I FIRST met Bill Hodgson in February 1991, just four months after taking up my initial newspaper editorship at the Argyllshire Advertiser on the west coast of Scotland.
Bill, a former farmer and wine importer, had been selected in September 1989, as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in the Tory/Lib Dem marginal seat of Argyll and Bute.
In 1979, he had achieved the largest Conservative swing in Scotland in the safe Labour seat of East Kilbride. Eight years later he came within 916 votes of ousting Labour in Carlisle, after what supporters called “the best political campaign the city has ever seen”.
Bill was now touted to do well in Argyll against the incumbent MP Rae Michie.
He had already moved his family to a spacious detached villa in Campbeltown – at the southern end of this vast rural constituency which took in Oban, Lochgilphead, Inveraray, Dunoon and Bute and the Inner Hebridian islands of Islay, Jura, Mull and Gigha.
Although I admit to being a Tory activist as a teenager, my personal politics at the time were well to the left of Bill and I had no natural affinity for a Thatcherite Conservative government which had ruined Britain over the previous 12 years.
But Bill, 54, and his politically astute wife Eelan, were gregarious, self-effacing and above all, seemingly honest – rare in any politician.
After an initial meeting, both the Hodgsons were regular visitors to my newspaper office, usually sharing a newsworthy story or a tip-off over a cup of tea.
It soon became obvious that Bill was a bit of a maverick – a go-getting politician who was not afraid to speak his mind.
And I quickly became aware of his track record.
Within two months of his selection, Bill became involved in a bitter row with one of Argyll’s biggest landowners, Douglas Campbell, who had flouted planning orders and felled a forest of trees in order to build 40 luxury holiday chalets.
In the local weekly newspaper the Dunoon Observer, Bill was reported as saying the tree felling was the “misconduct of a barbaric Philistine”.
Mr Campbell was one of 13 applicants who had stood against Bill for the Conservative nomination for Argyll.
Douglas Campbell was also a prominent Freemason and close friend of Ian Campbell, the 12th Duke of Argyll, first cousin to the Queen and a Master Freemason in Scotland.
Bill’s words were ones which Douglas Campbell did not forget and they would soon come back to haunt him.
Just before my own arrival in Argyll, Bill had also fallen out with the Conservative Party’s constituency secretary Noel Facenda.
Facenda had placed Christmas adverts in the local press (including my own paper) which were a clear breach of electoral law and potentially threaten Bill’s candidacy.
Bill was livid with what he regarded as incompetence.
Then soon after my first meeting with the Hodgsons, Bill attacked Argyll and Bute District Council – in which the Tories shared power – for overspending and called for the council’s chief executive to be replaced.
This ruffled the feathers of some prominent Tories and a shadowy campaign to “get Bill out” began.
On 25 May, the simmering row began to spill into open warfare with the resignation of constituency chairwoman – and close friend of Douglas Campbell – Margaret Forrest, who claimed she had been subjected to “verbal assaults” from Mr Hodgson.
It was at this point Bill became a personal confidante and began briefing me weekly about the shenanigans and moves to unseat him by some of his own party officials.
This was despite the fact that among party members in Argyll and voters at large, Bill was seen as being popular and positively electable… a Tory closer to the people than to the landowners who dominated the power plays in Argyll.
Then on 16 August 1991, Bill suffered a minor heart attack. But he was quickly assured by his doctors that a simple heart-by-pass operation would ensure a return to perfect health.
But, while he awaited the operation, rumours about his status as a candidate began to circulate.
His Labour opponent Des Browne (later to become Secretary of State for Scotland) went on the record saying: “Bill Hodgson won’t last long, his own party are out to get him.”
At a small dinner party at his home, Bill told me he had taken enough and was going to fight back.
On 9 September, as the rumours of a coup against him began to harden, Bill told 40 supporters at a meeting in Campbeltown that there was an inside plot to oust him as candidate.
He said the perpetrators were using his health as a smokescreen. “There has been an energetic commitment to apathy, disloyalty and the worship of incompetence,” he said.
It was true, but it was also pouring oil onto the smouldering fire.
His statement was discussed at a constituency meeting called the very next day. Tempers were roused.
But Campbeltown councillor Archie McCallum, who had replaced Margaret Forrest as chairman, denied there was any plot to oust Bill as their candidate.
“We are only interested in his health,” said Mr McCallum, who along with Mr Facenda were also active Freemasons.
But on 23 September, three days after Bill’s heart by-pass operation in Glasgow, the local party executive held an emergency meeting to discuss his future.
The Duke of Argyll – prompted by Douglas Campbell – proposed a motion calling for Bill’s resignation. It was passed by 27 to 17, despite the fact that many members who were entitled to vote were given late notice of the meeting and had been unable to attend.
I rang Bill the next day, and from his hospital bed he issued a press statement in which he said: “What has really annoyed me has been the sneaky, chicken-livered way in which the plotters have behaved. Now they have been rumbled, no doubt they will try to blame someone else.”
The local party was now about to split sharply down the middle.
At the executive meeting, Michael MacRoberts, chairman of the Colintraive branch of the party, demanded that no-one should speak to the press about what had been discussed.
But within 24 hours, more than half a dozen of those present had breached the ruling.
The gloves were now off and the fight was about to escalate to the highest echelons of British politics.
Bill was rarely off the phone to me with updates or advice and it was here that for the first time in my career as a journalist that my telephone was bugged and my calls with Bill were intercepted.
I have never found by whom, but the machinations which I am now about to tell may give powerful clues.
The first to show his true colours was Archie McCallum.
In a private letter dated 1 November to a party member, McCallum detailed the case against Bill.
“The whole blame lies with Bill,” he wrote.
At another executive meeting on 9 November, it was decided to try and take some heat out of the situation which was by now being reported by Scotland’s national press.
The decision of 23 September was rescinded and members decided to ask Bill to account for himself at the next meeting on 7 December.
But McCallum was quick to up the ante.
He claimed that at a private meeting in late November Lord Willie Whitelaw, former Conservative Party Chairman and Home Secretary, and leading Freemason, had recommended the constituency “ditch Bill Hodgson”, claiming he had run into problem in Carlisle in 1987.
It was a lie, but given the word of Lord Whitelaw the lie became fact.
McCallum was later coy about the meeting with Whitelaw and refused to repeat the words used in the meeting.
Later it was established that the private meeting was at Inveraray Castle – home of the Duke of Argyll – with the duke and Douglas Campbell also present.
The Masonic plot against Bill Hodgson was almost complete with a cousin of the Queen and a former Home Secretary at the hub.
(Ironically, last year it was revealed that detectives are now investigating claims of another Masonic conspiracy in which Lord Whitelaw ordered police to drop an investigation into a VIP paedophile ring.
Whitelaw told a senior Metropolitan Police boss to quash a year-long investigation into a gang accused of abusing 40 children, the youngest of whom was six.
The intervention came in 1980, after a newspaper revealed the country’s chief prosecutor was considering 350 offences against the gang, including allegations it ‘obtained young boys for politicians, prominent lawyers and film stars’.)
So with the power brokers stacked against him, Bill appeared before the constituency executive on 7 December 1991. He was voted down by 36 votes to 33 and his resignation demanded forthwith or they would pursue his deselection.
McCallum defended the move saying: “Bill wanted everything done yesterday, and in an area where tomorrow is good enough, it was not good enough for him. I’m afraid that Bill has shot his bolt.”
But, Bill’s supporters claimed the meeting had been rigged to exclude delegates who supported him.
In a letter to Scottish Conservative Party Chairman Lord Sanderson, John Maclean, an executive member, claimed that branches likely to have backed Bill had been excluded from the vote.
Asking Sanderson to conduct a secret postal ballot, Maclean also alleged that other pro-Hodgson party members had been excluded on “various flimsy grounds”. Had those branches and individuals been allowed to attend, there would have been an eight vote majority in favour of Bill.
A week later, during a meeting with Lord Sanderson – another leading Scottish Freemason – and Michael Hirst, President of the Scottish Conservative Association, Bill refused to resign.
He had public opinion with him and was backed by four branches and hundreds of members who threatened to leave the party if he was forced to step down.
Two weeks later 205 party members signed a petition demanding a general meeting of the constituency party to discuss Bill’s candidacy. It was clear that they would win the day.
But always expect the unexpected.
Less than 24 hours after the demand for the meeting was tabled; with orders from Central Office, the Scottish Conservative Association stepped in and dissolved the entire constituency association in Argyll. Thus they deselected Bill as parliamentary candidate and excommunicated hundreds of Tory party members in one blow.
Michael Hirst said that the decision to disaffiliate the Argyll association was made with “considerable reluctance”.
“Not in living memory of those here has this ever happened before,” he added.
Donald Nicholson, chairman of the Ardchattan branch said what many were thinking: “What happened to Bill is a travesty. These things will never be forgotten as long as Argyll is a constituency.”
Argyll constituency vice chairwoman Sheena Dixon said: “Bill was a professional and worked incredibly hard in the two years he was here. It seemed he worked too hard for some and upset others whose power will not be upset.”
Another party executive member added: “Bill’s future was decided by a cabal of powerful people within our party. The one thing that unites them, other than being Conservatives, is they all belong to one secret society.”
Such is the power of the Freemasons, which I would come to witness many other times in my career as a journalist.
The final words I will leave to Bill: “I am saddened by the damage to the party. My abiding memory of the last four months is the callous and uncaring announcement of my dismissal while I was lying in hospital.
“I have a feeling of sickness for those who have campaigned so venomously for my deselection using lies, libels and vile innuendo as their weapons.”
Footnote 1: Bill’s successor as Conservative candidate for Argyll and Bute, John Corrie, failed to unseat Lib Dem MP Rae Michie in the 1992 General Election taking just 27% of the vote. By 2015, the Tory vote in the constituency had fallen to just 15%.
Footnote 2: Bill sadly died in October 2010. He left me with many happy memories of wine-fuelled chats by his fireside and his wonderful sense of humour.
He also left me a letter with the immortal words: “A man is known by his friends and not his enemies, I am grateful to count you as a friend.”
Lord Whitelaw died of natural causes at his home near Penrith, aged 81, in 1999,
Ian Campbell, the 12th Duke of Argyll died of heart failure during surgery at a London hospital in 2001, aged 63.
Douglas Campbell died in May 2015 aged 79. Ironically his obituary said he was: “One of the most innovative farmers of his generation, who diversified into tourism with holiday parks and leisure facilities.
“He and his family built up a considerable business from his base in Lochgoilhead, with hotels, shops and eight holiday parks.”