It was, according to the sub-title of a new book, the by-election that “transformed” Scotland.

Half a century ago this week, the charismatic lawyer Winnie Ewing swept to victory in the Labour heartland of Hamilton. She wasn’t the first SNP Member of Parliament, but she was certainly the most significant.

But did her by-election win truly “transform” Scotland? I’m not so sure. “Transform” is a big word, implying deep-seated change, positive improvement of some sort or the other, and while Ewing’s arrival at Westminster undeniably transformed Scottish politics, whether it had the same impact on Scotland is a moot point.

A lot of Nationalists have a habit of judging their impact by elections won and campaigns fought rather than tangible economic or societal change; inputs rather than outputs. After a decade of SNP government, for example, politicians and commentators are apt to talk of Scotland having “changed” beyond all recognition.

It depends, naturally, how you measure it. Electorally, Scotland has undeniably changed over the past 10 years, but by most other measurements, it remains depressingly unchanged. Statements of radical intent are the easy part.

Part of me can’t help feeling that the Hamilton by-election of November 1967 started that trend. There had, of course, long been a gap between political promises and delivery, but both the nature of that by-election campaign and the impact it had upon political discourse in Scotland, widened it even further.

Ewing was certain, of course, that the then Labour government of Harold Wilson was neglecting Scotland, ignoring it, threatening its survival – all the usual nationalist tropes that remain familiar today. But where there might have been detailed alternatives, there were only debating points and glib one-liners. “Stop the world,” she is said to have proclaimed, “Scotland wants to get on.”

Now that’s a great campaigning phrase, but what exactly does it mean? Scotland had been part of a globalised economy since the mass industrialisation of the 19th century. Then as now, such slogans betrayed a certain insecurity. Scotland already was “on” the world, and even in the late 1960s focusing on name plates at the United Nations was out of step with the general direction of international affairs.

In “Hamilton 1967”, meanwhile, Professor James Mitchell convincingly argues that the backdrop to Ewing’s victory was the socio-economic change that typified the 1960s, and thus the “novelty” of the SNP, which appeared to combine identity politics with “modern attitudes”, won over hitherto staunch Labour voters in constituencies like Hamilton. This is persuasive.

Indeed, the same phenomenon – at least in part – explains the SNP’s success over the past decade. I remember well the “novelty” factor in the 2007 Holyrood election, a feeling the party should be given a chance to govern, while after the Great Financial Crash, Alex Salmond et al articulated – albeit in a spectacularly vague way – that the economic status quo was breaking down. But instead of doing the necessary intellectual legwork to provide a genuine alternative, the party offered little more than more superficial slogans (“independence in Europe”), grievance and moral grandstanding.

All that, I would contend, can be traced back to Hamilton in 1967, which isn’t to say the Unionist parties covered themselves in glory thereafter. The then Conservative leader Edward Heath was the first to involve himself in the constitutional bidding war that followed, making his “Declaration of Perth” the following year, while Harold Wilson tried to kick the issue into the long grass with a Royal Commission.

Their mistake was making further constitutional change (like the SNP’s) an end in itself, a sort of political panacea, rather than a means to a more credible way of responding to the economic and social turbulence of the 1960s. Thus, the pattern of Scottish politics over the last 50 years: A Potpourri of constitutional visions, commissions and referendums, but little discussion of anything more tangible.

Following her election, Ewing asked lots of Parliamentary Questions at Westminster and published them as a “Black Book”, a copy of which I have at home. Despite its confrontational title, “Scotland v. Whitehall”, it contains no Unionist smoking gun, just a rather dry account of the fiscal transfers already coming north. Other SNP publications from the period articulate a belief that the rest of the UK was being subsidised by Scotland, and this was several years before North Sea oil began to flow.

In the absence of any genuine grievances, therefore, they had to be contrived and invented, something else that continues to this day. On Saturday, the Scottish Independence Convention will meet at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and digest, among other things, the findings from research carried out by Dr Iain Black of Heriot-Watt University.

Based upon a detailed study of six focus groups, who were asked for their “feelings, beliefs and opinions” on independence, thoughts on the future and what might lead them to support independence, it found that voters needed to “see and feel” change at present, rather than the promise of “jam tomorrow”. In other words, the Scottish Government had to “be brilliant at their day job”.

But given sluggish economic growth, a stubbornly wide attainment gap and, according to yet another Audit Scotland report, trouble with the NHS, “brilliant” is not a word that would describe the SNP’s prowess in devolved government. It’s long been the expectation of Nationalists that having demonstrated their competence in government, independence would surely follow. But that was always a double-edged sword.

Optimistic slogans and sophisticated campaigning that help win elections, as the Hamilton by-election memorably demonstrated, but it doesn’t necessarily win the deeper arguments. Fifty years ago, Winnie Ewing helped introduce a utopian element into Scottish politics; this certainly “transformed” Scotland, although not necessarily for the better.