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‘The politics of Scotland would be turned upside down’: an interview with Jim Sillars

As the referendum campaign begins to heat up James Foley speaks to Jim Sillars about the prospects for a Yes vote and his hopes for an independent Scotland.

 

Jim Sillars is a veteran of the left wing of the independence movement as well as one of its intellectual heavyweights. His record as an MP for South Ayrshire (1970-79) and Glasgow Govan (1988-92) has given him a platform which he has consistently used to articulate a socialist pro-independence position and critique the exploitative and oppressive nature of contemporary capitalism. In his new book, In Place of Fear II, he argues that through independence a more caring and compassionate society can be built in Scotland and a space provided in which the socialist left can re-orientate itself. James Foley, co-author of the upcoming Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence spoke to him about his hopes and fears for independence and the Yes campaign in the run up to the referendum:

 

James Foley: A lot of British socialists talk about the need for a united working class response to the crisis.  What is the argument for breaking up the UK state, from a working class perspective?

Jim Sillars: For many of them that’s a cop-out that allows them to escape facing some of the realities that we are trying to put in front of them. If, in fact, this working class solidarity from John O’Groats to Land’s End worked, we wouldn’t have the unemployment we have, we wouldn’t have 250,000 children living in poverty in Scotland, we wouldn’t have hopeless communities, we wouldn’t have the low pay economy we have at the present time. So, for ideological reasons, they are willing for those children to pay the price of continued poverty. If you look at the election results then Carmichael, the present so-called secretary of state for Scotland, is wrong. There are significant value differences between Scotland and the majority of the English people. Unless we’re independent we can’t bring those values into operation.

There’s another reason. On the basis of Scottish state interest, we have so long been part of another state that most of us don’t think in Scottish state interest terms. I can assure you that if you look at the memoirs and you look at the cabinet papers of Westminster governments, they most certainly do look from a state interest point of view; and it’s an English state. The UK is a fiction.  It is in fact a state of England with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish appendages. The whole thrust of policy is bound to be English. This is not an anti-English point. If the position was reversed it would be a Scottish angle every time.  But it’s not. If you’ve got 55 million people and five million of us, the 55 million point-of-view is the one that’s decisive.

The third point is this: we’re a nation, not a region of another nation, and a nation has options that a region doesn’t have. Merseyside and Geordieland, well, they’ll have to do something within the nation of which they are regions. We can do something entirely different.

We’ve got to say to those so-called socialists: are you prepared to sacrifice those Scottish children, generation after generation? We need to remind them that in 1973, the Scottish grand committee debated a document called Born to Fail. We’re now in 2014 and there are 250,000 children in Scotland born to fail. That’s the price of the union. I, as a socialist, am not prepared to see those children pay. Apparently, some of our socialist colleagues are.  I think they’re wrong.

 

JF: We used to think neoliberalism was about the right-wing winning elections.  Now, we realise it’s something much broader, that encompasses social democracy as well.  Even the most progressive countries have been somewhat caught up within the free market, pro-privatisation orthodoxy.  Why should Scotland be an exception to that if it became independent?

JS: The reason I think we’d be an exception is that here the socialist retreat has stopped. The reason neoliberalism has dominated so many parts of the world is due to the collapse of socialism, and socialists have retreated time after time. I think in Scotland – and it wouldn’t surprise me, because we’ve always been amongst the leaders of socialism in Western Europe – the retreat has ended. We are able not just to take on the neoliberals, and say you’ve created monsters. A wonderful quote from Hugh MacDiarmid:

“Above all I curse and try to combat

The leper pearl of capitalist culture

Which only tarnishes what it cannot lend

Its own superb lustre.”

In other words, yes, capitalism can expand, it can do all sorts of things and yet there’s a canker at the heart of it and that is gross inequality and a lack of concern for those who have been unlucky enough to fall to the bottom of the heap.

 

JF: You used to belong to the Scottish Labour Party.  Would you argue that they have retained a socialist tradition in Scotland, more so than in England?

JS: Yes, when they’re up here!  But not when they get on that plane to London. They just comply with the conditions set by the Miliband leadership. For example, where did Miliband decide to write about the English middle class? In the Telegraph: there are very few Telegraphs sold in Scotland, so he wasn’t talking to folk up here. The Labour Party in Scotland has middle England on its back all the time. The Grangemouth statement and the short debate in the parliament and House of Commons was very interesting. One after another, left-wing Labour MPs got up, and they got almost to the point of saying, “This guy can go, we’ll take it over.” But, of course, that would not be allowed, so they went up to that point, and backed off. I think there’s a lot of talent in the backbenches of the Labour Party, but it’s seriously constrained by its membership of the British Labour Party.

 

JF: What about the case of Johann Lamont, who used to be seen as on the left of Labour despite her hardcore unionism, but now seems to have drifted towards the right?  What’s that about?

JS: She’s not really the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. She appears to be, but she’s always conscious of the fact that she has to look over her shoulder, that she cannot go out of the bounds set by Miliband. She is therefore punting something that, ten years ago, she would have been utterly astonished at doing. Middle England is on the back of the Labour Party in Scotland.

Johann Lamont

 

JF: How do you think Labour members feel about the alliance with the Tories and Lib Dems in Better Together?

JS: I think they’re very uncomfortable, but they’re willing to bear it as long as they beat the SNP. The tragedy is that everyone sees, at the moment, that independence is about the SNP. And it’s not.  Labour sees it that way. If they can deliver a defeat on the Yes side they see that as a defeat for Alex Salmond and they’ve got their own back at last.

 

JF: If we were to get independence, do you think any party in Scotland would be able to represent the socialist tradition?

JS: I think if we get a Yes vote, in that interregnum between a Yes vote and independence, the politics of Scotland would be turned upside down. I’m absolutely sure of it. The shock to the dormant structure in Scotland will create a different dynamic in the political structures. The Labour Party in Scotland, as it stands now, will not get away with Johann Lamont style policies.

 

JF: Coming onto the Yes campaign, are you impressed with them so far?

JS: No, I am not. I think the problem with Yes Scotland is that it’s just an echo of the SNP and has not managed to convey the fact that the SNP is only one factor in the Yes side and that a Yes vote is not an endorsement of Alex Salmond personally or the SNP collectively. If the SNP issues a statement, as it did the other day on currency, you look up the Yes Scotland website, and it’s the same words they use. If you look back, the Yes side has been flatlining in the opinion polls. Now, some people think the polls are fixed, but I don’t, I think they’re quite genuine. Now, why has it been flatlining? Because there’s been nothing that would energise and excite the majority we’ve got to win, and that’s the working class. That’s why I wrote the book.

 

JF: Why have they been so slow to realise these problems in the Yes campaign?

JS: I think the problem has been that none of them have run a big national political campaign. A political campaign with a million pounds needs someone permanently in Inverness, permanently in Dundee, permanently in Edinburgh, Bathgate, Motherwell, Airdrie and Coatbridge, Glasgow, North Ayrshire, Dumbarton, Greenock. So you set up full-time officials there, who’s job it is to create activist committees, who’s job then is to go out campaigning in the streets. Yes Scotland kept all seventeen appointees in Glasgow. If you’re going to run a national campaign, you use your full-time people to create rings and rings of activists because they’re the people who will actually convert on the doorstep.  That’s how you run a national, political campaign. If you centralise it, and the centre doesn’t quite hit the right buttons, then you’ve got problems.

 

JF: Do you think they’re not getting enough feedback from the Scottish population?

JS: I’m quite sure they’re doing opinion polls, I’m quite sure they’re doing focus groups and all these other things. But if you run a national campaign, you’ve got to lead. You’ve got to change opinions, you’ve got to overcome the lack of self-confidence among Scots, this myth of our own inadequacy. You’ve got to take the lead. If I ask in an opinion poll ‘do you lack self-confidence?’ and they say yes, I’ve got to do something about that. And I can only do that by leading. I don’t think they’ve led. I think they’re certainly getting feedback, no question about that. But it doesn’t strike me as a great political campaign.

 

JF: What are the big mistakes they’ve made, and can they be remedied in time?

JS: Well, you’ve got to give Alex Salmond and the SNP credit for bringing us this far. But I don’t think the White Paper, which was a hybrid between answering questions neutrally and a manifesto for the SNP in 2016, set any heather on fire. The White Paper needed to ask a working class family on one of the housing estates, what would bring you out to campaign, or even just to vote? And it hasn’t done that.

One of the words I have come to hate is “hope”. The number of times I’ve heard folk talk about “hope”, “give them hope”. This is usually said by folk who don’t know what to do.  I want to replace the word “hope” with the word “certainty”. Of change, for the better. My book aims to set out a clear, achievable policy for the working class. This is what we can do if we use our power. And I don’t think the broad, Yes Scotland campaign has got that over.

One of the things I find obnoxious, for example, is the latest production from [the SNP].  It’s beautifully produced, no doubt about that, but it says on the front that independence is worth £600 a year to us. Is that all? I find that insulting. Independence is about a paradigm change in Scottish power, and a paradigm change in how we operate the Scottish economy. It means improving the living wage to make sure it’s paid not just in the public sector, but in everyone who lives off the public sector, by supplying the contracts.  To start to lift people out of poverty. It’s about paying the 18 percent of pensioners who are in poverty the only thing that will get them out of poverty, which is proper pensions. That’s nothing to do with £600.  What kind of people do they think we are? If it’s £590, do we not vote?

 

JF: Moving onto the economy, why has currency been the dominant issue in the debate, do you think, and how do supporters of independence combat the arguments from the other side?

JS: The reason currency has become central to the debate is that Alex Salmond put himself in a corner without contingencies and he can’t get out of it. The idea of a currency union is a nonsense. It puts one of his major policies in the hands of the other side.  You need two to create a currency union and if the big partner in that potential currency union says it’s not going to do so, then you’ve got a problem, because you can’t force it. And I notice today, John Swinney’s out with this silly statement, that the pound is as much ours as it is Westminster’s.  But that’s not the case. If there’s any reserves, gold, foreign currency, in the Bank of England, yes, we have a proportionate right to them but the pound sterling is a badge of sovereignty of the British state. At the moment, it is part of our badge of that sovereignty exercised by the British state, but when we become independent, the British state takes the pound as its sovereign currency. We’re not entitled to it. So Alex created the currency union problem. At one stage he threatened to default on Scotland’s debt if it didn’t let us in, but that didn’t last long. So he’s played right into the hands of the Unionists.  It’s in their tactical interest not to say no to a currency union at the moment, to keep things uncertain.  Because the uncertainty then eats away at Scotland’s self-confidence.

 

JF: What do you say to people who say that the instability of North Sea Oil is going to hamper any economic development in Scotland?

JS: This same argument was employed in the 1970s.  It’s not a big thing, don’t put all your eggs in this particular basket. The fact of the matter is that something like £1.5 trillion worth of oil is still to be extracted. Sir Ian Wood, I don’t know whether he’s for yes or for no, but he knows the oil industry inside out, his commission said there was £200 billion still to be extracted from the North Sea Oil, it’s a bonanza for the country. So if you don’t think there’s enough oil there, that’s your problem, that’s what I say to the unionists: I know there is. And we can’t be bought off again. We were put in to a prison of lies in the 1970s about the oil and they’re trying to put us back into that prison of lies in the present time.  We would be the only people on earth who would fall for that twice.

The oil in the North Sea, for five million people, is more important than it is for 60 million in the UK. That’s something that hasn’t been got across to people.

magnus_wave_470x392

 

JF: How effective do you think Holyrood has been in expanding participation and democracy in Scottish society, and what would you do to expand it after independence?

JS: I think it’s been important in focusing the attention on Scotland. It’s very interesting that most people don’t know the MPs at Westminster. They’ll know their own constituency, but they don’t know the others, because they get no coverage. So Holyrood has focused on internal issues. If we get a no, I don’t think a great deal is going to happen, because we’re almost at the final point of expansion of devolution. The Scots are having this devo-max debate as if it’s only up to us.  But it isn’t. If more powers are devolved to Scotland, to the disadvantage of the North East of England, do you think for a moment those could pass the House of Commons? You take corporation tax, which Alex Salmond goes on about. If you have a lower corporation tax in a unitary state, how do you get business to stay in Durham or in Newcastle, when they can nip across the border and do it there? So there’s strict limits to devolution in a unitary state. Unfortunately, that debate really does not relate to the realities of how the United Kingdom would see that.

And, of course, if we got a No vote, why should they take us seriously again? For about the last twenty-five, thirty years, the Scottish issue has been a central part of the UK debate.  Vote No, and you take yourself off the agenda.

 

JF: Finally, what will happen if there is a no vote?

JS: There will be a massive exodus of young, talented people from Scotland and by 2016 those who voted No will bitterly regret it, but it will be too late. Just as a lot of people who didn’t carry the 40 percent in ’79 lived to regret it in the Thatcher era. Now I’m not saying Cameron is a Thatcher but the cuts to come after 2015 are enormous. We’ve only had £1 out of the £10 of the cuts to come, ten percent. It will all come like a deluge upon us after 2015. If we vote No, there will be no protection.

One comment on “‘The politics of Scotland would be turned upside down’: an interview with Jim Sillars

  1. Derry Vickers on said:

    Jim Sillars makes some very cogent points in his response

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