From Jim Sillars

Open Letter to SNP Members

8th July 2024

Fellow Members,

Someone has to tell the truth

You will not like what I have to say. But someone has to tell you the truth. What makes me so arrogant in claiming I am able to do so? Well, I am at the end of my political life. My ambitions are behind me. Also, I have been proved right in my critique of the leadership over the past decade, and saw last Thursday coming. A week before polling day, I told a journalist, off the record, that the SNP would only win 12 seats or fewer. There is also my experience of catastrophe and recovery. It took 8 years from the defeat in 1979 before the people were willing to listen to us again. If you don’t fancy a repeat, please read on.

How we got here

I see in reaction to the catastrophe of last Thursday that there is much talk of “reflection” by our leadership, the National, and a fair number of members of the party. Reflection? No. It should be repentance, because 4th. July was inevitable given how the Sturgeon/Swinney era misled the movement, lost its common sense in government, promoted marginal issues as national priorities while the real priorities of the people such as education, housing, NHS, infrastructure, were notable only for the staggering level of incompetence with which they were dealt with.

Whether the leadership has the grace to repent is of no matter. It is a busted flush. The people have no regard for them. Last Thursday wasn’t about who the Scots sent to Westminster, it was a referendum on the Scottish Government, and a condemnatory verdict was delivered. Few of the people, and it is they who matter, have any faith that the ones who have run a failed government can, by discovering some hitherto unknown ability, take its governance performance to a better level.

If the SNP is to recover, as it must if the independence movement is to have any hope of achieving its aim, the party’s members should also realise that they have cause to repent. You acquiesced in changes to the constitution which shifted all power to a leadership cult, with the party then run by Stalin’s wee sister: imposing a politburo of two exercising an iron grip on the organisation, and the annual conference. When you had doubts, you hid behind the mantra of Wheesht for Indy, letting error build on error. You made the mistake of believing that if you openly criticised the ineptitude of the Scottish Government, you were damaging the idea of independence, when in fact by not calling them out that is exactly what you were doing.

You got so used to not thinking for yourselves that you allowed the party to be hollowed out intellectually. Intellectual rigour, an indispensable tool for policymaking disappeared when you clapped Nicola’s repeated claims for another referendum, seemingly unaware that the SNP had become just the referendum party committed to the suicidal policy of putting the cart before the horse. Be grateful Westminster refused to give her one. A mistake they will come to regret. You kept quiet too when Nicola made it explicit that the last Holyrood election was not about independence, but about her.

No sane party or politician wants a referendum when support is only around 45%. The political challenge is to campaign to get to 54-55%, a level which enables you to set the agenda and demand, get, and win the referendum. What if they still refuse? At that level of support you could bring Scotland to a standstill every day of the week, and generate a power that could not be ignored.

Time to take back the power of the party – Steps that should be taken for recovery

We can put away the sackcloth and ashes if the members face up to their responsibility for what has happened and recognise the need to re-assert their power and importance. Only you can reconstruct the party to take back power from the leadership, and rebalance the relationship when it is in government. Only you can restore the party as the prime policymaking part of the movement. Only you can demand that our government concentrates on the real problems that face our people.

The party

Branches should demand an emergency conference. Change the constitution to make the NEC no larger in number than 25, with all of them to be directly elected by annual conference. Make up: 20 from the membership, the Leader, deputy Leader, one youth wing, one MP and one MSP. General Secretary to attend.

NEC to be chaired by the Leader. Vice Conveners drawn from the NEC: Policy, Finance, Youth. Responsibility for SNP policy in setting out the case, as it develops, for independence to rest with the NEC after getting directions from conference, whether the party is in government or not. There is talent for that purpose in the membership, and the NEC should re-establish Academics for Independence as a source of specialist advice. In government the SNP Cabinet should concentrate on delivery of the devolved services.

Abolish the post of Chief Executive and replace with a General Secretary elected for a four year period, responsible for the organisation, campaigns, and full-time staff, thus providing an authoritative voice for the membership able to speak as an elected equal to the leader.

When the SNP is in government, a 5 person liaison group drawn from the NEC, which will include the General Secretary, to meet the Cabinet monthly to discuss government policy. Leader of the Westminster group to attend.

National Council to meet twice between annual conferences, with the leader, General Secretary, and Vice-Conveners to submit written reports on their work, with each to be open to a question session.

The Movement

The independence movement is split and splintered. It would be easy to brush aside ALBA as a party given their paltry vote. But what of the people who left the SNP to join it, and others who left it, many of them with long years as activists? Would it not be sensible to get them back in our ranks, able to believe in the SNP again because of the reconstruction suggested above – a party in which they can believe in again. We need their talent and energy.

Then there are others: twenty-one separate groups are now active in the movement. All of them doing good work on aspects of the case for independence (most former party members) but no co-ordination, and so no coherent message being transmitted to the people.

The SNP no longer stands alone in the independence landscape. But it remains the political wing of the movement, and its electoral successes and failures affects every other part of it, and its success in elections will in the end determine when independence is achieved. That is if it survives. Survival depends on learning the lessons of the past wasted decade.

The time is ripe for a reconstructed SNP to reach out to all others in the movement, and create a national Yes organisation, not as an SNP front, but with the party in partnership with the others.

The Scottish SNP Government

A good number of the present cabinet have to go, and be replaced with people of ability who have been consistently overlooked. Scottish Government ministers have been on a carousel: getting off from one office, only to get back on to another one, irrespective of how they performed in the first one. The members should demand a clear-out.

There is still time before 2026

The present situation, the one that caused the catastrophe, can be corrected by a reconstructed party and a “new” cabinet. Alex Neil has sent the present one two papers, one on financing a massive housebuilding programme with institutional investment funds, and the other on sorting out the immediate problems in the NHS. There are also ways to fill that financial black hole without asking Westminster’s help, or blaming it for a refusal. We can levy a land valuation tax. We can cut the number of education authorities, 32 since 1993, and shift money from 32 administrations to the classrooms, by creating Joint Boards. But those policies, and others, require ministers with willpower, a knowledge of how to govern effectively, imagination, and the competence to apply them. All of the qualities that are not there in most of the present government.

There is still a case for optimism. Support for independence remains high. The case for leaving Broken Britain is a strong one. But to make it, to anchor it in work that is incontestable because the homework has been done, the party has to be reconstructed and the tarnished old guard has to step aside.

Whether that happens is up to you. It is a responsibility you cannot escape. Another 2024 beckons in 2026 if you dodge it. And if you dodge it, you will be dealing what could be a fatal blow to independence.

Yours hoping

Jim Sillars