One of the last major political testimonies of a giant of Scotland’s national movement, former SNP leader Gordon Wilson–courtesy CommonSpace
Wilson passed away on 25 June 2017. In March 2016, he was interviewed by Abertay University Sociology Lecturer Dr Wallace McNeish as part of research for an ongoing project.
Youth, radicalism and culture
Dr Wallace McNeish: To begin I would like to ask you what parallels you see between the independence movement today and the movement of the past?
Gordon Wilson: If you went to back to where I started there was a national movement, if not a nationalist movement, and we are there again – so it has come full circle.
WMcN: What do you mean when you say it was a national movement?
GW: It’s a movement of people wanting Scottish independence or sometimes even devolution, which was not bound up entirely in the SNP. And for the last 20 odd years or 30 years it’s been the SNP that was the driving force and which eclipsed other parts of the movement, including the artistic and cultural aspects.
WMcN: So, do you think that’s what has been key to the renaissance of the independence movement over the last 10 years or so, along with SNP being in power in Holyrood?
GW: Well that of course can cause a distortion because you then become a party of government and subject to all the pressures of government, which are not necessarily related to principal, but more of the availability of money.
As you well know as a historian, the movement for Scottish autonomy is long standing. In fact, you might say it went away back to Agricola’s invasion even though the country didn’t exist as such. Leaving aside the ancient history, you’ve got the pressures in the 19th century commencing with Walter Scott and others. And from then you move into the liberal home rule era, not forgetting of course that in 1914 on the back of the Irish Home Rule Bill there was a Scottish Home Rule Bill with federalism all round that might well have gone through – and it was hit on the head by the First World War – as were many things. Then you’ve got the impasse of a fair number of Scottish MP’s wanting a Scottish parliament but doing nothing about it because party loyalties came first. During that time, you had the literary renaissance which is where the cultural movement, you might say, in the 20s and the 30s right into the 60s I would guess, took precedence while the political movement languished. So, these things come in different waves, just as for example, during the last 10 or 15 years in Wales Plaid Cymru was sometimes was ahead of the SNP and sometimes behind – now they’ve dropped off.
WMcN: Is it the congruence now between the cultural movement and the political movement that’s given this new impetus, this new strength to independence that we see today?
GW: Well there was a congruence during the referendum but I think the gap is widening again – because the SNP has never been accused fairly or unfairly of being a cultural organisation. In fact, it is anti-cultural in many aspects which is why perhaps it is such a successful body. A lot happened in 1950s and it is little known, never disguised that for 9 years of my life before I came back to Scotland, I was an emigre in the Isle of Man, which of course has conditioned my views. Unlike many of the SNP people I’ve never been British!
They will still have more power than the Scottish parliament will have under the new legislation. When I was at school in 1955 I began getting active and I think it is of interest that the issue that perhaps motivated me initially was the Manx experience but also I had read that the British government was going to set up rocket ranges in South Uist, Wick and Benbecula and there were complaints that this development might destroy or impair the Gaelic language, And that was a cultural issue which I got – and I wrote to the Scottish Secretariat and got a petition together only to find that there were two segregated schools, boys and girls – the boys flatly refused to sign anything like that. So, I became cunning like a politician and in those days of course, your church fellowships and things like that were well attended with girls – so I got them to sign.
Having done that I brought it back to the boys school and the boys immediately all signed because the girls had signed. But it was a cultural event. For the first three years or so when I was at University of Edinburgh I was a member of the Nationalists Club which incidentally was not the Scottish Nationalist, it was the Edinburgh University Nationalist Club and the first thing that happened was I was thrown into the great Edinburgh student riot.
WMcN: Can you tell me a bit more about your early days and the cultural aspects of nationalism when you were in the Nationalist Club at Edinburgh, and what was this riot?
GW: What happened, was in 1956 Britain invaded the Suez Canal along with France and Israel, and the Nationalist Club objected to that on nationalist grounds.
We were linked with all colonial peoples, and there were quite a number of African and Asian students even in those days in Edinburgh. And the University was split down the middle, the medics and Tories and rugby club all got together on one side, and I was ‘scragged’ in the middle of a quadrangle and only saved by the combined strength of the boxing and judo clubs.
But I’m just giving you an indication that we were internationalists although quite substantially nationalists in a way that I don’t [think] any other club was. Leaving that aside, at the time the EUNC operated, they had a system of multiple transferrable memberships which allowed for obtaining of grants from University authorities, and one of the ones that was there was the Scottish Renaissance Society and these two were linked together.
I remember the Renaissance Society who were operating in a different dimension to us – but also in my last year as a student – I was a Law Student and therefore doing an apprenticeship at the same time – I was treasurer and at the foundation meeting of the Edinburgh University Folk Songs Society and that then linked into another dimension because you had the Folk Song movement which in fact prepared the ground in many ways for the SNP, and was anti-nuclear.
I remember walking back from a big demonstration, it only became a riot, well nothing very much, there wasn’t a single broken window, but there was I think some medical student broke an arm, but there was no real harm done in the whole thing. But walking back down we were stopped by a man with a moustache, it was Hamish Henderson, asking me how things were going on.
It only became that kind of thing because the police sealed both entrances and nobody could get out and so no demonstration. But that was the kind of proximity between culture and politics at the time. And you had links that went on with the School of Scottish Studies – they weren’t all that substantial but in my last year the Nationalist Club set up or continued an award to Hugh MacDiarmid – we collected money out of which a painting was given.
And there was a long-standing photograph now lost, my very first political one in the Evening Dispatch with me handing over the painting, which was in cubist style, to Hugh MacDiarmid – he had red hair coming up like a volcano – and standing alongside me was Helen Cruickshank!
And then in my last year, or the year after, the president of the club was a man called Alex Clark whom you have never heard of, but you could have done. He would have been a first-class leader of the SNP, he was a great man but he was killed in an accident in Africa in one of his jeeps.
He came from Sighthill in Edinburgh, one of the housing schemes, but he had learned some pigeon Gaelic, and he and I went up to the west coast of Lewis clutching a School of Scottish studies tape recorder – camping out in early October in the West Coast of Lewis is not for the faint hearted! So, we were taking stories. At the same time you were having the Edinburgh poets, quite a gang of them, All along the line there was an inter-relationship between culture and politics and there was not a curtain between them.
What the radical 1960s can teach the SNP about membership and momentum today
Dr Wallace McNeish: I always look back at the late 60s as a period of tumult, of serious social change, cultural change, people questioning the way that things that have always been done, people questioning the establishment – could the SNP could be seen as part of the 60s counter culture in one way or another?
Gordon Wilson: It was a manifestation. There was quite considerable political unrest in France with student revolts and strikes. And you had Quebec going on and you had unrest over Vietnam in the United States. You might say it is rather like 2015-16 and Donald Trump and all the rest! It is a battle between those in control and those who are not, between the elites and the people. And it will be interesting to what extent that has an impact on the outcome of the European Referendum. Now I’m not a prophet. But you had that change, and then the next stage as you know well from history is that the SNP crashed but leaving behind the relic of Kilbrandon Commission like a time bomb ticking away very slowly, and the SNP recovered, and there was the discovery of oil – then we had the SNP in full flow.
WMcN: I’m just thinking about how you described this roller coaster ride for the Independence movement from the 50s through the 60s into the 1970’s – lots of peaks and troughs?
GW: Yes – Peaks and troughs for the SNP, but you said the Independence movement, but there was no Independence movement by then. That had been in the 50s and early 60s but all the other bodies had gone by the 70s, and theSNP was by then advancing far faster than the cultural background.
WMcN: I recall reading in your book that membership of the SNP in this period was maybe up to 70, 80, 90 thousand – so certainly on paper there was a huge surge in membership in the late 1960s?
GW: It went up and Ian MacDonald claimed it was about 120,000 but I pinned him to the ground, and he said that the trouble was that it was difficult to judge but it would no less than 70,000.
WMcN: That’s a significant political party in the Scottish scene in that period of time.
GW: And it was well funded because we had Alba pools based on the membership bringing in income which in modern terms would be into seven figures.
WMcN: So, you’ve got quite significant resources and you’ve got quite a significant membership. Now looking at today, in terms of the membership surge, the party has reached 115,000 signed up members. How then does the SNP stop that surge and growth in membership from dissipating in the same way that it did previously?
GW: I can’t answer that. Indeed, no doubt Peter Mallow and Nicola are scratching their heads and worrying. If the bottom falls out, it falls out very quickly and then you are left with a superstructure of staff which have to be made redundant and that’s happened twice in my lifetime and its not a pleasant thing. You can’t control it but you’ve got to remember that Scotland was going through transition and support for the SNP was skin deep, and there was no great generational loyalty, and it probably wasn’t until the 1990’s that it stabilised and you began to get a second generation coming through whose parents had voted SNP. And Scotland’s identity I think, as far as I could see, in the 1950s was British. In the 1960s it was British with a bit of Scotland put in, and that carried through into the 1970s. Roundabout the 1980s it began changing again and the loyalty became more Scottish but still British.
I mean I was reading an opinion poll quite recently that showed that not only had we got the 45 per cent in the YES vote being a nationalist total but you’ve got an increased British identity in Scotland because one has reinforced the other. Action and reaction or equal and opposite, aren’t they, maybe not entirely though – otherwise we’d give up!
WMcN: On the one-hand there are all these great opportunities that are created by these surges in membership, you are getting resources, you can build an organisation, you can build networks, there can be a real push forward when you get that surge. But there are also dangers when you get that surge as well. There is the danger of dissipation but there is also dangers of schism as well, and the SNP has a history of schism and that’s obviously something you want to avoid. How can the SNP today with lots of different expectations from the members, lots of different reasons why people have joined the SNP – how as party do you keep a lid on that?
GW: By being successful. Success is the most effective cement you can have in sustaining party unity. If you are doing well, if people have ambitions that can be realised, if there is a feeling well-being, then nobody is going to do anything except support the leadership. Indeed, in the current SNP, particularly amongst the older members – they dislike disloyalty, having been through that sort of thing before. But of course, all it needs is a downturn in electoral performance and people losing their seats, people not being elected, then you will have people who find reasons for disagreement on policy mixed in with personal bitterness. And when you get to that stage you are in danger, and of course if you get to the stage where people lose hope you are in danger of falling apart.
The turmoil of the 80s and SNP factionalism
Wallace McNeish: You’ve got the Thatcher government coming in – so what happens to the SNP during the 1980s – what are the key events and key issues?
Gordon Wilson: The fact is that for the next three years was a civil war. The Party reacted against the devolution thing, and it had already started doing that even before then. At the conference after the defeat – there was what you might call a landslide of ‘independeesters’ – in other words people who were completely against devolution for various reasons. One is they had never believed in it.
Two, that they were angry that we had been taken in by it. Three that it was an experiment that failed. Four, it had brought down the party support- and I remember when Douglas Henderson who was elected Senior Vice Chairman – just leant across to me and said it’s gone too far’.
In other words, the gradualists and the left had been pushed out of power. It’s always a dangerous thing – especially in a party as multi-faceted as the SNP – you need balances – quite complex balances at times. At any rate, there was also, not just a feeling of desperation and defeatism following upon the serious political consequences – because the feeling was that they’d won the majority in the referendum but had been denied – there was a disbelief in democracy and the party didn’t know what to do, and therefore as you can imagine, different views emerged. And you had the development of factionalism. The 79 Group was the best known. But almost as strong in many ways was Siol-nan-Gaidheal which was crypto-fascist, and its memberships were largely found in the housing schemes.
The 79 group by and large were middle class lefties -very intelligent people of course, and they had a case. But they took the wrong step of organising factions and being very nasty about their opponents, and also tried to manipulate and target support amongst branches by manipulation. And it was Neil McCormack who is one of the most liberal and tolerant of people, actually who moved a resolution in 81 to have groups abolished at the National Council. And he failed because the 79 Group and the Left and Siol-nan-Gaidheal coalesced to block the change. At which point of course the Party had lost a lot of membership through the defeat – in other words, as I’ve said before, success is the main cement of unity. Also, people had given up, they were tired, they had been working on this for anything up to 10 years or more. They had families to consider, jobs to look at, but the inter-branch struggles also meant that a lot of people couldn’t stand the pressures, or the nastiness and said ‘I’m leaving’. So, you then had a complete diminution of membership.
WmcN: Were some branches loyal to the 79 Group, some branches loyal to the mainstream party? was there inter-branch warfare?
GW: Also, internal branch warfare. And then in the constituencies. You know because the civil war was being carried on – and I remember – I think it was the 1980 and 1981 conferences which were poisonous – and Edith and I would go through speaking to people and some people wouldn’t speak to us. And they were friends. It had gone that far. But of course, as these things went on there was another factor that people didn’t realise was holding the SNP back, apart from the SNP itself – the most effective weapon of holding the SNP back was another party, and that was the Social Democratic Party. It was siphoning off a lot of the dissatisfaction, taking away the moderate Labour vote that we might have got, taking it away from the Tories too. I mean, effectively there was only room for one fourth Party if I could put it that way, and we were the fourth.
The nearest example I can think of about the SNP and what happened to it, was that we moved from the Premier League rather like Rangers going down to League Four – we crashed and had all the same managerial problems and funding problems. But having said all that it looked as though things were stabilising and there was a Paisley conference which I think Jim Sillars in 1980 or 81 had launched the militancy thing and it went – there was a resolution moved by Andrew Welsh at the next conference where the party turned its back on it but it failed anyway.
WMcN: It was very difficult during the 1980s?
GW: Well the first 3 years or 4 years were hell – but the run up, you know I’ve information of course what was happening inside the 79 Group, and the 79 Group was splitting – and it was splitting because there was a group who wanted to do deals with Sinn Fein. And there were others who wouldn’t touch that with a Protestant barge pole! Not that they were particularly religious but they could see if you put yourself out on that kind of extreme limb it would snap off.
So they [independeestas] were going to push it – and I went down for breakfast with Edith in the morning and alongside me was Angus Lyon, who was a parliamentary research worker, who now denies completely he said it. He said ‘this can’t go on’ and ‘snap’ I took a decision that in fact it would not go on and that led to my speech to the conference – well received until, I think the press officer had seen the insert which I handed him. They were very loyal, I never had any problems but I knew their political world were more to the left than the centre, but they were loyal to the Party and to the job. And then when it came there was a walk out which of course enhanced the position.
But there was a fight inside the agenda committee to get it through. I put my leadership at stake. By that time, I was so fed up that it would have come as a relief if I had to give up. And that wasn’t the worst of it, because the resolution to ban groups went through but there were manoeuvrings after that to wriggle out of it – for example there was a formation of the Scottish Socialist Society. And then the Executive took decisions and they declared that to be a group which was banned by the conference. And that went through, and you know I think week after week there were hearings with the Council. But I always take it as a credit as a lawyer that at the same time it did not go to the courts, which it could have done very easily. And that just went on with very nasty National Councils and it was quite horrendous. I think to be honest some of the people in the other groups were feeling the strain as well.
Scottish Labour, Scottish identity and a Scottish independence referendum
Wallace McNeish: I remember Kinnock losing that  election, I remember going down to George Square because of Scotland United. A day or two after that election there was a real Scottish reaction against the Tories yet again winning the general election and yet again Scotland having rejected them with Labour being unable to stop them – was that a real turning point?
Gordon Wilson: Strathclyde Water played a part as well – Yes, the Labour Party membership became restless and the leadership were frustrated so they had to go for something which was the Scottish Constitutional Convention where the SNP was invited to take part. And it was probably the wrong delegation, there was myself, Margaret Ewing and Jim Sillars who are pretty hard liners, and we took the right strategic decision which was not to become involved. But as John Swinney pointed out to me it was the wrong political decision. I think Alex Salmond took that view too. In other words, we should have played along with it and then repelled it at some future time. Tactically that would have been better.
But of course we didn’t take the decision alone, we took it back to the Executive – where at one point there was a group set up who I think included Ian Lawson, Jim Fairlie, Alex Salmond and others who withdrew into another room, and we went on with the rest of the meeting, while they concocted a composite resolution that we’d go to the National Council where it went through with a rather huge majority. The membership was horrified that we had turned down the prospect of a Scottish Parliament and I think it was John Swinney and Mike Russell looking at the bad publicity who came up with a letter for me to sign explaining why we had taken the decision. We were being asked to accept the result for the Constitutional Convention, which had to be Devolution because of the make-up of it. The voting had been rigged by Labour – and we also had to pledge that we would campaign for it. So we were caught between one huge filed correspondence of anger and the next huge file where people were saying you were right after all.
WMcN: What do you think has happened to the Labour Party in Scotland? How is it that Labour’s gone from being the Party of government in Scotland through a long slow death with the SNP taking that position of power? How has the SNP managed to supplant the Labour Party as being the kind of natural party of government in Scotland?
GW: Well I think the first and important thing was the creation of the Scottish Parliament. That didn’t do the SNP very much good if you remember and Labour got the credit for setting things up. And the Lib-Lab coalition as was intended kept us out. And then again in the next election. And it’s a matter of chance almost that we won the third one. But there was an improvement and it was enough to take us over. The middle one that John Swinney had to preside over was where the party misread the attitude of the people, and that was the one that produced the Greens and the Scottish Socialists because it was a vote against the authorities, against the establishment and the SNP was classed with the establishment. And I think the first manifestation was 2007 when we just scraped through and that’s because one of the MSP candidates in the Highlands requested a recount which gave us that seat and if he had not done that we would not have won.
But if you look at the upsurge during the Referendum and so on, it’s actually pretty evident in 2011 where we won first past the post which we had not done before. In the meantime, we had done badly in the General Election where we were not winning first past the post.
But of course, the Tories were in the past very strong in Scotland – it happened to the Liberals dare I say before my time, but they were very powerful in Scotland and then were completely gubbed’ and disappeared. The Tories had never recovered from when they lost every seat. The Labour Party was devastated in 2015 and it is going to take time for them to recover. Apart from anything their power base has been hit. And one of the things that hit their power base was when they brought in proportional representation for local governments.
But you know they must have lost 200 researchers, assistants who were the main stay of the local organisations and were being paid. As to what happened, quite miraculous after the Referendum, I remember running into trouble with the SNP leadership and saying the problem about this referendum is there is no identity politics because they were against that, because it raised visions of ethnic division. I knew it was against the whole concept of civil nationalism except of course you can have a progressive civil identity politics but they didn’t like that. But of course, that’s what we ended up with – 45 per cent were Scottish, 55 per cent were British!
WMcN: When we think about the Independence Referendum campaign as it was run – was there was a real question about identity, or lack of it? Is that one of the areas that you think should be strengthened if we do it again in 10 years time or 5 years time?
GW: No, not necessarily, but without that kind of identity cleavage you are not going to win unless the 55 per cent now choose to be Scottish. You don’t necessarily have to progress that area because it can be quite a delicate operation or a very crude one – the danger is you might tend towards crudity. It has to be a natural phenomenon which you build up over the years of changing things. And one of the calls I made last year was to tell the SNP members to shut up about Indy Ref 2 because all they were doing was aggravating the 55 per cent when you wanted to win over some of them. You need time to lay down a campaign and after the Referendum was over, I intended to start a campaign to that effect. And it may be that if the SNP won’t do it, then of course, it may have to be the wider Yes vote that does it.