Asking a leading question

BILL Wilson is, he insists, a reluctant revolutionary. Sitting in an Edinburgh cafe, he looks exactly what he is - a bookish, mild-mannered, 39-year-old intellectual more suited to the dusty world of academia than the rough and tumble of modern politics.

Why, then, has he taken the extraordinary step of challenging John Swinney for leadership of the SNP? "I was hoping somebody else would do it," he admits. "I didn’t particularly want to do it. It’s just hassle in my life. I could have a much easier life not doing this. It’s not that I have an urge to go through this - it’s that no one else was."

Wilson speaks briskly, in full, grammatically correct sentences which feel designed to feature in a university student’s lecture notes. It is not exactly the language of a man desperate to climb the greasy political pole.

In the unlikely event he were to pull off a victory - and it’s clear he would be horrified by such an outcome - he would be Scotland’s most academically gifted party leader. He is an IT specialist, has four university degrees, listens to classical music and is currently reading books by a 19th-century philosopher and a Chilean political campaigner, the latter in the original Spanish.

The decision to stand against Swinney was painful, Wilson says. Last weekend, he pondered what to do as he climbed the 3,346ft Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart in brilliant sunshine.

When he came down and headed back to his home in Edinburgh, he faced three days of phone calls and tense discussions. Fellow SNP activists urged him to stand, accusing a lacklustre and distant party leadership of having cost them the Scottish election. "There’s a lot of very, very angry grassroots people out there," he says. "While I was thinking about standing I got a lot of pressure from party members saying we needed someone to come forward. I eventually said, ‘Yes, I’ll come forward,’ to give the grassroots members a choice, to say they’re not happy with the party’s direction, they’re not happy with the loss of party democracy."

The final decision to stand came only late last Wednesday, less than 48 hours before the close of nominations. It also came three days before Swinney’s wedding yesterday to BBC journalist Elizabeth Quigley.

Wilson admits that he felt uneasy about the timing of the bid. "I’d rather it didn’t come just before the wedding. But that was the day which the party allocated for announcing the nominations. It’s regrettable. I wish him well."

Swinney might doubt that, but Wilson insists: "What I’m doing now is political, not personal. I don’t know him well, but on the rare occasions when I’ve met him he’s always been perfectly pleasant towards me."

The theory, not unreasonably, is that Wilson is a stalking horse, a puppet operated by bigger players. If he wounds Swinney in the ballot, the theory goes, he will then step aside, allowing the puppet-master to emerge. For a moment, anger flashes across his face as he addresses this accusation. "There’s no one behind me. No one else pushing me. It’s the grass-roots membership."

Scotland on Sunday first revealed the prospect of a challenge in June, when Bob Scott, another Glasgow activist, said he was considering a bid. Although Scott later decided against the move, we revealed on July 6 that Wilson was sounding out party activists about putting his name forward.

His decision still came as a shock to the SNP regime. While they knew that some in the party were contemplating a challenge, they had hoped that no one would actually take the step of running for the post.

The moment of truth for both challenger and leader will come on September 27 at the SNP’s conference at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, when 800 party delegates will cast their votes in a secret ballot.

While Swinney is certain to win, all eyes will be on the size of his majority and, just as crucially, on how many despairing Nationalists decide not to vote. Some say that even if support for Wilson is as low as 5% Swinney will be fatally wounded. Although constitutionally the leader will not have to stand down unless he actually loses the contest, the moral pressure on him to do so could be irresistible.

This tactic would follow the example of Tory MP Anthony Meyer, who challenged Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Although he lost by a large margin - 314 to 33 votes with 27 abstentions - it was the first challenge to Thatcher’s leadership and ultimately led to her downfall a year later.

Swinney and his inner circle claim there is nothing to worry about. "Wilson will be crushed," says one loyal MSP. "The SNP is loyal to its leader and always believes in giving the current leader a chance. The party membership will be furious at being diverted from the real enemy, which is Labour. This leadership contest - if you can even call it that, what a joke, it’s just a group of malcontents in the party playing silly buggers - is nothing but a diversion."

Another sceptic says: "Look, let’s get real here. This guy is someone who has studied mouse droppings for goodness sake. This is not a serious contender."

However, some form of challenge to the leadership was seen as inevitable after the SNP’s dismal showing in May’s Scottish parliament elections. The party lost eight of its 35 MSPs in a dismal night for the SNP, during which 200,000 voters deserted it. Despite running what was seen as a slick and gaffe-free campaign, the party crashed to defeat as Labour held off the SNP challenge and people voted in their droves for the smaller parties such as the Greens and Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party.

The defeat was felt most keenly in Glasgow. The SNP went into the election with five list MSPs, but emerged with just two, the same number as the SSP. Wilson, the convenor of the SNP’s Glasgow regional association, feels that the party had allowed itself to be cut adrift from its activist base. He cites an example of a policy which has been ignored by the party leadership. "If you look at our manifesto there’s simply a proposal for fairer tax, but our policy is quite specifically a local income tax, which I believe is a fairer tax. If a policy has been voted through democratically then it should appear in the party’s agenda. It should not be hidden away."

Wilson is seen as one of the party’s fundamentalists, a group unhappy with what they regard as backpedalling on independence. He is a republican and a cultural Nationalist, campaigning for the Scots language and having picked up a little Gaelic on the way.

Some are unimpressed by both Swinney and his challenger. "Whatever else we want to do, we don’t want to be going this way. We don’t want a more leftish party, elections are won from the centre. Swinney’s not the answer, but neither is this guy’s recipe," says one critic of Swinney.

A senior Nationalist, formerly close to Swinney, has claimed the fact that Wilson is standing is enough to doom the leader. The figure, who asked not to be named "yet", said: "I’m afraid he’s finished. John Swinney - nice guy, not a leader. Unless there is some kind of transformation, he is gone.

"It doesn’t matter how well he does in the contest. The fact is that this is the leader being challenged by someone who admits he never really wanted to do it, but who is a serious, intelligent, rational person. Wilson is not leadership material, but he is not crazy and he is not some ‘enemy of the party’. John has had three years to lead the party, and he has he has failed to make the changes necessary. I’m sorry, but he’s got to go."

An SNP MSP, who also requested not be named, added: "This is just what we wanted. Wilson is not our guy and we didn’t ask him to stand. But if he stands then fine."

He added darkly: "Swinney has to go. In an ideal world, we might have wanted to see him hang on until after next year’s European elections, but if we have a chance to get rid of him now, then fine."

Alternative leadership names are already being canvassed, and deputy leader Roseanna Cunningham has emerged as the favourite. She is popular with the rank-and-file because of her fiery rhetoric, although she has dismissed talk of a leadership bid. Other potential candidates include Alex Neil, the fundamentalist defeated by Swinney for the leadership in 2000, and Kenny MacAskill, a former firebrand left-winger who has mellowed and moved to the political centre. Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s justice spokeswoman, is also tipped to stand.

Wilson’s decision to stand has shown the dilemma facing the SNP in the age of devolution. Many Scottish voters feel that they have the amount of home rule they want, with most areas of domestic policy being controlled in Edinburgh.

In addition, the Scottish parliament has been badly battered by blunders and the ballooning cost of home rule, which has dealt a blow to the nation’s political confidence and called into question whether a step towards full independence is necessary.

The party is riven by divisions between those who want more emphasis on a independence and those who want to show that it is capable of running a devolved Scotland. Both factions are furious that Swinney failed to inspire the voters despite Jack McConnell being seen as uninspiring and lacking vision.

McConnell’s aides are already preparing their jibes for the four Holyrood question times which will precede the election. The Scottish parliament will become unbearable for Swinney if there is any ambiguity about his level of support in the party. Bill Wilson, the bookish, reluctant candidate with the four degrees, may yet wield the violent, killing blow.

THE RIVALS

JOHN SWINNEY

Born: Edinburgh

Age: 39

Education: Forrester High School Edinburgh. Edinburgh University (MA Hons Politics)

Job: Leader of the Scottish National Party since 2000

Party career: Joined SNP in 1979 at age of 15. Leader since 2000. MP for North Tayside 1997-2001. MSP for North Tayside 1999-present

Family: Married BBC journalist Elizabeth Quigley yesterday. Has two children by previous marriage

Out and about: Mountain-biking

Reads: Tony Parsons, JK Rowling

Music: The Jam, Dougie Maclean

BILL WILSON

Born: Glasgow

Age: 39

Education: Shawlands Academy, Glasgow. Glasgow University (BSc Zoology). Aberdeen University (MSc Ecology). Queens University Belfast (PhD in the biology, ecology and regulation of wood mice). Glasgow University (Masters in IT)

Job: Computer programmer for a major financial institution in Edinburgh

Party career: Joined SNP in 1989 at age of 25, after campaigning with Labour party. Convener of SNP Glasgow Association. Contested Glasgow Mayhill in 1999 and 2003

Family: Married. First wedding anniversary falls on date of leadership ballot

Out and about: Hill-walking in the Andes, the Himalayas, Kenya, Mexico and all over Scotland

Reads: Philosophy, historical novels

Music: Classics, especially Mozart and Beethoven. Also classic jazz and folk