Book Review

James Mitchell, Hamilton 1967 -The By-Election That Transformed Scotland, Luath, 9781912147229

A first thought: at the moment anything with the word ‘Hamilton’ in it is bound to be a runaway success and, given a competent composer and librettist, I can envisage the at times dramatic, at times downright charming story of the Hamilton by-election of 1967 transferring to Broadway as a hit musical. There is a touch of the mouse that roared about this mostly forgotten snippet of Scottish political history. This is because I doubt very much that Winnie Ewing’s success transformed Scottish politics quite as much as James Mitchell asserts given that the SNP, having achieved an unexpected and dramatic victory as a minority party at a by-election, continued the time honoured tradition of losing the seat at the next general election three years later. 

I was a callow youth at the time, becoming aware of politics at home and abroad, and cannot recall that my friends and I took much notice of the events not many miles from Glasgow as we were focused on bigger issues such as Harold Wilson’s seemingly socialist ambitions and the war in Vietnam – this being what real politics was all about at the age of sixteen. It didn’t help that in our eyes transformation was meant to come about through the swashbuckling actions of a guy with a cool hippy beard and a beret with a red star on it. We thought of a Che – we were presented with a Winnie. Not only did Winnie sound like one of your mum’s friends, she looked like one too. With all due respect, I doubt she had much to do in converting so many of the 1960s generation in the coming years leading to the SNP emerging as a serious player in Scottish politics three decades later when the newly elected MSP, Winnie Ewing, could state to the newly opened Scottish Parliament ‘I want to start with the words that I have always wanted to say or hear someone else say – the Scottish Parliament which adjourned on 25 March 1707 is reconvened’. More enduring success came even if it took a while.

Yet the story of by-election makes interesting and even entertaining reading. At times, Mitchell presents us with a plethora of statistics – all relevant – and of names most of us have never heard of and so it might seem that Hamilton 1967 is a work of interest only to political anoraks. I enjoyed the concise survey of the history of Britain and Scotland in the 1960s and how a variety of progressive issues such as legalised abortion and the decriminalisation of homosexuality had a different effect north of the border as a background to events even if not specifically linked to the events of the by-election.

There is also a salutary reminder of the part religion played in our national politics though the author is too polite to point out its pernicious aspect which is, regrettably, evident to this day. There were uniquely Scottish issues such as the drain of youth and talent through emigration as high as 45,000 Scots in 1965 as well as more specific concern about Lanarkshire, a post -industrial area with little sign of the newly lauded ‘white heat of technology’ transforming the economy. What I found particularly noteworthy is the way Mitchell’s account of the story of various by-elections in the 1950s and 1960s contradicts Charlie Brown’s famous dictum that ‘Winning isn’t everything but losing isn’t anything’ in that SNP strategists found positive signs even in a series of defeats.

Some were good defeats where winning 18% of the vote was an encouraging sign. Voting figures and patterns were poured over, strategies refined and activists inspired and retrained. There was an identifiable base of support for Scottish home rule – possibly even more – to be exploited by a sophisticated and enthusiastic campaign. Apparently all this minute attention to detail paid off and in 1967, a whopping 74% of the electorate turned out to vote in the by-election with almost 50% voting for Ewing. Mitchell asserts that: ‘Even when a by-election tells us less about underlying trends than might immediately be apparent, such interpretations can themselves create change … There had been periodic spasms of support for home rule with Government reactions developing Scotland’s position in the union, but the reaction to Hamilton set Scotland on a long, though far from certain, route to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament’. If this is the case then it must be conceded that the Hamilton by-election did play its part in transforming Scotland after all. Hamilton 1967 is recommended reading.

Donald McCormick is a retired history teacher, anti-ideologue and a grumpy optimist.

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