Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 14: Scotland between the Wars

Progress towards home rule had been slow, much slower than had been anticipated at the outbreak of the World War. Paradoxically, however, greater control from London had the effect of convincing home rulers it was time to push for action again. They were quietly confident; as radical Liberal J. M. Hogg expressed in the House of Commons:
The experience of war, particularly of the control of the various government departments over Scottish business itself, has probably made more converts to a system of Scottish home rule than all the speeches that have ever been made on Scottish platforms; or by decisions we have taken here.
At Versailles, whatever was prevented by the stubbornness of the conferees, some of their more prudent decisions showed that small nations could have more control over their own affairs. In addition, home rule for Scotland had been one of the staple policies of the labour movement before the war and Labour was getting stronger all the time. Some union activity had persisted in Scotland as in other industrial areas of Britain even during the war when high employment and the need to unite in the common cause suspended most union activities and made people feel joining them was unpatriotic.

Many irregular labor practices that were adopted during the rush to produce war munitions had eroded hard-won rights. Thus, committees were formed to oversee any revision of work schedules and other infringements. The old-fashioned trade unions were not radical enough for many, and the "Clyde Workers" Committee, that survived until the early 1920's was a precursor of that particular brand of left-wing, socialist fervor that created what is now termed "Red Clydeside." These committees were to form the backbone of Labour in Scotland.

The industrial unrest of the 1920's has received adequate coverage elsewhere, as has its effects upon Scotland. Even when Bonar Law, a Canadian Scot, led the Conservatives to a clear victory in 1922, his party did poorly in Scotland, where Labour continued its steady progress against the Liberals. The situation in 1924 was the same, with the majority of the Scottish electorate keeping to the left. The great general strike of 1926 affected the whole of Britain. In Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who exercised remarkable control and restraint (as compared to the violence that occurred in South Wales) managed affairs.

In a further move towards Labour and away from the ideas and policies of the Liberals, Roland Muirhead reorganized the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1918, giving it a stable base and making home rule a serious political priority. Labour continued its advocacy of home rule; many of its Scottish members wanted to see the establishment of a free Socialistic Commonwealth freed from "aristocratic, English ridden" influences. The idea of home rule also temporarily united the disparate factions of left-wing politics.

When the minority Labour Government acceded in 1924, it seemed that the time had come. The Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald (who like fellow Scot Keir Hardie was elected from a Welsh constituency), had been president of the London branch of the SHRA before the War. Expectations were high for passage of the Private Member's Bill on Scottish home rule introduced by George Buchanan of Glasgow. Unfortunately, no enthusiasm was shown by Scottish Secretary William Anderson who could have done so much more to ensure passage. Ramsey MacDonald himself worked tirelessly to bring his Labour Party to the forefront of British politics. Like Lloyd George of Wales, however, any enthusiasm he might have expressed for Scotland home rule was lost in his greater concern for the political life of the United Kingdom.

The House Speaker refused to move the motion to a vote and entreaties to have the debate and motion rescheduled fell on deaf ears. Another problem had surfaced; many Scottish M.P.'s regarded themselves as socialists first and nationalists second (a problem that bedeviled Welsh hopes for home rule during the same period). Labour would not have home rulers dictating their policies!! The golden chance was lost in Labour's fear that the best interests of their party were being impeded by home-rule advocates.

Because the campaign for a Scottish parliament was now in direct competition with British national political priorities, another avenue of approach became necessary. The National Party of Scotland was formed to press for some form of devolution from England that would satisfy the majority of its members. These members had come from the Scottish National league, the Scottish National Movement, the Glasgow University Nationalist Association and the Scottish Home Rule Association, all of whom had different aims and different ways of achieving them.

For many years, the party simply existed as a way to spoil the candidacy of Labour hopefuls, having no successes of its own. In the economic and social upheavals of the Great Depression, the Labour Party argued that the aspirations of nationalists (in Wales as well as Scotland) were far removed from the interests of the working class. Accordingly, the NPS had to convince the electorate that it was not just a "spoiler" party, but that it was carefully and judiciously formulating policies that could raise their standard of living in an independent Scotland and address the chronic problems of poor housing, inadequate health services, lack of educational opportunities and high unemployment. In 1932, it was jolted by the formation of a more moderate, right-wing home rule movement, the Scottish Party.

Extremism was out. Scotland had been part of the United Kingdom and had contributed so much to its empire for too long. The SNP was forced to moderate its views and to state publicly that it did not seek separation but "self-government with the British group of nations." Parties had to appeal to the majority of the Scottish electorate to which, considering their loyalty to the British Crown, republicanism was anathema. By 1933, the fundamentalists had been purged from the NPS and it was ready to join with the Scottish Party to further more moderate aims.

The Scottish National Party thus came into being in August 1934. For many years after, it was plagued by internal squabblings (in true Celtic fashion) and failed to make any noticeable impact on Scottish electoral politics. Only after 1945 did the SNP attain the necessary degree of internal discipline and coherence to create an effective political organization.

There were other efforts, however, that had begun to pay off. One significant gain in the march towards the overwhelming decision of 1997 was the creation of a Secretary of State for Scotland in 1926 by the Baldwin administration out of the former, much weaker position of Scottish Secretary. (A similar position for Wales had to wait until 1964). In 1939, these powers were extended when the Secretary took over the functions in Scotland of the Department for Home Affairs, Health, Agriculture and Education with offices in Edinburgh. In 1951, a Minister of State, based in Scotland, was created to act as deputy to the Secretary. As had happened in 1914, however, further measures of political independence came to a complete halt with the outbreak of the World War II in September 1939.

Chapter 15: After the War