical religion, land reform and Home Rule for Scotland. Labour leaders were to the fore in organizations like the Highland Land League and the Scottish Home Rule Association which were dominated by Liberals.

  • 1888 — Scottish Labour Party formed; James Keir Hardie played a leading role.
  • 1893 — Independent Labour Party (ILP) formed after a conference in Bradford. Merged two years later with the Scottish Labour Party.
  • 1897 — Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) formed to ensure the unions could increase their political influence.
  • 1900 — Scottish Workers' Parliamentary Election Committee established, a combination of political and trade union interests.
  • 1914 — Labour fielded only 7 or 8 candidates.

Reasons for Labour advance

  1. 1918 franchise reform: saw the electorate triple, and the vast majority of these new voters were drawn from the working classes. Labour gained a third of Scottish votes in the 1918 election, more than 10 times better than any of its past performances (although this translated to only eight MPs).
  2. Transfer of Irish Catholic vote: With the partition of Ireland in 1920 there was less reason for this constituency to continue voting Liberal — especially given the degree of anti-Catholic bigotry in the party — and they soon converted to Labour. In the 1922 general election, therefore, the Catholic vote was a primary factor in Labour support, since it made up about 20% of the electorate.
  3. Economic slump: The economic boom of 1918–1920 quickly turned into the slump of 1921, and Lloyd-George failed to deliver his plans for reconstruction or his promised 'homes fit for heroes'.


  • 1918 General Election — Collapse of the Asquith Liberals resulted in Labour looking like the only credible party not in government.
  • 1922 General Election — Labour becomes biggest party in Scotland, returning 29 MPs (10 of them from Glasgow), and took 32% of total votes cast. Although in other areas, like Edinburgh for example, Labour achieved less than 10% of the overall vote.
  • 1924 General Election — Liberal Party routed and reduced to a rump of 8 seats , 5 of which were in the Highlands and Islands.

Home Rule

Scottish interest emerged in the 1880s, partly because of fears that the Irish were receiving preferential constitutional treatment ahead of the Scots and also because administrative reforms that would make the union with England function more effectively.

A Scottish Home Rule Association was founded to campaign for a parliament in Edinburgh.

Between 1886 and 1900, seven Scottish Home Rule motions were presented to parliament. Those submitted in 1894 and 1895 gained majorities but failed because of lack of parliamentary time.

Nevertheless, the depth of the commitment to Home Rule can be questioned. The Liberal leadership were unenthusiastic, significant numbers of the Scottish party did not support it, and it is sometimes difficult to determine whether genuine self-government was desired or only a further instalment of cosmetic administrative reform.

After 1910 the issue was taken on by the Young Scots who believed Home Rule was necessary for social reform.

[T]here is not one single item in the whole programme of Radicalism or social reform today, which, if Scotland had powers to pass laws, would not have been carried out a quarter of a century ago,

This new impetus for constitutional change was almost successful when a Home Rule Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons in May 1914, but it failed to reach the statute book before the First World War broke out.

However, the constitutional issue had important repercussions for Scottish politics as the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists closed ranks in defence of the union and empire and in 1912 finally merged as the Unionist Party.

  • 1885 — Office of Secretary for Scotland revived; Scottish Office established in London.
  • 1894 — Scottish Standing Committee set up to consider all Scottish legislation.
  • 1912 — Scottish Unionist Party formed out of a merger between Liberal Unionists and Conservatives.
  • 1914 — Home Rule Bill passes second reading, but falls due to outbreak of the Great War.

1920: Scottish National League formed

The Scots National League was formed in London in 1921, out of the Highland Land League and the National Committee, by Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr and William Gillies. Eschewing the existing system of government of Scotland from Westminster, the SNL adopted an uncompromising programme for independence in preference to Home Rule. Its inspiration was the tradition of Gaelic independence and self-determination. The revolutionary socialist John Maclean chaired one of the SNL's early meetings in Arbroath.

The SNL also established the Scots Independent newspaper in 1926 to further their aims.

From 1927 onwards, the SNL began to campaign for a Scottish national party. Together with its participation in the electoral process, this change made easier its liaison with the Scottish Home Rule Association, and its subsequent merger into the National Party of Scotland (NPS). But many former SNL members drifted from it due to their belief that the NPS was too moderate. This included Ruairidh Erskine himself, who drifted entirely from politics.

1928: National Party of Scotland formed

The National Party of Scotland was formed in 1928 by the amalgamation of the Scots National League (SNL), the Scottish National Movement (SNM), and the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association (GUSNA). The NPS emerged from the consensus among members of these groups, and the Scottish Home Rule Association, that an independent political party, free of any connections to any existing parties, was the best way forward for achieving Scottish Home Rule.

The main objects of the party, as expressed in its draft constitution, were "self-government for Scotland with independent national status within the British group of nations, together with the reconstruction of Scottish national life".

The celebrated poet Hugh MacDiarmid was a member, but was expelled on account of his Communist beliefs. Eric Linklater stood as an NPS candidate in the 1933 East Fife by-election, and Neil Gunn played a role in aiding the NPS amalgamation with the Scottish Party.

Clann Albain

Compton Mackenzie, Erskine of Marr, and Hugh MacDiarmid attempted to form a secret cadre of Scottish nationalists called Clann Albain (Children of Scotland). Their mere six members were expelled from the SNP; among the stunts they planned was to steal or liberate (depending on your point of view) the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey (in 1950 a group of student nationalists did remove it). It was however something of a fantasy organisation.

In 1930 he said of Clann Albain, that "the whole organisation is on a militaristic basis, and in this resembles the Fascist movement". In 1931, in The Modern Scot periodical, MacDiarmid favourably reviewed Wyndham Lewis's book on Hitler.

McDiarmid's views saw him kicked out of the SNP in 1934.


  1. Quoted in Hutchison, 2005, 264.