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Eighty years on, there is no looking back for SNP

Eighty years ago today delegates gathered in Glasgow's St Andrew's Mid Hall (now part of the Mitchell Library) to inaugurate formally the Scottish National Party.

Late the previous year the National Party of Scotland and smaller Scottish Party (a curious product of a split in the Glasgow Cathcart Unionists) had finally amalgamated. They had decided, not without dissent, that unity was strength.

On that Saturday in April 1934 all the new party's principal founders were in attendance: John MacCormick (father of Sir Neil), Professor Andrew Dewar Gibb (a former Unionist candidate), the 6th Duke of Montrose, Compton Mackenzie (elected Rector of Glasgow University on a Nationalist ticket three years before) and, of course, Hugh MacDiarmid. Also there was Robert Hurd, the SNP's first press officer and uncle of Douglas.

According to the Glasgow Herald's coverage, the private meeting had lasted "practically all day", with Sir Alexander MacEwen (an Anglo-Catholic) appointed chairman, or party leader, an under-appreciated figure whose constitutional goals weren't that far removed from another SNP leader called Alex.

So was his rhetoric. Not only did they have to convince the people of Scotland of the need for self-government, Sir Alexander informed delegates, "they had to present them with a practical programme of reconstruction" in a "broad spirit", and in order to make "a practical contribution to the industrial, agricultural, economic, and social problems of their country".

Thus the SNP's first leader viewed independence in utilitarian terms. But the constitution adopted that day stated the party's objective as "self-government" rather than full sovereignty, with the Salmond-like qualification that this would be "on a basis which will enable Scotland, as a partner in the British Empire with the same status as England, to develop its national life to the fullest advantage".

On other points the old and new SNP differed sharply. Its 1934 incarnation wanted to restrict state employment "to Scottish nationals except under licence"; while a pamphlet on economic policy said it seemed "essential that a strong central bank controlling Scottish finances should be set up".

Curiously, the modern SNP, which gathers for its spring conference later this week, doesn't seem interested in any of this. As the current Education Secretary Mike Russell noted in an introduction to Winnie Ewing's memoirs, the SNP "has always been poor at celebrating its own past".

Some of its history is, of course, troubling: often pungent anti-English sentiment, flirtations with fascism during the Second World War (Arthur Donaldson), and, more recently, eccentric commentary on a papal visit from former leader Billy Wolfe.

But then most political parties have inconvenient baggage. The old Scottish Unionist Party, was anti-Irish for several decades, yet it's a bit more relaxed about celebrating its past. I also remember a future adviser to the First Minister telling me she had no intention of reading my then recently-published biography of Alex Salmond as the past, even that of her leader, held no interest for her.

This, sadly, reflects a broader lack of engagement with political history - even, oddly, among politicians - it being deemed somehow irrelevant to contemporary and future developments. This is a shame, for not only are there lessons to be derived from the mistakes and triumphs of the past, but the SNP in particular has an interesting and colourful history (recently charted by Peter Lynch in a new edition of his 2002 book).

Central to which, as we were reminded late last week, were intelligent, charismatic women, and at a time when that was pretty rare; Winnie Ewing blazed the trail in 1967, followed by Margo MacDonald in 1973 and sustained throughout the succeeding decades by, among others, the late Margaret Ewing (nee Bain), Isobel Lindsay and, of course, Nicola Sturgeon.

A close reading of the party's tactical and ideological history also reveals it's been a lot more consistent on certain points than its Unionist critics generally give it credit for. The party as founded in 1934, for example, was committed to retaining the British monarch as head of state; something reaffirmed in 1968 and late 1970s and only vaguely compromised by a now-expunged commitment to a referendum. So the present policy is not a piece of cynical triangulation, but a stance with an 80-year-old provenance.

Similarly, the SNP has long acknowledged the limitations of "sovereignty", acknowledging the need for supranational bodies within which Scotland might operate: in the 1950s it called this "confraternity" with the other nations of the UK, in the 1970s a "Council of the Isles", from the late 1980s the European Union, and so on.

For instance, a 1968 statement of policy (jauntily titled the "SNP & YOU") conceded narrow national sovereignty was "a thing of the past" with the SNP favouring the "maximum possible agreement and trade with England", including a customs union. That same document, it has to be said, also undermined this sentiment with references to Scotland as "the last profitable satellite under English control" and the implication that "thousands of English students" would no longer be the responsibility of an independent Scotland.

In other areas it could've been written this year: pledges to centralise control of the police, reduce direct taxation and limited defence expenditure having ditched nuclear weapons. When the SNP published this booklet its membership stood at around 100,000, a remarkable achievement for a party that just a few years previously had been regarded as a political joke.

But as the late Jack Brand's 1978 study, The National Movement In Scotland, argued, even then it was simplistic to equate (then high) SNP support with support for independence. Nor could it necessarily be attributed to North Sea oil or devolution. Rather it was the culmination of a growing sense that Scotland was a distinct entity within the UK, and therefore the party best placed to defend that position gathered increasing support.

Obviously, that has ebbed and flowed, but a similar analysis holds in this referendum year. As James Mitchell et al argue in their new study of the 2011 Holyrood elections (More Scottish Than British), the "relative importance of support for independence within the SNP can be seen as having declined". Although support for the SNP reached 45% three years ago, support for independence flat-lined at around a third (although yesterday's Panelbase poll suggests the gap is narrowing).

A few days ago the Prime Minister remarked that "the one useful thing the SNP have done in their history" was voting to bring down the Labour government in 1979 and usher in 11 years of Thatcherism. Of course it wasn't that simple, but that the National Movement warrants such mythologising demonstrates how far it's come. The party's founding fathers - gathered 80 years ago today - would have been astonished to learn of such progress in a relatively short time.

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