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Monday, 30 April 2012

In The Footsteps Of Giants

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
                            Margaret Meade

Later today, I'll go out and do some last minute leafletting on behalf of my local SNP candidate standing in the Glasgow City Council elections. It will be a small contribution to a much wider effort - not just in this ward, but across the city and throughout the entire country. Only through my recent acquaintance with Twitter, and by following a number of activists (of all parties) on there, have I understood the enormous amount of work that goes into these elections. I won't embarrass anyone by naming them but I have noted that some are consumed by their activism. They spend their days pounding pavements and on doors; braving assorted dogs and vicious letterboxes in Scotland's ever changing weather; attending meetings and hustings; and, perhaps most difficult of all, canvassing in the streets and shopping malls. Amazingly, many have the energy to spend their 'free time' on Twitter engaging in debate and trying to preach to even more of the unconverted. I salute them all.

Although I have voted for the Scottish National Party in every election in which I was able, it wasn't until last October that I actually joined the Party. This was due, in combination, to working for 15 years in London before returning to Scotland in 2000, and in positions that disqualified active participation in party politics. It does make me feel like 'less' of a member than many; that I've jumped on the bandwagon near the end of the journey. I wish to pay tribute, therefore, to those that have gone before.

Many, perhaps, having grown up with the main political rivalry in the UK being Conservative vs Labour will be unaware that for 250 years of our parliamentary system the main battle was fought between the Tories and the Whigs (Liberals). This situation persevered until relatively recently - the Labour movement emerging at the turn of the twentieth century; actually becoming the Labour Party in 1906; and first tasting power in 1924 as a minority administration.

Despite the enmity that has grown up in Scotland between the parties as the SNP have grown and replaced the Labour Party in their heartlands whilst standing on a broadly similar policy platform, it is, perhaps, right that we also acknowledge that the Labour movement made it possible for political parties of the Left and Centre-Left to develop in Britain.

Tory/Whig politics was effectively a battle between different strata of the ruling elite. Of course there was some crossover but the Tories were the party of the lesser landowners and the Church, while the Whigs represented larger landowners and the business classes. Only the emergence of Labour gave the working men and women of this country a real stake in the political process.

Labour, in turn, owe their emergence to other radical movements, amongst them the Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society, Social Democratic Federation and the Scottish Labour Party and a number of these organisations would amalgamate to become the Labour Party we know now. As one might expect, given our nation's commitment to radical, progressive politics many of the main protagonists in this movement were Scots - Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and James Maxton. All were committed to Home Rule for Scotland. Without diminishing in any way the three great Scots already mentioned, the fourth member of that illustrious group, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, is perhaps the most interesting in a number of ways.

Perfectly naturally, Hardie, MacDonald and Maxton turned to socialism after experiencing poverty; Hardie and MacDonald actually living through it whilst Maxton witnessed it in the pupils he taught. Cunninghame Graham, though, was born into a wealthy family. His early childhood was spent on the family's Finlaystone estate in Renfrewshire before he left to attend Harrow. When he returned to Scotland as a 31 year old, he had already travelled extensively - primarily in Argentina, Mexico, the United States, Morocco and Spain - and indulged his sense of adventure to the full.

Interested in politics, he entered Parliament three years later as the MP for NW Lanarkshire. Despite entering the Commons as a Liberal, he supported a radical programme including the abolition of the Lords; votes for all; provision of free school meals; nationalisation of key industries including mining; disestablishment of the Church of England; and an eight hour day for workers. Unsurprisingly, it didn't take him long to be suspended from the House after showing disrespect to the Lords. He later became the first MP ever suspended for swearing ('Damn!') in the House. His commitment to the poor, the unemployed and to civil liberties and free speech were well known. Indeed, he was imprisoned for six weeks in 1887 after being arrested and beaten at Trafalgar Square's 'Bloody Sunday' protest in support of civil rights in Ireland. A third suspension wasn't long in coming. Whilst protesting about working conditions, he was asked by the Speaker to withdraw his remarks. His famous response, "I never withdraw."

Becoming increasingly radical, Cunninghame Graham formed, first, the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie in 1888 and then the Independent Labour Party (again with Hardie) five years later.

His own parliamentary career ended in 1892 when he failed to win the Glasgow Camlachie seat standing as a Scottish Labour Party candidate but the light never dimmed. His commitment to Scottish Home Rule (shared with Hardie, MacDonald and Maxton) only intensified and, in 1928, he helped establish the National Party of Scotland. When the NPS merged with the Scottish Party in 1934 to become the Scottish National Party, Cunninghame Graham became the first President of the Party.

It is, perhaps, fitting that a Party often derided by opponents as being insular, parochial and anti-English should elect as its first President a man born in London of Scots-Spanish heritage; whose first language may even have been Spanish; who married a woman half French, half Chilean; and whose outlook was so international in perspective.

As those of us in the Party know, that outward-looking and inclusive attitude prevails to this day. Opponents who continue to use this line of attack will soon discover that they do so only to their own detriment.

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham continued to live a full and varied life and I recommend that all modern day SNP supporters should examine it further and get a sense of a man who could truly be described as a 'father' to our Party. His friend, G. K. Chesterton, wrote of him that while he would never have been allowed to become Prime Minister, he instead "achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham." Another friend, George Bernard Shaw, claimed that was "an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance."

We truly do walk in the footsteps of giants and every step that every activist takes in the next few days and in the next two years, takes us one step closer to realising the dreams of those giants. I salute them, just as I salute all of you.

For Scotland.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. Vital.

    There are, of course, many other historical beacons and pathfinders too numerous to list - known and unsung. Our history is replete with them despite the imposed silence on us of officially sanctioned, artificial, "British" fantasy posing as history (to the victors, their faux spoils).

    Along with MacLean and Connolly et al, let me add Matthew (Matt) Lygate to the honour roll, if I may.