In its time, Scotland has produced its share of groundbreaking politicians and, given the imprecision of and the human flaws intrinsic in politics (unlike with physicists or surgeons) there is less unanimity about who belongs at the top. Jim Sillars may be in the running but, for my money, is overrated—and the more so with time.
Always a thinker and never afraid to make his case, Jim is a man to be admired and, often, listened to. Well ahead of Scottish Labour’s recent Damascene conversion that they need to change, he and the equally redoubtable Alex Neil tried to modernise that party in the seventies, founded and failed to plough a separate furrow with the ILP and more recently have followed very different paths within and without the SNP fold.
Impatience with the SNP has been Jim’s leitmotif for two decades now. Had the SNP’s fundamentalist/gradualist debate of a decade ago gone deeper than it did, the SNP could have split, with Jim returning to lead the former faction. As it was, after Swinney’s low-key tenure and the Alex-Salmond-led mid-noughties resurgence, things have never looked so good. So, when Jim weighs in with opinions apparently contrary to the SNP’s thoughts, who’s right? Jim himself is clear as ever:
“If Scotland is to seize the opportunity that will come with independence to repair its economy, and overcome the deficit of inherited debt from the UK, then it must be able to exercise the maximum sovereign powers. There will be no such maximum available in the new eurozone treaty.”
As clarion a call to dump Europe and follow the Norwegian road, if ever there was one. But is he right? Sterling though many of Jim’s qualities might be, patience seems alien to him. You need only recall his almighty harrumph about “90-minute patriots” when his “Free by ’93” slogan cratered big-style. It appears that independence continues to drive him. But any impediment to that becomes the object of his wrath; Cameron’s wielding of the veto on Europe last month exemplifies today’s need for the drastic.
Several political observers whom I respect have waxed lyrical about Jim’s article in Tuesday’s Hootsmon. But I beg to differ. Seen through the lens of a typical Tory backwoods/bencher, Europe is indeed a bureaucratic bog, designed by Belgian Sir Humphrey’s to sap the precious bodily fluids from Brits—the last virile tribe of free-marketeers to roam the once-open fiscal plains of Western Europe. Though they may see themselves manning the beetling chalk cliffs of Albion against incursions by Johnny Foreigner, the Tunbridge Wells birthplace of such a political attitude is a far cry from the Clyde (let alone Loch Awe), from whence Weir pumps & their ilk export a wheen of Scots-built world-beaters into Köln and Stuttgart, as well a Canton and Shanghai.
Talk to leading Scots businesses, whether in oil service or whisky, tiny chips or ships’ hulls; we are out there in the world and making our mark. Irn Bru is outselling coke in Russia and we are lumbered with a PM who thinks more about the 1922 committee than about Scotland. When Jim argues we should make some Pavlovian Thatcher-gesture two decades after the original handbagging, I argue that he seems to understand less about Europe than even Cameron does.
And Cameron has an excuse. To keep his ConDem show on the road, he has to find raw meat the throw to the anti-EU hyenas roaming his back benches. Jim has no such need and Scots are generally more curious than hostile towards ‘foreigners’. Has Jim gone to Dublin and ask how the Irish fare in Europe? He would be told that their MEPs saunter down the corridor with a couple of bottles of Baileys to cut deals with the Danes or the Dutch, quietly line up ‘little’ countries so that, when the Merkozy faction is preoccupied, they stitch them up. How do you think the Spanish got such a sweet deal on pillaging our fish with trawlers built on EU subsidies?
Because you have to be on the field to play—let alone win—the game, Jim. And this angels-on-pinheads debate about whether Scotland would be in or out is for academics. We share a huge amount of culture with Europe. Go to Ulan Bator or Moghadishu if you want to see what foreign really means. Those people in Berlin or Barcelona or Brussels watch the same TV and—these days—even speak the same language as we do. Spend a couple of weeks with them and your biggest cultural problem will be they serve mustard with chips.
The idea that 260m educated, business-oriented and (at least in the German case) hard-working neighbours would not want a country like ours, with most of Europe’s oil, half of its fish, almost all of its marine renewables, a world reputation for pluck, grit and dry humour and (& here’s the clincher) an enviable record of taking on the truculent English and winning, as a necessary part of any European Union seems myopic to the point of being thrawn about it. Even the Spanish will want us. Within 20 years, they’ll be importing our water by the tanker-load—as well as our fish.
Everyone on this island needs to understand that Scotland is actually one of the most desirable friends that Europe could have. Most of Europe already knows this (talk to them). But, though the SNP are doing their best to explain this to our benighted neighbours dahn saaff, fixated as they are on circling their rickety wagons and trapping us with them, we also have well intentioned little-Scotlanders like Jim reciting his own version of “we’re too poor…too wee…etc”. Enough, already!
The Scots may not have built half the known world but our diaspora dwarfs any other in its achievements. It wasn’t fearties who built the Hudson’s Bay Company or Jardine Matheson any more than it was ninety-minute patriots who stood their ground with the Bruce. I want Jim Sillars and any who still think like him to have their say—and the time to reflect how Europe was once part of every step Scotland made forward, whether as Flemish merchants, Russian admirals, French exiles or Swedish generals.
Time we remembered our long heritage and who our real friends have always been.