Thoughts on the passing of Stephen Maxwell, and the legacy of the 79 Group

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By Russell Bruce

I was on the publicity committee at the time Stephen was VC for Publicity.  I remember him fondly for his quiet direction and consideration that marked him out.  Stephen was a thinker but like all serious thinkers he was also a listener.

Stephen understood the importance of direction and what we needed to do to get there.

The coverage of Stephen’s death includes reference to his membership of the 79 Group and expulsion as a result of that membership.  What is seldom acknowledged is the important legacy and influence of the 79 Group, long after its short life.

I have two small regrets about my own membership of the 79 Group.  In a clear out years later, I disposed of my membership card.  Also I was not expelled, obviously I was not important enough to be made an example of.

Any reference to the 79 Group that appears today simply notes that it was socialist orientated.  The reality is much more complex.

The time is overdue to tell the story of the 79 Group because although its time was brief its influence was profound and has taken the SNP to where it is today.

The long-term strategy of the SNP had been that policy position was divisive.  Independence was the goal and bringing the believers together to achieve independence was what was needed.  We then could all go our separate ways.

Some of us did not see that as a viable route to Independence and were deeply concerned that a hypothetical and flawed strategy was holding us back.

I have no problem with those who want to support and vote for Independence but then return to a different political tradition and allegiance post independence.

I also think the leavers would be few in number because the SNP as a left of centre social democratic political party is straddling the mainstream of Scottish opinion and has delivered in government.

The key is the G word. Government.  By recognising that gradualism would grow support for Independence through and beyond achieving a devolved parliament, the pragmatic thinking of Stephen Maxwell and those of us who joined the 79 Group is at last leading to a viable future.

However limited its powers, an SNP government has been able to demonstrate competence and distinguish its ambitions for Scotland from the limitations of opposition parties.

When a country becomes independent it is usually the party that has led the independence movement that becomes the government of the newly independent nation.  That norm of political history is contributing to the hysteria amongst the unionist parties and their leaders who fear office would not be within the grasp of their political lifetime.

The SNP well know that they must plan for Independence as key to the referendum strategy and articulate that vision of a new future to convince the electorate to vote yes.

It is a fine balancing act, for what equally is understood is that neither the result of the referendum nor who would win the post referendum election can be taken for granted.

Yet it is unthinkable that any of the unionist parties might become the first government of an independent Scotland.

We have come such a long way from the dark days of 79 and the years of Thatcherism.  It has been a longer time in the coming than so many of us would have wished but at last we are taking more and more of our people on that journey with us.

There is also a groundswell amongst those who do not yet support independence but are beginning to think the unthinkable and are less sure of a union that as each day passes belongs more to the past than the future.

A listening dialogue is underway because behind the hysteria and ever-present scare stories are many in Scotland now distancing themselves from negativity and increasingly ready to engage.

I have been reading this evening a number of stories of those recently convinced about the case for an independent Scotland, about their passion and evangelism.

The road to Damascus has iron in its soul, fire in its belly and a compassion wrought in a shared sense of social justice that is both humbling and heart warming.

The power of the positive is energising.  Stephen understood that.  We owe it to him to keep the dialogue positive and energise those yet to be convinced.