“Were we just wrong Jim?” – Sillars and devolution

From Arnold Kemp's book, a personal history of post-war Scotland "The Hollow Drum".

...Jim Sillars told me a story about himself which, he said, explained his character. When he was 15 he was apprenticed to a plasterer and was one of a team working on a job. Although he was the junior apprentice he found he was expected to do the labouring. On further inquiry he discovered from the boss that the job had been priced to allow for three labourers, a junior apprentice, a senior apprentice and a journeyman. The boss had not employed any labourers; he was skimming more profit by making the junior apprentice do the donkey-work.

Sillars walked off the job. There was an enormous row. His father was called to a meeting. But it was to no avail and that day the plastering trade lost a recruit. 



This story reveals Sillars’s impulsiveness and a refusal to accept dishonourable compromise. Few politicians reach senior office without swallowing at least some principles in the larger cause. Sillars has always found this exceptionally hard to do. His is a restless political spirit. He is principled to a fault, and once or twice has nearly bankrupted himself in the pursuit of ideological honesty.

He has written, in his book Scotland: The Case for Optimism, of the agonies he felt when, with his friend the Paisley MP John Robertson, he left the Labour Party to form the Scottish Labour Party. Turncoat and traitor were among the milder terms of abuse (though he used his own mastery of invective to give as good as he got). As Willie Ross remarked, there is for such people a special kind of hell.

Sillars had been raised in the Labour culture. He began as a railwayman like his father, served in the Navy, joined the fire brigade and was active in its union. When an injury made it impossible for him to continue as a fireman, he became a party hack in the Ayrshire Labour Federation and later joined the staff of the Scottish Trades Union Congress before being chosen, by one vote, as the Labour candidate for the South Ayrshire by-election of 1970.

Unlike the Labour movement in Glasgow, which had strong roots in the Irish Catholic working class, the Ayrshire Federation was both nationalist and Presbyterian in its culture. In 1993, Michael Foot remarked in conversation that Willie Ross, the most effective politician that the Ayrshire Labour tradition ever produced, was ”a bit of an Orangeman”. The STUC was also strongly nationalist in the sense that it resisted amalgamation by or absorption into the TUC, which was consistently hostile to its autonomy and hoped it would wither on the vine. The point to remember is that Sillars grew up in a tradition that was both socialist and intensely Scottish.

Margo MacDonald first encountered Sillars during her victorious by-election campaign in Govan in 1973. Sillars, appalled by the inadequacy of the Glasgow Labour establishment and the poverty-ridden constituency, worked against her with increasing despair about Labour’s relevance and prospects. They became friends but their friendship did not become romance until the referendum campaign of 1979 when they conjoined against the indifference of the major parties.

Sillars’s career cannot be understood without reference to Ross. Eventually they did not rub along. This was a painful matter for Sillars, because in his formative years in the Labour movement he had been Ross’s protege. When Sillars won the Ayrshire South by-election in 1970, taking 54% of the vote and containing a strong SNP challenge from his old sparring partner, the Labour apostate Sam Purdie, Ross said of him: ”Here is a future Secretary of State”.

Harry Ewing believed he regretted this remark and spent much time trying to live it down, not because of anything Sillars had done but because it had greatly annoyed many senior Scottish Labour politicians who thought they had a superior claim to preferment. Ross was to say sourly that while everybody thought of Sillars as a future Secretary of State, Sillars thought of himself as the next Secretary of State. Ross was fond of saying such things, John Smith recalled, but did not really mean them.

Their relationship deteriorated. MacDonald said: ”Willie didn’t really like him. He wouldn’t even give Sillars a lift to the station.” Sillars’s friendship with John Robertson, a Ross discard who had taken to the Commons watering-holes with perhaps excessive dedication, could not have pleased Ross. On Sillars’s questing and troubled political consciousness Robertson was to have a considerable influence.

MacDonald got on better with Ross than did Sillars. He showed her a significant act of kindness when she arrived at Westminster for her brief stint as SNP member for Hamilton in 1973; in the tea-room he gruffly but kindly showed her the way to read a Bill, the preamble and the schedules. She said: ”Willie was a very unimaginative man. He preferred people who knew their place. So it wasn’t just Jim.”

In the February election the SNP’s advance, to seven MPs, was too menacing to be ignored. At the Ayr conference in March, the party’s uneasiness was obvious. A devolution motion was greeted with boos and shouts of derision. At a reception Willie Ross was ”woundingly insulting” to John Robertson.

But the national executive’s decision against devolution in June was reversed at the Dalintober Street conference in September, and by now it was a stampede towards devolution. The party went into the October election with a commitment to a Scottish parliament. The Scottish manifesto (but not the British manifesto) said it should have substantial executive powers in the fields of trade and industry. As the threat from the SNP grew, Sillars recalled that even Tam Dalyell became a convert to a parliament ”with teeth” which, he said, could be working by the autumn of 1976.

When Parliament resumed Sillars was suspicious of the leadership on two counts. First, he thought they would try to silence him by giving him a junior job in a UK Department. He declined Wilson’s offer of an under-secretaryship in the DHSS. He broke the code further by revealing to the Scottish press the fact that he had turned Wilson down; this indiscretion earned more disapproval from Willie Ross.

In Harry Ewing’s judgment, this was a decisive and even tragic moment in Sillars’s career. Barbara Castle had positively wanted Sillars to serve under her. By now, Sillars recalled in his book, his admiration for Wilson had turned to ”contempt and distrust”. Once this decision had been taken, Ewing believed, Sillars’s exit from the party was ordained, for now all doors were closed to him within it.

Sillars also became increasingly anxious about the strength of the party’s commitment to the promises forced out of it under electoral duress. His conviction that Labour’s commitment was reluctant and skin-deep was confirmed with the publication in 1975 of the White Paper, Our Changing Democracy. He was appalled by it. It was a scheme for a constitutional skeleton, with ”no flesh, no muscle, no power and completely pinned down by Westminster”. Above all, the assembly would have no economic power. On December 10, he resigned from the Scottish executive and the Scottish Labour Group.

In his book, and in conversation, Sillars insists that the decision to form the SLP was spontaneous. He was undoubtedly egged on by journalists and others outside Parliament. Sillars’s disillusion, sense of rejection and impatience all combined to drive him towards a step that, given the political promise with which his gifts endowed him, must surely now be regarded as a major misjudgment in careerist terms. He wrote: ”It was a typical Scottish rush down hill, with blood flooding to the head”. John Robertson joined the charge, with some reluctance.

Bob Mellish, then the Labour Chief Whip, told Sillars he was wasting a great career over nothing. There would not be an assembly. The English MPs would not permit it. Sillars’s account, later disputed by Mellish, was that he offered to resign on the promise of a prompt by-election. Some weight is lent to Sillars’s version because he repeated the offer publicly in February 1976. In the event he and Robertson carried on as MPs until the end of the Callaghan Government in 1979.

THE SLP had its inaugural meeting in January 1976. It very quickly fell apart in chaos, destroyed by activists from the International Marxist Group who had entered it. The remaining years of that Parliament were for Sillars a long goodbye. It was then, I suspect, that he came to hate Parliament. He had a contempt for most of the SNP parliamentary group. Some say Willie Ross, too, thought they were a rabble, a discredit to Scotland because of the fondness some had for the more convivial side of Westminster life. MacDonald said in 1993:

Jim never wanted to join the SNP. Winnie [Ewing] had shown a total insensitivity to work done in the community by Labour people. He was disgusted by the parliamentary group. He calls himself an atheist but he’s really a Calvinist. Willie Ross found them disgusting too. He thought they gave Scotland a bad name.

The referendum campaign was a personal and political disaster. In the dying weeks of the Parliament Sillars lobbied hard to persuade the SNP not to bring the Government down. When that failed, he put up a good fight at the General Election. He took 31.4 per cent of the vote. Labour’s winner, George Foulkes, had 35.2 per cent.

Now Sillars began his journey to the SNP. The journey had for some time been inevitable.

The SNP was about to enter a period of civil war but Sillars rode out the crisis, was not expelled during the purge of internal groups, and survived to become the hero of the Govan by-election in 1988, the constituency where he had first fought as a party hack against Margo MacDonald and had been appalled by the poverty and neglect endured by those who lived there.

In the SNP he was, in MacDonald’s words, ”walking on water”. He could have run for the leadership, when Gordon Wilson decided in 1989 to give it up, and might have won despite the traditionalists’ dislike for him. He decided not to do so but his expectations that the party would unite behind Margaret Ewing were shattered by Alex Salmond’s decision to run for the chairmanship. As a result of this episode Sillars and Salmond became estranged. The rift’s beginning may be traced to the SNP’s decision not to participate in the Convention for the Constitution summoned in 1988 by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly.

It had become clear to Wilson that it had been used by Donald Dewar as an ”elephant trap” for the Nationalists, in that it would have committed the SNP in advance to a devolutionary conclusion. Salmond took a different tactical view though there was no strategic disagreement. He felt the SNP should go along with the convention to the point that it could be shown that it would not discuss independence as a serious issue or allow it to be presented to the people of Scotland. He also thought the SNP should argue within the convention for a multi-choice referendum (independence, devolution, the status quo).

On these tactics Salmond thought he had the agreement of Sillars. What happened next remains unclear except that there was a failure to consult Salmond about the decision to withdraw.

Friends of Salmond did not blame Wilson for the failure to reach him. Though they acknowledged that their relationship had not been cordial, ever since the 1979 Group expulsions, they dismissed as ”absurd” the idea that the two men had not spoken to each other for more than two years. Their belief was that Wilson had delegated the task of reaching Salmond. What puzzled Salmond was the fact that Sillars did reach him over that weekend — but did not mention the impending announcement even though some newspapermen knew of it by then.

Their estrangement was compounded by Salmond’s decision to contest the chairmanship in 1990. Again, what happened is not clear. Wilson had by now ”hit a wall of fatigue” and decided to give up. Sympathisers of Sillars told me that at a meeting in Dundee Wilson had indicated his preference for Margaret Ewing, believing Sillars to be the only other credible candidate. Wilson has acknowledged that such a meeting took place though he would say only that he made no secret of the fact that Ewing was his preferred candidate.

In any event Sillars decided not to run because he wanted to unite the party and not stir up the old fundamentalist animosity. He believed that Salmond was not ready for leadership. He had come into Parliament only in 1987. [Sillars and his associates tried to] persuade the party that Ewing should not be opposed.

Friends of Salmond saw the matter differently. They believed that Salmond might not have stood against Sillars had he run. One said:

The reason they wanted Margaret to be leader was to pull the strings behind her. Their support damaged her campaign very considerably. She lost control of her own campaign. Funnily enough, if Jim had decided to run himself, Alex might well have accepted that.

BY the time he lost Govan at the 1992 General Election, Sillars told me that he had spent £44,000 of his own resources on nursing the constituency. His office there had become a kind of welfare service. Here he showed all his gifts as a demotic politician, for he knew that if he were to retain the seat he could only do it on the streets.

He had a column in the Sun, by now an unlikely supporter of independence (as part of a Tory strategy to split the anti-Conservative vote by talking up nationalism), the fee for which he ploughed back into the constituency. This had the effect of making him persona non grata with some of the other media. He formed an alliance with the Roman Catholic archdiocese, at that time deeply incensed by the attitude of Strathclyde region’s Labour establishment to its denominational schools, many of which were facing closure.

The Catholics’ flirtation with nationalism was entirely tactical. It was a warning to the Labour establishment that it could not be taken for granted. In the 1992 General Election Sillars was duly defeated by Ian Davidson, the Strathclyde councillor most closely associated with the programme of school reorganisation.

After his defeat, Sillars went into a typical huff. On television he denounced Scots as ”90-minute patriots” and departed once more into the wilderness. When we met in 1993 he told me, rather disgustedly, that Scottish politics had become trivial, a matter of ”roads and sewage”.

I do not think we have heard the last of Jim Sillars. For all the controversies that have followed him, you do not hear many people speak ill of him. George Younger said he was the best constituency neighbour MP that he ever had. When Sillars said he would do something, it was done. John Smith said in 1993:

“I get on very well with Jim. I never had a cross word with him, actually.”

Others spoke with admiration of his parliamentary skills. Like all politicians of class, he has a coterie of devoted loyalists though he has a tendency to expect them to be acolytes. Just as much as Mrs Thatcher, Sillars needs clear-eyed friends rather than uncritical fans.

The thing to remember about Sillars, I conclude, is that he is a socialist first and a nationalist second — a proposition with which John Smith agreed in conversation — and that he is in painful exile from the movement in which he was raised and nurtured. I believe John Pollock is right in his assessment that he has tried to turn the SNP into a socialist party of the kind for which he strived in 1975 and 1976, and that the resistance he arouses in the SNP from the traditionalist wing flows inescapably from the party’s heterogeneous nature. Sillars is not a cultural nationalist.

But I give the last word to Margo MacDonald, who loves him: ”Sometimes I say, ‘Were we just wrong, Jim?’ He says, ‘No, we weren’t necessarily wrong. We were just trying to push water uphill’.”


The Hollow Drum: A Personal History of Scotland Since the War, by Arnold Kemp,