Bernard Thompson suggests the grand old man of Scottish oppositionism keeps his counsel for now
I’ve never met Jim Sillars but I have more than a hint of admiration for him. I respect his passionate commitment to the causes of socialism and Scottish independence, his intellect, his oratory and his ability to ruffle the feathers of people in power, even when they are on his own side.
I was inspired, even as I cringed, watching him mercilessly dismantle Bob Gillespie’s bid to take the “safe Labour seat” of Govan in 1988, with an intellectual force that bordered on the brutal.
And he almost always has a point worth hearing – several of which are contained in “The Logical Case” for leaving the EU. But, as is often the case with someone sure of the rightness of his opinions, Sillars seems to have a low tolerance level for others who don’t share his views – and must therefore, accordingly, be “wrong”.
Lately, Sillars has been getting plenty of media attention for his insistence that there can be no quick second independence referendum.
I imagine him as a guest on Desert Island Discs, with his collection of eight Scottish socialist tunes.
On each occasion that he is asked why he chose a particular track, he berates Kirsty Young for using terms like “favourite”, “special to you” and “close to your heart”, as if that somehow suggests that they are merely reflective of his own subjective opinion.
No, he insists, “Let’s be very clear about this”. Record by record, he goes through every detail of their composition, production and performance. He cites inferior cover versions, disdains pale imitations by copy-cat acts and scoffs at the terrible fates that befell them in the Tartan Charts.
Music reviews, academic texts, sales figures and net spending on each, cross-referenced against the average weekly wage of a contemporary semi-skilled worker are rhymed off.
Bemused listeners hear the thud of tomes crashing onto tables in the recording studio, the frantic flicking of paper as he reaches for his next piece of evidence, an index finger tapping the page emphatically as he reads, eviscerating any potential alternative case.
Eventually, he declares: “And that is why these are not simply my favourite tunes – or even the best songs ever recorded. They combine to form what is irrefutably the only music collection that has any validity whatsoever.”
Young pauses, her quiet prayer to the spirit of Roy Plomley unanswered, knowing what’s coming next: “And it would be better for everybody if the SNP leadership could grasp that – forget Donovan, Marmalade, the Bay City Rollers and most of all their fixation on Simple Minds.”
Because Jim Sillars is right; let’s be very clear about that. And, in a way, he usually is.
In the sense that truth and righteousness are derived from gladiatorial-style debate, where those foolish enough to have come armed with nuanced views or alternative methods of skinning cats lie bludgeoned and dazed, straddled by a resolute and indefeasible Sillars sneering at modern methods, crushed beneath the power of an old-school bruising.
Today, though he doesn’t sound like it, Sillars is “quietly pleased” at the result of the Brexit vote for which he campaigned:
“And I don’t really think that my colleagues in the SNP understand that the old paradigm of Scotland, UK, European Union is no longer the paradigm”, he told Good Morning Scotland on Sunday.
“It is completely changed and I think the opportunity for Scottish independence, provided that there’s some wisdom applied now, is actually greater because of the UK’s exit from the EU than it would have been if we’d stayed in.”
He may be right and, according to his carefully-gathered evidence, he is certain that he is.
Writing in The National, Sillars referred to the vast complexity of the situation that Scotland, the UK and the EU find themselves in:
“There is not going to be an early second independence referendum, given the political and legal situation that confronts the SNP Government…
“Severing of the UK’s institutional links with the European Union, and the new trade and political relations that will emerge, will produce very different facts on the ground in our own economic relations with the UK Union, and countries outside of the UK and EU.”
This much is a statement of the obvious, with Nicola Sturgeon and others using the expression “uncharted waters” to describe the current position. And yet Sillars seems to believe himself to be the only person capable of speaking with certainty on what can and cannot transpire.
He is equally confident of the legal and political barriers to holding IndyRef2.
Echoing his interview on Good Morning Scotland, he wrote::
“To break free of these legal constraints on the Scottish Parliament legislating for a second referendum, a powerful political force is required – a majority won in an election combined with a mandate sought from and given by the electorate.
“Alex Salmond had both in 2011, and Westminster was finally forced to transfer limited power, temporarily, to allow the 2014 referendum.
“Today’s SNP Government did not win a majority, nor has it a mandate because it did not ask for one…. No amount of posturing changes that political weakness of the 2016 election result.”
We need not dwell on whether David Cameron was “forced” to do anything or whether he gambled on Scottish independence and Brexit.
But, while Sillars is always right, on the issue of seeking and receiving an electoral mandate he appears to be … well … wrong.
Nicola Sturgeon was describing Scotland being forced out of the EU against the will of the people as “democratically indefensible” as far back as October 2014.
She was quoted as saying that such a scenario would be grounds for seeking a second independence referendum on 14th November of the same year – the very day she was confirmed as SNP leader.
The party’s opposition to any Brexit referendum was made clear before the 2015 general election, while not explicitly referring to any trigger for a second referendum, the manifesto said:
“Opposing withdrawal from the European Union
At least 330,000 Scottish jobs – around one in seven of all jobs – are dependent on our membership of the single market. That is why we will oppose a referendum on membership of the EU. Being part of Europe is good for business and it supports jobs in Scotland and across the UK.
“If an in/out EU referendum does go ahead, we will seek to amend the legislation to ensure that no constituent part of the UK can be taken out of the EU against its will. We will propose a ‘double majority’ rule – meaning that unless England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each vote to leave the EU, the UK would remain a member state.”
Writing in the Guardian – four days before the 2016 Holyrood elections – Severin Carrell appeared to understand that the then manifesto presented a qualified case for a second referendum:
“Unlike its clear pledge to stage one in the 2011 Holyrood manifesto, it does not commit the SNP to stage a referendum in this parliament: instead, it says one could be held if there is a material change in Scotland’s circumstances, such as vote to leave the EU against the wishes of Scottish voters, when [sic] or a clear popular demand for a further vote.”
Sillars claimed on Good Morning Scotland that this was not a request for a mandate, claiming that the manifesto said an SNP government “would do something different”.
Here, however, Sillars’s famed meticulousness appears to have temporarily deserted him as the precise quote was:
“We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.“
That is some way short of the 2011 commitment to a referendum within the lifetime of that parliament but, nevertheless, from assuming office, Nicola Sturgeon consistently expressed her belief that a Brexit without Scottish consent would be grounds for IndyRef2.
Not only that: in two manifestos, the SNP explicitly stated that it considered EU membership as essential to Scottish interests, and before the last Scottish election made clear that a referendum was “on the table”, a phrase that Sillars objected to, along with “for consideration”, inferring that this fuzzy language could have misled voters.
Sillars also chooses to view the fact that the SNP did not secure a parliamentary majority as failing to secure a mandate for the manifesto. We could, perhaps, call this his “double lock” in case his claims of bemused voters could fail to convince.
Disagreeing with him, less than a week after the election, Iain Macwhirter noted:
“The party actually increased its vote on the 2011 Holyrood landslide, but lost out in the list wars….
“Nevertheless, it was still a third, massive election victory for the SNP, even if this seemed lost on some of their more excitable supporters on Twitter.
“The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, does not, of course, want an early referendum, and nor do the Greens. But if material circumstances did change, and there was a strong tide of opinion in the country for another independence vote, no-one could any longer claim that it was all about the ‘whim’ of an over powerful First Minister if the SNP were to rely on Green votes in the Scottish Parliament to press the demand.”
Sillars goes on to suggest that, by moving quickly to show leadership – which has been acknowledged across the UK by independence supporters and opponents alike – Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are mere fools rushing in, apparently harking back to the more effective politics of bygone days.
“The new generation of the political elite – the spin generation – look for tomorrow’s headline, whereas they actually should be thinking deeply ahead before they make any statements whatsoever.”
There is an old adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee, but Sillars claims the SNP government doesn’t have enough of them – committees, not ships of the desert (even he couldn’t accuse his party leadership of not having enough camels).
And this is where Sillars, as well-meaning as he is assuredly undeserving of the level of criticism his admittedly tiresome interventions have attracted on social media, betrays a naïvety with regard to modern politics.
As well as leadership, Nicola Sturgeon has shown political ring-craft in a way to shame the big two Westminster parties, who should have been calling for calm to deal with the current crisis of uncertainty, instead of descending to the level of two packs of scavengers, tearing at each others flesh for the right to claim the carcasses of their parties.
To fail to make a move in these circumstances would be political folly, yet Sturgeon has said all the right things: that she is First Minister, above all, with a responsibility to the country and its people.
Does Sillars believe she should have rented out the bunker next to the one that George Osborne holed up in until Monday?
Sturgeon clearly also understands something that Sillars fails to grasp.
In “uncharted waters”, even rules and legal frameworks are not immutable. Instead, they are defined according to the power of those charged with implementing and interpreting them, most often weighted by lobbying from the most influential interested parties.
Which is why waiting for a long time, as Sillars would have it, just won’t do. While Labour and the Tories fight amongst themselves, apparently ducking the issue of what happens next, Sturgeon is seizing the initiative and defending the interests of the Scottish people in the UK and the European Union.
In doing so, she is placing Scotland at the heart of the debate while Westminster tries to figure out what to do.
It is somewhat sad that, having woken up to the Brexit he wanted, Sillars is facing unwarranted accusations of deliberately acting against the interests of Scottish independence (and a mooted piece in the Daily Mail will do nothing to dampen that criticism).
In what could be such a positive moment, he has apparently alienated most of the grassroots independence movement with the same gusto that he once reserved for party powerbrokers.
On Good Morning Scotland, Sillars chose to paraphrase the words of Clement Atlee to Harold Laski: “I think a period of silence from Alex would actually be beneficial to the party.”
I understand that there is still in Nunraw, Sancta Maria Abbey, which serves as a Trappist monastery, where idle talk is discouraged. Perhaps a visit there would allow Jim Sillars the sort of extended period of quiet reflection that he believes is required of politicians at this time.