Scotland politics

Gordon Wilson: An appreciation

Gordon Wilson Image copyright PA

Let me tell you a daft wee story about Gordon Wilson. Or rather about the city of Dundee, my home town, his adopted one.

These were different times. The SNP was not the slick, substantial powerhouse we see now. It was compact yet creative. The prospect of political control seemed remote. The object, as an interim, was influence.

One of the more maverick citizens of Dundee - yes, they do exist - was canvassing support for Gordon Wilson, who was MP for Dundee East from February 1974 to June 1987.

This bold campaigner decided that the best method for enthusing the electorate was to wander round the streets of the ancient burgh, with a tape recorder in a pram, belting out supportive messages.

All was going relatively well. The pram wheels were moving smoothly. The tape recorder was loudly exhorting the voters.

Then one elderly lady stopped our determined canvasser. Gazed at his voluble pram. And declared, in the Dundonian patois: "Meh, son, yer bairn's got a bra' voice!" (Your child has notably effective lungs.)

Radio Free Scotland

I tell this silly story for two reasons. One, it occurred to me from the miasma of personal memories about Gordon. Two, it reflects my earlier point: that his influence extends way back into an entirely different period for the SNP.

He joined the SNP in the late 1950s. Early activity included helping set up and run the pirate radio station, Radio Free Scotland.

There then followed extensive endeavour for the party, as a campaigner, as an elected official. Then as MP. Then, from 1979, as leader or, more precisely, chairman.

This much one can glean from published material. But these bald statements do not include the anecdotes. They do not include the political passion he displayed. And they do not include the contradictions, the inherent controversy in his story.

Gordon Wilson was the Edinburgh-educated Glaswegian who became a Dundonian, a staunch advocate of Dundee. He was the douce, precise lawyer - who nevertheless sustained fire in his belly and in his tongue for the project of independence.

And he was the leader, the chairman, who presided over - and, some critics say, helped foment - the most divisive and challenging period in the modern history of the SNP. (The early decades were full of internal contention which many now forget.)

Party tensions

It was his fortune, his fate, to become leader in 1979 just as the SNP entered a phase of disquiet, of dispute. He it was who outlawed the '79 Group who had sought to blend Nationalism with Socialism. He viewed them - or was conjoined to view them - as a divisive force, a schism.

Their members included figures who were to go on to play leading roles in the party and in Government: Alex Salmond, Kenny MacAskill, Roseanna Cunningham and more.

I remember, as a very young political reporter, interviewing Margo MacDonald about the Group while at party conference in Dundee. I remember too the conference in Ayr in 1982 when the conflict came to a head and Gordon Wilson declared the Group persona non grata.

There were tensions too between the Parliamentary SNP - including Gordon Wilson - and the office-bearers back in Edinburgh. Remember that these were indeed different times: the SNP had not long developed a substantial Parliamentary presence.

Later, there was tension over whether the SNP should remain within the cross-party Constitutional Convention or pursue the pure path of independence. The Nationalists chose to leave - but some disputed either the decision or the timing or both.

'Passionate advocate'

It is no coincidence, then, that Gordon Wilson's book about this period is entitled SNP: The Turbulent Years 1960 - 1990.

When that book was launched at party headquarters, I recall Gordon reflecting wryly upon those conflicts of the past - but still with a commitment to the wider Nationalist cause.

So, for the SNP, that was a troubled period. One that not all will remember with warmth. But surely the longer term verdict upon Gordon Wilson will undoubtedly be much more positive.

Those in rival parties will recall a diligent and dedicated opponent, one who prepared closely for each and every argument - and who fought his cause in a selfless and thorough fashion.

Nationalists will surely recall, as Nicola Sturgeon has said, "a passionate advocate for Scotland". Throughout his early years and his leadership, he pursued the prospect of independence according to his vision and his verdict upon contemporary politics.

In his latter decades, still in Dundee, he remained fervently interested in the national question and in wider politics, expressing views upon devolved debate and the opportunities for independence.

Perhaps he will be remembered most for the persistence and passion of his commitment to the cause he selected while still a young man.

Dundonians can remember the political perambulator.

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