How fearful Scotland stayed in its cage: Jim Sillars, the SNP's former deputy leader, believes his country 'bottled it' when it rejected independence. James Cusick reports

James Cusick
Monday 24 August 1992 23:02 BST

'THOSE WHO want independence have got to hold up a mirror to the Scots and say it's time to stop the dreaming, the daft talk. This is what you look like, have a look. Are you first class or second class, capable or incapable?' Now that he is out of politics, Jim Sillars can say things like that.

What happened to Scotland on 9 April? 'They bottled it,' he said.

What is going to happen now? 'Well if you boast to the world what you are going to do, and then fail to do it, they write you off. I'm certain the international community will not take us seriously for a long, long, time to come.'

Mr Sillars was the Scottish National Party's headline casualty at the general election. He was the SNP's deputy leader and lost Glasgow Govan, the seat that he had captured in a 1988 by-election heralded as the nationalists' comeback. He was the noisiest of the Nats who proclaimed that independence was going to happen this time. The political history books will show just how seriously the SNP and the opinion polls misjudged the Scots' desire to govern their own affairs.

Now, instead of regrouping for another tilt at Westminster, he admits: 'I've never liked politics for years. I hate the pettiness and all that goes with it.' His ballot- box opponents will identify this as merely bitterness and there is an element of truth in this. But 22 years since becoming a Labour MP in an Ayrshire by-election, he is almost the angry old man of Scottish politics, accepting, at 55, the role of the old pro offering advice to the next generation of nationhood dreamers.

He said: 'The election was the seventh time in a row that England voted Tory. England is a Tory country.' He believes that Labour cannot deliver in Scotland because there is an English veto.

'I don't believe that our folk don't know that. What is wrong with a nation that doesn't believe its delivery system will deliver? It's not confusion. I think we've got a real problem.'

Labour's promise was to deliver a devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, its structure partially worked out between Labour and the Liberal Democrats inside the Constitutional Convention. Although Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them have 58 of Scotland's 72 seats, devolution will not happen. Mr Sillars has no problem accepting that.

'How can you complain about a London Tory government acting like a London Tory government. They are acting perfectly consistently. Take water privatisation in Scotland. If it happens against our will, that's our fault, not London's. How can you possibly blame someone who you allow to control you?'

He blames the Labour Party for producing 'a fungus' that has killed any self-generating initiative. Labour's strength in Central Scotland reflected the highest dependency on what Mr Sillars calls welfarism.

'Tory policy has been political social engineering, meant to break Labour's power base in the housing schemes. Selling council houses, changes in education, housing management schemes - all designed to break Labour's grip and produce self-reliance.' The paradox of what he has just said produces a huge laugh. 'The people who should emerge from that will be much more amenable to our (independence) argument . . . ' John Smith's appointment of Tom Clarke as Scottish spokesman was the beginning of the municipalisation of Scottish politics. Mr Clarke, a former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is there 'to emphasise British issues like social security, unemployment, the health service' and to relegate the Scottish question.

Like the industries that have grown around issues like poverty, homelessness and Third World famine, Mr Sillars thinks a consequence of burying the Scottish question will be a new industry based on 'our impotence'. He reels off the list: 'Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, Forum, Scotland United, Common Cause, the Constitutional Convention.' These are the cross-party pressure groups, some formed just after 9 April, which demand devolution and claim that the Government has no moral authority to deny Scotland a voice.

'So what if one of these groups drops, something else will arrive to take its place. I think there are also 150 organisations in Scotland dealing with economic development - 150. People are doing well out of us.' Reaching for Surviving the Shipwreck by William McIlvanney, the Scottish writer who has appeared in more than one of the new pressure groups, Mr Sillars reads out the poem 'The Cowardly Lion', written in 1979 after Scotland has said 'no' in the devolution referendum.

In the poem, the day of 'freedom' comes for the noble beast - Scotland's national symbol - but it turns back at the open cage door 'and still lives among stinking straw today'.

Mr Sillars said: 'Brilliant description of the country. But why is the author not a raging revolutionary leading 50,000 into Glasgow's George Square?'

McIlvanney has been a prominent figure in Scotland United, the SNP-dominated group that Labour is worried holds potential attraction for its own MPs.

After 9 April, 5,000 heard McIlvanney and other Scotland United figures address a rally in Glasgow. Parallels with the independence movements in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were made. But the absence of 'a Riga' in Glasgow or in Edinburgh, according to Mr Sillars, is understandable.

Defeated, disappointed and disillusioned he may be. But there is still sympathy for his cause. 'You don't transform a frightened people overnight.'

(Photograph omitted)

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