Episcopalian priest and leading advocate of devolution

Born: August 31, 1932;

Died: January 11, 2017

Loading article content

CANON Kenyon Edward Wright, who has died aged 84, was a man who had possibly the strongest claim to have been the godfather of devolution. He will be remembered for his role in cajoling disparate Scottish opposition groups to work together and moulding a single coherent case for constitutional change.

A decade after the referendum failure of 1979, and with Margaret Thatcher still in Downing Street, Canon Wright was invited to lead the seemingly impossible task of creating a consensus that was to drive the path towards a second devolution campaign and the resulting creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

In doing so, he set a mark for political campaigning in Scotland, and strongly influenced the idea that the Parliament chamber itself be designed to physically minimise the potential for confrontation and promote positive debate. By the second referendum, he had even brokered the return to the fold of the Scottish National Party, which had boycotted the convention. It is forgotten sometimes that Alex Salmond and Donald Dewar campaigned together for a Yes, Yes vote in 1997.

The arrival of Canon Wright to the political stage, as executive chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, kick-started the home rule campaign with an assertion of the sovereign right of Scots to determine their affairs. Although hardly a household name, he was recognised then as an articulate Church figure and an energetic campaigner fascinated by politics and community activism.

Born in Paisley in 1932, the son of a technician for the major local employer J&P Coats, Kenyon Edward Wright attended Paisley Grammar, studying later at both Glasgow and Cambridge universities. At 23, newly married, he travelled with his bride, Betty, to India as a Methodist missionary. Their sojourn was to last 15 years, and saw him become director of the Ecumenical, Social and Industrial Institute in Durgapur in 1963. It was an early sign of Canon Wright as talented organiser and campaigner.

In 1970, he returned to the UK as director of urban ministry at the prestigious Coventry Cathedral. He was quickly promoted, and directed the cathedral’s international ministry. By now Canon Wright – fluent in Bengali, French and German and experienced abroad – was truly a man of parts. At Coventry, he made a name for himself in a key area of Christian work, reconciliation. His experience there and earlier in India was to serve him well in Scotland.

He returned north in 1981 as general secretary of the Scottish Churches Council, an appropriate post for an Episcopal priest well used to working with other denominations to achieve shared goals. He was still in his forties and keen to make his mark. His arrival came as the Christian churches were experiencing decline. This once notably pious nation was lapsing rapidly into secularism, even agnosticism.

It was time to stand for something, and tempting to look beyond the conventional concerns. Canon Wright led a delegation into dialogue with Christians in communist East Germany during the 1980s. Inspired by the efforts of Roman Catholics in aiding the Solidarity movement in Poland, other churches sought common cause across the Iron Curtain.

This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous Sermon on the Mound, when the then Prime Minister espoused her controversial ideas about Christianity and neo-liberalism to the General Assembly. In that context, with the churches in ferment over Thatcherism, Kenyon Wright’s selection to head the constitutional convention made absolute sense.

The Conservatives had long opposed devolution, and relied on the internecine warfare between the opposition parties – particularly Labour and the SNP – to continue what was effectively “direct rule” from Westminster. In this context, Canon Wright made his now-celebrated comment: “What if the other voice we all know so well responds by saying ‘we say no, and we are the state’? Well we say ‘yes – and we are the people’.”

When he arrived, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly had produced the Claim of Right for Scotland, which was to be the basis of the convention’s work. Canon Wright pulled together its constituent partners, including political parties, trade unions and other interests. He did so with a certain style, and produced the convention’s final report in 1995. Its main points were adopted by the incoming Blair government in 1997, and approved by referendum that same year.

He was awarded the CBE for his work in 1999, and joined the Liberal Democrats, standing unsuccessfully for them in the Banff and Buchan Westminster seat in 2001, and in Stirling for the Scottish Parliament two years later. Although he retired as an Episcopalian priest in 2008, returning to live in the Midlands, he remained politically active, pressing for English devolution. He joined the Yes campaign for Scottish independence during the 2014 referendum, making a typically assertive intervention on sovereignty just before polling day.

He died peacefully at home in Stratford on Avon last Wednesday, and is survived by Betty and their three daughters.

MAURICE SMITH