During his ten years as SNP leader the party went from two electoral triumphs in 1974 to tragedy at the 1979 general election.
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Persuaded to join the SNP in 1959 by an activist called Robert Kerr, Wolfe believed that there “is a nation of Scots, therefore to survive, that nation must behave like other nations and accept responsibilities of nationhood”. Within three years Wolfe had made his mark at the West Lothian by-election of 1962.
Despite losing the seat to the Labour Old Etonian Tam Dalyell, Wolfe gained a 23.3 per cent swing to the SNP with the memorable slogan “Put Scotland First”, a significant breakthrough for a party
hitherto on the margins of Scottish politics. He went on to fight Dalyell at another six elections, while the result provided the impetus for Wolfe’s professionalisation of the party over the next decade.
As well as building up a modern party organisation, Wolfe also fleshed out the SNP’s political philosophy. “One of the things of which I became convinced during the by-election campaign,” Wolfe later wrote in his 1973 book, Scotland Lives, “was the need to engage in political dialogue, with knowledge and conviction, on almost any current topic with political implications.”
In June 1962 he formed the Social and Economic Inquiry Society of Scotland, a forum committed to advancing the case for independence through statistical research, while in 1963 Wolfe attempted to forge a political pact with the pro-devolution Scottish Liberal Party. Meanwhile the party’s image was transformed; Wolfe’s idea of fusing the St Andrew’s Cross with a thistle producing a new SNP logo, which is still in use today. The 1964 general election indicated some progress. Wolfe added more than 5,000 votes to his by-election result, while producing and circulating a policy document called “SNP and You”.
In 1967 these organisational reforms helped catapult Winnie Ewing to victory in the Hamilton by-election. By then Wolfe was Senior Vice Chairman (Deputy Leader) of the SNP, replacing Arthur Donaldson as SNP National Convener (Leader) at the Oban conference in 1969.
William Cuthbertson Wolfe, always known as “Billy”, was born on 22 February 1924. Educated at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, he qualified as a Chartered Accountant before serving in the Scottish Horse Regiment during the Second World War.
Having settled in West Lothian he became a prominent local figure through his work as a Boy Scouts commissioner and manufacturer of claymores for visiting tourists.
A journalist depicted Wolfe in 1967 as “a dour chartered accountant, the party’s money-man and theoretician”, his “calm exterior” not going “very far in concealing [his] cold fury at Scotland’s plight”. Under Wolfe’s guidance, meanwhile, the SNP went from having fewer than 2,000 members in the early 1960s to more than 80,000 after the Hamilton by-election.
Electoral success, however, continued to elude Wolfe. He failed to capture West Lothian at the 1966 or 1970 general elections, and came only third at the Edinburgh North by-election on November 8, 1973. More successful that day was Margo MacDonald, whose victory in Govan signalled a rise in SNP support which saw the party secure seven MPs at the February 1974 election, and another four at a second poll in October.
Instead, Wolfe concentrated his energies on developing a social democratic ethos for the SNP. This was something, according to Alex Salmond’s tribute yesterday, “which there were doubts about when he was leader, but which came to fruition in later years, and was vital in the success we enjoy today”.
As Wolfe remarked at the 1970 SNP conference: “We are not just concerned with a solitary aim, although that aim of independence is over-riding and is fundamentally the greatest thing we can fight for – freedom. We are part of a social movement as well, agitating for reforms.” This agitation included trade union engagement via Wolfe’s Association of Scottish National TradeUnionists.
Wolfe also had his share of internal strife during his decade as leader, most often because of tension between the SNP’s Edinburgh-based leadership and its 11-strong group of MPs at Westminster. When that tally was reduced to just two at the 1979 general election, Wolfe stood aside as leader and instead took up the presidency of the party.
Now a respected Nationalist elder statesman, Wolfe encouraged a band of leftwingers in the party known as the 79 Group (whose members included Alex Salmond), annoying those on the fundamentalist wing, while in 1982 he made an uncharacteristic intervention in advance of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Scotland. Writing in the Church of Scotland magazine Life & Work,he objected in the strongest possible terms.
Under immense pressure from his successor as SNP leader, Gordon Wilson, Wolfe refrained from saying anything more about the visit and also decided not to seek re-election as party president. Ten years later he apologised, saying simply, “I don’t know why I did it”.
From 1991 to 2008 Wolfe served variously as a member of the SNP’s National Executive Committee and as an elected member of its National Council. He also lent his support to the cross-party Scottish Independence Convention.
Billy Wolfe passed away on Thursday night at Udston Hospital in Hamilton after a period of illness. He is survived by his wife Kate, and by four children – David, Sheila, Ilene and Patrick – from a previous marriage.
Politician and accountant;
Born February 22, 1924
Died March 18, 2010.