Interview: the 79 Group – SNP young rebels who became the party mainstream
Members of the 79 Group - Jim Sillars, Marie Burns, Maureen Watt and Chris Cunningham - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood
Britain is divided and Labour’s left-wing infighting has cleared the way for a right-wing Tory government to pursue its relentless cuts agenda.
Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party is reeling from defeat in a referendum and a humbling general election, and is looking for a new way to re-engage the country in its cause of Scottish independence.
This is the story of 2018 – but it is also the story of 1979 when a band of ‘young upstarts’ decided that the only response to the unsuccessful referendum for a Scottish assembly and meltdown in that year’s general election was to take their fight to the working classes.
The 79 Group was expelled by an uncompromising SNP leadership, but within a decade they went from being party pariahs to beacons of hope for the future.
In the mid-1970s the SNP was riding high by the standards of the day, with a record 11 MPs, but there was little ideological glue holding them together beyond a shared desire for self-determination.
To a left-wing outsider like Jim Sillars, who was still a Labour MP at the time, the SNP 11 “were amongst the most right-wing people in the House of Commons”.
“They didn’t understand the class factor at all. They just thought, ‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns – from the Duke of Buccleuch right down to your average plumber’,” he said.
Marie Burns was still in high school when she joined the SNP in the wake of Margo MacDonald’s surprise victory in the Govan by-election in 1973.
“My experience of the SNP was Margo and working-class Govan, so when I actually hit the real SNP at my first conference, I was quite shocked by how middle class it was,” said Burns, who is now an SNP councillor and recently sat on the SNP’s controversial Sustainable Growth Commission.
“I failed all my exams at university in 1979 because I had been out campaigning in the referendum and the election, so I was completely gutted by the defeat and for a while nobody knew how to move this forward.
“There was a feeling of frustration in Glasgow and a feeling that we needed more action.
“We did less of the theoretical debate that was happening in Edinburgh and had more of a sense that something had to happen, that the party needed shaken up.”
Chris Cunningham joined the SNP in 1971 while he was living in Australia with his sister Roseanna, who has been a leading figure in the Scottish Parliament since its inception.
The siblings were at the heart of the debate in Edinburgh that thrashed out the ideological core of the 79 Group.
“The person that provoked us a lot was Gavin Kennedy,” said Cunningham, who is now a Glasgow councillor.
“He was a bit of a gadfly, but he pushed and probed people, he challenged people’s understanding of politics.
“He was prepared to push people into positions of action, and the grouping in Edinburgh emerged out of that. The other part was in Glasgow, with Stevie Butler, Marie and Margo.”
Maureen Watt is now a long-serving MSP, but in the late 1970s she was a young oil industry worker trying to carve out a distinct political identity from her father, Hamish Watt, who was an MP in the SNP 11.
Her Aberdeen farming family came from a different tradition to the central belt activists and ideologues, and Watt was more acutely aware of the ‘small c’ conservative traditions of rural Scotland where most of the SNP 11 won seats.
“Let’s not forget that my father joined the SNP because of the landlords in the Highlands,” she said.
“I don’t think they were characterised by left or right at all. They were a group of people who were very diverse who did the best they could representing Scotland in a very hostile environment.
“They were also from seats outside the central belt so it was easy to characterise them as ‘Tartan Tories’, but you couldn’t call people like Winnie Ewing, Andrew Welsh or George Reid right wing.”
Cunningham believes this lack of an “ideological glue” in the SNP 11 was one of the reasons the party began to divide along left-right lines.
“They never worked through what their role and purpose was, other than ‘standing up for Scotland’,” he said.
“For me, the 1979 referendum was the point of clarity. I remember being at the counting hall in Edinburgh and watching the ballots from working-class areas of Edinburgh with a very strong yes vote for the assembly, and then watching the ballots from middle-class areas like Morningside and it was a very strong no vote.
“I remember one Liberal politician saying, ‘This is terrible, it’s a class vote’, and thinking, ‘Yes, it is a class vote, but it’s not terrible’.
“The extent to which people like me and others felt that the SNP had to change in order to be with the people was a stark reality. If you want to be a nationalist movement, you have to be with the people that you want to lead, you can’t stand back from them and tell them that they are wrong.”
“The 79 Group was an attempt to pull the party to the left.
“You could say it was a serious attempt, but it was predominantly an attempt that was put together by very young people, so it had the virtue and the vices of youth.”
The 79 Group started slowly by identifying a limited number of candidates who could stand on a left-wing platform at each party conference, but by 1981, the divisions were becoming so stark that the press started putting party members on the political spectrum whether they liked it or not.
Watt said: “We decided to do it gradually and try to get one or two positions at each conference, and then eventually we ended up with a slate.”
Burns said: “The SNP were never used to candidate slates, and that was when the accusations of trying to have ‘a party within a party’ began.”
Cunningham said: “The slate was kind of made for you, because it was the journalists that were deciding who was on the left and who was a fundamentalist, even if the people themselves may have objected to being put in some kind of list.
“It became very evident at the conference in Aberdeen in 1981, and they were presenting the internal contests in a left or fundamentalist position, so people were starting to choose and position themselves on those lines.
“The very fact that that was happening was a measure of our success because it showed people were starting to take sides.”
The Aberdeen conference stoked a huge amount of tension going into the fateful conference the following year, which led to a walkout by the 79 Group and their eventual expulsion.
Gordon Wilson, who took on the burden of leadership after the 1979 meltdown, has been much maligned for his decision to oust the young party luminaries who would go on to usurp his leadership a decade later.
But Sillars believes Wilson, who died last year, has not received enough credit for the work he did to try and bring the fractured party together.
“He had a prodigious work rate, going round the branches holding together a party that was in deep distress after ’79,” said Sillars.
“Put yourself in his shoes. Here were these folk going down a narrow ideological road and not worrying about party unity like he was, and that led also to his frustration as well as deep resentment about what was happening.
“He was knocking his pan in and I think he saw this socialist dance as a fatal distraction, and that he had to stop the rot before the party disintegrated into various factions.”
The tipping point came at a fringe meeting in 1982 when Winnie Ewing announced that she was forming another faction called the Campaign for Nationalism, designed to be an antidote to the ideological agitation of the 79 Group.
Cunningham said: “Winnie had been really quite provocative and that had resulted in some heckling and shouting – which I may or may not have taken part in. It was really tense and the journalists picked it up, and Gordon Wilson picked it up.”
Sillars said: “After this fringe meeting, Gordon was either persuaded or came to the conclusion that he had to stop it here and now.
“I think it would have been better if he met some people and had a discussion about it, but Gordon had made up his mind. I think he lost his temper, in a sense, without letting people see that he had lost his temper.
“You have to understand the personality of Gordon Wilson. He always gave the impression of being cold and controlled, but that was a false impression – Gordon was a Vesuvius waiting to go off at any minute.”
Complaints quickly began circulating about internal groups tearing the party apart, and it became clear Wilson was going to nip it in the bud.
Burns said: “We were in a room before the conference meeting and we talked about what we would do if he did this.
“We knew that Andrew Currie was on the platform, and everyone said, ‘Watch Andrew Currie and see what he does’.
“As soon as Gordon said, ‘All groups within the party are proscribed’, Andrew Currie stood up and walked off the platform and we all followed.”
The walkout has gone down in Scottish political history as the pained birth cry of the modern SNP, and footage of dissenters, including a stick thin Kenny MacAskill, striding purposefully out of the conference chamber is frequently replayed in television reprisals of the rise of the current party of government.
Once the 79 Group were out of view of the cameras, they gathered in Maureen Watt’s tiny hotel room to discuss the way forward, and a young Alex Salmond came to the fore to urge the group to stick together and take on the establishment.
Watt said: “There were 20-odd people squeezed into a tiny room and people were literally hanging from the ceiling and hanging out the window.
“There was this sense of, ‘Who are these little upstarts, who do they think they are? We’ve been running this party for years.’”
Burns said: “There was an age thing because we were all so young, so there was a strong feeling that we were just ‘little upstarts’.”
Cunningham said: “I remember Alex saying we have to hang together as a group.
“Alex was one of the key people in the group and he was clearly one of the most able young people that many of us had come across.
“You could see he was going to go on to something. I don’t think many people at that point were very career minded in politics, because there was no such thing as a political career in the SNP.”
The 79 Group tried to rebrand itself as a non-party vehicle made up of SNP members – drawn from the party but ostensibly not of the party.
Burns said: “There was a calculated risk that if we continued with the group and it had nothing to do with SNP, would they allow that to carry on?”
Wilson was not fooled and after a few months the 79 Group committee – including Salmond, MacAskill, Chris Cunningham, Stephen Maxwell, Douglas Robertson, Brenda Carson and Andrew Doig – received a letter informing them that they had been expelled from the SNP.
Cunningham said: “I was bereft, I really didn’t know what to do. I struggled, actually, to be honest.
“All of the people that I knew were in the SNP, that was my life, that is what I did, and I think that applied to quite a few people.
“The reality was the 79 Group didn’t go well within the context of 1979 to 1982, but if you take a much longer view, that experience of challenging the false analysis of 1979 gradually moved the party away from this non-ideological, non-political position to one where it accepted and adopted what I would describe now as a social democratic position.”
Sillars had not long joined the SNP from Labour and quickly rose through the ranks to take a seat on the party’s national executive.
As an instinctive left-winger watching Margaret Thatcher dismantle Scotland’s industrial heritage, he saw the group’s potential as foot-soldiers of the left who could realign the party towards his own political position, and he immediately began agitating to have its members readmitted.
“I saw Alex had leadership potential and it was one of the reasons I worked to get him back in,” he said. “I came from a Labour background and looking down the road for successful people was a standard practice, but that wasn’t the way in the SNP.”
“I didn’t think the 79 Group had been a failure, because it was almost a catharsis that the ideological people who asserted the importance of the working class had made a significant mark, and making the bureaucratic decision to expel them didn’t alter the situation one little bit. The genie was out the bottle.
“At some point, I had to make a speech in my report to national council, when I said that we had reached the stage where we didn’t require groups within the party anymore and I would do my personal best to ensure that groups did not form within the party and we should invite people back in.”
Burns was not expelled so she watched from the inside how the SNP’s politics started to change in response to the damage Tory deindustrialisation was doing to Scottish communities in the mid-1980s.
“You could see the influence of young people joining the party,” she said.
“The SNP used to have a conference ball which was a formal event where people got dressed up, and one year Brendan O’Hara and I went in jeans and football tops to make a point.
“There were stirrings around that time that that culture was starting to change, and about that time the national assembly started to become a bit stronger and we were actually having policy debates, which we never really had before.
“My biggest political memory is the Thatcher years, because I was in my 20s at the time and I remember going to demonstrations every other day.
“That was noticed. People began to take us more seriously because when people were struggling, SNP activists were there, and there were people in the party that you wouldn’t have thought would have been behind that at one time, so there was a move towards that kind of action.”
Sillars said: “The people that had been expelled in the 79 Group came back in at precisely the right moment, because their analysis was the correct analysis.
“They were engaging with the working class, not as a way of doing them a favour, but because the working class was a part of their lives.”
Members of the 79 Group were eventually readmitted in 1985, and five years later Salmond was elected leader of the party with Sillars as his deputy.
Cunningham said: “A significant number who were in that first SNP government in 2007 were actually people who were involved in the 79 Group.
“They had gone through the long road and the hard graft and come out the other side, and they had a huge amount of experience behind them in terms of political activity.
“That might have made them left wing – and they were – but equally, it was a generational thing of a group of people who had hung together over that period.
“People comment on the incredibly strong discipline within the SNP, and it is self-discipline. It is people who have come through the hard times and know that they have to stick together despite, at times, being on different sides of the debate.
“There is always that sense we are very clearly working towards a cause and that holds people together.”
Sillars said: “I think by and large the 79 Group has won.”