Hugh MacDonald talks to party stalwart George Leslie about those early days

THERE were just four of them in the hall. The last rites of a branch of the Scottish National Party were being prepared to be read.

Yet little more than a year later, in 1967, this branch would be at the forefront of a revival that saw the greatest breakthrough in the party’s history and produced a momentum that stands on the brink of delivering independence to Scotland.

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This story of half a century ago still has a substantial, significant presence in the shape of George Leslie. At 80, he remains a formidable observer and can be cited as one of a small band of survivors who have lived the modern history of the SNP. He has formed much of it, too, as candidate, councillor, vice-chairman and deputy leader of the party.

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But it is his recollections of the events of 1967 that hold the attention in a vice. Winnie Ewing’s by-election win at Hamilton in that year, above, has a convincing claim to be the moment when the SNP became a factor in Scottish politics. Yes, Robert McIntyre had won a seat for the party in Motherwell in 1945, but the Ewing success was sustained by other victories in subsequent elections and was the result of clever, methodical campaigning that has become the very fingerprint of the modern family.

“It was not always so,” says Leslie, a retired vet who runs kennels in Galston, Ayrshire. “I came back from working in England and I found it extremely difficult to join the party. I was eventually pointed towards a meeting in Langside Halls where the Glasgow South branch was convening. There were four of them and there was a move to wind up the branch.

“Unity Miller, a great SNP personality, argued there was not a quorum. There had to be five. So I joined and we just won the vote to keep the branch going.”

This was 1966. Within a year, Leslie would be the party’s candidate in the influential Pollok by-election that paved the way for the SNP success in Hamilton. He finished third behind the Conservatives and Labour, but he not only garnered 28 per cent of the vote – he proved that an SNP parliamentary victory was possible.

“The Pollok campaign was fun, energetic and exciting. But it was chaotic. There was method at Hamilton. There was also Winnie. She was attractive, bright, intelligent and charismatic in a way that I wasn’t. We had to get her out where people could see her, talk to her.

“We had to take the good points from the Pollok campaign and do them better. The most important person in all of this was John McAteer, who was Winnie’s election agent and, later, national organiser. There was a plan in Hamilton and there was organisation.”

This contrasted to Pollok, where Leslie admitted he was an innocent. “There was a candidates’ convention at the BBC.

I went to another meeting first then drove myself to the studios. I had no support staff. I had no briefing notes. It was the first time I had ever been on television.”

Yet the SNP still mounted an innovative and promising campaign in Pollok.

“We went into the streets in housing estates with canvassers and a loudspeaker van playing music. We chapped on the doors and there were kids dancing on the streets. It was great fun and exciting, but it was chaos.”

The mistakes were eradicated. There was a planning committee for the Hamilton by-election. Leslie remembers that future party leader Gordon Wilson, McAteer, the writer Cliff Hanley and long-time activists Bill Lindsay and Hugh MacDonald were on it.

The effects were soon clear. The campaign had a professional polish. Election literature was always slick, regularly brilliant. The committee, activists and candidate bristled with ideas. The most famous was Ewing sitting on top of a globe with the line: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”

The organisation on the ground was formidable. “Again, it was John McAteer,” says Leslie. “There was a big group of us who would meet in Glasgow and head out to the offices in Blantyre. You were back out on the streets armed with canvass sheets and leaflets within 10 minutes.”

Even when the best plans stuttered, there was marvellous improvisation.

A cry went up 20 minutes before the polls shut that people promised a lift to the stations had not been collected.

Leslie recalls: “We all rushed out. I was with a young woman from the Blantyre branch and we arrived at a door where the woman said she could not go out because her husband was not yet home and she had kids. We volunteered to babysit and the woman chapped her neighbour’s doors where there were other women in a similar plight.

“They were all taken to vote and I ended up running a crèche.”

Otherwise, the precision of the campaign was such that Leslie says: “On polling day, I was informed by John [McAteer] in a very matter-of-fact way that we had enough votes to win. I didn’t believe him at first but then I thought we had covered every angle.”

It is 50 years since Pollok and Hamilton, but Leslie retains an extraordinary enthusiasm and conviction. “We all thought then that if we organised it right and campaigned correctly we could have independence in five years. Absolutely convinced of it,” he says with a grin.

From that one seat in Hamilton, the SNP has gone on to establish an electoral dominance that no-one could have envisaged in the 1960s. “You are now looking at a situation that if the SNP win 50 out of 59 seats it will be portrayed as a defeat. Extraordinary,” he says.

He adds: “Ruth Davidson has no policies, no ideas of her own but to slag off referendums. We have to hit that nail on the head. We are almost singular in that we will be a nation that achieves home rule by a vote rather than by the firing of bullets.”

The electoral warhorse remains an indefatigable octogenarian despite suffering from cancer, a heart ailment and recently pneumonia. He lives in expectation of independence.

“I would like to see it before I die,” he says. “And I am going to die quite soon.”

This is said with the grin of the sentimental survivor but also with the hard edge of an unwavering realist.

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Best politician:
Alex Salmond. Definitely. I know people run him down but they do that because he is bloody good at what he does.

Most significant moment for the SNP:
Me slipping down a pub wall in Hamilton in 1967. It signified Winnie had won.

Favourite place in Scotland:
Killoran Bay on Colonsay. There are so many paces but I have spent many happy times on Colonsay.

Best Scottish book: 
The one that got me interested in so much about Scotland was Moray McLaren’s The Wisdom Of The Scots. Perhaps not the best written book, but one that led me to so many others. And the Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid.  

Favourite song:
Freedom Come All Ye. It is the national anthem.