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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...


£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BI CONSULTA...

Infrastructure Manager - Southampton - Up to £45K

£35000 - £45000 per annum + 36 days holiday and more: Deerfoot IT Resources Li...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice