Former leader of the Scottish National Party

Born: April 16, 1938;

Died: June 25, 2017

GORDON Wilson, who has died aged 79, led the Scottish National Party during a turbulent period but helped lay the basis for electoral recovery by nudging the nationalist movement back into the political mainstream.

He was elected chairman of the SNP at a bleak moment in its post-war history. In March 1979 Scots backed devolution in a referendum but not in sufficient numbers to make it a reality, while two months later all but two of the party’s “football team” of 11 MPs at Westminster lost their seats in an election that brought Mrs Thatcher to power.

A few months later Wilson succeeded Billy Wolfe as leader, and immediately found himself tested by internal factionalism, the 79 Group on the Left and the militaristic Siol nan Gaidheal on the Right, each with differing views on the strategic route to independence. This came to a head at the 1982 SNP conference, when in the midst of his keynote address Wilson announced a resolution banning all internal groups.

“Those of us who put Scotland and the party above narrow personal or political obsession,” he declared as leading members of the 79 Group walked out of the Dam Park Pavilion in Ayr, “cannot and will not tolerate behaviour which is divisive and harmful.” At another general election the following year, a divided party garnered just 11.8 per cent of the vote.

Robert Gordon Wilson, however, had been in the party long enough to have witnessed several highs and lows. Born in 1938 to a butcher’s van driver, he was educated on the Isle of Man and at the University of Edinburgh, where he joined the SNP when it struggled to poll more than one per cent of the Scottish vote. Following graduation, Wilson qualified as a solicitor and worked in Paisley for most of the 1960s.

As the SNP’s national secretary during the same period, Wilson played a key role in the professionalisation of the party. He also proved a skilled propagandist, engineering broadcasts on “Radio Free Scotland”, some from his Edinburgh flat (it gatecrashed the BBC TV wavelength late at night) and, later, running the “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign (he also coined the phrase) as the SNP’s executive vice chairman.

Wilson stood in the Dundee East by-election in 1973, coming a good second to Labour with 30.1 per cent of the vote. At his second attempt in February 1974 he won, holding it at a second general election that October. In his maiden speech in the House of Commons, Wilson spoke of controlling the North Sea oil industry to prevent it going from “boom to bust” while ploughing revenue “back into the industrial fabric of Scotland”.

Thereafter, Wilson served as deputy group leader at Westminster, oil and energy spokesman and joint spokesperson on devolution, another issue that dominated that period. Even before the 1979 election, however, the SNP had peaked, and as leader he often appeared to be managing decline rather than an electoral comeback. “I was the conductor of a very discordant band,” he later reflected, “hoping that it would learn to play in tune.”

Between 1983 and 1987, however, the mood music began to improve. Wilson made an effort to bring rebellious elements – most notably Alex Salmond – back into the fold, initiated an inquiry into party organization (though that proved a damp squib) and gradually nudged the SNP towards a more realistic policy prospectus. In certain respects, devolution and membership of the European Economic Community, this strategy proved a success, while in others, membership of NATO, it proved a failure.

Politics in the 1980s was, of course, dominated by Margaret Thatcher, but when it came to opposing the UK Conservative government the SNP had competition in the form of the Scottish Labour Party which, with its newfound enthusiasm for a devolved Scottish Parliament, was also able to harness Scotland’s small “n” nationalist vote. Wilson tried several tactics, including a 1980 relaunch of the oil campaign. “No wonder she’s laughing,” declared a poster depicting Thatcher with the black stuff dripping from her fangs, “She’s got Scotland’s Oil.”

SNP fortunes improved modestly at the 1987 general election, gaining 14.1 per cent of the vote (and more in local government contests). Wilson, however, was defeated in Dundee East, and although he remained leader for another three years, it proved increasingly difficult to assert his authority over the party, particularly with the ambitious Salmond and Jim Sillars in the House of Commons.

Sillars’ triumph at the 1988 Govan by-election was a high-point of Wilson’s leadership, but the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention that followed reopened old political wounds. Although he had long argued for a collaborative approach, the SNP was split between “gradualists” of like mind and “fundamentalists” bruised by the 1979 referendum and therefore suspicious of political ecumenicalism.

Following initial engagement, Wilson withdrew the SNP on the basis that independence would not be discussed, thereby granting Scottish Labour a political gift (it accused the nationalists of tribalism and isolationism). Relations with Salmond, his deputy since 1987, also worsened (Alex had not been consulted about the move) and, aware that he or Sillars might mount a leadership challenge, Wilson announced his resignation ahead of the 1990 conference.

Wilson admired Salmond’s political talents but not his personality and clearly wanted Margaret Ewing to succeed him; in turn, Salmond’s Young Turks saw Wilson as out of touch with the modern political era. That said, he arguably left the party in better shape than he had found it in 1979, more united, more electable and more moderate in policy terms.

Like many nationalists, Wilson contained contradictions. Although his rather dour public image belied a radical economic and constitutional outlook, in other respects he was conservative. A committed Christian, he co-founded Solas, a Centre for Public Christianity, in 2010, and warned his party against legalising gay marriage, predicting that it might erode support for independence. Later, Wilson also supported Brexit, likening the EU to “the Fourth Reich”.

He also proved a perceptive – and balanced – chronicler of his own party, producing two detailed histories (The Turbulent Years: 1960-1990 and Scotland: The Battle for Independence) and a shorter book about Radio Free Scotland (Pirates of the Air). With Jim Sillars, meanwhile, Wilson established the Options for Scotland think tank, which published a series of articles and papers both during and after the 2014 referendum.

Gordon Wilson is survived by his wife Edith, whom he married in 1965, and their two daughters, Katie and Margaret.