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Jim Sillars: Dancing Around Devolution

In an article first published in Holyrood magazine, SNP veteran and nationalist icon, Jim Sillars, questions the SNP leadership’s courting of the of the Devo Max brigade.



It’s time the SNP membership woke up to smell the coffee. In case they haven’t noticed, the objective that gave it life and has sustained it over many difficult, barren years is being undermined by its own leadership courting an alternative which, at root, seeks a vote for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom.


It is disingenuous to claim that if the Scots vote for devo-something-extra then they will be entitled to have it. The effect of additional devolution powers for Holyrood will have to be judged by their effects upon other areas of the UK, especially those in the North of England who already feel disadvantaged by the powers we have. Taking into account others as well as the Scots is the fundamental price of membership of the Union. All the rest falling into step with Oor Jock is an illusion.

That the SNP Government has encouraged these devo-something ploys is a matter for deep regret, because anything that implies we can have our cake and eat it over economic powers in devo-land, eats away at the case for independence. There will be those, the ultra-loyalists, who will deny that there is an SNP leadership hand in this call for a second question. The devo-idea on the referendum ballot paper would not have floated for one minute if Alex Salmond had not given it the green light at the last party conference, and his minions not briefed the press time and again on the subject. It would not float now if the First Minister said outright that he has a mandate for only one question, independence, and only independence will be on the ballot paper.

There will be those, many indeed, within the party who think that Alex is being very smart.

A second devo-max question is an insurance policy if the independence question is lost.

The SNP will, this thinking goes, claim to have won something extra for Scotland and, if Westminster does not implement it, then the SNP will campaign in 2016 on outrage at the denial of the people’s decision.

Does no one stop to ask why the UK Government, and the unionist parties, are not seeking a second question on additional powers given that they have held out such a possibility if we vote down independence? They do not intend to paint themselves into a devolution corner. They know that once independence is defeated, they drive the agenda. Westminster can live with another SNP government dancing an enraged jig in Edinburgh, displeased with all it is going to get – Calman. Once independence is sunk, the SNP threatens no one, and Westminster can relax and renege.

To warp the strategy for independence by encouraging the devo brigades as an insurance tactic, is not only unwise, but is a betrayal of the needs of this nation. Instead of dancing around devolution, the SNP should be shouting a truth from the rooftops – that Scotland is shackled to a fading power, one that is skint and holds out no prospect of anything except economic decline and the further tearing apart of the social fabric of our society; and that the only way out of years of cuts and rising unemployment, is to break free and take command of our own destiny.

George Osborne’s headline admission in The Daily Telegraph of 27 February, ‘UK has run out of money’, says it all. The editor of The Spectator has pointed out that the UK debt burden will only be “returning to pre-Brown levels by 2038”.

Those are the facts, the reasons for getting out of the UK, and have to be hammered home to the Scots. There is no prosperous future for our children if we reject independence.

The SNP membership is guilty of allowing the case for independence to go by default. Where are all those working groups on various issues that are at the heart of the independence debate, and when, tell me, has the party engaged in the kind of sustained campaigning with the evidence supplied by those many working groups? The party has been content to let the leadership do its thinking, and that leadership’s inadequacies are glaringly obvious.

The fact that Alex and his ministers tower above the opposition in Holyrood has made the leadership and the party at large intellectually lazy.

They rejoice in managerialism, coveting credibility. That it is not enough for a party that claims to seek a complete break with the present constitutional and economic set up. The result is that in response to each question lobbed at them by unionists, or to negative opinions on independence expressed by economists, we get the cry of “scaremongering” or off the cuff replies instead of a well prepared rebuttal, that should be based on extensive research and policy formulation by the working groups which, unfortunately, do not seem to have been formed.

Where, tell me, is the sustained education of the Scottish people on the deep structural defects in the economy south of the border to which we are joined? Where is the coherent defence policy? Where is the description of the new economic programme on independence in order to tackle the Union legacy of high unemployment? What changes do we propose to labour laws, given the imbalance of power between employers and workers that now exists?

How will tax revenues be collected, and how will the administration of social benefits be carried out?

How is it that today, most Scots have no idea of the true nature of the oil industry and the importance of the latest large finds, and so easily fall for the arguments about it ‘running out’? Is that not a sign of SNP failure to educate through sustained campaigning?

Is the membership happy with Nicola Sturgeon’s remark as being well thought out policy, when she told The Times conference on 2 March that an independent Scotland would ask the Bank of England to be lender of last resort for our financial institutions and that: “We would pay the Bank of England ….to provide those facilities”? How much? As for the idea that Scotland could get a seat on the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England, it’s risible. Just ask: why would Westminster agree to a foreign country having a seat on its central bank? In all the talk about a currency union with the government down south, it seems to have escaped the leadership’s notice that such could only happen if they agree. What if they say, “yes, no one can stop you using sterling, in the same way people use dollars for international trading, but we decline to take you onboard as a member as we 55 million don’t need you 5 million up there.” Before, and at The Times conference, the leaders of the party were scattering hostages to fortune at the feet of the unionists. The referendum better be held back to autumn 2014, because between then and now there is a mountain of work be done unless, that is, the party, like the leadership, seems content to settle for remaining part of the UK. Scotland deserves better than it is getting.

This article was first published in Holyrood magazine on 12th March 2012.

Comments (22)

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  1. Peter A Bell says:

    I’ve seen the light! Jim Sillars is right! We must abandon the fight for independence forthwith; disband the SNP; and start all over again!

    With Jim Sillars and Jim Fairlie in charge, of course.

  2. longshanker says:

    I’d run with Salmond on this before siding with an embittered ‘extra time’ SNP has-been like Sillars. The Tortoise and the Hare fable looms large here. Break away in 2014 and it will lead to such protracted division and bitterness that our children wont know anything other than strife running through the strata of Britain.

    They’re broke. Yes, correct. You don’t need a Telegraph interview to tell you that. Independence will make them broker. Do you think they’ll take that lieing down? I don’t. And I don’t want to see the consequences either.

    Since Salmond formed the 79 group he’s proven, if anything, that slow and progressive can win the race. Going for a hare’s dash now would be madness.

    I don’t know what Alex Salmond wants, but I know that the majority of Scots at this moment in time don’t want full-on independence.

    Sillars has always been a reactionary militant type – action first consequences later. He should shut his face and watch SNP members in action who at least appear to know what they’re doing. Something Sillars never managed. Splitter.


    1. Peter A Bell says:

      As I said to Jim Fairlie, on Independence Day he – and Jim Sillars – will be busy writing articles about how it all went wrong.

      1. longshanker says:

        Yes. Very droll.


  3. Andrew says:

    Wilst i agree with lots of what you say Jim i think that your seeing this whole devo-whatever thing without seeing the strategy behind it, the one thing that west minster wants is to keep power whatever the cost, so of course they won’t agree to devo- anything as the very thing they want us for will no longer be controlled by them. That then leaves us with a straight choice, Independance or nothing,i believe Scots will choose Independance rather than nowt.

  4. Doug Daniel says:

    I agree with Andrew, Jim is clearly missing the real strategy here. I can understand that when it’s members of the press to an extent, but Jim should really be more wise to what is really going on. Devo Whatever will not appear on the referendum, so it’s either independence or, quite literally, bust. Having spent two and a half years imagining what we could do with a decent set of powers, people will make that small leap, especially against the backdrop of Tory social engineering policies, which will be in full swing by the time the referendum comes around.

    I think Jim and Margo must sit at home agreeing with each other about what the SNP is doing wrong, because I’ve heard most of this from her fairly recently. It’d be interesting to know which one of the two leads the thinking, in fact. It’d also be interesting to know why Jim was espousing “indy lite” less than a year ago, and now is arguing against that same thing.

  5. scotsthemes says:

    All right, but why not answer Mr Sillar’s questions, daft or misguided though they be? Derision is not debate.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      What questions, though? He’s asking where the sustained education of Scots in regards to independence is, but with a hostile media, it’s not been possible to do this. The SNP have done what they can against a largely hostile media, short of herding people into rooms for Independence Education sessions. Also, they’re in the process of drawing up a prospectus for independence, which will detail things like defence. I think Jim and Margo’s view is that all this should have been ready to wheel out the second the referendum became an issue, and I can understand what they’re saying there, but the fact is there’s no point doing all this work, only for circumstances to change and necessitate a duplication of effort.

      We have over two years to educate people about independence, there is simply no point in rushing everything out at once. Particularly when the unionists are doing such a good job of highlighting the massive flaws and failings of the union. When your opponent is doing such a good job of defeating themselves, it’s wise to leave them to it, and only step in when you need to.

  6. stevenluby says:

    I have to say that Jim Sillars has made a point that most people appear to have missed. If Scotland vote yes,where is the line in the devo-minded S.N.P Government, that when we reach with all these new responsibilities, does it mean Scotland is now Independent? Because at the moment,Alex Salmonds idea/vision of an independent Scotland is not independent.Sharing the Sterling is dependency no matter how you word it,with that comes the same old badly regulated policies on the short sighted financial institutions that have crippled any constructive and progressive drives that a Scotland may have.
    I can understand that financial regulations,trade regulations and laws would benifit business hence trade within this so-called independence with the U.K but it still holds Scotland dependent to the Bank Of England and make no mistake about this,it will still be held sway from Westminster Policies.Scotland is thought of little enough now,does anyone really believe that the Bank Of England and Westminster will show any care to an ”independent” Scotland afterwards?
    Even the sad of this t.v induced Scotland who’s literacy levels are quite frankly shameful, worry about watching the BBC after a yes vote.Still to be force fed unofficial but political coercion because as the opposition parties stand at the moment within Scotland, people here will be dreaming of what it was like to hear opposition.Yet none of these members of the opposition believe a single word on devolution and independence fills their hearts with dread.They would have to reform and create new parties,wiping the slates clean with the ”big brother” in England.None have the wit,desire or understanding of how to create a policy let alone a credible opposition,to create a party is beyond almost all.
    Where then does this leave the question of independence?The question is no longer about independence.S.N.P have given that one up,they claim for independence but their definition is simply less dependency.This is the point that Jim Sillars is trying to make. If you have no appetite for a Scottish Currency,if you have no wish to tear up financial regulations and start again then you have not the stomach for an independent Scotland. The S.N.P still want to be tied to the pound and endure the restrictions that this would impose.Spending will be curtailed,not because it makes fiscal sense but the Bank Of England demands it so.
    The unionist parties have enforced their beliefs and allowed Scotland to become dilluted to such a degree that their is a vast majority of Scots who know next to nothing about their own countries history and their place in this world.We only have to look at England to see the consequences of poor understanding in history and look at Westminster to see what is produced,people making the same mistakes time and time again. Is this in some way independence that I have not ever come across? Since when did the so called great Scottish Education System allow to creep in and simply wipe out teaching Scottish History and it’s place within the U.K and the world as a whole?
    CBI Scotland( as with CBI U.K represent not that many companies ) have voiced concerns over doubts because of the referendum. Why ? They have returned their answers and questions from the consultation paper and recieved half answers and some with no answers at all.
    Their are many points I would like to make but people are missing Jim Sillars point and my take on it is this.We are either independent or simply less dependent. To me independence would allow Scotland it’s own currency.Scotland would have enough coin to have a strong currency and within a sound monetary policy with strict financial regulations and simply sensible fiscal policy we could easilly rid ourselves of fawning to the financial world. Yes we would fit into it but with protections that we deem correct,the shots would not be dictated to us,our fiscal policy would be decided by us,not on how much the financial industry requires of the tax payer to support an industry that makes up policies to encourage investments that don’t actually exist!
    The present Scottish Gov does not represent Scottish Independence,Devo-Max is at the heart of the S.N.P and I firmly believe, that we all know that it is this definition of ”independence” that the S.N.P are chasing for. I just wish they would be honest enough and come straight out with it and stop calling it independence,just call it what it is and move on from there.
    Spending 3-4 billion a year on the machines of destruction is simply put,stupid.Holding ex amount of hundreds of millions for potential distant wars would help support……anything WE want!
    If independence is

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      “Even the sad of this t.v induced Scotland who’s literacy levels are quite frankly shameful,”

      I’m sorry to make such a cheap point, but this sentence is pretty ironic…

      Anyway, like Jim you’re falling for the trap of thinking the SNP are really in favour of devo-whatever. They’re not. They’re in favour of independence, and are getting there through the gradualist approach, which has worked perfectly so far, rather than the fundamentalist approach which people like Jim and Margo would prefer.

      It’s important to understand human psychology in an issue like this, far more so than in any normal popular vote. People shy away from massive changes. Those of us who are in favour of independence may be prepared to have everything change in one go, but the voters that we are trying to attract to our cause are cautious. They are not attached to any particular ideology, they just want to be able to get on with their lives with the minimal of fuss. They want to know that things can be made better without upheaval. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter to people which set of politicians are making decisions, as long as they are the best ones for the job. But they are out of sight most of the time, only popping up at election time. Compare that to currency, where the coins we use are in our hands every day. It’s a tangible entity. People imagine the hassle of getting one coin out of circulation and exchanged for another, as well as having to go to the Post Office to exchange Scottish money for English money in order to spend it down in England. These are baseless fears (particularly as you often have to get specifically English notes in order to spend money in England already…), but that’s not the point.

      Talk of “we’re either independent or less dependent” sounds like the sort of line unionists come out with to make it sound like it’s not worth voting for independence, or Eurosceptics who see no point of independence unless we also pull out of the EU. It’s completely ignoring how the world works today, which is independent countries working together for the greater good – interdependency. A currency union between Scotland and rUK would not be unique. We may decide to have our own currency eventually, but let’s ensure the transition to independence is as easy as possible first. If embarking upon a currency union would mean we were not independent, then what do you call countries in the Euro like the Netherlands, Finland and Austria, who remain prosperous and independent despite the problems in other areas of the Eurozone?

      There is one very simple way of determining if a country is independent or not: does it have a seat at the UN? Post-indyref, Scotland would indeed have a seat at the UN. Therefore, we will be independent. We might share a currency, but we will still be independent, because we will be choosing that route for ourselves, and can pull out at any time. No one will be telling us to remain there.

      1. stevenluby says:

        Actually,independence is not depending on another country to hold up the currency in use. At the end of the day there are a lot of people who dislike Jim Sillars for saying many things just as they are. I for one understand the meaning of independence,what the S.N.P are saying is that they would be relying on the graces of the Bank Of England. Simply put,the S.N.P will not have much room to manoeuvere within a Sterling zone and still be tied to the self important financial system and all the costs that lay within their demands and expectations. Independence is what it means,independent,but if someone is going to throw in that we are all tied to this together then the will to be independent is not there.
        Just call it what it is,limited dependency as far as the S.N.P care and dare to take it.

  7. KW says:

    This Comment teetered pretty close to the edge of personal abuse rather than cinstructive political dialogue. Everyone is welcome to contribute but try and keep it in the language of friendly dialogue. Jim Sillars – like say Tom Nairn and Hugh MacDairmid and Wendy Wood before him, – has made a massive contribution to the Independence cause. You dont have to agree with him to recognise he is a giant of the movement. What he has to say deserves a hearing. So Marquiss of Queensberry rules folks. And shake hands after landing the blows.

  8. Andrew says:

    Steven, the obvious flaw in your thinking is that your presumtion that it would be BOE that would be dictating to Scotland what it can/can’t do, here is were we differ, the pounds strength would be tied as much to Scots assets as it would to English assets, that being the case then any move by the BOE to gerrymander Scotland would only lead to a drop in there own currency as it would be one and the same. The most obvious thing that would be likely to happen would be for the Scottish goverment THEN to have its own currency, so we’re back where we started, keep stirling until such a point were we start our own currency. I find the whole idea that we would be somehow at the behest of the BOE laughable, if anybody has anybody over the preverbal barrel it is the Scottish goverment that has the BOE.

  9. chicmac says:

    “How is it that today, most Scots have no idea of the true nature of the oil industry and the importance of the latest large finds, and so easily fall for the arguments about it ‘running out’? Is that not a sign of SNP failure to educate through sustained campaigning?”

    No. It is due to a monstrously biased mainstream media which, as usual, is abjectly derelict in any duty to the principles of democracy and human rights by failing to provide a pluralist and balanced output.

    If the token few, supposedly, independence friendly commentators took the embarrassing unionist bias in the Scottish media to task, rather than indulging in 4-part harmony with the U-choir whilst singing from the ‘Bash the Nats’ songsheet, they might go some little way to redressing the shameful imbalance rather than adding to it.

  10. douglas clark says:

    I have always admired Jim Sillars. He, took me from being a 90 minute patriot to the full time version. I am a member of the SNP largely because of that pithy expression, although my membership was a long time coming.

    I do not believe, as he also seems to understand, that anything less than independence is independence.

    Where we differ is in the bidding.

    It is an absolute necessity to understand the unionists bid or pass. Would they sell their very souls for the sake of the Union? I doubt it very much. I doubt they will offer anything much more than some sort of Scotland Bill. In other words they will pass. They don’t care enough about their bid to outfront the SNP. They are ideologically tied to a Union that is past it.

    It seems to me that teasing that out of the Unionists is an important early objective in a campaign that has a couple of years to run. For Scottish people are not stupid. They will see any genuine shortfall in their aspirations quite clearly. And they are already being set up to see the status quo as voting for the SNP. It is that resistance to Westminster, and especially the Restoration politics of the Conservatives that differentiates your average Scottish voter from out friends in the South. Tax cuts for the rich? Only in Eton would that be a popular policy.

    I think the final game will be between a yes or a no. But defining what a no means is very important to winning a yes vote. Else we are fighting shadows.

    Jim will recall Sir Alec Douglas Hume and his ilk. I do not think we will fall for that again.

    Just to add. It is quite astonishing to argue that the man that has moved the independence idea up to a credible objective is somehow a sell out. That verges on the ridiculous.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      On your last point there, we should obviously keep in mind that Jim is the man who used his Sun column to ask people to abstain from voting in the 1997 devolution referendum, and most certainly wouldn’t have had the SNP joining the “yes” campaign if he had still been in the leadership. I can’t help feeling that at least part of the criticism drawn from Jim (and Margo) towards Salmond is due to the fact that the gradualist approach Salmond has gotten the SNP to follow has been a massive success, effectively proving the fundamentalist approach of Jim and Margo well and truly wrong.

      After all, he talks of the SNP indulging in “managerialism”, yet the whole point of the gradualist approach was to display competence in government as a first step towards giving people the confidence to eventually vote for independence.

  11. James Coleman says:

    This article is typical of those who used to be in the van for Scottish Independence with all the old faults and lack of intellectual rigour. I believe Alex Salmond is correctly going down the Independence or (apparently) Devo Max route for the very simple reason he ISN’T SURE he can get the required majority for Independence in 2014. But I am also sure that if the polls start to say otherwise he will grab the Independence opportunity. The current situation has been forced on the SNP due to its very large unexpected win at the polls in the 2011 election. I suppose before then AS thought he could chug along in a leisurely fashion towards Independence.
    But his hand has now been forced. Unfortunately while the Scottish Electorate are very willing to put the SNP in a commanding position vis a vis governing Scotland it hasn’t yet decided that it is ready for the next step to Independence. Thus AS needs a fall back position for the very same reasons that Jim Sillars complains about if a single Independence question is lost in 2014. If the referendum is lost Westminster will be able to put Scottish affairs on the back burner for at least a generation. But with Devo max, plus, lite call it what you will still lurking around there will still be something on the table to be argued and discussed and to keep Scots’s political aims in the forefront. After all, to coin a phrase from the past, Independence is a process. Whether it is in 2014 , 2020 or 2030 doesn’t matter as long as it is eventually achieved; although sooner rather than later.

  12. mhairi says:

    There’s certainly a possibility that Salmond is playing a long game. His politics are most definitely not mine, but he is a master of the art of statecraft and I wouldnt put it past him to have a master plan up his sleeve to promote Devo-Max as a tactic to split the unionists, ultimately make the unionist position untenable and therefore be free to campaign for Indy against a divided opposition, but I think he is playing a dangerous game.

    By talking up Devo-Max, he is alienating the most radical sections of the Indy movement – who question our currency, our status as subjects and our international position – these are all discussions that need to be had for Scotland to gain full autonomy. At the same time he is lowering the expectations of the wider public, not allowing them to dream of creating a new country, but merely ponder which bits to tinker with.

  13. James Coleman says:

    I don’t think AS is in danger of alienating the Independence radicals. For all their bluster they are well aware of the difficulties of gaining a YES vote in 2014.
    And as for the wider public … we should never underestimate the low expectations of the wider public in Scotland; nor its inertia. But that will change once a full Independence campaign is entered into and facts instead of scaremongering (mainly from the unionists) have to be debated. Change is already happening in the English (and Scottish) media where the words subsidy junkie are hardly mentioned now. And that has been due to campaigns by a number of well educated and literate individuals writing on comments sites and giving the facts about Scotland on these sites to counteract the scurrilous lies and evasions which had become commonplace.

  14. Macart says:

    Whatever folks may think of Alex Salmond and his team’s strategy, it has to be said that it has been fairly successful so far. Its fair to say that most independence minded or indeed politically minded people are motivated from the get go, most everyone else would rather hang all politicians far less engage with them. This is the appeal that the current leadership have in spades, they have been able to engage people in the debate and polarise opinions which would normally be saved for the yearly moan about the budget.

    Whilst I recognise the democratic right of the devo voter to have their say and indeed a question on that ballot paper, I seriously doubt that one will appear. Two reasons – 1. I don’t think the support for devo whatever is as large as many pollsters paint, coupled with the fact that there is no advocate for a federal solution willing to stick their head above the parapet 2. Westminster would never allow it regardless, any loss of power or taxation is simply unacceptable to them and they really wouldn’t fancy chatting to the English electorate about regional parliaments. I believe the SNP are more than aware of this and in fact are counting on it. This gives them an attractive deal to then offer the disgruntled devo voter. Its not really that big a step from devo max to independence.

    Lastly currency – I can see why many would argue that retaining the pound sterling instead of introducing a Scottish currency would curtail independence but to me the real independence comes from full control of resource, taxation and spend. As our investments and resource controls harden I can see us eventually introducing our own currency, but in the meantime the appeal of familiarity to the average punter or business would seem to provide a comfort zone.

  15. round the anti english celts in england up….and kick them out.scots are cowards,always talking about how they and with oil would be so much better off.well vote for it.the only way scotland will ever get independence is if england gets a vote on it……McWasters

    1. chicmac says:

      Mr Brummie, using Eurostat and OECD data and other independent sources, it can be clearly seen that an independent Scotland would be much better off in terms of GDP per head than the rUK.

      Please take careful note, that EVEN IF NO OIL REVENUE ACCRUED TO SCOTLAND in 2010, we would STILL have been better off with independence.

      Not that I am suggesting for one minute that an independent Scotland would allow the rUK to steal Scotland’s oil, why on Earth would we?

      But just to put to bed the ridiculous argument that Scotland’s independence is entirely based on oil. Far from it.

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