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SNP has held the balance of power before – but things quickly turned sour

Nicola Sturgeon unveils the SNP election manifesto. Danny Lawson/PA

With the launch of the long-awaited Scottish National Party (SNP) manifesto, readers under 40 could be forgiven for thinking that it presages a unique moment in the party’s history – a menu of general election policies that the UK government may actually have to take seriously for the first time.

Those with longer memories ought to recall the 1970s, when Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government depended on SNP (and Liberal) support. It was an era where a great opportunity for the nationalists turned into a classic lesson in the dangers of expanding too quickly. As Nicola Sturgeon’s hour of triumph apparently approaches on May 7, can the party avoid making the same mistake this time?

Admittedly the current levels of support being predicted for the SNP at the UK election are unprecedented. For instance a recent TNS poll puts the SNP on 52% and Labour on 24%, which would see the party return well over 50 of Scotland’s 59 MPs (compared to six at present). Yet back in October 1974, the SNP broke through with 30.4% of the vote compared to Labour’s 36.3%. Thanks to the first-past-the-post system however, the nationalists only won 11 seats compared to Labour’s 41.

Then as now, Scotland’s constitutional position within the UK was a salient issue. Where the Smith Commission has made recommendations on Scottish devolution since last year’s independence referendum, the Kilbrandon Commission deliberated on Scottish and Welsh devolution, reporting in 1973. This report would heavily influence the devolution that Scotland and Wales would vote on in 1979.

Harold and Mary Wilson back in Downing Street, October 1974. PA Archive

Labour won the October 1974 election under Harold Wilson with a majority of only three seats, but a series of by-elections meant this was gone by 1976. With James Callaghan now prime minister, the government relied on support from the SNP and Plaid Cymru to pass its legislative programme in return for instigating legislation to create devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales.

Clan vs clan

This coincided with significant tensions within the SNP. On devolution, the party was split between two philosophies: gradualists saw a Scottish assembly as a platform for pushing for full statehood, while fundamentalists saw it as a mechanism for trapping Scotland within the UK. The policy was consequently fudged at the 1975 conference at exactly the moment when it needed to be clear.

Because many of the breakthroughs in 1974 had come in Conservative seats, there was also a false assumption among many in the party that its support had come from natural Conservative voters when in fact it was from Labour and Liberal voters. A number of the MPs elected in 1974 had relatively shallow roots within the SNP and tended to be opposed to Labour, while a significant number of figures on the party’s national executive council (NEC) were firmly on the left.

The MPs lacked experience and were often at odds with the NEC over strategy and ideological positioning. The party lacked effective lines of communication between Scotland and London, and there was very little it could do to control its MP cohort. There were efforts to shape the party’s decision-making structures to accommodate these MPs. But the Labour government was so precarious that they had little time to participate and had to step down from party positions, which further severed links between Scotland and London. Hostility grew, with MPs accusing the NEC of being “MP bashers”, while the NEC thought the MPs did not adhere to party policy closely enough.

The era culminated in the 1979 devolution referendum, where 52% voted Yes but under rules introduced by an amendment, this was not enough. The SNP felt aggrieved and urged the government to push ahead with a Scottish assembly anyway. When it refused, the SNP MPs voted against Callaghan in a vote of no confidence, which led to the 1979 election. On polling day, the SNP lost nine of its 11 seats. The 1974-79 parliament is seen as a missed opportunity by the SNP to establish itself more firmly in electoral terms across Scotland and articulate its constitutional objectives. The party found itself being a major player in British politics but because of internal tensions and organisational immaturity, was unable to exploit its position to the full.

Could lightning strike again?

In organisational terms, a repeat of the 1970s situation looks unlikely. The party undertook a major review of its organisational structures under the leadership of John Swinney in 2004 designed to move it from being an “amateur activist” party to a more “professional electoral” one. This shifted power and influence over party strategy away from activists and towards the parliamentary party supported by staff at central office in Edinburgh. The party is also far better resourced, both in terms of money and staff. It can also draw upon its experience as a party of government in Scotland, particularly as a minority government between 2007 and 2011.

John Swinney in 2004. PA/David Cheskin

These reforms meant that the SNP is structured in such a way that the apex of power is the party’s leader, who is located in the Scottish parliament. Holyrood has been the party’s electoral and strategic focus since 1999. But if the SNP does indeed win the number of seats the polls are predicting, that will dramatically change overnight and the party will have to fight on two fronts. It has never been in that position before.

Naturally the party will welcome a big victory on May 8. It creates the opportunity to drive the terms of further devolution in Scotland, and perhaps have a hand in wider reform across the UK. Yet there will be instances where the decisions taken in the House of Commons will have a significant bearing on the future of not only the SNP, but the rest of Scotland. With an SNP government in Scotland and the SNP possibly working with the UK government, it will not be possible to make decisions in one arena that do not have a political effect on the other. There will have to be a coherence and synchronicity in message between the party in London and the party in Edinburgh.

Although some of the candidates likely to become MPs possess a wealth of parliamentary experience, most do not. It will be up to Nicola Sturgeon to make sure she has a loyal and trusted team in Westminster to make sure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Assuming they win their seats, it will chiefly be up to Alex Salmond and deputy leader Stewart Hosie to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of the 1970s.

Will this be enough? It is certainly not outwith the realms of comprehension that tensions could arise over strategy once again. The party is in a far better position to manage them this time than 40 years ago, but that does not guarantee anything. Keeping the party united and properly managing the opportunity of a large Westminster presence, should that be what Scotland votes for, is likely to be one of Sturgeon’s biggest challenges in the coming parliament.

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