How one man changed balance of political power in Kirkcaldy

1973 Fife Free Press front page headline
1973 Fife Free Press front page headline

“Labour lose control” was the headline on the front of the Fife Free Press after the municipal elections of 1973.

It was hailed as “a severe and unexpected setback” when the party lost overall control of Kirkcaldy Town Council, and it was down to the result in one ward.

Council elections in Kirkcaldy, 1973 - left is Alan H. Potter (Ratepayers Party) along with George F. Moss (Labour) canvassing voters outside Pathhead Halls

Council elections in Kirkcaldy, 1973 - left is Alan H. Potter (Ratepayers Party) along with George F. Moss (Labour) canvassing voters outside Pathhead Halls

SNP candidate Iain McGarry defeated housing convener Bailie David Westwood by just 89 votes to tilt the balance of power.

To put that into context, McGarry was a 28-year old toolmaker who worked at GEC, while Westwood was a councillor of nine years standing, and whose late father was formerly Secretary of State for Scotland – in other words, a man steeped in politics.

And it was close to a double for the Nationalists as they pushed David Stewart, standing for the first time, all the way to a recount before he was safely home by just 31 votes.

The election also saw the Tories gain their first ever seat on the council as William A Ferguson, who formerly sat as a member of the successful Ratepayers Association, donned a blue rosette and held his seat in a straight fight with Labour.

Iain McGarry, SNP councillor in Kirkcaldy, 1973

Iain McGarry, SNP councillor in Kirkcaldy, 1973

It was the last municipal election before the 1974 re-organisation of local government, and it left the Town House with an intriguing set-up.

Labour and the Ratepayers’ Party each held 14 seats, the balance of power now rested with the two ward winners.

Councillor Ferguson was expected to vote with his former Ratepayer colleagues on most issues – who didn’t contest all seats and had to fend off claims they had a pact with the Tories – , but the SNP’s newest councillor was a different proposition altogether.

You may also be interested in:

34 pictures of Fife in the 1980s

In pictures: The new P1 classes from Kirkcaldy district schools

Call for Scotrail chief to face second public meeting in Kirkcaldy

New to the chamber and very much an unknown quantity, if he chose to align himself with Labour then the casting vote of Provost, John Kay, would ensure the status quo prevailed.

But if he went against Labour, all bets were off.

The pressure was on.

In an editorial. The Fife Free Press described him as “the key man” adding: “When Councillor McGarry offered himself for election, he could hardly have visualised that, this early in his political career, he would become such an important figure in Kirkcaldy’s municipal affairs.

“It is a responsible position for such a young man, but, if he has a heavy responsibility, he also has a great opportunity, both for his party and for himself. Let him grasp it with both hands.”

“He is a Scottish Nationalist – do not let us lose sight of that – but if he uses his crucial vote wisely, and in the best interests of Kirkcaldy then no-one will surely complain.”

The Provost also spoke of “the serious responsibility” on Cllr McGarry’s shoulders but didn’t hold out much of an olive branch to the SNP, stating they had “created a sort of personality cult” and fought on the issue of personality rather than issues.

The result clearly stung Labour.

By its own admission, the SNP was almost non-existent in February of 1973.

By May they’d rattled cages at the Town House, and had plans to field more candidates in the next election.

Turnout for the poll was the poorest for many years at just 39.3 per cent. Ward five saw just 26 per cent of voters turn out for what was a historic count.

For the first time in a decade there were contests in all ten wards, featuring a total of 22 candidates.

The Communist Party pitched its hat into the ring in one ward, and got short shrift by the electorate, barely mustering 70 votes, and the Tories didn’t do anywhere near as well as they had hoped, despite the success of electing Cllr Ferguson.

Tommy Horne, general manager of Kirkcaldy Ice Rink, stood as a Tory candidate, but came in w ell behind the winner, Robert Deas (Lab)

Burntisland, meanwhile saw Labour sweep all five seats,with the lowest poll ever recorded in town.

Buckhaven and Methil remained a 12-man, one-party town, and Labour also retained control in Leslie.

But Lochgelly, as ever, stood apart, electing Communists to three of its four seats.