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Book Review: A Difference of Opinion. My Political Journey – by Jim Sillars

Birlinn 2021 320pp Paperback. ISBN 9781780276830

IT IS A STRUGGLE to think of anyone currently belonging to the Scottish Parliament who has led as richly absorbing a life as Jim Sillars has. With his free thinking outlook and innate distrust of orthodoxies peddled by powerful agencies and corporations, Jim Sillars, still vigorous at 84, describes his political journey with disarming frankness.

Sillars is a world apart from career politicians careful to promote the approved shibboleths of the age. Perhaps he is at his most outspoken when discussing climate change. He points out wind turbines and solar panels are neither clean nor cheap. Nor do the poor obviously benefit. Instead, powerful individuals sitting on land, rake in big profits from being green barons. He thinks it is ‘bunkum’ to claim only twelve years remain to curb CO2 emissions or else the end is nigh. The unpredictable force of nature which it is hard for humans to control, is what drives temperature changes, which have been cyclical and sometimes dramatic long before the intervention of CO2

Early in his life, he took to heart the advice of Bertrand Russell that it as essential to treat every ‘ism’ with scepticism. Events and new circumstances require reappraisal. His impatience with cancel culture is undisguised. He prefers to maintain friendships across the spectrum even with a staunch Unionists like the late Tam Dalyell. He had no inhibitions about inviting Margaret Thatcher to open an exhibition run by the Arab Chamber of Commerce based in London which she in turn accepted without demur.

From joining the navy and spending fulfilling years stationed in Hong Kong to working in the Middle East for much of the 1980s and 1990s, his global activities gave him a long-term perspective on diverse matters from Israel, China, Russia and the role of international aid organizations. His views on these and other issues are set out with calm conviction. It is an approach which he brings to exploring Anglo-Scottish relations. He longs for an era of constructive relations which he is convinced can only occur when both territories operate within separate jurisdictions.

Without spelling it out, he suggests Nicola Sturgeon is delaying that eventuality because of her palpable lack of statecraft. He hoped that after the 2016 referendum on EU membership that Sturgeon would see the wisdom of acting as a partner to London in awkward times. Instead she became a willing tool in the ‘Stop Brexit’ campaign, urging Brussels to display intransigence in negotiations when no useful purpose could be served for Scotland. Someone with diplomatic skills and a greater knowledge of the world might have behaved differently, recognising the long-term weight of England in these islands. (The same, incidentally, is true of post-2016 Ireland whose Department of Foreign Affairs had less excuse than Sturgeon given that international affairs was its specialty).

While Sillars pulls his punches about the pattern of family control which Sturgeon has imposed on the SNP, he writes with candour, pathos and at times sadness about the trials and tribulations faced by his close-knit family in the town of Ayr where he grew up. He learned not to make sweeping judgments on the basis of surface impressions. In the armed forces he found ignorance, snobbery and closed minds but also humanity and pragmatism, especially in the navy where individualism was allowed rather than submerged. He successfully challenged authority as a wireless operator in Hong Kong. The dynamism of the place, when compared with mainland China, has never ceased to impress him. As an MP he pressed Thatcher in vain to ensure the territory was not delivered to the tender mercies of the communists in Peking and does not appear surprised when that pious hope was crushed in 2020.

As a trade-union activist in his home-town his ability and drive enabled him to become the Labour MP for South Ayrshire in 1970, aged 33. Throughout his life in public affairs, he wrote the occasional private memo on difficult topics requiring his attention. In 1972, he produced 13 pages on the Scottish Question when he was in an intellectual quandary. The London-dominated status quo was unsustainable, devolution was flawed, but breaking away was fraught with problems.

He goes on to describe how devolution was reluctantly accepted by Labour due to the electoral rise of the SNP, then his walk-out from the party in 1976 when Labour emasculated it, and how the far-left was so disruptive that a breakaway Scottish Labour Party he helped form quickly came to grief.

Sillars now believes it was a capital error not to have stayed within Labour to try and rally the pro-Scottish Assembly forces. Insufficient numbers voted in a 1979 referendum to neutralise the requirement that 40% of all voters on the electoral register in Scotland had to back the new scheme. He soon found himself in the political wilderness and jobless in the bargain. It led to a series of international assignments where he was able to size-up the contribution of aid efforts by the West to promote development. He grew sceptical about the claims of aid agencies which said they were making a difference to poverty because too many reinforced local corruption either through cynicism or naivety. One of the few he singled out for praise was the Voluntary Services Organization which placed young British people with good motivation and skills in poor communities.

His Middle East work gave him acute insights which were swatted away by a complacent Foreign Office. Eight days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he wrote to the Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to urge him to place a motion before the UN Security Council promising stiff action if aggression was unleashed. But there was no reply.

He joined the SNP in 1980 at the nadir of its electoral fortunes. By then he claims to have clearly seen the nature of realpolitik in the UK meant that English state interests were bound to prevail in most eventualities. Nowhere does he spell out what these interests are and how, for instance, regions like Cumbria or Humberside benefit from them being asserted in ways that Ayrshire or Fife do not.

It was also the year of his marriage to Margo MacDonald who would be his political soulmate for the next thirty years. He offers a frank and loving portrait of someone with integrity, charisma as well as flaws that may have prevented her rising to the top in the SNP. The way that John Swinney and Alex Salmond attempted to sabotage her career does not make edifying reading. I write this just after reading the SNP MP for Aberdeen North, Kirsty Blackman has just tweeted that her Westminster colleague Joanna Cherry ought to be railroaded out of the party. There is a kink in the DNA of the party for Scotland that seems to reproduce such ugly behaviour. Margo’s vote-winning prowess saw off her nationalist detractors but most of her time in the Scottish parliament (until her death in 2014) was spent as an independent.

Sillars took the side of Salmond when state agencies were mobilised in the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement to try and bury him politically via a jail term for a range of alleged sexual offences. He was acquitted by a female-majority  jury in 2021 after which Sillars wrote ‘he deserved better’ and had been the victim of the ‘dirtiest blow’ that he had ever seen in politics, the grief coming entirely from his own side.

Sillars observed the rise of Salmond to be the most significant homegrown political figure Scotland had produced in well over a century, from close quarters. He himself had been returned to Westminster for the SNP in 1988 at a by-election in Glasgow Govan and would soon become the party’s deputy leader. Salmond was a natural leader whose hubristic and authoritarian style prevented him from achieving greatness – leadership of an independent Scotland. His bombast in the 2014 referendum put off too many voters and the 2013 White paper on ‘Scotland’s Future’ was turgid and fatally flawed regarding endorsement of a currency union between Scotland and the UK.

No post-mortem occurred regarding the 55 to 45 percent defeat for the pro-Independence side, an omission which Sillars regards as unforgivably crass. Instead, the personality cult was simply transferred from Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon who took over before the end of 2014. Most of her time as First Minister has been dominated by the fall-out from the 2016 Brexit vote. Sillars thinks it odd that having been more visible in campaigning in England than in Scotland that she has insisted Scotland was being dragged out of the EU against its will. Yet by ‘going down to England to campaign she legitimised the question on the ballot paper, which was whether the UK remained or left…’

His dislike of the EU is easily summarised. Those in charge cannot be dismissed. It is a bogus form of representation. It favours cheap labour and the European Court of Justice often backs employers when in dispute with workers. He thinks the timing of Brexit may well have been fortuitous because full sovereignty gives the UK the flexibility to deal with the long-term implications of the Covid pandemic that are denied to EU members. He has no hesitation in suggesting that by constantly ‘manifesting grudge and grievance’, Sturgeon’s behaviour is self-defeating for the cause of Scottish statehood.  She obtains less attention in the book than some might feel warranted and it may be that he views her as a fleeting figure on the Scottish stage.

He has written a fluent and revealing book about Scottish political history that ought to appeal right across the political spectrum. Today’s SNP has done its best to keep out people with his independence of spirit and intellect, as well as his disdain for materialism and status. Until people as grounded as Jim Sillars start to count again in the party, the independence which he continues to believe in seems a far from likely prospect.

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