“Fundamentalists” and “Gradualists”

Iain Lawson

I have been involved in Scottish politics since 1975.

For a bit of fun and to perhaps give younger folk more insight into what went before I plan to post regularly my take on important moments that led to both positive and also negative results.

Firstly can I explain about the debate between “fundamentalists” and “gradualists” that was a key feature within the SNP In the 70’s and 80’s and was not finally ended until 2007 when the SNP eventually took control of the Scottish Government and Alex Salmond declared “we are all gradualists now”.

Let me also state that I have no doubt both sides wanted Independence. Neither side had a monopoly on the desire for Independence. The difference was about how to get there. The Fundies wanted to see the total effort being concentrated on outright Independence, the gradualists wanted a gentler path, with less emphasis and a softer line on Independence.

The two arguments could be summed up as one side believing you would never get anywhere unless you put your main aim and selling point at the point of the arrow and argued a conversion strategy to win support. The other side argued it was too big a step to move from the status quo to Independence in one leap and that devolution was a vehicle that should be supported.

Looking back now I think both sides were right. There is no doubt the excellent performance of successive SNP Governments has helped build confidence in Scotland being able to field a competent Government and perform better in Scotland’s interests than Westminster. That has never been more evident than during this COVID 19 crisis. Nevertheless the two big advances in those long years came about when it was the “fundy argument” that dominated strategy. Today I will deal with the first of these two big decisions.

In the late eighties the first steps were being taken to set up the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) which was campaigning for a Scottish Parliament. Labour, with 50 MP’s dominated Scottish politics and had developed well honed tactics that always ensured they had people on both sides of any argument, thereby controlling the issue and always ensuring Labour never suffered any damage from the process.

A great example was Scotland United, a grassroots organisation that was created as a response to yet another General Election that returned another Tory Government as a result of English Tory votes. It’s leadership consisted of some SNP gradualists, some non party people, the usual coterie of Labour luvvie minor celebrities and George Galloway. His job was to capture the anger and challenge and then slowly dissipate it up dead ends. It was a job he was born for. Likewise I was leading the SNP Steel Campaign and I was witnessing the enormous efforts Labour were making to take control of the campaign away from the Ravenscraig shop stewards in order to run it down and kill it off as it was increasingly highlighting how useless, even with 50 MP’s, Labour were for standing up for Scotland. The tactics again to create an “all party” campaign, thereby limiting any other action than that determined by Labour. This time it never happened, the SNP stayed out and dealt directly with the shop stewards committee. Gradually it was Labour that was excluded.

So it was against this background that the SNP had to decide whether to join the SCC or not. It was a fierce argument on the National Executive as both sides made their arguments for joining the SCC or staying outside and campaigning for full Independence. The debate came at the right time for the Fundamentalists who joined with the “left wing” and won the vote to stay outside.

I believe it was a vital decision, an absolutely key moment and I believe it was that decision that was responsible for the creation of the Scottish Parliament a decade later.

At a stroke we cut off any opportunity to suck us in then greatly limit our campaigning ability on Independence. The SCC, dominated by Labour and the Liberals had already ruled out Independence being on the ballot paper in any referendum. This also ensured that the SCC itself could not come up with any parish council Parliament as with the SNP on the outside, all too ready to highlight any deficiencies in the SCC proposals, they had to be sufficiently powerful to stand up to scrutiny from an SNP that was now advancing with growing public support.

I am sure this is what convinced Dewar to come up with the model that everything that was not reserved, was devolved. It also convinced Blair that there was no alternative than adopting the SCC proposals or face electoral disaster and lose huge numbers of Labour MP’s.

All the way along, the SNP kept the pressure on the SCC and Labour until the referendum was called and the SNP JOINED the YES CAMPAIGN and played the key role in getting the proposal over the line. It was the SNP that provided the most effective leader in Alex Salmond and it was SNP ACTIVISTS (both fundies and gradualists) that campaigned so effectively to win the day for Scotland.

So it was a SNP hardline decision, an aggressive decision, that ensured a meaningful devolved Government would emerge. I would argue demonstrating that the most effective tool in the box, even if you are only wanting meaningful devolution, is campaigning for outright Independence.

It would be another fifteen years after the Scottish Parliament before the next opportunity came and I will deal with that in another article


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