Gordon Wilson, former SNP leader, dies at 79

Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, seen here in June 2016, has died after a short illness. Picture: Scott Louden
Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, seen here in June 2016, has died after a short illness. Picture: Scott Louden
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Gordon Wilson, the former leader of the SNP, has died at the age of 79, the party has confirmed.

Mr Wilson, who led the party from 1979 until 1990 and served as SNP MP for Dundee East from 1974 until 1987, passed away in hospital after a short illness.

First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon paid tribute to Mr Wilson, who she described as a ‘true patriot’.

Ms Sturgeon added: “Gordon Wilson’s contribution to the success of the modern SNP was immense and his loss will be keenly felt across our party.

“He was a fine and kind man, a loving husband, father and grandfather and a true patriot.

“From his early days promoting the case for independence on Radio Free Scotland to his 13 years of service as MP for Dundee East and 11 years as leader of the party, Gordon was a passionate advocate for Scotland at every level.

September 2 1987: National Secretary John Swinney (left) and Chairman Gordon Wilson launch the SNP conference agenda. Picture: TSPL

September 2 1987: National Secretary John Swinney (left) and Chairman Gordon Wilson launch the SNP conference agenda. Picture: TSPL

“Gordon was always forthright in his views and his commitment to seeing Scotland become an independent country was second to none. Even - perhaps especially - on those occasions when his views on tactics differed from mine, I always highly valued and appreciated his advice.

“My thoughts are with Edith and all of his family at this time. Gordon will be fondly remembered and sadly missed by all those who knew and worked with him in the SNP and across the country.”

READ MORE - Jim Sillars: Gordon Wilson cared passionately about Scotland

Alex Salmond, who succeeded Mr Wilson as leader of the Nationalists in 1990, added: “Not only was Gordon one of the masterminds of the SNP parliamentary breakthrough of the 1970s, but he led the party through tough times in the 1980s.

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

“Hlding his Dundee seat in 1979 and 1983 was crucial in retaining the credibility which allowed the SNP to prosper in the 1990s and beyond.

“The party, the national movement, and Scotland owe him a great debt and my condolences go to Edith and the family.”

Deputy First Minister and family friend John Swinney added that the ‘strength of the SNP today is built on the courage and tenacity of fine people like Gordon Wilson’.

Mr Swinney added: “He was a giant of the Scottish National Party. He was critical to the transformation of the party from the fringe to the mainstream of Scottish politics.

Gordon Wilson speaking at the SNP conference in Rothesay, May 1980. Picture: TSPL

Gordon Wilson speaking at the SNP conference in Rothesay, May 1980. Picture: TSPL

“His administrative, campaigning and political skills built the SNP into a nationwide political force.”

Former deputy leader of the SNP Jim Sillars added: “It was privilege to know and work with Gordon Wilson. He is owed unpayable debt of gratitude by the SNP and the Yes movement.

“Gordon’s leadership, work and dedication in the 1980s kept the SNP and independence alive. Honesty, integrity and moral compass were his hallmarks.”

Mr Wilson is survived by his wife Edith, daughters Margaret and Katie, and five grandchildren.

Gordon Wilson: the leader who steered SNP through turbulent 1980s

Mr Wilson’s leadership from 1979 to 1990 was fraught with internal conflict, but he left the party in better shape on standing down.

Gordon Wilson, right, with fellow MP George Reid, outside the former Royal High School in Edinburgh in 1975. Picture: TSPL

Gordon Wilson, right, with fellow MP George Reid, outside the former Royal High School in Edinburgh in 1975. Picture: TSPL

Govan-born Mr Wilson first joined the party in the late 1950s while a student of law at Edinburgh University.

He was a leading figure behind the political pirate radio station Radio Free Scotland, which broadcast pro-independence messages to the nation until the mid-1960s, and later wrote a book about the station.

Mr Wilson worked as a solicitor before being elected as the MP for Dundee East in 1974, a seat he held until 1987.

He had worked his way up through the ranks of the party, serving as assistant national secretary from 1963 to 1964, national secretary from 1964 to 1971 and executive vice-chairman between 1972 and 1973.

During that time he was a key figure in the party’s oil campaign, which coined the political slogan ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’.

In his years at Westminster he was the SNP’s deputy group leader, oil and energy spokesman and joint devolution spokesman.

Mr Wilson took over the party’s leadership following the failed 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution and the loss of nine of the party’s 11 MPs in the subsequent general election.

The party was riven by internal conflicts in the first four years of his leadership, including over the emergence of the left-wing 79 Group and the ultranationalist Siol nan Gaidheal.

He presided over several poor performances in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, but the fortunes of the party began to improve, notably with the victory of Jim Sillars in the Govan by-election of 1988.

Mr Wilson did not retreat from politics after standing down as leader, and went on to stand unsuccessfully in the 1999 European Parliament elections.

Involvement in the 2014 campaign for Scottish independence

In addition to writing several books about his time in the SNP, he rose to prominence again as an active campaigner for independence in the run up to the Scottish referendum of 2014, setting up the think-tank Options for Scotland with former deputy SNP leader Mr Sillars.

In October last year, Mr Wilson branded a second vote on independence a ‘waste of time’ and opined that the timescale for a second referendum could be anything between ‘five and 20 years away’.

He added: “The only thing that would change things is if there was a sudden upsurge in the opinion polls from people wanting a second referendum, and more to the point be prepared to vote for independence if Scotland doesn’t get what they think it should get.”

Three months later he urged Nicola Sturgeon to abandon her push for a second vote, calling on the First Minister to put the plans on hold ‘indefinitely’.

Mr Wilson said: “Indyref 2 should be shelved indefinitely until a better case is made. Over the last two years since the 2014 referendum, there has been no attempt to build a case for independence.

“Where are the solutions on the currency and budget? Why has there been no attempt to explain how Scotland could be better off with full control of economic policy?”

“If Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, then the country’s expulsion from the EU by English voters could not have happened.

“This is the message that the SNP should be repeating throughout the land until it sinks home. Independence means taking control.”

Colin Bell, left, with Gordon Wilson, in front of an SNP recruitment poster in September 1980. Picture: TSPL

Colin Bell, left, with Gordon Wilson, in front of an SNP recruitment poster in September 1980. Picture: TSPL