The Political peculiarities of interwar Scotland

The Political peculiarities of interwar Scotland

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 19, October, 2020

ALTHOUGH SCOTLAND for the main part reflected British political developments during the interwar period, she demonstrated particular features which need to be examined. She was divided over religion for a start with a marked propensity towards sectarianism. Many in the land of John Knox had not taken kindly to the influx of Irish Catholics into the West of Scotland since the 1840s and in 1923 a report of the very influential Church and Nation Committee of the Kirk was entitled ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’. It demanded that means should be found “to preserve Scotland and the Scottish race” and “to secure to future generations the traditions, ideals and faith of a great people unspoiled and inviolate.”  In 1930 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland approved a motion to boycott “Irish labour” in Scotland.  

During the interwar period Protestants in Scotland used the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Irish’ interchangeably, even though most Scottish Catholics since 1890 had been born in Scotland. The 1923 report therefore led the Glasgow Observer to ask: “When does an Irishman become a Scotsman? (Is it when recruits are wanted to prevent a Hun invasion?)” It pointed out that in its glorious past Scotland had been Catholic and that immigrants from Ireland had included St. Columba. It might well have added that William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary Queen of Scots had all been Catholics.   

Catholics had been politically active in Scotland after the Dublin Uprising of 1916 and the IRA had had cells in almost every town with a sizeable Irish presence. But the Irish Civil War of 1921-22 had ‘hastened disengagement from Irish politics’. On the other hand, Professor Tom Gallagher, the leading historian of Scottish sectarianism, has observed that it was just as well that there was no real civil war in Ulster, which easily could have been replicated in Scotland.  

That is not to say that religion played no part in Scottish politics. The Catholic Church instructed its members to have nothing to do with the Communist Party of Great Britain or any of its front organisations. In fact most of them supported Labour or the ILP. (The Co-op. Movement was less friendly on account of its affiliations with Freemasonry.) The Tories, on the other hand, supported the Orange Order and the Freemasons and were distinctly anti-Catholic. The party used Orange halls for election headquarters and Tory grandees reviewed Orange Order parades. Until 1930 Orange Order officers sat on the Scottish Council of the Tory Party. There would be no Catholic Scottish Tory MP till the 1970s. Indeed Sir John Gilmore, Secretary of State for Scotland from 1924-1929 announced his intention before leaving office to change the law that allowed Irish immigrants immediate access to the Poor Law. Even a liberal Tory MP like John Buchan could tell Parliament in 1932 that “we are losing some of our best racial stock by emigration and their place is being taken by those who, whatever their merits, are not Scottish. I understand that every fifth child born in Scotland is an Irish Roman Catholic.”

One issue that much exercised Protestants was the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918 which brought Catholic schools into a state system funded through the education rate, allowed priests to visit Catholic schools and members of Catholic religious orders to teach in them. Some of the latter even gave their salaries to the Church. Protestant ministers, on the other hand, could not visit state schools, which meant that Protestant sectarians viewed the system as one of public subsidising of the Catholic Church. Fortunately, the elected education boards, which stimulated sectarianism on this issue, were abolished in 1929.  

Protestant sectarianism could also make itself felt politically outside the main political parties. In 1923, for example, Hugh Ferguson was elected MP for Motherwell for the ephemeral Orange and Protestant Party. He took the Tory whip in Parliament and called for another Cromwell to go to work on Ireland. Fortunately, he lost his seat in 1924. Later, in the mid-1930s sectarianism produced bodies like the Protestant League and Protestant Action. The latter won 24 per cent of the vote in Edinburgh’s local elections in 1935 and 32 per cent in 1936. It also had its own armed militia, the ‘Kaledonian Klan’ that fought street battles with Catholics in Edinburgh’s Cowgate, Grassmarket, and Canongate worthy of the British Union of Fascists in the East End of London. It claimed 8,000 members at its peak and was the instrument of a former soldier, John Cormack, who promised to disenfranchise Scotland’s Roman Catholics and expel them from Scotland. He also promised to remove all Catholics from public employment. The worst excess of his followers, and he could mobilise up to ten thousand at a time, was an attack in February 1936 on the open-air procession of the Blessed Sacrament at the end of a Catholic Eucharistic Congress. The Archbishop of Edinburgh wrote afterwards to Baldwin that “priests were savagely assaulted, elderly women attacked and kicked, bus-loads of children mercilessly stoned and inoffensive citizens abused and assailed in a manner that is almost unbelievable in any civilised country today.” Yet the police said no ‘feasible case’ could be made against Cormack. However, after his triumph in the 1936 Edinburgh local elections, in which Labour was driven into third place, his party disintegrated over non-sectarian issues, although he himself represented Edinburgh’s Leith ward from 1938-1962. Cormack quit the Orange Order in 1939 over its refusal to launch a separate political party. In public meetings in Edinburgh in 1940 he argued that Catholics made more suitable targets than Nazis and according to police intelligence reports he maintained that when Protestant troops went ‘over the top’ with Catholic ones, they should shoot them.  

Scotland’s Protestant militants, however, could not cooperate with Mosley, who accepted Catholics into the BUF, opposed Home Rule and wanted a united Fascist Ireland. Worst of all, Mosley was notoriously a friend and associate of the ‘papist’ Mussolini who himself was the tool of the Pope. This caused the creation of a Scottish Democratic Fascist Party in 1933, formed by William Weir Gilmour and Major Hugh Slough out of Mosley’s New Party. Its platform included “absolute independence and self-government for Scotland” and an end to Irish immigration, the expulsion of Catholic orders and their members from Scotland and the repeal of the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918. Catholics were not allowed to join the SDFP whose policy was ‘Scotland First’, as Catholics were held to owe their prime allegiance to Rome. While not publicly advocating violence or a coup, the party had its own Defence Corps which wore black shirts. (Ordinary members wore blue ones.)  Later in 1933 the party split and disappeared after the more anti-Catholic elements were removed from its platform. Gilmour subsequently became a Labour Party organiser, then a Liberal Party candidate before being jailed for child abuse.   

Leading Scottish nationalists were also anti-Irish. George Malcolm Thomson who helped found the Scottish Party and urged its merger with the National Party of Scotland, wrote that the Scots were “a dying people... being replaced in their country by a people alien in race, temperament and religion.” He recalled how “the sight of three Irish Catholic priests walking in Princes Street came upon me with the shock of a portent. I waited for some demonstration of wrath from heaven. I looked around appealing to some outward symbol of Knox’s presence in his own land to fall down and crush the Papalistical intruders.”  

Thomson’s good friend and later SNP Chairman, Professor Andrew Dewar Gibb (see below), in his 1930 study ‘Scotland in Eclipse’, wrote: 

“In the heart of a dwindling though virile and intelligent race there is growing up another people immeasurably inferior in every way, but cohesive and solid, refusing obstinately, at the behest of obscurantist magic men, to mingle with people whose land they are usurping, unaware of, or if aware, disloyal to all the finest ideals and ambitions of the Scottish race: distinguished by a veritable will to squalor which is mainly responsible for Scottish slumdom; squatting and breeding in such numbers as to threaten in another hundred years to gain actual predominance in this country... No amount of anti-immigration legislation can prevent Irish labourers from having families of twelve nor Irish priests from telling them that to attend a birth-control clinic is a deadly sin.”

Such sentiments lived on in the SNP and as late as 1982, the year of a first papal visit no less, the SNP president, William Woolfe, expressed his concern that mainly Protestant Falkland Islanders could fall under the control of “the cruel and ruthless dictatorship of a Roman Catholic state”. 

The BUF claimed branches from Dumfries to Wick. However, its rallies in Scottish cities all ended in violence as did Mosley’s own trip to Glasgow on 21 September 1931. Left-wingers plus members of Glasgow’s notorious razor gangs drove him out of town. The BUF had wanted its members to wear black shirts and neutral grey kilts – tartan was ‘impossible’ since the party embraced all clans. However, just as in England, it made no political headway in Scotland. 

Nazism had few adherents. The St. Andrew’s University Debating Union in April 1933 passed the following motion: ‘This House approves of the Nazi Party and congratulates it on its splendid work in the reformation of Germany.’ Some Scottish aristocrats also had far-right leanings and as late as 1939 the Duke of Hamilton was arguing in The Times for Germany’s right to Lebensraum. It was no accident that when Germany’s deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, flew to Britain on 10 May 1941 to discuss peace terms he set course for Eaglesham to discuss them with Hamilton (landing by parachute nearby after his aircraft ran out of fuel).  

More interesting was the position of the SNP. The leading academic expert on ‘Scottish Fascism’, Dr. Gavin Bowd, has written: “The Scottish Nationalists’ attitude towards continental fascism was ambivalent, to say the least.” Of course, Scotland’s nationalists were really irrelevant to Scottish politics during the interwar period and were mainly seen as cranks. For example they formed a ‘provisional government’ in 1930 to petition the Imperial Conference of that year to grant Scotland Dominion status like Canada or Australia, although even this alienated the purist fundamentalists who demanded equal status with ‘England’. Again, even the literary support given to the nationalist cause was embarrassing. Hugh MacDiarmid (pictured), the poet, in his ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ wrote of himself:

‘I’ll have nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet—it’s the only way I ken 
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt 
That damns the vast majority of men.’

And he certainly was an extremist. As early as 1923 he was calling for ‘a native species’ of fascism and dreamed of a ‘neofascistic’ paramilitary force ‘Clann Albain’ that would fight for Scotland’s freedom. In his poem ‘On the Imminent Destruction of London, June 1940’ he wrote:

‘Now when London is threatened,
With destruction from the air,
I realise, horror atrophying me, 
That I hardly care.’

Most members of the SNP, which was created in 1934, of course supported king and country and wanted home rule but there was a fundamentalist part of the party that supported separatism and would certainly not fight for a British state. They were to take control of it in 1942 when the moderates under John MacCormick walked out. (It was already the SNP tradition to resolve disputes not by compromise but by defection.)  

In 1937 the party’s annual conference passed a resolution which read: “...all male members of the Scottish National Party of military age hereby pledge themselves to refuse to serve with any section of the Crown forces until the programme of the Scottish National Party has been fulfilled.”

Meanwhile, its fundamentalist allies in the Scottish Neutrality League could write: “ their desire to retain world domination, England’s rulers have gone crazy at our expense... England will fight to the last Scot.” On 16 December 1939 the SNP held a special conference and aware that the overwhelming majority of Scots backed the war, urged merely that the definition of conscientious objection should be enlarged to include “objections based on profound political convictions”. The 1940 Conference then managed to pass a Ten Point Programme which curiously failed to mention the war at all.   

The party chairman in 1939 had been Glasgow law professor Andrew Dewar Gibb, who on the establishment of the party in 1934, had written in his diary: “Endlich ist alles gut gelingen und die Scottish National Party existiert” (Finally everything went well and the Scottish National Party exists). 

Yes, indeed, he had celebrated the birth of the SNP in German. He was a Nazi sympathiser who quoted Hitler in his speeches and saw Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Soviet Russia. Until 1939 he was in touch with Celtic scholar and Nazi secret agent Gerhard von Tevener; he also opposed Scottish participation in any ‘English’ war against Hitler. When war broke out he wrote in his diary: “I don’t care who wins” and offered to resign as party chairman saying he had “made no secret of my distinct fascist leanings”. In 1940 he was making speeches asking “Is it Scotland’s War?” In March 1941, when he was caught up in the Clydeside Blitz he did confess that his German sympathies had been “put to a severe test” but in March 1942, the future party chairman, Douglas Young, who himself went to jail rather than be conscripted to fight for Britain, described Gibb as “amusingly defeatist as ever.” On VE Day 1945 Gibb could still confess to having “no British patriotism”, saying of his son’ Nigel’s decision to join the Royal Navy that he “grudged him every second to the British raj”. Young himself had written to the poet George Campbell Hay in 1939: “If Hitler could really remove our imperial breeks somehow and thus dissipate the mirage of imperial partnership with England, he would do a great service to Scottish Nationalism.”

Not surprisingly the attitude of the party towards conscription and the views of its fundamentalist leaders raised fears among the authorities of the emergence of a pro-Nazi ‘fifth column’ in Scotland as had already been found among Flemish and Breton nationalists. Hence there were raids on Nationalists’ homes in 1941 and in Bowd’s words “two potential Caledonian Quislings, Matthew Hamilton and Arthur Donaldson were imprisoned”.  

Part of the evidence against Donaldson was a quote attributed to him saying that Germany would crush England and that Scotland would make its own deal with Germany. He was soon freed, however, when James Maxton got his friend the Scottish Secretary to release him. But in 1942 he started writing a pamphlet arguing that either victory, defeat or a negotiated peace would be better for Scotland than its interwar ‘slide towards an exploited colony’. As Ewen Angus Cameron has commented: “He clearly had no grasp of what a Nazi occupation would have been like and therefore held both sides in contempt.” He saw London as the financial capital of the world run by a “master class’, probably meaning a ‘master race’ or the Jews. He too was against conscription.   

There can be little doubt, I think, that had Hitler conquered Britain, the wartime leadership of the SNP would have offered to run a sort of Vichy Scotland. The Nazis probably hoped so. They set up ‘Radio Caledonia’ to broadcast to dissident Scots. 

This is the seventh part of Professor Sked’s series, here are the others:   

Part one – Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations;     

Part two – From Auld Alliance to creating the Union;    

Part three – Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates;   

Part four – A loyal Scotland fights for Britain: 1707-1918;  

Part five – Union survives the War and evolves: 1918-1938  

Part six –  United Britain was victorious in war – but fallacies about the interwar peace persist 

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. 

Portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)




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