William Wolfe

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William Wolfe
William Wolfe (cropped).gif
Leader of the Scottish National Party
In office
1 June 1969 – 15 September 1979
Preceded byArthur Donaldson
Succeeded byGordon Wilson
Depute Leader of the Scottish National Party
In office
LeaderArthur Donaldson
Preceded bySandy Milne
Succeeded byGeorge Leslie
Personal details
William Cuthbertson Wolfe

(1924-02-22)22 February 1924
Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland
Died18 March 2010(2010-03-18) (aged 86)
Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, UK
Political partyScottish National Party
Spouse(s)Arna Dinwiddie (m, 1953–1989; divorced) Catherine McAteer (m. 1993–2010; his death)
Children4 (1st marriage)
ProfessionChartered accountant

William Cuthbertson "Billy" Wolfe (22 February 1924 – 18 March 2010) was a Scottish accountant, manufacturer and Scottish National Party politician. He was the National Convenor (leader) of the Scottish National Party (SNP) from 1969–1979, playing a central role in the transformation of the SNP into a modern, progressive political movement, and in the development of the SNP’s social democratic political philosophy.[1][2][3]


Wolfe was born in Bathgate, West Lothian, the son of Thomas Wolfe, owner of George Wolfe & Sons Ltd. and the Bathgate Forge Co. Ltd, which manufactured shovels.[4] He was educated at Bathgate Academy and George Watson's College, Edinburgh, and saw active service during World War II, serving with the Scottish Horse (Royal Artillery) from 1942 to 1947 in France, the Low Countries, Germany, Indonesia and Malaya.[4] Following demobilization, he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1952, and was company secretary of the family firms from 1952 to 1964.

He later established his own business, Chieftain Forge Ltd (1964–1986), supplying and manufacturing forestry equipment and shovels. Billy Wolfe was a man of wide interests: a longstanding member of the Saltire Society, the Scout Association and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a Justice of the Peace, and an officebearer in the Scottish Poetry Library, as well as being a poet in Scots in his own right. Initially he was more interested in cultural matters, but his dissatisfaction with the government of Scotland grew, and he became convinced of the need for Scottish independence.[4]

Political career[edit]

Wolfe joined the SNP in 1959.[2] He stood as the SNP candidate in the 1962 West Lothian by-election against Tam Dalyell, making a stunning impact by coming in second place in an area where the SNP had previously made little impact.[2] The result propelled him into party office as Vice-Chairman for Policy and Publicity in 1964, and then as Senior Vice-Chairman (Deputy Leader) in 1966. Wolfe formed the Social and Economic Inquiry Society of Scotland, a forum committed to advancing the case for independence through statistical research. His idea of fusing the St Andrew's Cross with a thistle led to the creation also led to a distinctive new SNP logo, which is still in use today.[2][4] He played a central role in the development of party policy, writing an iconic policy statement, SNP and You, which radically changed the SNP's outlook, adapting the existing policy on decentralization to accommodate the social strains from ongoing deindustrialization.[4] Wolfe stood as SNP parliamentary candidate for West Lothian at the 1964, 1966 and 1970 general elections.[4]

In June 1969, at the SNP Annual National Conference in Oban, Wolfe was elected as chairman (leader) of the SNP, defeating the incumbent leader, Arthur Donaldson, by 544 votes to 238.[2][5] Having swung his support behind the ‘It's Scotland's oil’ campaign that changed the party's fortunes, he associated the SNP with the trade union campaigns against shipyard and other industrial closures and asserted its role as a radical participant in Scottish politics. Wolfe was instrumental in identifying publicly the social democratic, left-of-centre credentials of the SNP.[4][4][6]

It was during Wolfe's period as leader that the party had considerable electoral success in elections to the Westminster parliament, winning 30% of the vote in Scotland and 11 of the 71 Scottish seats in the October 1974 General Election, though Wolfe failed to win a seat of his own in West Lothian in the two general elections of that year, despite gaining an increased share of the vote.[2] His exclusion from the powerful new group of SNP MPs caused some difficulties for his leadership of the party. However, following a difficult period which saw the passing of the Scotland Act 1978, a number of internal divisions in the SNP and the failure of the party to win in a series of by-elections, in 1978 Wolfe announced his intention to stand down as leader after almost ten tumultuous years in office.[2][4] The resultant loss of influence led to his being sidelined as the SNP moved into the 1979 general election campaign, and a disastrous performance in which the SNP only managed to retain 2 of their 11 MPs. Wolfe was succeeded by Gordon Wilson at the SNP Annual National Conference in September 1979.[2][4]

In 1979, Wolfe encouraged a band of left-wingers in the SNP, known as the 79 Group, annoying those on the fundamentalist wing.[2][4] Although he was elected as president of the SNP in 1980, succeeding Robert McIntyre, Wolfe's term of office ended in June 1982, following an uncharacteristic intervention by him in advance of the proposed visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland, causing serious controversy.[2][4]

In a January 1982 letter to the Church of Scotland magazine, Life and Work, Wolfe attacked the appointment of a papal nuncio to the United Kingdom. In a subsequent letter to The Scotsman in April 1982, following the outbreak of the Falklands War, he said it would be a negation of democracy for "the cruel and ruthless fascist dictatorship of a Roman Catholic state", i.e. Argentina, to take over the "mainly Protestant and democratically minded Falklanders, mostly descendants of Scots".[7][8] In both instances the SNP's National Executive Committee disowned Wolfe's statements, causing Wolfe to withdraw his candidacy from that year's election for the office of party president. Wolfe later apologised for his remarks, saying "I ask for forgiveness of those whom I hurt, if they understand me now. I can see myself then as others saw me ... I don't know why I did it.”[9] His second wife, Kate McAteer, was a practising Roman Catholic.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

William Wolfe married Arna Dinwiddie in 1953 and they had four children. He died at Udston Hospital, Hamilton in March 2010, aged 86.[2][10] Alex Salmond and Iain Gray were among the political leaders who offered their condolences. Salmond stated that Wolfe had "transformed it [the SNP] into a modern political party".[2]

Positions and commitments[edit]


  • Scotland Lives: the Quest for Independence, 1973


  1. ^ "Billy Wolfe: Obituary". London, UK: The Independent. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Veteran nationalist Billy Wolfe dies at 86". BBC News. 19 March 2010. Retrieved 19 March 2010.
  3. ^ Murray Ritchie (21 March 2010). "Billy Wolfe obituary". London, UK: The Guardian. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l [1] Gordon Wilson, Wolfe, William Cuthbertson (1924–2010), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  5. ^ "S.N.P. work on patching split at conference". The Glasgow Herald. 2 June 1969. p. 1. Retrieved 29 October 2017.
  6. ^ "Obituary: Billy Wolfe". Caledonian Mercury. 19 March 2010. Archived from the original on 8 July 2011. Retrieved 20 March 2010.
  7. ^ "Nationalist chief retires in religious dispute", The Times (8 May 1982), p. 2.
  8. ^ David Torrance (11 September 2010). "Letters reveal SNP crisis over president's diatribes". London, UK: The Times. Retrieved 11 June 2014.
  9. ^ The Herald (20 March 2010). "William Wolfe; Politician and accountant". Glasgow, Scotland: The Herald. Retrieved 11 June 2014.
  10. ^ "William Wolfe: Obituary". Herald Scotland. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
Party political offices
Preceded by
Sandy Milne
Vice Chairman of the Scottish National Party
with Sandy Milne 1963–1964
Douglas Drysdale 1964–1966
Succeeded by
James Braid, Douglas Drysdale, John Gair and James C. Lees
Preceded by
Sandy Milne
Senior Vice Chairman (Depute Leader) of the Scottish National Party
Succeeded by
George Leslie
Preceded by
Arthur Donaldson
National Convener (Leader) of the Scottish National Party
Succeeded by
Gordon Wilson
Preceded by
Robert McIntyre
President of the Scottish National Party
Succeeded by
Donald Stewart