Jim Sillars & Margo Macdonald Square

My favourite read of 2021 – the Jim Sillars memoir

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

Birlinn, 2021, 303 pages Paperback ISBN 9781780276830

THOSE OF US clutching our Christmas present book tokens and wondering on which tome to expend them would be well advised to consider Jim Sillars’ personal memoir, published last year by Birlinn Books of Edinburgh. I haven’t read many political memoirs in my time, but I do know that quite clearly A Difference of Opinion is the best of all of them.

Most Scots will be aware of Jim Sillars’ existence as a player on the Scottish political stage over the past sixty years. Born in a Council flat in Ayrshire in 1937, he made his way from milk delivery boy via apprentice plasterer to railway worker, then Royal Navy signaller and fire brigade union leader before going into full time politics in the Labour party as an election agent. He describes himself as “one of the last few survivors of a working-class political culture that produced its own leaders”, which seems pretty accurate to me.

Sillars first became an MP in 1970, representing South Ayrshire for the Labour Party. He left the party in 1976 to form the breakaway Scottish Labour Party, primarily over the failure of the then Labour government to establish a Scottish Assembly. He lost his seat to Labour in the 1979 General Election and subsequently joined the SNP in 1980, rising to deputy leader (under Alex Salmond’s leadership) and returning again to Westminster in 1988, this time as an SNP MP, when he won the Govan by-election. He lost his seat in 1992 and then had various employments, most notably as a board member of Scottish Enterprise and as an employee of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce.

His book here is, as you would expect, full of the wise sayings and anecdotes garnered during a long political career. Of former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson he observes: “ …an unprincipled, slippery customer who was not to be trusted”. He has this to say about political maverick and former MP George Galloway: “ …an acute political mind …and a magnificent orator” but with the “flaw of an innate inability to work with others”.

Particularly interesting for some will be his long relationship with Alex Salmond. Once the closest of political chums, he observes that by 1992 their friendship had “evaporated” over differences in political strategy and personalities. And yet he is sympathetic towards Salmond over his recent travails in the courts and clearly thinks that his former friend was the victim of a political conspiracy. He also supported and voted for Salmond’s Alba party, although he stopped short of joining it. Again, he says tellingly of Salmond: “He could lift the party but never the nation”.

Post his Westminster career Sillars spent a considerable amount of time working for interests in the Middle East, and his commentary on his employers and hosts are telling and resonate very much with mine. As one of his Arab friends explained to him – and I paraphrase here – the essentially difference is that Westerners read and write from left to write, whereas the Arabic world reads and writes from right to left.

One of his habits which tickled me was that, when at a political crossroads or confronted by a particularly thorny problem, Sillars would habitually sit down and write himself a lengthy memo, setting out the arguments and counter-arguments until he could establish a firm position on whatever topic was under discussion. This has led to some surprising views; for example, although an avowed socialist, his opinion on the nationalisation of industry is that “nationalisation is state capitalism without one of the benefits of capitalism – the spur of competition”.

The major theme throughout the book is, I would say, the author’s long involvement in the campaign for Scottish independence. No surprises here I guess, but initially he was pretty vehemently against it in his earlier days in the Labour Party, but eventually became one of its most vociferous proponents. He was, and still is I suspect, very much a “head” as opposed to “heart” independenista, and he does not hold back on his criticism of the SNP and its leadership.

There is a whole chapter on his marriage to Margo MacDonald which is quite moving, and although I don’t think he is the sort of bloke to wear his heart on his sleeve with regard to personal matters – he was born in Ayrshire after all – I was touched by it. And towards the end of his book, under the general heading of “Issues of Our Age”, he has a prolonged pop at the madnesses of climate change and its woke activists which certainly chimed with me. Oh that more of our politicians have the perspicacity and confidence to speak out on this and other issues!

I could write much, much more but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I have met Sillars a couple of times (although he wouldn’t know me from Adam) and liked him instantly. His personality shines through his writing here and I guess it’s no surprise that I like his book also. As he himself says in the foreword, “this book is a hybrid – part memoir, part comment on a wide range of matters past and present”.

I thoroughly recommend it to you.

Available from Birlinn

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Article © Stuart Crawford 2022 Photo of Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald courtesy of the Daily Record.

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