Jim Sillars: Politics of possible replaces politics of perfection

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In a landmark opinion piece, former MP Jim Sillars, for years the figurehead of fundamentalism within the SNP, reveals why he now believes full independence should not be the party's short-term goal.

From the press briefings, and the extensive interviews with senior SNP figures undertaken by Professor James Mitchell, it would appear that when Alex Salmond finally completes his review of policy on independence, we may find he offers the Scottish electors not the total package that usually accompanies such a concept but, shall we say, independence lite, with several umbilical links remaining to the rest of the UK.

Margo MacDonald, my wife, argued for a similar position during the election. As independent candidates do not get the coverage given to parties, many would miss her contribution. Given my reputation on the independence question, you may expect to read of not only a bust-up in the Sillars household, but of a widening of the breach between us "fundies" and the Salmond leadership group. Be prepared to be disappointed.

I would prefer to have the full enchilada, but there are two factors that will matter when the final test is put to the Scots. First, we must deal with the views of the people, which is more obvious than it seems to some of the party members I spoke to last Wednesday when euphoria was at its highest; and secondly, we must understand, as I pointed out in a pamphlet written in November 2009: "Small size nations, and larger ones too, are often constrained on policy due to the proximity of a near or larger state, whose own state interests limit those of its neighbour … Scotland does not lie outside spheres of influence." A phrase often heard at SNP conferences is "No man can set the bounds of a nation." That isn't true. Alex Salmond is now in the world of the politics and the art of the possible, not the politics of perfection. There is no point in being pure as the driven snow, and defeated in a referendum that will settle things for more than one generation.

The membership should take a sober look at the opinion polls, the ones that said the SNP was galloping to a victory, but also recorded support for independence in the low 30 per cents. If one was right, so was the other. It would be easy to rehearse the reasons for this low level of support, and register yet again my opposition to past policies of parking independence at elections. But we are in the same new world now as Alex Salmond, one created by an unexpected but welcome majority in the Scottish Parliament. A world in which those constraints become a factor we have to live with as a party; constraints that are likely to produce a policy that defines an independence differently to that which brought many people into the party, and for which they have campaigned for over many years.

It is evident from the polls, and the anecdotal evidence that the standard model of independence, and the "break-up" factor in relation to our neighbours are a cause of apprehension to many Scots voters. Margo MacDonald, (back in the 1970s), wrote of the social union that would continue to exist after independence. You will have heard that idea fall from the lips of present SNP leaders, but it isn't sufficient to soothe peoples' anxieties. It is the form and substance of independence that Alex Salmond presents that will finally matter, in removing apprehension about separation.

WE COULD, of course, be misled by the leaks of a new definition, but I don't think so. They seem to point towards a new concept: an independent country in international law which has a kind of confederal relationship with England, in which the latter continues to carry out cross-Border functions like the DVLA, perhaps pension and social security payments, and a BBC with beefed up Scottish representation at Trust level. One which engages us in a quasi-Nato relationship on shared defence and security against terrorism, with Scotland paying its share of costs of those functions, plus our share of UK debt, from its sovereignty over all taxation including oil, and perhaps offsetting some of those costs by leasing the Trident base for a long period.

Leasing the Trident base? Jings, crivvens, help ma Boab. Never! is likely to be the first reaction of party members. But this is serious stuff we are now engaged in. Policies made in the Cold War have to be rethought, and what we are facing has to be understood.

Let me put it in football parlance. Alex Salmond is no longer taking on Stranraer (Iain Gray and Scottish Labour) but Manchester United (Cameron, Osborne, Hague, Clarke, Rifkind, Forsyth, Ming, Charlie Kennedy, Gordon Brown, Alexander and Brian Wilson, with the Treasury and Foreign Office Mandarins on the subs' bench but engaged in the game plan).

We must, if we are serious, look through the English end of the telescope. Scottish independence, in the old model and old policies, threatens English state interests, and if so threatened, they will fight to keep us in the Union, because they must do so.

There is a vital link between Trident and London's veto seat on the UN Security Council, because shorn of it, it becomes more difficult to justify retention at a time when India, Japan and Brazil are pressing their case.

We want, in the referendum debate to come, to have the English establishment much less threatened, and therefore much less concerned, about a vote for Scottish independence. It is wise not to make an opponent an implacable enemy.

One area where, I hope, second thoughts are in play is that of Scottish diplomatic representation 'lodged' in UK embassies. That would be an unfortunate signal of big brother-little brother. To establish our independent identity, important for trade purposes, we need a Scottish foreign & trade ministry, building our own body of diplomatic expertise, providing our young people with an avenue of opportunity to participate as equals in international organisations.

Overall, however, if the leaks point to the kind of new definition of independence covered in this article, this is one fundamentalist who will support and campaign for them.

The man who stood up to salmond

For many years, Jim Sillars has been regarded as the darling of the SNP's fundamentalist wing. He was the unofficial voice of those within the party who argued against devolution on the basis that the half-way house offered by a parliament with incomplete powers would thwart independence.

It was a label that suited the firebrand politician, whose roots had been in the Labour Party. Mr Sillars, who had represented South Ayrshire for Labour in the early 1970s, sensationally won Govan for the SNP in 1988. He rose to become deputy leader of the SNP but was to lose his seat in the 1992 general election. Along with others like Alex Neil, now a Scottish Government minister, he was an outspoken critic of the gradualist approach to independence followed by Alex Salmond and John Swinney.

For a time he was barely on speaking terms with Mr Salmond and in recent years he has been one of the few well-known SNP figures who has openly criticised the SNP leadership.