Given the Brexit vote many unionists, both elected members and ordinary members, are re-considering their previous loyalty to their political party and are recognising that as Nicola has said the Union that they had previously supported no longer exists and that it now looks like only full Independence for Scotland can protect Scotland’s place in the EU.
The former Presiding Officer last week urged me to write an article outlining what I had gone through when I left the Conservative Party in 1985 to join the SNP. I was quite chuffed that she wanted me to do so, until she went on to explain that it was so long ago that younger members would not know anything about it and others, old enough to be around at the time, had probably forgotten all about it!
Those who do recall that time will probably remember it was the plans to close the Gartcosh Steel Plant, thus ensuring Ravenscraig’s eventual demise, that was the final straw for me but it had been coming for some time before that.
At the time I held a senior post in the Conservative Party as I was the Chairman of the Parliamentary Candidates Association. The Conservatives at the time held 22 seats in Scotland and had just recorded over 28% of the vote in the last General Election.
I remember being phoned by the BBC and being asked to appear on the evening news programme. The Tory Government had just approved a huge pay rise for top judges while throwing out any wage increase for nurses. Could I come on the programme and discuss this? They explained that they had tried to get a Scots Tory MP but they were all unavailable. This had happened a few times in the past where the elected MP’s disappeared every time an unpopular decision had to be defended. I turned up at the studios and gave an interview hammering the Government and calling their actions disgraceful. Strangely enough after that there was always a Scots Tory MP available for interviews!
Initially I sought to change the decision on Gartcosh from within the Party and got some good support from ordinary members but it was clear the Scots Tory Leadership were out to get me and they immediately started to try and marginalise that support, largely through threats and bribes to the few Tory MP’s prepared to support Gartcosh. In this they were successful with them all bar Anna McCurley, the then Tory MP for Renfrewshire who maintained her support for the steel industry throughout. It taught me the crucial lesson that Westminster was more capable of applying pressure on Scots Tory MP’s than the Scottish electorate could muster. I decided that could not continue.
By now I had decided I was going to resign from the Party and I was determined to make that resignation as public and damaging as I possibly could in the hope it would aid the steelworkers in their own battle for survival. I knew that the minute I resigned the Tory Leadership would set out to present the story that I had left because I had little support for my views and was unrepresentative of the membership. This is a standard tactic all parties use in these circumstances.
Unfortunately for the Tory Party my role as Chairman of the Candidates Association put me in regular contact with the constituency associations and part of my role was to keep in touch with their opinions on key issues and advise the Party accordingly. I therefore had a lot of letters from these associations that indicated disquiet over a few key issues including the steel industry.
This all came together when I was invited to take part in a pilot programme for a new BBC Scotland political programme called Left, Right and Centre. I was to take part to discuss my resignation with the then Tory Chairman in Scotland. Unbeknown to me, the BBC, in order to get the Tories to take part had unbelievably gave them a veto, in the form of a letter, that they could use to stop the programme being aired if the Tory Chairman lost his debate with me. He did lose the debate as every time he tried to represent me as someone who had no support I produced a letter from a Scottish Office Minister’s own constituency and quoted what they said. It was a massacre, the Tories produced the letter and the programme was never broadcast. It was only then I learned of the veto’s existence and I determined they would not get away with it. I phoned the Sunday Times and told them my story, they phoned the BBC and initially met denials but eventually they contacted the show’s producer Matt Spicer and to his eternal credit he confirmed everything I had told the Sunday Times. This resulted in a front page story in the Sunday Times and much outrage that the BBC could be party to such a democratic outrage.
I mention all this because leaving a Party will always have a cost, be that a loss of personal friendships, attacks on your reputation, dirty tricks to try and discredit you etc but on the credit side I am still friends with a good number of those I met through the Tory Party (including my wife) and personally I gained so much from leaving and being true to my beliefs.
I then worked with the Trade Unions and created with Tommy Brennan the Gartcosh March and I eventually joined the SNP in 1986.
In the main I was warmly welcomed into the SNP. I had few contacts in the Party, only those I had met in TV studios so it was a bit daunting. I will always be grateful to John Swinney, George Leslie and Gil Paterson who went out of their way to make sure I felt welcome.
One thing I had going for me was at the time the Tories were polling in the mid twenties while the SNP were in the doldrums at 12% so nobody considered me an opportunist. It had been a while since any prominent figure in another Party had joined the SNP.
At that first conference I just missed out on being elected to the National Executive but came top of the National Council elections. I have always thought that was a sign of the great sense in the SNP membership. It was the clearest sign, we welcome you but you can’t just walk in from day one, you have to earn it first! . The following year I came number one in the National Executive elections and some years later became the Vice Convener Administration in charge of the Party’s administration. and fundraising.
The realisation that you are in the wrong Party, that they no longer represent your views and beliefs is a real challenge, what do you do? The choice is to drift away from politics or if they are important to you then you must make the jump. We all know people in others parties that are caring, capable decent individuals who would be an asset to our party or any another. We must always make it easy for them to join us, politics change all the time, issues change all the time. Good politicians change their views as circumstances change and as the facts change. The politics of the 1980’s are very different to today.
I greatly value the many great friends I made and still enjoy in the SNP. My support and pride in the SNP has never wavered in all those years. I am delighted that so many of those people who devoted so much time and their own money raising the SNP from the doldrums of 12% to the dominant force they are today now include the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and so many of our MSP’s and MP’s and who I believe will lead our nation to full Independence in the near future.
So I hope people in other parties, at all levels from top to ordinary member will reflect on the changed circumstances and make the same journey to the SNP and Independence as the only way forward for Scotland. You will be most welcome.
This was submitted by Iain Lawson