Billy Wolfe: Politician who played a crucial role in the transformation of the Scottish National Party

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William Wolfe – always publicly known as Billy – was a key figure in the transformation of the Scottish National Party from a small and politically ramshackle movement of "monomaniacs and poets" (as one early commentator put it) to a modern democratic party capable of winning government.

Born into a prosperous middle-class West Lothian family in February 1924, he was educated at Bathgate Academy and then at George Watson's in Edinburgh. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant and saw war service in the army. He was established in a family business in West Lothian, his passion for Scotland expressing itself in active membership of the largely cultural Saltire Society, but by the end of the 1950s he felt that such activities were failing to influence the wider Scottish public and failing to stem what he saw as a tide of Anglicisation which threatened to destroy Scottish institutions and the distinctive Scottish character.

Those views led him to join his local branch of the Scottish National Party in 1959, but he came to national prominence when he fought the West Lothian by-election in 1962. Surrounded by an effective and talented group of activists – including Angus McGill-ivray, who went on to become the leading fundraiser for the SNP – he gained 10,000 votes and an unprecedented second place, shocking all the UK parties.

Wolfe contested West Lothian at a further half-dozen elections, often coming close to unseating the by-election victor, Tam Dalyell, but never winning. However his financial training, instinctive feel for communication and – above all – his desire to see the party equipped with a range of effective policies (including unilateralism, for he was a long-term member of CND) attracted the attention of his fellow members, and he was quickly elected to the party's national executive committee. He went on to hold various internal posts and to speak for the party on a range of topics, but especially the Scottish economy.

As his star rose Wolfe was nominated several times for the chairmanship (effectively the leadership) of the party but repeatedly declined to stand. Eventually in 1969 he agreed, believing that the incumbent chairman, Arthur Donaldson, was about to retire. Donaldson then changed his mind, but Wolfe won the subsequent contest.

Before Winnie Ewing's Hamilton by-election triumph in 1967 the party had enjoyed Parliamentary representation for a mere three weeks as a result of Dr Robert McIntyre's surprise victory at a 1945 by-election in Motherwell. However, in the 1970 general election Ewing lost, and it looked as if the party had gone backwards again. Fortunately the last declared result saw Donnie Stewart win his native Western Isles.

Wolfe now recognised that a much more professional approach was needed to propel the party and the cause forward. Consequently he set about building an organisation which, in the two elections of 1974, was able to take seven and then 11 seats at Westminster and secure a record-breaking vote of over 30 per cent.

Certainly the political mood of the time favoured change , with the discovery of oil in the North Sea and increasing frustration with ineffective, strike-ridden government from afar, but in order to capture that advantage Wolfe embarked on an extensive campaign of recruitment, capability-building, policy development and, above all, propaganda – or, as he always put it, "giving the facts about Scotland". Most crucially of all, by focussing on what an independent Scotland would look like he persuaded his party to accept the legitimacy of incremental progress towards those social and economic aims.

For the next five years the SNP – which had also secured second place in a majority of the remaining Scottish seats – drove the direction of Westminster politics, and Billy Wolfe drove the diverse talents that formed the emerging, professionalised SNP. However the resulting pressure on a small and under-resourced party was unsustainable. Following the disappointment of the first Devolution referendum (won by a slim majority, but lost on the undemocratic 40 per cent rule) the party was left with only two MPs at the 1979 general election.

In the aftermath of this reverse an exhausted Wolfe gave way as Chairman to one of those remaining MPs, Gordon Wilson, and took the largely honorary post of party President. But what were widely interpreted as anti-Catholic comments about the visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland in 1982 infuriated many in Scotland, and most in the SNP, and he was not returned that year. It was to be another 16 years before he was once more elected to party office.

Those years were often very difficult. His first marriage was dissolved in 1989, his business, Chieftain Industries, failed and he was marginalised by much of the party. But the election of Alex Salmond as leader in 1990 started the process of bringing a much changed Billy Wolfe back into the fold, for Salmond was also from West Lothian and had been politically nurtured by Wolfe. Indeed, in embedding the party's policies to the left of centre and in prioritising effective organisation alongside inspired communication and forceful campaigning, Salmond has very much followed in Wolfe's footsteps.

In 1993 Wolfe married Kate Mac-Ateer, whose late husband had been one of the party's leading election agents, and this relationship brought him much happiness. He was quite open in talking of the personal growth he felt he had achieved and was particularly concerned at what he saw as the negative effect of his type of Scottish background and upbringing. It was this, he believed, which had driven him so bluntly, and so wrongly, to criticise the papal visit to Scotland. Ironically, his second wife was a Catholic.

To his wide group of friends – old and new – his later years revealed a man who had learnt much about himself, and in so doing had acquired much wisdom about the world. His annual poem and card at New Year were treasured keepsakes, to be welcomed as much as an invitation to accompany him on a visit to Eilean Mor McCormick, a small uninhabited island in Argyll which had been gifted to the SNP and of which he was the elected guardian.

Billy Wolfe leaves two sons and two daughters, and his widow, Kate. He also leaves a record of achievement without which his beloved SNP could never have progressed so close to its ultimate goal of independence for Scotland.

Michael Russell

William Cuthbertson Wolfe, politician and businessman: born West Lothian 22 February 1924; Chairman, Scottish National Party 1969–79, President 1980–82, Member, National Council, from 1991; married 1953 Arna Dinwiddie (marriage dissolved 1989; two sons, two daughters), 1993 Catherine McAteer; died 18 March 2010.