Roland Muirhead’s fight for a Scottish Parliament

THERE arrived in the office this week a slim volume called Scotland's  Constitution. It is dedicated to the memory of Roland Eugene Muirhead  (1868-1964) who for 75 years ''relentlessly campaigned'' for an  independent Scottish parliament.

The publication of this constitution is an act of piety by a small  band of faithful followers, for Muirhead, called by Tom Johnston the  grand old man of Scottish nationalism, is now very largely forgotten in  the country to which he devoted so much energy.

Muirhead was one of a group which formed the Young Scots League around  1900. It sought home rule through the Liberal Party. He turned then to  the ILP, and practised what he preached in 1914 by transforming his  family business, the Gryffe Tannery in Bridge of Weir, into a co-partnership with model conditions and a 40-hour week.

He and Johnston, later Churchill’s Secretary of State for Scotland and  father of the modern Scottish Office, were among those who set up the  Scottish Home Rule Association in 1917. Its efforts produced several  home rule Bills. The Bill of 1924 fell with the Ramsay Macdonald  Government and the 1927 Bill, giving Scotland dominion status (this was  the year the Statute of Westminster set up the Commonwealth), was talked out by a Unionist.

The SHRA’s activities were part of the pattern of agitation which led  to the formation first of the National Party of Scotland in 1928 and  then of the Scottish National Party in 1934.

Johnston wrote of him with evident affection in Memories (1951):  ”Almost as far back as spans the memory of living man Roland Muirhead  has been a notable standard-bearer for self-government in Scotland . . .

”Half a century ago he packed his bag and walked out of the family  tannery business in Renfrewshire to live the free life, first in an  Owenite colony in the State of Washington (USA) and then in a  non-violent anarchist colony in the same state.

”I never rightly got the hang of what happened during his brief  sofourn in these oases in the wicked world, but he was soon back in  London organising a co-operative tannery, and shortly thereafter he was  engaged managing the old family business in Renfrewshire, which — lest  you think he is simply a starry-eyed dreamer! — he has managed for  years and still does with conspicous success.”

The SNP in 1934 fused the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party, created by a group  of dissident Unionists after the Cathcart breakaway of 1932. The party  was immediately riven by splits over pacificism and fascism. Germany was  trying to seduce nationalist movements throughout Europe and the consul  in Scotland sent an emissary to Arthur Donaldson (SNP chairman in the  sixties who died earlier this year). The approach was repulsed.

When the war broke out, Johnston wrote, there was an energetic police  round-up of the few — if any — subversive pro-Nazi and Mosleyite  elements. ”At the time somebody took it upon himself to hint to the  police that Roland might be a sympathiser with Hitler, or at any rate was sufficiently anti-English to warrant a raid upon his house.

”A raid duly took place and after some locks had been forced there was borne off in triumph a sporting rifle of last-century vintage which had belonged to an uncle or a brother, plus a few rounds of revolver  ammunition, but no revolver.

”Fortunately there existed at the time in the offices of the Crown  Prosecutor and the Lord Advocate a sense of humour, and the engines of war referred to were hurriedly ordered to be returned, so that Roland Muirhead was deprived of a martyr’s crown. But he complains that he has  never yet been compensated for the damage to his locks.”

After the war Muirhead came to the conclusion that the parliamentary  route would not bring independence. In 1950 he formed a group called the Scottish National Congress to pursue independence Gandhi-style, by non-violence and non-co-operation, but he could not accept  by the rule, introduced under the chairmanship of Dr John McIntyre,  banning dual membership of the SNP and other parties (this rule also saw  the departure from the party of Douglas Young).

He thus set up the Scottish Secretariat at Elmbank Crescent. Here  would meet the Committee of Articles. It examined the constitutions of  the world and prepared a Scottish constitution. Noted lawyers helped.  They included Andrew Dewar Gibb, professor of Scots law at Glasgow, a  founder of the Scottish Party and the Saltire Society, and the author of  a book about Scotland’s contribution to the Empire. It contains one of  the most eloquent and lucid explanations for Scotland’s recurrent dissatisfaction with the Union: the Empire, which could not have been built without the Scots, made the name of England great.

In his foreword to the new edition of the constitution, John Murphy  writes that it was still incomplete when the ”Scottish Constituent  Provision Assembly convened in the George Adam’s Ballroom in Edinburgh on April 21, 1962”. A hundred and eight  delegates turned up to ”hold Scotland’s first Assembly since 1707”.  Murphy himself was a delegate. The 97 articles, with illustrations by Matthew McKenna, are published at last.

We return again to Johnston for a portrait of Muirhead in old age:  ”He maintains an office in Glasgow which he calls the Scottish Secretariat, where there is stored many thousands of Home Rule cuttings,  pamphlets and books, and to that office there wends daily this pioneer,  still rosy-cheeked, but now, alas, ageing and bent under the weight of years, all the pockets of his homespun tweed suit stuffed and bulging  with memoranda — this voluntary, this anti-compulsionist, this resolute  and determined opponent of all bureaucracy and centralised government,  with his eyes fixed upon the, to him, essential condition precedent to  any beneficent or worth-while change, a Home Rule Parliament for  Scotland.”

There is a continuity to many of the ideas underpinning Scottish  nationalism. The idea of recalling the Scots parliament, adjourned in  1707, was put about just after the turn of the century and was recently  revived as if new minted by Alex Salmond.

Muirhead was a lonely, stubborn and eccentric figure standing against  the inexorable growth of the modern bureaucratic state. Robbie Moffat  and John Murphy have done a service in restoring his name to historical  currency.

Scotland’s Constitution. Edited by Robbie Moffat. Moffat & Co.