Jim Sillars: Here’s what the SNP and the Yes movement now need to do to build the indy case


Former deputy leader Jim Sillars outlines how he thinks the independence movement should move forward following the General Election

THE SNP election result? I am not going to mince my words. I have been right and the leadership, and membership, have been wrong. 

Lack of modesty? Probably, but what matters are the conclusions the party and the wider independence movement draws from what is a very near disaster which, with many seats held by only wafer thin majorities, could have been a catastrophe.

The election was lost on 24 June, when Nicola Sturgeon made the mother of all mistakes. She looked at the 1.6 million remain votes, which were cast on a question about the UK and the EU, and believed they were open to being swung towards independence. 

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Given they included lots of unionist Labour and Tory votes, people who voted No in 2014, that was a whopper of a mistaken interpretation.

Dissidents like me argued that it was wise to wait until the Brexit deal was signed in ink before making another move to a referendum and an independence campaign. The reason did not take a lot of political intelligence. 

In 2014 the Yes side was involved in not only our relations with rUK, but also with the EU which, you may recall, told us to get stuffed. But after Brexit it will be only between us and our neighbours in the rest of the UK, making it easier to set out a new independence policy based on knowledge of the powers coming back to Westminster.

But no, what did we idiots know? It was to be a second referendum in 2019. The fact that neither the Yes movement as a whole nor the SNP as a party had submitted the 2014 campaign to any critical examination, identifying where we were weak, and starting work on a new set of proposals, seemed to matter.

Sensible people saw that no such second referendum was needed or wanted until a great deal more work is done on policies that will win people over to independence.

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But having dug a hole, Nicola Sturgeon kept digging, and Ruth Davidson kept smiling. What members of the SNP have to ask is this: why was Nicola allowed to make such an error? And why, when it became obvious it was an error, was no attempt made to tell her, and get her to row back from it? 

I know the answer. The SNP membership has become a fan club, the annual conference no more than a clap-in for the leader, and the party’s MSPs and MPs lack the guts to tell her when she is wrong. 

So, it is not only Nicola to blame. The party at large has allowed the cult of personality to develop, and as I have written and said on many occasions, in a democracy that can only end in tears.

So what is to be done? There are four years to go until the Holyrood election in 2021. There is time to fashion a recovery, and win it with an outright majority – essential if Westminster is to be forced to concede a referendum, and we are to have the policies to win it. 

First, the SNP has to change its constitution, so that it is no longer a one-person machine, and so that it has a better balance of power between the parliamentarians and the party organisation.

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Let me explain. When the SNP had very few MPs, the party organisation was masterful, with the national executive in charge. But once a large parliamentary group emerged in the 1999 Holyrood election, power shifted from the party to them. 

That is a natural development. I will give you an example: in 1935 Labour had fewer than 150 seats in the House of Commons. The national executive was supreme. When Churchill asked Attlee to continue the wartime coalition, he, the leader of the party, had to ask the NEC for approval. It said no, and we had a General Election.

When Labour won in 1945 with a landslide, power shifted to the parliamentary party, but there were wise men, and a powerful trade union movement, which stopped it shifting in its entirety. Tony Blair wasn’t wise and the Labour conference and NEC was reduced in importance by him.

There was no wise balancing of power by the SNP in 1999. Instead, John Swinney, when he became leader, changed the constitution to take even more power away from the party organisation; and that is how it has remained. 

Therein lies the reason it can boast of an iron discipline that keeps its MSPs and MPs toeing a line even when they know it is a wrong one, and its leader free from fair criticism.

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So, the first thing to be done is sort out the defects in the SNP’s constitution, to create a proper balance of power, and let loose the untapped talent that lies in a membership of some 100,000, through creating policy working groups that produce new ideas, all aimed at the Yes side winning the intellectual high ground in 2021, as a prelude to winning the election.

Secondly, the Yes movement needs to start now in creating a national organisation that will train local activists and build a national informal education system that will enable them to win arguments in the cafes, pubs, clubs and workplaces.

Examine the Brexit negotiations and deals in detail, so that we can shape a new independence policy. We should abandon the nonsense of forecasting a hard Brexit, and look instead at the one which emerges. 

Has no one ever thought it might be a good deal, because the EU states need that as much as the UK? Whatever it turns out to be, it will set the grounds on which the Yes movement will formulate a policy for independence.

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Third, stop abusing those who are unionist. In a democracy, people who do not agree with you, even on something like independence, are not enemies, merely opponents, deserving of respect. There is a case for the union, although we do not agree with it. Recognise the right of people to argue it, and beat them on the argument, not beat them up on social media.

Here is a final question. Do you know how many times the SNP has campaigned for an unambiguous vote for independence since 1992? The answer is once, in the 2014 referendum. The election just past is another one where there was no such call.

Seeking a vote for a second independence referendum is not the same as seeking one for independence.

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