Scottish Political Correspondent

ANYONE who expects Gordon Wilson to slide gracefully from the Scottish

political scene with his surprise move to stand down as leader of his

party has not studied his past.

Only 13 years ago he similarly shook his party by quitting the deputy

leadership post after the spectacular row over the leak of the Queen's

private conversations on independence.

Barely a fortnight later he was back giving the Westminster Unionist

parties as rough a time as ever. Earlier in the 70s he took a year's

sabbatical and that led directly to the SNP's successful North Sea oil


This time, however, there is unlikely to be any such return by a

politician who has been a commanding figure in Scottish political life

for almost two decades.

In short the batteries are flat and being a sensible man Mr Wilson,

52, has decided the time has come to re-charge. During the recent

regional elections he found the strain of running a busy law practice

and campaigning utterly exhausting.

He felt his health could be at risk and, as he put it yesterday, in

Dundee: ''I felt I was trading on my luck. It is a personal decision and

there is no deep, sinister political motive behind it.''

It is a decision that will be a great relief to his gentle wife,

Edith, a loyal bulwark of support who helps run the business and shared

the strain of his highly demanding public life. As a child she was

interned with her missionary parents by the Japanese in Shanghai.

Mr Wilson freely confesses that the strain forced him to reconsider

the pledge he gave the party at the last annual conference that he would

lead them into the next General Election.

''My judgment was that the load I was bearing was intolerable,'' he

stated. ''I felt if it was this bad during the regional elections what

would it be like during a General Election campaign? I would not have

taken this decision unless I felt it was best for the party.

''It will allow me to organise my life better,'' and then he added

significantly, ''so that I can be able to give assistance to the party

in coming years.''

His late-night phone calls round the executive of the party shook them

to the core. He said: ''I know they were all taken by surprise because I

had kept my cards close to my chest.''

Party spokesmen Chris McLean testified to that: ''I am not often

surprised by events in the party but what Gordon told me left me

completely dumbstruck.''

The strain all stems from the loss of his former Dundee East seat to

Labour after 13 years in 1987. To head his party, keep abreast of

changing political events, and rebuild his professional career outwith

Westminster, took its toll.

He admitted: ''There is no soft-landing for a former SNP MP. I had to

recreate my life on the basis of my own talents and starting at a later

stage than is normal.''

Remarkably Mr Wilson is only one of three leaders of the nationalist

party in 30 years. The redoubtable Arthur Donaldson held the post for

nine years to hand over the reins to the visionary Willie Wolfe for

another 10.

When Mr Wilson hands over this September he will have held the post

for 11 years. As tributes pour in it is as well to look back on a

stewardship that saw him take the party forward out of a slough to mould

it into a fighting force for the 1990s.

When he took control the party was scraping along disastrously as the

Scottish dimension vanished in the wake of the Referendum campaign. The

failure to land an Assembly was no blow to a hardline independence man.

A graduate of Edinburgh University, he celebrated his law degree 30

years ago by joining the SNP, angered by the establishment of the rocket

range on South Uist.

He was too young to take part in the romantic episode surrounding the

removal of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, but compensated

for that by becoming programme planner for the pirate Radio Free


He saw the glory of Winnie Ewing's historic Hamilton by-election

triumph followed by doldrums that seemed to indicate the nationalist

bubble would burst. Then he struck oil.

Long before Westminster realised the significance of what was

happening in the North Sea he produced a strategy that took his party to

fresh heights. ''It's Scotland's oil,'' captured the public imagination.

The net result was 11 seats in the SNP's heydays in the 70s.

When he took control he knew he had a tough task ahead. The SNP still

suffered from the tartan bombers' image with weird kilted figures,

wearing leather Jacobin gear and dirks, wandering conference. Too often

there was a ''Nuremberg rally'' atmosphere.

Gordon Wilson, the dapper solicitor favouring a city businessman's

line in three-piece suits was the proper antidote to all that. He gave

the party its modern structure.

His greatest achievement (although many regarded it as sheer

authoritarianism at the time) was to meet head-on the ideological

schisms in the party.

Siol nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gael) were marching around like

stormtroopers behind silly banners and causing mayhem at Tory

conferences and even Bannockburn rallies.

The left-wing Republican 79 Group were caucusing and taking the party

along dangerous paths of civil disobedience. It was a volcanic situation

that finally burst in the hothouse of the Dam Park hall in Ayr one

thundery day in June 1973.

The right wing had organised behind the Campaign for Nationalism. Mr

Wilson, amid walkouts, forced through a motion banning all groups.

''Back me or sack me,'' he told delegates. He won.

Seven left-wingers, including his now deputy Alex Salmond, who is

likely to compete for his job and Kenny MacAskill, a possible deputy,

were thrown out of the party. After protests they were later readmitted.

The rest is history. The fever had broken and all the disparate groups

suddenly discovered the joys of collective leadership and shared

responsibilities. The SNP re-emerged as a reinvigorated fighting force

with Govan the high point. People like ex-Tory Iain Lawson and ex-SLP

founder Jim Sillars MP were able to share common cause and public

platforms with ease, much to the discomfort of their many enemies.

When Mr Wilson, a skilled orator and poll tax non-payer, quits the

party leadership this autumn his work in maintaining unity will be seen

by far to be his most telling achievement among many others.

It was he who led the campaign in the mid-60s that saw them have party

political broadcasts; he became Rector of Dundee University, was awarded

an honorary doctorate, and he is currently chairman of Tayside Marriage


He is regarded as one of the seminal figures of modern nationalism,

giving the party an ethos of its own. When needed he has bent with the

current -- the vote for devolution -- and saw his views vindicated


Gordon Wilson has created an SNP that conceivably could be about to

make the leap forward he has dreamed of for 30 years, only the

denouement of the next General Election can disprove that. His imprint

is discernible on its every policy. He will be a hard act to follow.