The eulogy below was delivered today by Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP at the funeral of former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, which took place at St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee.
The impression that most people will have formed of Gordon Wilson, is of a figure of authority, an established political leader, a distinguished Member of Parliament, a much respected member of our society. All of that is true but it misses something much more important. Gordon started out as a rebel and he remained a rebel.
His political life began in the 1950s, hanging copper wire out of the window of his flat in Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge, with the aim of interrupting the BBC signal and broadcasting Radio Free Scotland to the country. To the clarion call of the Grand March of Aida – which we will hear later and which was played at Gordon and Edith’s wedding – Radio Free Scotland would be awaited with anticipation by a Nationalist cohort around Scotland, ignored by the mainstream media of the day. Gordon’s rebellious approach found a way of communicating the message of Scottish Independence beyond the conventional road blocks of the day.
This endeavour marked the start of a lifelong commitment – nay a devotion – to the cause of Scottish Independence.
In the early 1960s, his role as Assistant, then National Secretary of the SNP, put administrative and organisational order in place to enable a frankly ramshackle grouping to become a national political party.
In the early 1970s, frustrated by a downbeat, pessimistic mood in the Party, he identified the transformative opportunity of the discovery of oil and created the legendary campaign: ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’. Impeccably researched, imaginatively presented and ferociously aimed, Gordon’s vision energised the country and gave bleak times new light and optimism and hope. It also delivered the largest contingent of SNP MPs to Westminster until now.
In his leadership of the Party in the 1980s, coping with the disappointments of the failed Referendum in 1979, the disastrous electoral losses of that year and persistent internal division, Gordon literally ensured the survival of the SNP in 1982 and 1983. That is no exaggeration. To those of us who took part at that time, it was clear how close to disintegration the SNP was coming. Whether you agreed with his choices or not, Gordon took decisive action to ensure the survival of the Party he led and he loved.
But he did not leave it at that. He then rebuilt the Party, its relationships, its policies and its direction to ensure it could once again play a pivotal part in Scotland’s national life. He worked to broaden the Party’s base. He made a path back to the Party for those it had lost. He led changes to policies on devolution and Europe and would dearly have loved to change its defence policy. Indeed in one of those very Gordon Wilson moments, I witnessed him changing the 1983 Election Manifesto just as it was going to be printed from being anti-NATO (the Party’s democratically agreed position) to being pro-NATO (the Gordon Wilson position) with the stroke of his pen and the words “I’m sure they’ll understand I’m trying to win the election.”
Without a shadow of a doubt he left the SNP in a stronger position than when he assumed its leadership in 1979. The Party had been rebuilt. It was attracting greater electoral support. He was overjoyed at the Govan by-election win in 1988 and could see that better times lay ahead.
The conclusion is therefore clear. Whether it was the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, whether it was the way he gave the SNP firm direction or the way he cradled the Party in the palm of his hand, Gordon Wilson was utterly pivotal to the survival and success of the SNP.
In his history of the SNP, Gordon wrote this: “On 28 February 1974, I was elected MP for Dundee East, a constituency that I had come to love. Over the years, my Scottish nationalism was almost equalled by my Dundee loyalties.” In two short sentences, a huge part of defining Gordon’s political life is set out. He loved Dundee. He loved being an MP in this City. He loved bringing justice to the homes and the workplaces of those he had the privilege to represent. He was angry about what the people of Dundee had to endure and he acted at all times to make their lives better. He took their cause to the House of Commons where he gained respect for the passion and energy he demonstrated in speaking up on behalf of the people of Dundee East. Devoid of the resources that now surround politics, Gordon and Edith would stretch the hours in the day to serve the people of this City with respect, with empathy and with devotion.
During the recent election, one lady I canvassed in my own constituency told me enthusiastically she would be voting SNP. Any particular reason I asked? It was all because Gordon Wilson had fixed a problem for her Mother forty years before in Dundee. The tenacity that made Gordon Wilson determined to secure an independent Scotland was the same tenacity that was applied to sorting the everyday problems that afflicted the lives of his constituents in Dundee. Nobody could have had a stronger advocate on their behalf. And in tough election after tough election the people of Dundee East stood by him – until 1987. He was gutted by the loss of his seat but when I saw him in the morning just hours after the result had been declared, he was focused on taking forward our cause.
His love for Dundee found great expression in his election as Rector of Dundee University in 1983. In a bleak time politically it was an election that brought him and Edith much joy. They loved their association with the University. They recognised the boundless potential of the University to transform the City. And Gordon took such pride in what the University is now contributing to changing the outlook and the perspective of the City of Dundee.
Gordon’s political life was sandwiched between his early and his later career in law. He may not have been their MP, but Gordon Wilson & Co continued to serve the people of Dundee in law with the same didactic style that its senior – and only – partner had used for all these years in Parliament.
After he left the Party leadership, Gordon was more commentator than core participant. When his interventions became particularly pungent I would take it upon myself to try to talk him out of what he was saying. I have to confess that rarely was this a very successful strategy. There were things Gordon felt the SNP had to hear and he was the one to say them.
Indeed when I saw him on the Sunday before he died, I received a very clear and focused explanation of all I needed to know about the recent election.
Earlier this year, at an event in Dundee, I had the opportunity to say, in front of Gordon and Edith, the only conclusion that I think it is fair to say. That the existence today of a Scottish Parliament, the existence of an SNP Government and the existence of a more self-confident Scotland, is due to the foundations laid by Gordon Wilson. I am very glad he heard me say that.
Gordon Wilson was crucial to creating the Scotland of today. We all thank Edith, Margaret, Katie and their families for enabling Gordon to make the profound contribution he was able to make. We hold them in our hearts as we give thanks for Gordon’s magnificent life in the service of Scotland and this great City.
– John Swinney
Below is the tribute given by SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking after the service of remembrance outside St. Peter’s Free Church.
“Today is a sad day for everyone in the SNP but also an opportunity to celebrate the life and contribution of Gordon Wilson.
“Gordon was leader of the SNP when I first joined, and I will always remember him as someone with a clear sense of direction for the party.
“He led the SNP through some really difficult times and laid the foundations for the success we have enjoyed in more recent years.
“There probably wouldn’t be a Scottish Parliament, let alone an SNP government, without the many years of dedicated service from people like Gordon Wilson. He will long be remembered as someone who helped to build modern Scotland as we know it.
“Up until the final few days before Gordon passed away he was still an active commentator on Scottish politics. I valued the advice he gave me. Even when he didn’t agree with my approach, he was always hugely supportive.
“I remember after one of the first ever television interviews I gave when I was still a teenager getting a handwritten letter from Gordon giving me encouragement – that’s the kind of support and advice that me, Alex Salmond and John Swinney all benefitted from.
“We knew Gordon was there, willing us on, and I will certainly miss that.”
Former SNP leader and former First Minister Alex Salmond was also in attendance. He said:
“In the formative years of the SNP, Gordon was the one who turned the sentiment, the enthusiasm, the idealism of the party into actually winning things and he had the organisational nous to make that happen.
“His strength and resolution, in a belief of how things should be done, stood apart and paved the way for the recovery and triumphs of the SNP in more recent years.
“Gordon certainly spoke his mind, but you always knew that if he said something which was contrary to party policy it was because he believed it. He wasn’t doing it to upset the apple cart.
“Today’s service captured it really well: Gordon was somebody with a really extraordinary code of belief. Belief in his own faith, or his politics, or his personal conduct, he kept that absolutely, and that was a hugely admirable quality.”