SOME facts you probably know about Jim Sillars: he used to be deputy leader of the SNP, he was married to Margot MacDonald, and he was a leading figure in the Yes campaign in 2014.

Some facts you may not know about Jim Sillars: he has a passion for the British Navy; he once wrote an anti-SNP pamphlet called “Don’t Butcher Scotland’s Future”; and his favourite piece of music is Jerusalem – the one about England’s greatness, the one that goes “and did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?” Jim Sillars, it has to be said, is a different kind of nationalist.

Except that Sillars himself doesn’t necessarily see any of these facts as contradictions – indeed, he believes that his nuanced views on the constitution (what he calls Small N Nationalism as opposed to Nicola Sturgeon’s Big N version) could provide a better way forward for the independence movement than the SNP’s current strategy.

His views are also the result of another apparent contradiction: a kind of slow-burn epiphany, a long and thoughtful process that took him from unionist to devolutionist to nationalist to post-nationalist: from hammer of the Nats to a spanner in the machine of the SNP.

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The reason we’ve arranged to talk is that Sillars has a new book out, A Difference of Opinion, which is partly a memoir but also a diagnosis of where we are and where we’re going. He has some interesting things to say about whether the Scottish Government is any good (it isn’t, he says) and when and why the SNP will unravel (not long now, folks) and about when another referendum will happen (don’t hold your breath) and, most intriguingly, what the referendum question will be if it ever happens (it won’t be Yes or No).

But first: a wee bit about Sillars’ early life because his roots still show in the octogenarian (he’s 83). He’s talking to me on Zoom from his flat in Edinburgh and behind him is a bookcase packed with mighty political biographies including a big red doorstop on Khrushchev. He tells me at one point that he’s not even sure if he’s really a nationalist, but he is sure that he’s a socialist and he talks about the informal but formidable education he had from the Labour movement, and the trade unions in Ayrshire where he grew up, and from his father Matthew, who worked as a stoker on the railways.

“My old man wasn’t a saint,” says Sillars, “but he would stand up for what he thought was important so I think I inherited in my genes his sense of fairness and there’s not much point having it unless you’re willing to speak about it.” And the young Jim certainly spoke about it. There’s a story in the book about his first job with a firm of plasterers in Ayr. He was only 15 and had just left school but he felt he was being exploited so he told them to shove it. Later, when he joined the Navy, he was also the only one who was willing to tell the officers that the food was rubbish, which was his first experience of leadership but also got him marked down – not for the last time – as a troublemaker.

That time he spent in the Navy, much of it in Hong Kong, was also a crucial period in Sillars’ development personally and politically. In many ways he loved the Navy and still does, but he says its hierarchical, yes-sir culture was also at odds with his developing socialism and one of the first things he did when he got home in 1960 was join Labour. He then worked in the party’s engine room for the next ten years as a councillor and party agent before landing the Labour nomination for the constituency of South Ayrshire, which he won in 1970. It was a shining achievement but it was also the beginning of his transformation.

“When the Nats came on the scene,” he says, “I was still unionist. I thought, ‘they are the opponents of the British Labour party, I’m going to get stuck into them’ and that’s when Alex Eadie and I produced the book Don’t Butcher Scotland’s Future. We saw improvements in how Scotland was governed within the union as the answer to the Nats and I was happy with that.” One of the most striking arguments in the book (written, remember, by a man who would become deputy leader of the SNP) was that the Scottish economy was fully integrated with the UK’s and “to separate them now would be as difficult as extracting the original acorn from the giant oak”.

But then he got to Westminster. “It’s the small things that hit you,” he says. “During the Heath government, we got a sense that a change was taking place and I began to realise that the union, the UK I believed in, was actually a fiction. I don’t say this in any anti-English way – it’s just the reality – but it was the English state with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish appendages and if a decision has to be made that’s crucial, it will be made in the interests of the English state. If 1707 had been in reverse and we were the big power, and England the small power, we would do exactly the same.”

And so Sillars did something rather remarkable. He sat down and wrote a memo to himself, 13 A4 pages, with the aim of questioning his assumptions and opinions. His conclusion was that the status quo was not the answer to Scotland’s problems, although he was also not yet at his final destination and worried about the consequences of independence. The problems were daunting, he said: defence, borders, investment competition with England, and he said none of it had been properly thought through by the nationalists. But he also worried about what an SNP candidate and former miner, Sam Purdie, said to him once: Scotland votes Labour but ends up with the Tories.

Some 50 years on, I ask Sillars what he thinks of that memo now. He may have ended up joining the SNP in 1980 and winning Govan for them in 1988, but is the unionist version of himself still in there somewhere? Do any of the worries he had then still linger? And that thing he wrote, about separating our economies being like trying to “take an acorn from an oak”, it’s still true isn’t it? Sillars says no.

“That economy was based on British Steel,” he says, “the National Coal Board, ship-building. That industrial structure I talked about then has been demolished in a UK context. We’re in a new technological revolution, instead of the past industrial society and I don’t think we’re as integrated now as we were then.” Sillars actually believes this provides an opportunity for Scotland, and ordinary working Scots, if it can develop the technology, expertise and industry it will need to compete with the emerging powers like China, India, and South Korea.

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But the problem, he says, is that one of the points he made in his memo, about the SNP not thinking through the consequences, still applies. “Where is the thinking going on?” he says. “Where is the debate? The discussion? I don’t think Alex Salmond’s government really thought about what the Scottish economy would be in terms of difference post-independence and I don’t think we’ve had a very good look at it. The argument is at the yah-boo level: ‘you’ll be skint’, ‘no we won’t’. We’ve never said: let’s have a look at what we’ve got. Would we operate on the same basis post-independence? Would our priorities be the same as they are now?”

What Sillars is effectively saying is that a more radical prospectus is needed for independence, in which Scotland builds new areas of expertise that bring prosperity and jobs. But I ask him why we would have to go independent to do it? Surely we would be in a better position to build these new areas of expertise if we pooled our resources? Not at all, he says, because it’s an empty vessel down there and by “there” he means Westminster. “If you go back and read that speech the PM made about levelling up, it’s vacuous,” he says. “We are always subject to decisions taken right at the centre of the UK Government. We’re stuck in a rut.”

Okay, so how about this: would a more radical plan for independence actually attract support or win a referendum? Wouldn’t it scare off the soft Nos and middle-classes that Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to woo with her more gradualist approach? Sillars shakes his head vigorously.

“Alex practised that approached in his 2014 White Paper – change, no change – but I don’t think you can persuade people by saying ‘change, no change’ because the answer is why should we bother changing? You’ve got to go out with policies that are well thought out and have been debated and all the contradictions ironed out.”

The middle classes, he says, would have an opportunity to thrive in an independent country and there would be new jobs for the working classes and, as he tells me this, I can still hear the old Sillars who wrote that memo in the ‘60s and worried about consequences. “I’ve been through the mill on this,” he says. But his conclusion, hard-come-by, is that Scotland would be better and more prosperous.

Which brings us to how the campaign for independence is actually going and Sillars’ assessment is gloomy. For a start, he says the referendum isn’t going to happen soon. “We’ve had nothing but talk of a referendum since the morning after the Brexit vote in 2016 and it’s never happened,” he says. “And now this deal Nicola has with the Greens makes it ‘impossible’ for Boris Johnson to say no. I don’t understand where she gets her ideas from. The arithmetic is the same whether the Greens are in or out. I’m not sure Boris Johnson even knows who Patrick Harvie is. And Boris Johnson, or whoever takes over, will be considering the next Westminster election. Next year, or 2023, that will become dominant. And suppose the SNP lose two or three seats? They’ll say ‘well, there you are, you don’t have the mandate you claim’. So the referendum isn’t going to happen.”

 

The other problem, as far as Sillars is concerned, is that the SNP isn’t doing the groundwork needed to prepare for a referendum, first by preparing detailed policies on which they could win, but also by being effective in government. I ask him if he thinks the Scottish Government is good and he says absolutely not. “It’s all façade,” he says. “Take the right in law to have a medical examination in a certain time. Where’s the legal remedy? They’re concerned with how it looks. But what is being done?”

Sillars says the beginning of the end was probably the Alex Salmond inquiry. “I think it began to unravel then,” he says. “Not the whole population, but significant sections, journalists and the legal profession, began to realise the Crown Prosecution Service was not what we thought it was.

"We also saw significant abuse of governmental power – the refusal to hand over papers, the conduct of Humza Yousaf as justice secretary actually tweeting abuse against Jackie Baillie during a quasi-legal process. The hubris is there. The SNP on education has not done well, we’ve regressed. On health, they’re engaged in a world of pretence – the health service has got real problems. Housing, we haven’t solved the problem. We’ve declared war on poverty so many times and have been defeated so many times but don’t admit it. The PR is there. The incompetence is there. They’re engaged in managerialism but the fact is they’re not very good at it.”

But does any of it matter if the SNP has just won an election? Sillars says it does. “The ability of the leadership to spin out the constitution in front of everything else is now limited,” he says. “And I think they’re likely to unravel over the next 12 to 18 months because of the incompetence. There’s a point where a community will not accept the incompetence under which we’ve been governed. Remember: Nixon won a landslide in 1970 – untouchable. Two years later, he was in real trouble. Some people said to me they held their nose and went into vote SNP this time. And that’s the first sign.” And that includes Sillars himself of course – in May, the former Labour supporter also became a former SNP supporter when he voted Alba.

To be fair to Sillars – a man who became deputy leader of the SNP but is now one of its chief critics – he’s saying all this in frustration rather than anger, because he believes there is a better way. For a start, he says, the First Minister should start working better with the UK Government – there is no contradiction, he says, between being in favour of independence and being in favour of cooperating well within the UK. Do grudge and grievance instead, he says, and don’t be surprised if the other side aren’t in the mood to cut you some slack when it comes to negotiating independence.

Sillars also thinks Sturgeon’s strategy of linking independence to Scotland re-joining the EU is flawed (“Spain will never, ever, ever allow it to happen,” he says) but then of course he would say that wouldn’t he because he voted for Brexit (I ask him about the post-Brexit problems over Northern Ireland and he blames Brussels’ hostility towards a non-EU Britain). Sillars also believes there’s a lack of realism in the SNP about what the next referendum, if it happens, will be like. If you’re expecting a re-rerun of 2014 and the Yes/No question, he says, then think again: next time, the ballot paper will include a form of devo-max.

“I’m absolutely certain of it,” says Sillars. “The last time the UK government thought it was skoosh. Next time, they know this is much more serious and I don’t think our people have realised just exactly what’s at stake for England and the importance of Scottish independence to English security – it’s about the bases, the ability to use Scotland as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Then there’s the seat on the security council of the UN. These are two major strategic issues south of the border and we’re not going to have a simple independence against the status quo – we’ll have a much more sophisticated counter argument.”

Sillars says his old party, the party he used to help lead, simply hasn’t got its head round these sort of problems and isn’t facing up to the politics they will be up against next time. And part of the problem, he says, is that the necessary thinking and questioning just isn’t happening. The cult of personality around Salmond then Sturgeon, he says, has emptied the SNP of its intellectual capability, and for a moment the old warhorse gets nostalgic about his old days of Labour in Ayrshire in the 1960s. There was a fine tradition then, he says, of grassroots political education. We learned then, he says. We questioned then, he says. And the only way forward is to do so again.

A Difference of Opinion by Jim Sillars is published by Birlinn at £14.99

Jim Sillars, life and work

Born in a council flat in Ayr in 1937. After school, he worked as a fireman on the railways like his father before joining the Navy.

After the Navy, he joined Labour and was elected the MP for South Ayrshire in 1970. He became known as the “hammer of the Nats” for his attacks on the SNP.

Disillusioned with a lack of progress on devolution, he formed the Scottish Labour Party in 1976 before joining the SNP in 1980 and won Govan for the party in a by-election in 1988.

In 1981, he married Margo MacDonald, who also represented Govan for the SNP in the 1970s. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001 and died in 2014.

At the last election, Sillars voted for Alba, the party set up by Alex Salmond.