Glasgow University and the return of Scotland

Published

In the third and final part of our series on a history of Glasgow University, James Maxwell investigates how the institution has influenced politics, the Nationalist movement and culture in contemporary Scotland

Glasgow University has witnessed many of the most pivotal moments in Scottish history. Indeed, it has participated in a considerable number of them. From the Reformation to the Enlightenment, the Act of Union to the Industrial Revolution, this institution’s huge practical and intellectual contribution has proved integral to the development of a dynamic civil and social life in Scotland.

Arguably, though, the significance of Glasgow University in relation to the political and creative culture of this country has never been greater than it is today.

It is a cliché, but true nonetheless, that during the past ten or fifteen years Scotland has become increasingly assertive and self-assured about its identity; an identity that has for decades been eclipsed by the powerful appeal of British perceptions of class, decency and service.

Scotland’s new-found confidence is associated with two recent historical occurrences; the emergence of political nationalism as an authentic and potent ideological force (expressed, mainly, in the form of the Scottish National Party), and a re-energised literary scene that celebrates, explores and utilises the commonplace experiences of ordinary Scottish people. Both trends were born and grew up on our campus.

In 1928, a leading member of the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association, John McCormick, called on all those who favoured either greater political autonomy or total self-governance for Scotland to coalesce into a single, unified organisation. The response was underwhelming, but an organisation – the National Party of Scotland – was formed. The NPS was too small and too marginal to be successful.

A broader and more purposeful movement was needed if independence was ever to become a credible or realisable objective. So, in 1934, at the behest of McCormick, it merged with the Scottish Party and the SNP as we recognise it today was created.

For the next thirty years, the SNP would experience little electoral success. The immense destructive force of Spanish, Italian and German fascism robbed even the most inclusive and progressive nationalist parties of there social respectability for a generation. In the face of mainstream political isolation, those Scots who believed in and fought for national independence had no choice but to fall back on symbolic gestures of resistance and opposition.

Once again, it was students from Glasgow University who led the way. On Christmas Day 1950, four Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association (GUSNA) members – Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart- conspired to brake into Westminster Abbey, one of the most heavily guarded buildings in London, to ‘retrieve and repatriate’ the Stone of Destiny, a shapeless block of dull rock rumoured to have been used as a seat of coronation for Scottish monarchs since the 12th century.

Astonishingly, the plot worked, and for a while the students managed to store the Stone secretly in Arbroath Abbey before the authorities finally located it on 11 April 1951 and sent it back to Westminster.

This was more than just a stunt. The 1950s was a particularly barren period for the SNP, and the successful recovery of the Stone of Destiny served to remind Scots of the imbalances embedded in the British political system and of the extra-ordinary hubris and arrogance of the British monarchy. The actions taken by Hamilton and his friends ensured that the idea of Scottish self-determination remained in the nation’s popular consciousness throughout the years in which the United Kingdom was thought to be at its most politically stable and the constitutional status quo at its most unshakeable.

The first major electoral triumph of the Scottish National Party occurred in the autumn of 1967 and was delivered courtesy of a former senior member of GUSNA: Winnie Ewing. During the four years Ewing spent studying law at Glasgow she was known as an intelligent and intense nationalist activist. The highly charged and increasingly radical atmosphere on campus during the 1950s and 60s imbued Ewing with a sense of reserved urgency and determination which would prove crucial to her victory over Labour’s Alex Wilson in Hamilton South, hitherto the governing party’s safest Scottish seat.

Ewing’s win was as significant an event as any the SNP had experienced. It suggested that the monopoly the Labour party held over the loyalties of Scottish voters was not absolute and heralded the start of the painfully gradual disintegration of the Unionist parties’ dominance over Scotland’s political landscape; a process which would culminate with the election of a nationalist government in May 2007.

Evidently, the role the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association has played in the growth of nationalism in Scotland over the past five or six decades has been massive. Many of its former members sit in the Scottish Parliament today, most notably Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Caroline Henderson, current GUSNA secretary and fourth year politics student, explains the functional and sentimental value of GUSNA to the SNP: “GUSNA helped establish the Scottish National Party in the 1930s; the two organisations are inseparable.

Glasgow University students have participated in all the defining events of modern nationalism in this country.” Further, GUSNA has been fundamental to the development of the SNP as a left-of-centre party. In 2007, Henderson and GUSNA treasurer Angus Macleod drafted and tabled a resolution to the SNP conference that sought to condemn Scottish universities that charge asylum seekers tuition fees. Henderson says, “I joined the SNP because I’m a social-democrat. GUSNA provides a strong student voice in the SNP, which in turn help to entrench progressive values in the party”.

The 1970s has come to be regarded as the most critical decade for nationalism in Scotland. The discovery of vast reserves of oil in the North Sea, Margo Macdonald’s impressive by-election victory in Govan, and the first (though ultimately unsuccessful) general referendum on the issue of devolution all contributed to a growing sense of national self-awareness and worked to compound the heightened unease of Unionists north and south of the border.

In the midst these political shifts, students at Glasgow University were quietly rearranging the contours of Scottish literary culture. The informal creative writing group run by the poet, critic and senior lecturer Philip Hobsbaum in the early 1970s included figures such as Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, and Tom Leonard, all of whom would go on to become hugely influential and respected professional authors. Crucially, Hobsbaum encouraged his pupils to draw on the immediate environment.

For Kelman and Leonard this meant attempting to reflect the colloquial peculiarities of everyday Scots in their poems and in the dialogue of their characters. Both viewed the use of the ‘Queens English’ in Scottish literature as a betrayal of a society that was every bit as nuanced and complex and cosmopolitan as the one depicted in the novels of London-based writers. The approach adopted by Hobsbaum’s apprentices constituted a sort of literary nationalism and facilitated the revival of Scottish fiction as a viable and independent artistic genre.

Without the essential and formative influence of Glasgow University, modern Scotland would almost certainly lack the two qualities that, arguably, constitute its most interesting characteristics; a unique national literature and a radical, pluralist nationalist movement.