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  • Introduction

    From Keir Hardie to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Scots have driven the development of the Labour Party over the last 100 years. Dr Bob McLean celebrates a very Scottish centenary.

    The origins of the Labour Party are a subject of historical debate, but the protagonists were definitely Scottish. As they struggled against conditions of grinding poverty, the extension of the franchise in 1884 gave the ordinary people of Scotland their first chance to use democratic political action to further their interests.

    The first movement on the British mainland to grasp the new opportunities was the Highland Land League, the crofters' party, which at the general elections of 1885 and 1886 elected five MPs to champion the cause of land reform at Westminster. Leader of the crofters, Dr Gavin Clark, was a vice president of the Scottish Home Rule Association. Another of that organisation's office-bearers was Ayrshire miners' leader James Keir Hardie.

    As the traditional repository of working class and radical support, it was at first the Liberal Party who benefited from the expanding electorate, but, as demands increased for more working-class representation in parliament, strains soon began to show. In March 1888, at a by-election in Mid-Lanark, Hardie offered his services as a candidate to the local Liberal Association, describing himself as a 'radical of a somewhat advanced type'. He proved too radical for the Lanarkshire Liberals, who selected a London-based barrister.

    Hardie decided to stand in Mid-Lanark as an independent labour candidate, ie a labour candidate standing independently of the Liberal Party. Hardie's supporters included the Scottish Miners' Federation, several local trade unions, assorted socialist societies, the crofters' MPs, the radical Liberal MP Cunninghame-Graham and the Scottish Home Rule Association.

    Come polling day, Hardie gained eight per cent of the vote.

    A long and difficult battle lay ahead but the genie of an independent labour organisation was out of the bottle. In the summer of 1888 Hardie's Mid-Lanark alliance formalised itself as the Scottish Labour Party. Hardie and Cunninghame-Graham represented the party at the inaugural conference of the Socialist International in Paris in 1889, and at the 1892 general election Scottish Labour fielded five candidates - though unsuccessfully.

    Acting on a resolution passed by the TUC Congress meeting in 1892, Hardie, who had been elected as a local labour candidate for the London constituency of West Ham, played the leading role in the formation of the British-wide Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893. The following year the Scottish Labour Party merged with the ILP.

    In 1899 the Scottish TUC called together its affiliated unions, the Scottish division of the ILP and other socialist societies to co-ordinate the campaign for working-class representation through the Scottish Workers' Parliamentary Committee, which later revived the title of Scottish Labour Party. The Scottish initiative pre-dated the formation of the
    Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in England and Wales in February 1900. In 1906 the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party, and three years later, in 1909, the Scottish Labour Party merged with it to create the British-wide political party.

    The early years were hard for Labour, a new force challenging the established two-party, Conservative and Liberal, system. The breakthrough came in the general election of 1922. Across Britain, Labour won 142 seats and supplanted the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives. In Scotland Labour emerged as the largest single party. The Westminster arithmetic led to another election within a matter of months, and in December 1923 Labour increased its number to 191, 35 of them coming from Scottish constituencies. In January 1924 Labour formed its first government.

    The elections of 1922 and 1923 produced a crop of Scottish MPs - Maxton, Wheatley, Kirkwood and Johnston - whose names still resonate in the party and wider Scottish society. It was John Wheatley, the MP for Glasgow Shettleston, who steered through the greatest achievement of that first, minority, Labour government. The 1924 Housing Act introduced the first programme of large-scale council house building, with 2.5 million homes being built to ease the plight of those living in appalling and exploitative accommodation. Another Glasgow MP, George Buchanan, introduced a private member's bill to establish a Scottish parliament. Despite frontbencher support the measure was talked out. Following further disappointments in 1927 and 1928, the Scottish home rule lobby, which had pinned its faith on Labour, began to fragment, and in 1928 the National Party of Scotland (later renamed the Scottish National Party) was formed.

    Without a majority, Ramsay Macdonald's first Labour administration governed for just ten months. In 1929 Labour formed a second minority government led by Ramsay Macdonald. Faced with severe economic problems the government collapsed, and in 1931 Macdonald and a handful of 'National Labour' MPs joined a government dominated by the Conservatives. The general election of that year was Labour's worst result since becoming a major political party.

    In Scotland Labour representation was reduced to just seven, four of whom were also members of the ILP. In 1932 the ILP decided to disaffiliate. At the general election of 1935 Labour in Scotland recovered 20 seats. Throughout Britain as a whole the ILP won just four seats, all of them in Glasgow. It proved to be the last hurrah. Many leading Labour advocates of a Scottish parliament were members of the ILP, and the breach coincided with a gradual relegation of the home rule question in the league table of Labour priorities.

    Political autonomy was restored to Scotland during the Second World War when Winston Churchill asked Scottish Labour veteran Tom Johnston to join his wartime coalition government as Secretary of State for Scotland. Johnston agreed on the understanding that he and his advisory Scottish Council would exercise complete autonomy on Scottish issues. Johnston laid the foundations of Scotland's postwar reconstruction, partly by establishing the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board in 1943 and the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) which brought many jobs to Scotland.

    The restoration of peace saw the election of the first majority Labour government, and the transformation of Britain with the 1946 National Insurance Act; the National Health Service Act of the same year; the raising of the minimum school-leaving age from 14 to 15; and withdrawal from the Indian sub-continent.

    But with the Attlee government's reshaping of the new public services and enterprises, the perception that control over large areas of Scottish life was moving out of Scotland created concerns which were cynically exploited by the Conservatives. The 'Scottish card' was one of the reasons for the Conservatives' improved performance in the 1955 general election. It proved to be an Indian summer for Scottish Toryism. Their failure to deliver on the promise of 'Scottish control over Scottish affairs' contributed to the persistent decline in Tory fortunes which continues today.

    Labour returned to power in 1964, and Harold Wilson's progressive modernising governments chimed with the mood of the swinging 60s. The Race Relations Act of 1965 was an opening salvo in the war against racism. Labour began to outlaw gender discrimination with the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act.

    In Scotland, Secretary of State Willie Ross pioneered regional economic development creating both the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Scottish Development Agency. The sterling crisis, which rocked the re-elected Wilson government, was one of the factors that culminated in the SNP's by-election victory at Hamilton in November 1967. The government's response was the creation of a Royal Commission on the constitution to review and modernise Scotland's place within the union.

    Deprived of an overall majority, the 1974-79 Wilson and Callaghan governments waited for four years to bring the Scottish Assembly legislation to the statute book, only to lose it in the referendum of March 1979. Within weeks of the referendum disappointment Labour was heavily defeated by the Thatcher-led Conservatives.

    Recriminations over the record of the Labour governments of the 1970s, and debates as to how Labour should respond to a rapidly changing society, led to damaging defections, and in the 1983 general election Labour came perilously close to becoming Britain's third party. Throughout the 1980s Labour remained the largest party in Scotland, providing part of the base from which Neil Kinnock established a comfortable lead over the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1987, and took the party to within striking distance of power in 1992.

    Throughout the 80s and 90s, Labour in Scotland, restyled as the Scottish Labour Party, revisited its 70s devolution legislation, and worked with others in Scotland to produce new proposals for a powerful Scottish Parliament. Labour leader John Smith had been centrally involved in Labour's Scottish devolution project for 20 years. His sudden death in 1994, and the determination to complete his 'unfinished business', spurred the Scottish Labour Party to a record 56 seats in Tony Blair's 1997 landslide.
    The 1997 General Election victory was followed by a second landslide in 2001 and an historic Labour third term in 2005.

    In 1997 the long-promised Scottish Parliament was entrenched by referendum, legislated for at Westminster and elected by the votes of the Scottish people. The first elections to the Scottish Parliament were held in 1999 with Labour returned as the largest party in the Parliament and Donald Dewar elected First Minister. After Donald’s tragic death Henry McLeish was elected First Minister. He was succeeded in 2001 by Jack McConnell and Labour was once more returned as the largest party in the Parliament after the 2003 election.

    The 2007 Scottish General Election has meant Labour becoming the opposition in the Scottish Parliament, with Iain Gray the Leader of the Opposition.

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