ON a dreich Friday night a decade ago, Nicola Sturgeon walked on to the stage of the Pearce Institute in Govan and delivered a measured, gracious and fitting tribute to my late father.

She then mixed with a gathering of Mad Yoons and Mad Nats (there was a generous helping of both) before consoling the grief-stricken and then getting back to her day job as First Minister.

I watched all this from behind the bar where I was doling out my dad’s whisky to thirsty recipients but it made a profound impression on me.

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My father, also Hugh, was a nationalist of long-standing. He campaigned in the 1950s, unsuccessfully sought election in the sixties and was part of the team that helped both Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald be elected to Westminster in the latter part of that decade.

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His dedication to self-government never wavered and on that night in Govan I reflected on how the party had grown as he stepped into his later years.

It was the first time I had met Nicola Sturgeon. I subsequently interviewed her a couple of times. Her humanity and decency was obvious. But there was something else, too.


The burying of a father and the subsequent formalities provoked a storm of emotion and the odd, calm pool of reflection.

The SNP in my childhood was made up of a small group who all knew each other, or seemed to, and were determined to strive for unity for a single purpose, that is, independence for Scotland. I came to know the leading players well. They sang in my house, they drank while perched precariously on the living-room couch and patted me on the back as I delivered leaflets up closes.

They were politically disparate. The differences did not matter much then. The SNP was simply a big bus that would carry the nation to independence. We would all alight there and go our different way, form our separate groups or parties and campaign for a Scotland that reflected our politics and priorities.

It seems quaint now but the general assumption then was that a majority of MPs (raking through the then 36 barrier of 72 MPs) would deliver independence. Instead, devolution intervened and it has proved both an opportunity for the SNP and a waiting room that has caused considerable frustration.

HeraldScotland: Margo MacdonaldMargo Macdonald

The SNP was never intended to to be a governing party but its triumph and tragedy is that it became so.

The triumph lies in the extraordinary electoral success of Sturgeon and Salmond.

The tragedy lies in the obvious dilution of purpose that the role of government demands.

The SNP is accused by its detractors of obsessing over home rule (spoiler: there is a clue to that priority in the name of the party) and excoriated by its most passionate supporters for not obsessing enough over home rule.

Sturgeon was regularly lambasted by opponents for being “divisive” (spoiler: politics is by its very nature divisive, it is why we have elections to tally the popularity of said divisions) and criticised by party member for not being divisive enough, that is not declaring a referendum now, if not sooner.

It was simpler in the old days. My connection with SNP leaders goes back to the venerable and wonderful Dr Robert McIntyre, who led the party until 1956. I was merely a year old then but I came to know him in later life. He was one of that cadre who assembled at Elderslie or Bannockburn, who would turn up at canvassing nights and would talk gently but eloquently of his aspirations for a country.

The modern SNP leaders are a mystery to me, at least in personal terms. The fleeting encounters with Nicola Sturgeon point to recognition of wider facts.

The SNP got so big that a membership of 70,000 – frankly unthinkable to my father’s generation – is now regarded as a symptom of a dramatic slump. It has also become undeniable that it is an electoral powerhouse in a Scotland split in half.

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The role of Dr McIntyre, Arthur Donaldson, Willie Wolfe or Gordon Wilson was to carry the banner into a battle that had a stark purpose but it was a march rather than a charge. They all worked for independence. They all knew it would not come in their lifetime.

The equation was so much more problematic for Alex Salmond and then Sturgeon. Independence was seen to be in touching distance but matters of government were at hand. The centre could not quite hold and, inevitably and properly, dissensions have been raised and the energies of some, including Sturgeon and some of her allies, exhausted.

The new leader is part of that surge that followed my father’s days of occasional glory and regular disappointment. That family feeling of intimacy has gone. That stark priority of independence has become mired in the business of government, the imperatives of politics that embraces the whiff of scandal and the deep sadness of the toll of addictions and the reality of child poverty.

That chalice has been passed to Humza Yousaf. He has to drink deeply of it.

There is, of course, the talk of new starts. This is the routine commentary that accompanies all elections. The truth, however, is that this is merely another human being placed in the middle of huge, modern problems with the added spice of severe polarisation between yes and no.

HeraldScotland: 'Devolution has proved both an opportunity for the SNP and a waiting room that has caused considerable frustration''Devolution has proved both an opportunity for the SNP and a waiting room that has caused considerable frustration' (Image: free)

It was never easy being leader in the wilderness years, But they could then hunker down in relative anonymity. Not now. I don’t know Yousaf. But I do know he needs luck, a united party, and favourable electoral winds. Even then, he may still come up short.

This is one of the truths of SNP history. Leaders come and go. Independence remains elusive. It is still an ongoing drama. The plot remains the same, it is just the cast that has become bigger.