The best of times, the worst of times

Last week was a fairly bad week for the Party, and there’s no getting away from that. Two resignations in the Parly group and a host of bad headlines about legal advice – and everyone’s lining up to give the government a kicking.

It’s true that many of the activists are unhappy about Nato – I’d count myself amongst that. But then, it would be a very small party if everyone had to agree with every single policy, and the basic premise that people put aside differences to work for a common cause of a nuclear-free independent Scotland still holds true today as it has done for the last seventy-odd years.

And what some of the commentators seem to forget is that the past few years of relatively positive press coverage is just that – relatively positive, and relatively unusual in the context of the SNP’s history.

In the spirit of Halloween, I asked a couple of people for their personal worsts. Mary McCabe, our branch secretary and author of “Stirring the Dust”, said her worst political moment was during and after the 1978 Garscadden by election:

“Body-blow after body blow: lost the by-election which we were fully expecting to win (all 6 councillors in the constituency were SNP), failed to make the 40% in the 1979 referendum, lost nine of our eleven SNP MPs, Thatcher came sweeping in for a decade and the SNP lost out to all the media attention the Alliance/SDP/LibDems were getting and fell to fourth place in the polls. I got so depressed with it I turned away from active politics for a while and concentrated on having babies!”

But, even worse, the 1979 election triggered off a series of events that meant that the visitor centre on Eilean Mor MacCormick, the Party’s island, was nearly never built. Mary continues:

“In 1970 the SNP was left Eilean Mor McCormick and the adjacent piece of mainland. The Party got Willie McRae to draw up the conveyancing plans. They kept the island and sold the bit of mainland to a friendly supporter so as to raise money for the 1979 election. Crucially Willie McRae neglected to include a proviso that the Party should retain perpetual access to the jetty on the mainland. By the time 20 years had passed and the visitor centre was being constructed, the bit of mainland had been sold on to a ferociously possessive owner who lived in Buckinghamshire but got his tenant to ride shotgun over the jetty to make sure nobody used it. Boats got mysteriously holed and that sort of thing.”

My personal worst was probably the 2003 elections. For some reason, lots of the council candidates in Glasgow were convinced they were going to get elected (we’d never make that mistake again…). We also had high hopes of winning Govan and possibly Kelvin.

After much traipsing around, knocking doors and delivering leaflets, failing to study for my Uni exams, it was time for the count. And it was another long night in the SECC, where we ended up being down to 2 MSPs in Glasgow, while Rosie Kane and Tommy Sheridan were being hoisted on the shoulders of their comrades and celebrating together in wild abandon, while Kenneth Gibson lost his seat, and Bill Kidd, who’d widely been expected to get in, didn’t. I remember driving back and someone requesting that we put the Smiths on.

And, since then, there was the Campbell Martin affair – well, “affair” makes it sound a bit more exciting than it possibly was – the Bill Wilson leadership challenge, and lots more too.

Massive splits in the Party have been predicted – and actually, occasionally, materialised – many times before. MSPs have left, people have resigned. There have been bottles of champagne opened in celebration, but probably many more pints of beer to drown sorrows, over the course of the party.

In between all of this strife, there’s been lots of standing in the bucketing rain at polling stations, running up and down tenements delivering leaflets and supporters’ letters, chapping the doors of many people who are mostly out, and interminable discussions in branch meetings about who is organising the raffle at the next race night.

Mostly, at least in the last decade or so, the party – and individuals within it – have learned both from defeat and internal argument. The people who lost out in 2003 mostly won in 2007 – while other parties, who have less of a tight glue holding them together, have fallen apart. And bad headlines for the SNP can mean a pause, a hiatus for reflection and a chance for reinvention.

I think the point is, in the context of the history of the party, last week wasn’t our finest hour. But it wasn’t that bad, either. The SNP remain in government, remain with more MSPs than any party has ever had before, and are moving steadily forward towards an Independence referendum. The overwhelming majority of SNP members remain in the party and committed to winning that referendum, and will even revel in doing some of the less glamorous work – as every label stuck on envelopes, every leaflet posted through a door, counts towards winning something we all believe in.

And at least we’ve got a jetty to get to Eiliean Mor MacCormick. Which is something.