Obituary: Gordon Wilson, former SNP leader and MP for Dundee

Gordon Wilson has died at the age of 79. Picture: Scott Louden
Gordon Wilson has died at the age of 79. Picture: Scott Louden
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Gordon Wilson, former leader of the SNP and MP for Dundee. Born: 16 April, 1938 in Glasgow. Died: 25 June, 2017 in Dundee, aged 79

Gordon Wilson was a Scottish politician and lawyer who led the Scottish National Party between 1979 and 1990 and served as the party’s MP for Dundee East between 1974 and 1987, at a time when SNP representation in Westminster was minimal. Yet arguably Wilson’s greatest contribution to the Nationalist cause in Scottish politics came in the first half of the 1970s, before his leadership, when his diligence in research made him the SNP’s expert on the then-new North Sea Oil industry. He devised the slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’, which was credited with the dramatic uplift in SNP votes seen during both UK general elections of 1974.

Wilson’s career within the leadership of the SNP began in 1963 when, at the age of 25, he became Assistant National Secretary of the party, moving up to National Secretary less than a year later. In 1973 he was elected Deputy Leader at the SNP’s annual conference in Oban, and in 1979 he was confirmed as leader at conference in Dundee. Other positions held within the party include deputy leader at Westminster (1974 to 1979), parliamentary spokesperson on oil and energy (1974 to 1983) and joint spokesperson on devolution (1976 to 1979), while he was also an unsuccessful SNP candidate in the 1999 European Parliament elections.

Outside of politics, meanwhile, he held the position of Rector of the University of Dundee between 1983 and 1986, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree by the same university. Although he was involved in Scottish politics as a key player or a respected observer throughout more than five decades of his adult life, Wilson’s period of greatest influence upon the history and direction of the SNP can be summed up across two decades, each very different in tone.

In the 1970s, buoyed by the oil debate as Wilson had framed it, the party enjoyed a historic period of popularity exceeded only by their surge in the 2010s. He stood as a candidate in the Labour stronghold constituency of Dundee East during the 1973 by-election, trebling the SNP’s vote share to 30% and only narrowly missing out on a Westminster position, but then won the same seat twice in both of 1974’s general elections, first with a majority of 3000 and then 7000, as the SNP took an unheard-of seven and then eleven MPs to London.

Yet when Wilson came to the SNP leadership in 1979, it was as the head of a party chastened by the result of the same year’s Scottish Devolution Referendum and buckling under the weight of internal division. One of only two MPs returned that year, he saw the socialist republican SNP group the ’79 Group (including Margo MacDonald, Jim Sillars and the young Alex Salmond) attempt to move the party much further to the left, staging a symbolic and illegal occupation of Edinburgh’s mothballed Scottish Assembly at the old Royal High School, while another splinter group, Siol Nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gael), emerged as flag-burning traditionalists.

At conference in 1982 Wilson decreed that all sub-groups be disbanded, an unpopular decision with many, yet one which allowed divisions to slowly heal. The 1980s were relative wilderness years for the SNP; they maintained their two Westminster seats in 1983, and although they took three in 1987 (and saw Sillars win the 1988 Govan by-election), Wilson lost Dundee East. Alex Salmond replaced him as leader in 1990.

Robert Gordon Wilson was born in Govan in Glasgow, the son of Robert George Wilson and Elizabeth (nee Murray), although he was raised for nine years of his childhood on the Isle of Man while his parents ran a guesthouse on the island. He returned to Scotland and studied law at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1959 and going on to work for the company now known as Brodies LLP; between 1971 and 1974 he also took work with Paisley law firm TF Reid and lived in the town, moving away when he won his seat in Dundee.

Sympathetic to the cause of Scottish nationalism while he was at university, Wilson joined the SNP upon graduation, apparently catalysed to do so by the establishment of the Royal Air Force’s research rocket test facility and artillery range on South Uist. In his earliest days as a lawyer he was also programme director of the pirate station Radio Free Scotland, whose output he described as “unofficial party political broadcasts”.

Transmitted in the few minutes between God Save the Queen signalling the shutdown for the evening of the BBC service and the transmitter itself being switched off, these broadcasts were as subversive as Wilson’s political career ever got. He started with Radio Free Scotland in 1959 and finished nearly five years later, and in 2011 his experience of the time informed his second book Pirates of the Air: The Story of Radio Free Scotland, the follow-up to 2009’s SNP: The Turbulent Years 1960-1990.

A devout Christian and member of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, Wilson set up Solas: A Centre for Public Christianity in 2010 with the Rev. David Robertson, an organisation devoted to promoting “persuasive evangelism… bringing the gospel into all areas of public life – politics, art, the workplace and even the church.” In later life, Wilson’s views in opposition to same-sex marriage brought him into conflict with the contemporary SNP of the 2010s, his contention being that the legalisation of the act should be decided upon by public referendum and not by parliamentary legislation.

Resident in Dundee from the time of his first election in the city and later based in Broughty Ferry, Gordon Wilson returned to practising law after his time as leader of the SNP, but his opinion was frequently sought by the press during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and its aftermath, and he launched his own pre-Referendum think-tank Options For Scotland in 2013. He died in Dundee’s Roxburghe House Hospice at the age of 79 after a short period of illness, and is survived by his wife Edith (nee Hassall), whom he married in 1965, their daughters Katie and Margaret, and five grandchildren.

DAVID POLLOCK