Glasgow Govan: The Seat that Rocked and Made Modern Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 7th 2018

Thirty years ago Scotland was a very different place. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the poll tax was yet to be implemented, and there was no Scottish Parliament.

Then along came the Govan by-election – a seat that produced a political sensation and set of shockwaves that reverberated throughout Scottish and UK politics with an impact years after the event.

Exactly thirty years ago this weekend – on 10 November 1988 – Jim Sillars, ex-Labour MP, left-winger and powerful orator, won the seat from Labour in a high profile, octane campaign. It was not always assumed that this would happen. Labour had polled well in the previous year’s general election, winning 50 of Scotland’s 72 seats, but soon the ‘fighting fifty’ became known as the ‘feeble fifty’, with the SNP querying what Labour’s strength in numbers was able to do to protect Scotland.

All of this came live in the contest, but still Labour remained favourites. What decisively shifted voters was the energy and dynamism of Sillars and his campaign, alongside a haphazard and badly judged Labour campaign which exuded complacency and was also harmed by UK Labour’s lack of understanding of Scotland.

Lots of specifics seemed to aid this: the two TV debates between the candidates badly exposed the limitations of the Labour candidate, Bob Gillespie – a SOGAT trade union official and father of Billy Gillespie, lead singer of Primal Scream. Gillespie had not been the choice of the party leadership in Scotland or the UK who attempted to blame him personally for the defeat, but he was an easy target and scapegoat, and the party’s problems and SNP positives were about much more than one individual.

Sillars turned a 19,509 Labour majority into a 3,554 SNP majority – on a 33.1% swing from Labour to SNP. The major issues which drove voters were the poll tax – which was due to come into effect on 1 April 1989 in Scotland, one year earlier than England and Wales – and the effectiveness of Labour in opposing the Thatcher Government in Scotland.

Govan gave the SNP a flip then – which the party misread, thinking that the tide of history was flowing in its direction, and that Labour were on the ropes. The SNP refused at the outset of the following year to take part in the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, something that the party now prefers to ignore, and for which at the time it paid a cost. This SNP decision aided Scottish politics post-Govan moving, from one disappointed with Labour inaction to one where the SNP paid a price for not contributing to a united anti-Tory front. And it confirmed that hubris and misreading the verdict of voters was not the property of one single party.

Some would argue that Govan did not change much in the long term. After all, Jim Sillars’ tenure in the seat proved shortlived, and Labour’s Iain Davidson won Govan back in the following general election in 1992. Subsequently, Labour won big in Scotland and across the UK in 1997, and legislated for a Scottish Parliament with the first elections in 1999.

This would be to ignore the undoubted lasting influence of this talismanic result which goes further and deeper than the immediate impact. Most profoundly, Govan gave the SNP hope. It came after a near-decade of SNP retreat from the events of 1979. That year had seen Scotland’s inconclusive first devolution referendum, the SNP (along with the Liberals) vote for the Thatcher vote of no confidence which brought down the Callaghan Labour Government, and the SNP reduced from eleven to two seats in the subsequent election.

This SNP sense of hope gave them belief that they could challenge Labour in their West of Scotland heartlands from the left and expose what they saw as Labour hypocrisy, pretending to be on the left to win Scottish votes, and impotence, where their Scottish mandate was not translated into standing up to the imposition of unpopular Tory policies.

It brought the democratic deficit – how Scotland was governed – and how that intertwined with the poll tax, centrestage. It showed that the former in particular was not, as some Labour stalwarts openly claimed, only the preserve of Hillhead and Morningside middle class socialists (which wasn’t meant to be a good sign), but had traction in such places as Govan and amongst working class voters.

All of the above contributed to Govan showing the first signs of the birth of the modern SNP as we have come to know it. This was a party which was unapologetically going after Labour as the dominant party in the country and doing so from the left. It was also the first time in years in which the SNP showed that it could run a campaign with professional polish, combined with genuine enthusiasm and a hunger to win. The party was to be able to return to such qualities in latter years.

Govan also had a huge political effect in deepening the main divide for the dominance of Scottish politics, making it one between the Labour Party and SNP. This may seem uncontroversial to many now but was a major political achievement for the SNP, considering the 1979 implosion for the party and the difficult elections of 1983 and 1987.

Jim Sillars’ Govan victory exemplified this – an ex-Labour MP, who left the party over its lukewarm support for devolution in the 1970s, set up his own party to aid self-government, and when that failed, joined the SNP post-1979. Sillars carried with him the hatred of many Labour members who regarded him as a turncoat and sellout by leaving the party and joining the Nationalists. He reflected this week that: ‘I have always been regarded as a traitor, but I have just had to wear that over the years’.

Sillars, looking back on Govan, believes it had a long tail of influence: ‘In my view, Govan inevitably led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament once there was a Labour Government in power. I don’t know if Labour has ever genuinely believed in devolution but they tried to use it as a means of blocking the SNP’s road to independence’.

Sillars victory was aided by his astute reading and understanding that the SNP’s challenge to Labour should not see Nationalists insult the Labour Party generally, but instead respect the values and ideals of the Labour movement. This approach forbade going after individual Labour politicians in an over the top way which questioned their character or motivation: an argument Sillars had laid out in his memoir published two years previous, ‘Scotland: The Case for Optimism’.

This was the way Sillars campaigned in Govan and won. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of his victory, such was his excitement and the febrile nature of Scottish politics that he forgot his own wise words. His rhetoric became much more partisan and personalised in how he criticised Labour and Labour politicians, aided by Labour’s attitude towards him and the amount of abuse he faced.

Govan may today seem part of a distant long gone Scotland. This was a world where by-elections mattered, where Westminster was the main focus of politics, and where the SNP were insurgents and even outsiders – and the Labour Party, the incumbents and the national and local establishment. The world is very different today.

Yet Govan helped to end that old world of Scottish politics and herald in the new. It made the democratic question of how Scotland was governed central to everything, from the poll tax to how to tackle inequality and the poverty that then and today still scars too much of Govan and areas like it. And it could even be argued that it lit a slow burning fuse which undermined and contributed to the decline of Scottish Labour and the establishment of the SNP as the leading party of the country.

Part of Scottish politics still to this day lives in the shadow shaped by Govan thirty years ago this weekend, but that begs the question whether the dynamics and priorities created in response to the Scotland of the late 1980s are suited for 21st century Scotland?

Govan captured the political headlines and imagination all those years ago, as did the style and panache of Jim Sillars and his victory, but maybe it is high time to put the enmity which defines Labour-SNP relations into the past, and find a different politics. That would require a political awakening as vivid and vibrant as Govan to happen, and in that sense the impact of this tumultuous by-election still matters to this day.