King John and the headstone in the corner


By Kenneth Roy

John who? I wouldn’t blame any reader under the age of 60 who had never heard of the hero of this piece. Yet there was a time – perhaps no more than a brief moment – when John MacCormick was the most influential Scotsman alive; and one of the most celebrated.

He died 50 years ago this month at the age of only 56. The anniversary of his death fell in the week of the SNP’s conference, the first since the party gained its overall majority; his funeral service, in the chapel of Glasgow University chapel, was held on 16 October 1961.

His friend, Professor Dewar Gibb, who paid the tribute, said John MacCormick had sacrificed wordly advancement, wealth and high position in giving himself unstintingly to Scotland.

I am away from the office at the moment with no reliable way of checking, but when I left on Sunday I could find no evidence that the half-centenary of MacCormick’s death had been noted or marked in any way. Does his memory mean so little to us?

So I will say a little about this remarkable man. He was born in Glasgow in 1904, the son of a Mull sea captain. His mother, a MacDonald from Glenurquhart, was the first Queen’s district nurse in the Western Isles. In 1923, he walked up the hill from Woodside School to Glasgow University, where he graduated in arts and law.

From the start he was active in university politics as a member of the Labour club and of the old Independent Labour Party, the party of Maxton.

He was fervent about the cause of Scottish home rule and articulated it with unusual eloquence: as a public speaker he was a natural. He was so fervent about home rule that a heckler once asked him whether, when Scotland had its independence, it would also have its very own King John. The title stuck.

King John was the first chairman of the National Party of Scotland, a precursor of the SNP. I will not bore you with the history of the dissentions and secessions, but by the late 1940s MacCormick had developed a reputation as a political chameleon and was now aligning himself with the Liberals, fighting (but losing) a famous by-election in Paisley under a loose Lib-Tory ticket.

Essentially, though, the thrust of MacCormick’s political activity was non-party. In 1949 he launched the ‘Covenant’, a movement for Scottish home rule within a continuing UK whose parliament would retain power over such matters as defence and foreign policy, but give a Scottish parliament control of most domestic affairs. The plan was in most respects a prescient fore-runner of the Scotland Act 1998 which paved the way for the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999, 50 years on from the launch of MacCormick’s petition.

King John and the headstone in the corner Both MacCormick and Reid were men of their moments, warm, wildly romantic figures who caught the ear of their country in unique ways at different times.

This petition, or covenant, was a phenomenon the like of which we have had never seen before and have not seen since – a highly organised, systematic campaign to win the support of the Scottish people for a parliament in Edinburgh. There were two million electors in Scotland and MacCormick’s team succeeded within six months in gaining the signatures of a million of them. The eventual number of supporters was two million: two-thirds of the Scottish electorate. The right-wing Scottish press did its malevolent best to discredit the petition, suggesting that some of the signatures were duplicated or forged and that others were of children. There was probably an element of truth in these claims, but not enough to detract from such a massive endorsement.

MacCormick’s insistence that the movement should transcend party politics was both its strength and its weakness. It enabled him to appeal to voters of all parties and none, enabling the articulation of a genuine national voice, but the movement failed to attract established politicians who could have translated its broad aspirations into practical politics. It was too easily dismissed as a pressure group: an extraordinarily effective one, but a pressure group nevertheless. It lost momentum, as such groups tend to do; it fizzled out. It will not please his supporters in the modern natonalist movement to be reminded that he believed in the United Kingdom.

MacCormick stood several times as a parliamentary candidate – he was still trying two years before his death – but was never elected. Some felt that this signified a larger failure on his part to put his enormous talents to a constructive purpose. The same was said more recently of Jimmy Reid, who shared MacCormick’s oratorical power and vision, who also stood for parliament, who was also rejected.

In both cases, this criticism misses the point. Both MacCormick and Reid were men of their moments, warm, wildly romantic figures who caught the ear of their country in unique ways at different times. They were rebels with a cause; I doubt that either would have been cut out for the tedium of parliamentary life.

His son, Neil, who was professor of public law at Edinburgh University, and for a while an SNP member of the European Parliament, wrote in the Scottish Review in 1999 that, at the time of his death, it appeared to his father as though his life’s work had gone down in futility. Yet, had he lived one more year, he would have seen in Billy Wolfe’s poll in the West Lothian by-election a sign of the times to come; six more years would have allowed him to savour the Winnie Ewing victory at Hamilton.

‘Of this I am sure,’ said Dewar Gibb at his funeral, ‘if in time to come a new and different Scotland comes to be erected, the work of John MacCormick will be on the headstone in the corner’.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Rpy in the Scottish Review