National politics in East Lothian

Ewen A Cameron

Politics in East Lothian in the period since 1945 are of national as well as local interest. Until the late 1970s, the parliamentary seat was ‘endemically marginal'(Scotsman 1974 October 11). This arose from the social and economic diversity of the area, which included the farming land of Berwickshire and mining communities around Tranent and Prestonpans. Further, from 1964-1978, with a brief interlude between February and October 1974, the area was represented in parliament by John P. Mackintosh, one of the most able and independent politicians of his day (Rosen, G., 1999 pp2-13; Dalyell, T., 1986 pp530-2).

Political boundaries were altered a number of times during the period. In 1945 the principal constituency was known as Berwickshire and Haddingtonshire (subsequently Berwickshire and East Lothian). Boundary changes prior to the election of 1983 meant that Berwickshire, with 14,300 voters, became part of Berwick and Roxburgh. New voters were added from Musselburgh (formerly part of Edinburgh East) and Midlothian (Scotsman 1983 May 23, 26). This made the constituency less marginal and the changes favoured the Labour Party, as was demonstrated by their success to 2000. For the 1997 election, Musselburgh was moved back to Edinburgh East. Secondly, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, constituencies largely replicated their Westminster counterparts to give 73 constituency members, with an additional 56 members coming from a second ballot; this was designed to introduce an element of proportional representation, based on regional lists. Voters in East Lothian were in South of Scotland Region, and those in Edinburgh East and Musselburgh were in the Lothians Region for the 1997 election. Between May 1999 and the Westminster general election of June 2001, East Lothian was represented in both parliaments by John Home Robertson (Labour); this dual mandate arrangement ceased after the general election when Mr Home Robertson continued to be a member of the Scottish Parliament, and the constituency was represented at Westminster by Anne Picking.

SNP Election Poster, Meadowmill 1970 (Gordon Collection)

Election Results in East Lothian, 1945-2001

Election Candidates (Party) Votes Share of Vote Turnout (%)
1945 J Robertson (Lab) 19037 54.5 70.3
J McEwan (Con) 15880 45.5
1950 J Robertson (Lab) 17105 40.8 82.8
W Anstruther-Gray (Cons) 15377 36.8
J Stodart (Lib) 9352 22.4
1951 W Anstruther-Gray (Cons) 22510 52.8 83.8
J Robertson (Lab) 20152 47.2
1955 W Anstruther-Gray (Cons) 21739 53.3 80.3
P Jones (Lab) 19029 46.7
1959 W Anstruther-Gray (Cons) 22472 53.4 83.2
P Jones (Lab) 19622 46.7
1964 W Anstruther-Gray (Cons) 21669 50.7 85.0
JP Mackintosh (Lab) 21044 49.3
1966 JP Mackintosh (Lab) 22620 51.9 86.1
W Anstruther-Gray (Cons) 20931 48.1
1970 JP Mackintosh (Lab) 21107 45.6 83.8
J Hardie (Cons) 20466 44.2
D Simpson (SNP) 4735 10.2
1974 (February) M Ancram (Cons) 21234 43.5 85.8
JP Mackintosh (Lab) 20694 42.3
D Simpson (SNP) 6956 14.2
1974 (October) JP Mackintosh (Lab) 20682 43.3 83.0
M Ancram (Cons) 17942 37.6
R Macleod (SNP) 6323 13.2
C Lawson (Lib) 2811 5.9
(by-election occasioned by death of MP)
J Home-Robertson (Lab) 20530 47.4 71.2
C Marshall (Cons) 17418 40.2
I Lindsay (SNP) 3799 8.8
T Glen (Lib) 1543 3.6
1979 J Home-Robertson (Lab) 21977 43.5 82.9
C Marshall (Cons) 20304 40.2
T Glen(Lib) 4948 9.8
A Macartney (SNP) 3300 6.5
1983 J Home-Robertson (Lab) 20934 43.7 77.0
M Fry (Cons) 14963 30.7
M Kibby (L/All) 9950 20.8
R Knox (SNP) 2083 4.3
1987 J Home Robertson (Lab) 24583 48.0 78.7
S Langdon (Cons) 14478 28.3
A Robinson (L/All) 7929 15.5
A Burgon Lyon (SNP) 3729 7.3
A Marland (Green) 451 0.9
1992 J Home Robertson (Lab) 25537 46.5 82.4
J Hepburne Scott (Cons) 15501 28.2
George Thomson (SNP) 7776 14.2
Tim Mackay (Lib Dem) 6126 11.2
1997 J Home Robertson (Lab) 22881 52.7 75.6
M Fraser (Cons) 8660 19.9
D McCarthy (SNP) 6825 15.7
A MacAskill (Lib Dem) 4575 10.5
N Nash (Ref) 491 1.1
1999 (Scottish) J Home Robertson(Lab) 19220 54.0 60.7
Calum Miller (SNP) 8274 23.25
Christine Richard(Cons) 5941 16.7
Judy Hayman (Lib Dem) 2147 6.0
2001 A Picking (Lab) 17407 47.2 62.5
H Mair (Cons) 6577 17.8
J Hayman (Lib Dem) 6506 17.6
Hilary Brown (SNP) 5381 14.6
Derrick White (Sco Soc) 624 1.7
James Herriot (Soc Lab) 376 1.0

Sources: Craig (1977), Craig (1983); Craig, (1984) Times Guides to the House of Commons, June 1983, June 1987, April 1992, May 1997;

The Unionist Era: 1945-1964

In both Scottish and UK politics this was an era dominated by the Labour and Conservative Parties (from 1912 to 1965 the Conservatives in Scotland were known as the Scottish Unionist Party, or Unionists for short). In the 1940s and 1950s, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberals did not have the resources to run many candidates, and over 90% of the electorate voted for the two big parties. There was only one Liberal candidate prior to 1974 (and he stood as a Unionist in the next election), and no SNP candidate until 1970 (see Table). Scottish politics in these years were dominated by unionism in the sense that both parties were unquestioning supporters of the constitutional status quo and home rule was rarely an important issue (Hutchison, I.G.C., 2001 pp70-97). Nevertheless, it was debated briefly in 1950, perhaps due to the publicity created in Scotland by John MacCormick’s Covenant Movement (Haddingtonshire Courier 1950 January 13, 20). The 1945 election had seen exchanges about appeasement, with the Labour candidate accusing his opponent of having supported that doctrine and arguing that it was Labour vigilance which had saved the country from the ‘heel of the Gestapo’ (Haddingtonshire Courier 1945 June 29). Other important issues in this period included issues like nationalisation, which Unionist candidates characterised as ‘centralisation’ (Haddingtonshire Courier 1950 February 3; 1951 October 19). Local issues such as agricultural depopulation, the threat to farmland from the expansion of open cast mining, agricultural prices, and pit closures also figured (Haddingtonshire Courier 1951 October 5, 12; 1955 May 20; 1959 September 25). International issues also arose: the Labour candidate, Penry Jones, declared 1955 to be ‘the first election in an H-Bomb age’, although the local newspaper declared it to be the ‘quietest on record’ (Haddingtonshire Courier 1955 May 13, 27). In this period, the seat largely mirrored national trends; only in 1964, when Anstruther-Gray held the seat for the Unionists, did the result in East Lothian differ from the overall result of the election.

The two MPs were contrasting characters. JJ Robertson was an under secretary for Scotland during his time as MP for East Lothian; his boss, Arthur Woodburn, later recollected that Robertson’s health was fragile and that he was a less than effective minister (NLS, Arthur Woodburn MSS, Acc7656/4/1/, ‘Some recollections’, p.158). Anstruther Gray was already experienced when he won East Lothian in 1951; he had represented North Lanarkshire from 1931 to 1945; he was Deputy Speaker from 1962-64, and Chairman of the 1922 Committee from 1964-66. He had a military background and equestrian interests (Times 1985 August 8; Scotsman 1985 August 8). In his maiden speech in the House of Commons in May 1966, John Mackintosh remarked:

It is perhaps not well known to hon Members that Sir William was one of the men who returned from the Front in May, 1940, and persuaded 32 of his back bench colleagues to go into the Lobby against their own government – against the leadership of Neville Chamberlain – thus helping to bring down that Government. On that occasion he was a true patriot. (Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 5th series, volume 728, columns 77-8, 1966 May 9)

The Mackintosh Era, 1964-1974; 1974-1978

It is significant that, in the passage just quoted, John Mackintosh should have chosen to celebrate an act of principled rebellion, as these would be a recurring theme in his own career. Mackintosh cut his political teeth at the 1959 election in Edinburgh Pentlands. Between 1959 and 1964 he had a varied career as an academic in Scotland and Nigeria. His academic reputation was established with the publication in 1962 of his seminal work on the British system of cabinet government (Mackintosh, J.P., 1962). His first contest with Anstruther Gray in 1964 was a close one: the issues at stake had not changed dramatically from the late 1950s, although a new threat to the economy of East Lothian came from the threat of closure which hung over the railway lines which ran through the constituency into Edinburgh. Many newspapers deemed the result to be too close to call, but in the event Anstruther Gray emerged with his majority slashed from 2850 to 625 (Haddingtonshire Courier 1964 September 25;Times 1964 October 2; Scottish Daily Express 1964 October 2; Berwickshire News 1964 October 6). One local newspaper thought that the constituency ‘in miniature reflected what a close run race it was’ (Haddingtonshire Courier 1964 October 23), compared to the UK wide picture. Between 1964 and 1966, Mackintosh combined nursing of the constituency with his Chair of Politics at the University of Strathclyde. The activity of the Labour government probably helped his cause with the emphasis on regional policy and the attraction of light industry to declining mining areas like East Lothian. Further, the Scottish Development Plan had contained proposals for the revival of the Borders area. In the face of this activity, and of the swing towards Labour in the country as a whole, Mackintosh was returned with a majority of 1689 (Scotsman 1966 March 8; April 1).

The 1970 election was more problematic for Mackintosh for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was the complicating factor of an SNP candidate, although Mackintosh was confident that this would be a greater threat to the Conservatives. Secondly, the implications of Britain’s potential entry to the Common Market were hotly debated and the issue was mostly raised by those hostile to such a development. Mackintosh, it should be noted, was a very enthusiastic supporter of Britain’s involvement (not something which could be said of all Labour MPs), and the issue cut across party lines. Finally, there was widespread recognition that Mackintosh would have no worries if the election were fought entirely on his record as a constituency MP (Scotsman 1970 June 15). In the event, his majority was cut to 641 on a slightly lower turnout than in 1966, with the SNP’s 10% share of the vote seeming to come slightly more from Labour than the Conservatives (Haddingtonshire Courier 1970 June 26).

The issues which dominated politics for the remainder of the 1970s gave Mackintosh prominence and served to mark him out as an unconventional figure once Labour returned to government in 1974: in particular the European issue and devolution. The two general elections of 1974 and the years down to Mackintosh’s tragic death in July 1978 provide some fascinating material for the historian of politics. The election of February 1974 was keenly contested in East Lothian; Mackintosh faced a difficult opponent in Michael Ancram, highly articulate and energetic, and the vehicle for the determined targeting of the seat by the Conservatives. Mackintosh was not sanguine about his prospects; using words such as ‘unlikely’ and even ‘impossible’ in his correspondence (NLS, J. P. Mackintosh Papers, Dep 323/73, J.P. Mackintosh to Mrs Grace McQuillen, 1974 February 26; Mackintosh to Dr Colin Mackintosh, 1974 February 26). The presence of a small mining vote may have been a significant factor in an election when the role of the miners in the life of the country was an important issue. It was another three-cornered election, with the SNP candidate trying to build on his vote in 1970, and it was felt that the SNP would take more votes from Labour than from the Conservatives (Scotsman 1970 February 12, 22).

In the event this was another result, like that of 1964, when the winner was not of the incoming government party. The turnout was slightly higher than in 1970 and the SNP vote was up; both factors, but especially the latter, resulted in the defeat of Mackintosh by 540 votes and Michael Ancram became the only Scottish Conservative to defeat a sitting Labour member (Scotsman 1970 March 1; East Lothian Courier 1970 March 8). Aside from the big national question of ‘who governs’ emphasised by the Conservatives, an important local issue was the proposed nuclear power station at Torness, near Dunbar which, intriguingly Mackintosh supported and Ancram opposed (Scotsman 1974 September 24). The tightness of the Labour parliamentary majority necessitated another election in October 1974, and Mackintosh entered this contest in a much more confident mood and took the seat with a majority of 2740 – large by the standards of the constituency. The appearance of the first Liberal candidate since 1950, and a competitor for Conservative votes, made this the first four-cornered fight in the post 1945 era. Although Mackintosh had a good majority, his share of the vote and the total number of votes cast for him were lower than in his previous victories: indeed, he gained more votes in his two losing campaigns. The winner’s feeling was that he had fought a better campaign, especially in Berwickshire and had ‘turned the heat on the Nationalists’ (NLS, Mackintosh MSS, Dep 323/74, Mackintosh to Alistair Scott 1974 October 26; Mackintosh to Willie Swan 1974 October 22). Mackintosh was immensely buoyed by his victory and looked forward to a parliament which would deal with issues close to his heart: devolution and the European question. His rebellious streak emerged most clearly in this final phase of his political career, most famously his departure, with Brian Walden, from the floor of the House of Commons prior to an important vote on the Dock Labour Bill in 1976, leaving the government to face defeat (Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 5th Series, volume 919, columns 581-92; Norton, P., 1980 p436). His enthusiasm for the Common Market and his evangelical commitment to devolution meant that he was often critical of the government, especially what he perceived to be its lukewarm support for the latter. Indeed, by 1978 he had become almost semi-detached from his party and from Parliament, a status symbolised by his acceptance of a Chair of Politics at the University of Edinburgh in 1978 (Duckenfield, M.1978 p13). His death in 1978 was the moment for wide appreciation of his political career as well as a feeling that his individualism had excluded him from the high office merited by his ability (Scotsman 1978 July 31; Times 1978 July 31; Glasgow Herald 1978 July 31). His burial at Yester Kirkyard in Gifford symbolised his commitment to the constituency (East Lothian Courier 1978 August 4). The timing of the resulting by-election signified that the general election was to be held over until the spring of 1979. Among the 20 applicants for the Labour candidature was the millionaire publisher and former Labour MP, Robert Maxwell. The SNP HQ decided to impose a candidate, Isobel Lindsay, rather than allow the locally selected candidate to fight the seat. A local farmer, John Home Robertson was selected for Labour and won with a majority of over 3000 on a markedly lower turnout. At the 1979 election he repeated his victory, although his majority was halved as the Liberals turned in a stronger performance.

As noted above, boundary changes in 1983 turned East Lothian into a safe Labour seat and politics were never again so dramatic. Political debate throughout the 1980s and 1990s was characterised by local issues. Controversy over the Torness nuclear power station (especially at the 1987 election which saw a Green Party candidate stand) (East Lothian Courier 1979 April 27, May 11; 1987 May 22, 29); the continuing threat of railway closures (in 1983 the Conservative candidate Michael Fry declared that he would rather resign the Conservative whip than see railway closures (East Lothian Courier 1983 June 3)); the run-down of the coal mines in the area; the reluctance of East Lothian District Council to embrace Conservative housing legislation; and the solid performance of Home Robertson as a constituency MP, were the key features of this era of the political history of East Lothian.

In 1987 the Scotsman (1987 May 30) declared that ‘East Lothian is unlikely to command many headlines on June 11’; and the East Lothian Courier (1992 March 27) lamented the dullness of modern electioneering prior to the 1992 election. The only exception to this trend was the spat within the Tory party in 1986 when a Regional Councillor, David Thomson, resigned from the Conservative Association and threatened to stand as an Independent in protest against the official Conservative candidate, Peter Clarke. The extreme views of the latter, which included support for General Pinochet, calls for the privatisation of old age pensions (an issue which John Mackintosh devoted much attention), and alleged support for the legalisation of incest, were the cause of much embarrassment to Scottish Conservatives and led to Malcolm Rifkind calling him ‘extremely foolish’. In the event Clarke stood down, citing London business commitments, and Thomson was reconciled to the Conservative Party.

A number of more recent trends are worthy of comment: firstly, the reduction in turnout from over 80% in 1992 to around 60% in 1999 and 2001 – a problem not confined to East Lothian. Further, the constituency had never been a particularly happy hunting ground for the SNP; even in October 1974, when the party secured over 30% of the Scottish vote and eleven MPs, their vote declined in East Lothian, the only constituency in Scotland in which it did so. The Scottish Parliamentary election, however, saw a much-improved performance for the SNP, 23% of the vote, compared to around 15% in the adjacent Westminster elections. This was a nation-wide trend in an election where UK and international issues did not prioritise the UK parties in the minds of voters.

JP Mackintosh’s papers used by kind permission of Mrs Una Mackintosh

Further reading & references

  • Berwickshire News
  • Dalyell, Tam (1986), ‘Mackintosh, John Pitcairn (1929-1978)’, Lord Blake and C.S.Nicholls (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography, 1971-1986, Oxford University Press
  • Duckenfield, Mike (1978) ‘The backbench professor’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 17 February 1978
  • East Lothian Courier
  • Haddingtonshire Courier
  • Glasgow Herald
  • Hutchison, I.G.C. (2001) Scottish Politics in the Twentieth Century, Palgrave
  • Mackintosh, J.P. (1962) The British Cabinet, Stevens and Sons
  • National Library of Scotland, Arthur Woodburn MSS, Acc 7656
  • National Library of Scotland, J. P. Mackintosh MSS, Dep 323
  • Norton, Phillip (1980) Dissension in the House of Commons, 1974-79, Oxford University Press
  • Parliamentary Debates
  • Rosen, Greg (1999) ‘John P. Mackintosh: His Achievements and Legacy’, Political Quarterly, Volume 70, pp21-18
  • Scotsman
  • Scottish Daily Express
  • Times