Monday 26 April 2010

General Election Special 1: Parliamentary Elections in Dundee 1910-2010

With the furore surrounding the current election campaign in full swing we thought it might be interesting to pause for a moment and look at some of the items from the collections held by Archive Services that document previous general elections.

A hundred years ago Dundee was represented in Parliament by Alexander Wilkie, who in 1906 had been elected as Scotland’s first Labour MP and Winston Churchill, then a leading member of the Liberal Government. Both men were comfortably re-elected in the two general elections in 1910, overcoming opposition from Conservative and Liberal Unionist candidates and the Prohibitionist Edwin Scrymgeour. Churchill was initially popular with much of the traditionally radical Dundee electorate, although his conservative background and his lack of support for the suffragette movement attracted some vocal criticism from Labour supporters, as this cartoon from Dundee periodical The Tocsin shows. Despite signs their popularity among Dundonians was diminishing as his views moved further to the right, Churchill and Wilkie were re-elected in 1918. Their victories saw them greatly increase their majorities, although this was largely due to the fact that the local Unionist Association (as the now merged Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were known), opted to endorse them rather than field any candidates of their own.

In 1922 Wilkie retired, but Churchill (who was ill with appendicitis) again contested the seat with Liberal running mate D. J. MacDonald (who owned a local engineering company). Although the Unionists backed Churchill and MacDonald, a number of local Liberals, including local businessman and future Lord Provost Garnet Wilson, did not and instead backed the Asquithite Liberal R. R. Pilkington. In the end however all three men lost and Dundee’s new MPs were E D Morel (Labour) and Edwin Scrymgeour, who became Britain’s only ever prohibitionist MP. Scyrmgeour’s election was ironic given the reputation of Dundee’s population as heavy drinkers and the fact that his previous election campaigns had not been taken seriously by many in the political establishment.

Scrymgeour would represent Dundee until 1931, when he and the sitting Labour MP Michael Marcus were unseated by the Liberal Dingle Foot and the Unionist Florence Horsbrugh. Miss Horsbrugh was notable as the first and, to date, only woman to represent Dundee at Westminster and was the first Unionist or Conservative to be elected to represent the city since the Dundee consistency was created in 1832. Both Foot and Horsbrugh were re-elected in 1935, and each went on to hold ministerial office in the wartime Government. However, the Labour Party’s landslide win in the 1945 general election saw both being defeated and the return of Labour’s Tom Cook and John Strachey.

Dundee was divided into East and West constituencies in 1950. Dundee West has been represented by Labour MPs since its foundation, but Dundee East has had a more varied history. Although it initially seemed the safer seat for Labour, the Scottish National Party’s candidate Gordon Wilson (seen here in the image on the right) came remarkably close to capturing it in a 1973 by-election, sending shock waves through the Scottish political landscape. Wilson built on this momentum and captured the seat the general election of February 1974 and retained it with an increased majority that October. He would go on to hold the seat until 1987 when John McAllion recaptured it for Labour. However, in 2005 Dundee East (now expanded to include parts of Angus) was narrowly won by Stewart Hosie of the SNP.

Archive Services hold a number of useful sources on Dundee’s MPs and elections:
  • MS 88 Joseph Lee’s papers includes copies of The Tocsin, a Labour monthly which Lee edited and Wilkie contributed to. The same collection also contains copies of The City Echo and The Piper of Dundee which make frequent reference to Winston Churchill and Edwin Scrymgeour
  • MS 93 D J MacDonald Ltd, Engineers, Dundee (which includes D. J MacDonald’s papers from the 1922 election)
  • MS 217 Notes concerning Dundee Elections by Sir Garnet Wilson (these include particular reference to Winston Churchill’s time as MP for Dundee)
  • MS 270 The Dundee Conservative and Unionist Association (which include records relating to Conservative and Unionist involvement in general elections since 1910 and photographs of Florence Horsbrugh)
  • The Dundee Free Press includes some articles written by Scrymgour himself and the Labour MPs Tom Johnston and Michael Marcus
  • Recently, Gordon Wilson, who is also a former Rector of the University of Dundee, has kindly deposited a number of his papers with us and we are sure that these will prove to be of great value to researchers interested in twentieth century Scottish politics

Dr Kenneth Baxter

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