The Sillars Season

Jim Sillars has been a weel kent face in Scottish politics since before he won the Govan by-election for the SNP in 1988 and repeated the wet-fish-in-the-puss-for-Labour act his irrepressible wife Margo MacDonald had achieved 15 years prior. As a former deputy leader, you would credit Jim with some insight into the party but you might as well compare computers from 1993 with those of today if you wanted a similar example of being out of touch.

In his latest outburst, he excoriates a “totalitarian SNP” in yesterday’s Hootsmon and does not mince his words:

“If I did not know better, I would easily believe the leaders had been schooled in the old communist party, where the top, the elite, made the decisions and the rest fell into step automatically, with not a word of dissent. Totalitarian would be a fair description of Scotland’s majority party.”

Perhaps he sees himself as Trotsky to Josef Dughailovitch Salmond and is eternally on the qui vive for the looming ice pick. Now today, Brian Wilson has piled in joyously, also in the Hootsmon, with his usual opportunism when a chance to put the boot into the SNP is on offer. Brian writes well and deserves credit for his consistency. But, as with many who made a career ‘down south’ where the ‘real’ government is, has an agenda that would choke a horse when it comes to his beloved Union and the threat he (rightly) believes the SNP poses. But, as with Jim, I have great difficulty believing he writes from knowledge and not from personal bias, such as:

“All political parties aspire to internal discipline but few achieve anything like the parrot-like uniformity which characterises the Nationalists at Holyrood and beyond. As Sillars suggests, there are no internal pressure groups to influence policy; no individuals left who will stand up for an unapproved cause; no right to ask an unvetted question; no evidence of independent thought. They exist to follow orders.”

This should be funny. But, as we’re talking about the party who runs Scotland, the lie to this little self-serving falsehood needs to be exposed. The fact that Jim once moved from Labour to form the ILP and then join with the SNP is, in my eyes, no disqualification for a decent opinion. Alex Neil was his colleague through those transitions but has remained a leading figure in the SNP, shedding much of the hectoring pseudo-radicalism that still characterises Jim’s later pronouncements.

As an SNP party member since the seventies, activist & local official for the last two decades, ex-Convener of their 400+ councillor association and member of their National Executive, I feel I have some basis on which to accuse both Jim and Brian—political veterans though they may be—of talking through their collective hat.

Let’s leave aside that, over the last two years, this blog has been as questioning of SNP orthodoxy as any, how is it, with my frequent appearances on-stage at conference, often in support of our own ego-iconoclast Gerry Fisher, no large gentlemen called Shuggie have been round to knee-cap me? Why would I still attend and be taken seriously at monthly NEC meetings? I’ve been made welcome at party gatherings from Strichen to Tarbet and from Kirkwall to Jedburgh.

If Jim and Brian are right, I fail to understand why a loose cannon like me could keep getting selected to represent the party in elected office for 13 years, still less lead my council for three of those, during which I opposed Keith Brown’s priorities on Transport, took issue with Richard Lochhead’s approach to shellfish development and openly lambasted Scottish Enterprise and VisitScotland’s shortcomings in dealing with rural business and local tourism. Though I check my bed nightly, no horse’s head has appeared.

Even “Stalin” himself stills smiles at me (although, thankfully, he has yet to kiss me on both cheeks), despite the fact that his “politburo” would prefer Cockenzie power station to be converted from coal to gas firing and I had my entire group out campaigning to have the eyesore demolished because East Lothian needs another power station like a hole in the head. Yes, I have ‘enemies’ within the party but we treat each other with respect because we believe in something in common more than we believe in personal ambition. Is it bad that such internal differences don’t surface to be reported in the media?

The sad thing for me is that both Jim and Brian appear to have had trouble moving away from a mentality that seemed to pervade Scottish Labour through their black days of the eighties. They hated Thatcher and all her works but were helpless to stop her policies being stuffed down their throats. They circled the wagons and came to believe only they held the truth; only they could be the people’s champions; only their rule was right.

If you start to believe in such a bunker mentality, the rest of the world appears foreign. You wind up condemning anything that did not originate with your tribe. You assume no-one else can have morals or aspire to ideas. And, since such neanderthal thinking seldom is rewarded by an enlightened public, frustration creeps in with each electoral defeat, along with backstabbing and infighting (c.f. Glasgow City early this year).

And, if you live in that poisonous atmosphere long enough, you start to ascribe its less salubrious elements to your opponents out of sheer bitterness. You see others who debate with little rancour as spineless; you see a whole mass of people spurred on by success in a common cause they believe in as automatons; you see leaders who have the confidence of their membership as autocrats because they are not being constantly torn down in public.

I believe that Jim does not recognise the party he left declaiming as “ninety-minute patriots” two decades ago. That’s because the long dark tunnel of the eighties & nineties ended in 1997 and the SNP moved into its present upbeat, outward-looking and calmly resilient mood.

Brian, for all his abilities and experience, has always displayed a pathological hostility to the SNP. What he feels is no doubt genuine (were I in his place, I would be consumed by frustration at events) but he needs to get out of the eighties and watch our upcoming NATO debate.

Both should look not just at what the SNP is doing but how it is doing it—with the passion, belief and common purpose that once made the Labour party greater and nobler than the tittle-tattle of their present writings.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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