Jim Sillars' tribute to former SNP leader Gordon Wilson

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.

Jim Sillars. Picture: Neil Hanna

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.

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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 to the party 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 the party, 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.

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.

l Jim Sillars is a former deputy leader of the SNP.