John Lloyd

The dark history of the SNP

Hugh MacDiarmid (photo: Getty)

The Scottish National party, under new and inferior management, continues to struggle out from under English oppression – colonialist oppression, as seems to be the view of the outward bound Mhairi Black, who wants Scotland to be the sixty-third country to escape from England. Yet, running through the SNP’s history has been a thin line of tenderness for authoritarian rule and rulers that contradicts its own struggle for freedom. 

Despotic ideologies attracted thousands of followers in the 20s and 30s. Communism, inspired by the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, carried the promise of freedom and power for the working class, while fascism gained a hold in the 20s after the success of Benito Mussolini in seizing power in 1922. This support was as true in Scotland as in England. Communism attracted elements of the working class and intellectuals, while fascism had several aristocratic followers, and brought in anti-communist small business people and some skilled workers. It also, writes Gavin Bowd in his 2013 book Fascist Scotland, attracted many poor women because its branches in Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere ran ‘kitchen evenings’ where free food was served. 

Fascism faltered in Scotland in the late 20s. Sir Oswald Mosley’s New party, soon renamed the British Union of Fascists, revitalised it. Mosley wrote that he experienced more enthusiasm for his speeches calling for a fascist, Jew-free utopia in Scotland than in England. He visited Scotland frequently, filled the large Usher Hall in Edinburgh and prompted pitched street battles with communists and other, more democratically-inclined  anti-fascists. As well as increasing membership in Scotland, he also encouraged anti-Semitic and pro-German sentiments. 

The SNP was not immune to the appeal of fascism. Two leaders of the party even served time during the second world war. Arthur Donaldson, President of the party in 1960, was briefly imprisoned for suspected pro-German views. He was not, probably, a strong pro-Nazi. But he still believed that Scotland should make a deal with the Nazis in the event of a defeat of Britain and that any result – defeat, victory or a negotiated cessation of war – would put Scotland in a stronger position.  

Another prisoner was the classics scholar and academic (St Andrews and Oxford), Douglas Young, a prominent member of the SNP, whose increasingly pro-German, anti-English writings in the Scottish Independent helped him become the party’s leader.

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