I WAS talking the other day to Ian Hamilton, the Scottish nationalist who helped take the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in the 1950s and someone who I think you could fairly call an icon, a high-celebrity of nationalism, so, naturally, I took the opportunity to ask him how he would be voting in May: SNP or Alba? He hadn’t decided yet, he said. But it was something else he told me that was really interesting: how he votes doesn’t matter.

I’ll tell you in a bit exactly what he meant by that, but first I thought it might be interesting to look at how much has changed since Mr Hamilton’s hey-day and how much hasn’t, because it could predict where we go after the election and whether Mr Hamilton is right. It’s easy, given the SNP’s current high point, to forget just how marginal nationalism was 70 years ago when that little group of students took the stone. But the history of the cause also reveals some familiar patterns: we have been here before.

The word Mr Hamilton himself used when I asked him to describe nationalism in the 40s and 50s was “fringe”. In the 1945 election, the SNP attracted 1.2 per cent of the vote, and if there were polls on independence, they showed support at 16% or thereabouts. Indeed, Scottish nationalists were viewed by many as extremists and some of the smaller groups operating on the edges of the movement attracted the interest of Special Branch. By the time we got to the late 50s, support for home rule looked like it was flatlining.

Of course, we know what happened next: Winnie Ewing’s victory in the Hamilton by-election in ‘67 moved independence away from the fringes and the SNP came to dominate the movement. The party got better organised, it contested more seats, and in the mid-60s it claimed that there had been a ten-fold increase in its membership over four years (although perhaps we should treat historic claims about great up-rushes in SNP membership with the same scepticism we treat the modern ones).

Anyway, the pattern for nationalism since then has been a series of plateaus as part of a longer climb: at the 74 election, the SNP won 30% of the vote; then we’ve had the rise and rise since 2014 to the point where the polls now show that – even after everything that’s happened to Nicola Sturgeon in the last few months – the party will attract pretty much half the vote in the constituencies.

Which leaves us with the question of whether the SNP’s climb will carry on up, or whether the party – not now, not tomorrow but eventually – will face a block to their ambitions, which is where the liberator of the Stone of Destiny comes in again. When I asked Mr Hamilton for his views on the election, he said it was obvious it would be success for independence, but it wouldn’t make any difference. “We’re supposed to live in a democracy but we don’t,” he said, “No matter how many votes there are, the people who run the United Kingdom will not see us go.”


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So can he be right? A poll at the weekend predicted success for Alba, giving them six seats, which, together with the SNP, would mean pro-independence parties winning 79 out of a possible 129. In other words, Alex Salmond would get the “super-majority” he’s been talking about and the question then would be whether the UK Government – even a government that’s said “no” as many times as Boris Johnson’s has – could carry on refusing.

Mr Hamilton clearly thinks it could because, in his view, the people who run the UK “will not see us go”. But could they do that without solid grounds, and if so, what could the grounds be? Perhaps someone will make the point that if the pro-independence parties do win 79 seats, they will have 60 per cent of the seats for a cause that attracts only fortysomething per cent support from voters, and that would be a very good point to make. You might even say Scotland did not get the parliament it voted for and the UK Government might say that the “super-majority” is no such thing.

But a second look at the ebbs and flows of the nationalist cause since Mr Hamilton and his comrades removed the stone reveals another repeating pattern. Bit by bit over the last few months, we’ve seen the relationship between Sturgeon and Salmond move from veiled criticism to open criticism to a scratchy trench-war and part of it centres on a tactical division: Ms Sturgeon wants to take it easy and build broad support, whereas Mr Salmond wants to push harder, using “peaceful street demonstrations” or starting negotiations for independence regardless. Mr Salmond, the great risk-taker, is the bull in the china shop, whereas Ms Sturgeon, by far the better tactician, knows people are going to worry about all the china that’s getting smashed.

The point is that this division between what you might call the moderates and the passionates has always been an issue for the SNP. Famously, in 1955, a small group splintered away from the party because of their concern that the SNP was doing nothing but talk. The party leadership on the other hand urged moderation and warned that the behaviour of a minority in the movement was putting voters off. Pretty much, this is the conversation that’s still going on 65 years later with Alba.


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And – then and now – there have always been people in the nationalist movement who have warned that independence will be a long, long time coming and that there will be many false victories. Bruce Watson, leader of the SNP in the 40s, told his small annual conference in 46 that the road to a Scottish Parliament would be a series of “promises, assurances, safeguards, and sometimes cynical rebuffs” and that’s pretty much what Mr Hamilton is saying all these years later: he predicts a victory but also a cynical rebuff.

Perhaps, then, it is this that should be the lesson of the history of the SNP and the wider movement. There have always been victories and set-backs. There have always been divisions. There have always been rebuffs or rejections. Obviously, in 2021, the SNP is considerably closer to its aim than it was when the Stone of Destiny was taken from Westminster Abbey in 1950, but Mr Hamilton still believes the cause will be rebuffed again. What history tells us is that he’s probably right.

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