Jim Sillars: Gordon Wilson cared passionately about Scotland

National Secretary John Swinney (left) and SNP Chairman Gordon Wilson, 2 September 1987 when they launched the SNP conference agenda. Picture: TSPL
National Secretary John Swinney (left) and SNP Chairman Gordon Wilson, 2 September 1987 when they launched the SNP conference agenda. Picture: TSPL
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Former deputy leader of the SNP Jim Sillars paid tribute to Gordon Wilson, who has died at the age of 79 following a short illness.

READ MORE - Gordon Wilson, former SNP leader, dies at 79

Gordon Wilson, 
former leader of the SNP, has died aged 79. Picture: TSPL

Gordon Wilson, former leader of the SNP, has died aged 79. Picture: TSPL

My first encounter with Gordon Wilson was sitting opposite him, as a Labour MP, in the House of Commons. We disagreed on independence, but I recognised a man of substance, and respected him. My understanding went no deeper than that.

It was when I joined the SNP, and clashed with him over the fate of the 79 Group that I came to know who Gordon Wilson was and what made him. That 79 Group period was a turbulent time, tempers rising on all sides, with him expelling Margo MacDonald, Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill. But there was no malice in Gordon Wilson. It was a decision taken reluctantly only for political reasons. I know that to be true, because Margo and he, during that time and afterwards, remained friends. The ease with which they were re-admitted also makes the point.

As I worked with Gordon as one of his senior office bearers, I came to realise that he had exactly the qualities the party needed at that time. In bringing unity back to a party demoralised by the electoral disaster of 1979, and the aftermath of in-fighting, he displayed honesty, integrity, and revealed a moral compass that unerringly pointed in the direction of a fair and just society. I discovered that beneath that reserved personality, was a man who cared passionately about Scotland and its people, and was willing to work for them at personal sacrifice.

For those who joined the SNP on its rising tide, it will be difficult to understand what it was like to be in the party in the 1980s, when we were mocked and despised. The members’ morale was shattered, the party written off. When I joined a Labour wag said to me ‘that I had an unerring eye for jumping on to a sinking ship’. That was what Gordon faced as leader.

SNP MPs George Reid and (right) Gordon Wilson outside the former Royal High School in Edinburgh in November 1975. Picture: TSPL

SNP MPs George Reid and (right) Gordon Wilson outside the former Royal High School in Edinburgh in November 1975. Picture: TSPL

He matched up to it. Without neglecting his constituents in Dundee, he travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, at his own expense, talking to and keeping branches of the party alive, and combining that effort with restoring unity at national level, rebuilding the organisation, and making the party credible again in the eyes of the nation. No mean feat.

It is to the Gordon Wilson that undertook that work, that today’s SNP owes an unpayable debt of gratitude. I am glad I knew him.

Gordon Wilson, chairman of the Scottish National Party, launches the SNP's General Election manifesto in Glasgow in May 1987. Picture: TSPL

Gordon Wilson, chairman of the Scottish National Party, launches the SNP's General Election manifesto in Glasgow in May 1987. Picture: TSPL

Gordon Wilson at an SNP press conference in Edinburgh in July 1978. Picture: TSPL

Gordon Wilson at an SNP press conference in Edinburgh in July 1978. Picture: TSPL

Scottish National party MPs Iain MacCormick, George Reid, Gordon Wilson, Winnie Ewing, Donald Stewart, Hamish Watt and Douglas Henderson on Edinburgh Castle esplanade in March 1974. Picture: TSPL

Scottish National party MPs Iain MacCormick, George Reid, Gordon Wilson, Winnie Ewing, Donald Stewart, Hamish Watt and Douglas Henderson on Edinburgh Castle esplanade in March 1974. Picture: TSPL