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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Fri, 06/09/2017 - 18:29

Do you think the SNP's acceptance of the Common Fisheries Policy if we were an Independent country seeking " Full EU membership " that we had to accept it had any bearing in Coastal communities around Scotland , i for one would easily vote for Independence if we didn't enter the EU but the fact we would surrender a replenishing natural resource means i cant vote for Indy2 or the SNP ........ Concerned fisherman


Fri, 06/09/2017 - 18:57

To build the indy case you have to explain how iScotland will raise the money needed to make up for the loss of Barnett and to create the new currency and address all the other wheels that need to be re-invented.


Fri, 06/09/2017 - 20:12

Concerned fisherman

I don't see the fisheries problem the same way you do. I can see that, being close to it and earning your livelihood from it, you have immense cause for resentment. I agree the CFP is a mess. That's not at issue.

What is at issue is two things, which are closely related. The first is that the Tories regard fishing quotas as one of their many bargaining chips, one they will happily throw away in return for concessions elsewhere.

To rephrase, the Tories will cheerfully knife you in the back over this one.

Secondly, while fish reproduce, that doesn't change the fact that even to keep fish numbers at their current low (and, from an ecological perspective, dangerously low) level you are still going to have to accept catch limits, which is going to mean some sort of quota system. I'll accept that the CFP may be a lousy way of doing that, but even post-Brexit there are not going to be more fish to catch. There will only be more fish for *you* to catch if the Tories don't negotiate that away which, as noted, seems unlikely.

I respect the fact that leaves you and the rest of your community with a problem, but it's not a problem that will be solved by Brexit. I don't pretend to know what the solution to that problem is, but I suspect it will involve creative thinking on the subject.


Fri, 06/09/2017 - 22:05

I agree with what Jim Sillars is saying. It is a most astonishing cack-handed mistake for the SNP leadership to tie independence to the issue of membership, or otherwise, of the EU. I want independence but I would prefer not to be a full member of the EU - there are lots of folk like me about. Membership, or otherwise, of the EU should be the subject of another referendum after independence is achieved.

The only other thing I would add to what Jim is saying is that I really do think the SNP need to tack significantly to the left in terms of policy. The Greens have called on them to do so but the call falls on deaf ears. Time to change that. Go left, for God's sake, go left!

Also the SNP leadership need to start listening to much of what is being said by Robin MacAlpine and the marvellous policy work being done by CommonWeal.

I am now at the point of thinking of actually joining the SNP just so that I can push to reorganise it in the way that Jim is talking about. We need to be doing this now.


Fri, 06/09/2017 - 22:44


the stocks are healthy , the best scientists aren't at the " coal face " sorta , the UK as a whole takes below 40% of the " total allowable catch " neither the UK or iScotland want to give away any other resource , this isn't the 1980's fishermen are far more aware of the stocks their health and are on board in regards to their longevity in 2002 there was 525 white fish trawlers in Scotland today there are only 115 the stocks were only ever going to recover ........ in 32 years in the industry i have never saw the stocks so healthy regardless of what anyone reads or says otherwise


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 00:22


I tend to be slightly hesitant about accepting statements based on experience of someone with a vested interest. I'm not accusing you of dishonesty, but there are a lot of unanswered questions in your post, not least why your statement isn't consistent with the research. As far as I know, fisheries research scientists have no agenda in proving fish numbers are lower than they really are.

Anyway, actual numbers of vessels don't tell me much. Without knowing how much time is spent at sea, how fast the boats can move (even I know that money from the scrappage scheme was often used to buy a bigger, more efficient boat), the relative efficiencies of finding fish (modern fish finders are presumably more effective at finding big shoals than old ones, which might skew a direct impression of overall numbers - numbers may be down while you are better at finding them) and so on, that baseline figure for number of boats tells me next to nothing.

None of that changes the likelihood of the Tories selling you down the river. Since most of them would sell their own grandmothers, I would say that's pretty high.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 10:06

I'm not going to take this opportunity to say I told you so. I agree with much of what Jim Sillars says however let's reflect on what's just happened here in Scotland.

In every city,every town, every village and on every ballot paper in every polling booth in front of every voter there were three parties campaigning for support to deny the people of Scotland the right to vote for independence. They did this with the vociferous support of the British state's formidable ideological apparatus and THEY LOST.
And how they lost. The SNP despite denying the very existence of the YES movement won ore seats than the three unionist parties COMBINED. Index ref 2 on the back burner? WHY . WHY THE HELL ARE WE NOT CELEBRATING. Anyone who thought there would be a repeat of the 2015 election elevated optimism to the point of fantasy.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 10:11

You just on here to work for a knighthood or something.

Bill Melvin

Sat, 06/10/2017 - 10:45

Don't think that was or is the SNP's position.

Bill Melvin

Sat, 06/10/2017 - 10:57

I respect Jim Sillars and like a lot of what he says which is clearly based on a good degree of experience. However, the current SNP leadership has done a remarkable job in governing with just pocket money to work with and in the face of a completely biased and hostile media including the people's public broadcaster. The SNP have maintained a strong position in spite of this and the vast majority of their supporters have not bullied any unionists or discredited any honest supporters of a union mindset. There are high profile unionists who propagate lies and mis information to stir up support amongst less informed supporters and those people deserve all they get when they play politics with the future of Scots. I do think there is a case for the Scottish Independence Convention to take control of the Indy movement and most would welcome that!


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 11:14

I'm pro-independence but voted Labour this time - the first time in many years. The SNP has become overcautious ans small-c conservative, reluctant to shake things up presumably because the constitutional question requires maintaining a certain degree of status quo. But encounters with SNP elected reps (at all tiers) and even activists reveals a dreadful degree of group-think and unwillingness to countenance alternative views. Involved in pushing for local investment (such as a rail-link) in a very deprived area has prompted occasional accusations of various kinds (using uncannily similar language) from this groupthink rather than wholehearted backing. There's a sense that the SNP party political interest should command the highest priority and criticisms , for example of abysmal Scottish Govt policy should either be restrained or maybe channelled into their familiar stances (it's all Westminster's fault). Thus - even from a distance but based on practical experience - I agree with Jim Sillars, who has always been a wise and experienced counsel, that the discipline imposed within the party, vital for achieving electoral success, comes at the cost of more independent thought and action. Yes, there are many positive elements in SNP policy but if self determination is an underlying principle, this needs to be not only tolerated but actively encouraged.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 15:06


who hasn't a vested interest in whatever line of work they do ?? when boats leave port in the past its quite common for crews to work for 10/11 days for nothing because we are " Share fishermen " so get paid on a share of the catch after expenses ( fuel , hired equipment and food/water/ice ) , also nowadays we have AIS ( atuomatic identifying system ) so boats are tracked 24/7 365 days a year also every 24 hours you must log-in catch details and if the fisheries protection vessel wants to board & inspect the fishroom he can , i can't think of any other industry that has to surrender such details about their business in such a daily way but this is what we do , scientists are always wary on data because there are no absolutes what is on the sea bed today could not be there tomorrow , fish like the fishermen that try & catch them are creatures of habit and only feed on obviously rich fertile grounds that lie off the scottish coast , the boat that i'm employed in was involved in a government research charter where they take over the boat & conduct their survey , the stock numbers they were researching by comparison to last year had increased by 15-20% but even if that data is implemented its always 2 years later down the road , the fact that UK fishermen only take less than 40% of fish within our waters ( scots boats about 17% ) is a sad reality of where we are .....


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 15:39

I am a FORMER member of the SNP, and it is unlikely I will ever be a party member again. The SNP in my opinion lost their way many years ago now. I was there back in the day when the party had a solid message, not the wishy-washy wavering rubbish of today, and I met Big Jim. Other than Gordon Wilson, he is the only leader in the SNP I ever respected, and felt worthy of respect. Salmond imo is a buffoon of a man, and I regret ever supporting his leadership bid way back then. Sturgeon is carried away with the flattery from her cultists. BUT the real issue with the SNP is the cult feeling about the party now. I see them as frothing muppets, who seem to believe anything, and need to spin everything (even this poor showing at the polls) as a victory and mandate for their policies. No it isn't, it's a massive defeat and loss of 21 MP's. When 62% of Scots voters voted against your viewpoint, you did not win the argument. YOU LOST! It is this cognitive bias which annoys me most, and how it affects others who have never backed or supported the SNP or independence I cannot imagine. AND still the muppets fawn on Sturgeon, and praise her for what a wonderful job she is doing, evidenced in some of the postings above. No she's not doing well with the country's interests, and to the guy who claimed she is working with pocket money, are you serious? The biggest problem with Salmond and Sturgeon, speaking as a SOCIALIST now, is that they have both made themselves very rich through their politicking. Salmond's personal fortune is estimated to be between 5 and 10 Millions, and Sturgeon about 1-2 Millon. How can this be? The Scottish people don't like it, and don't like hearing that Salmond now has 6 Pensions, or that Stugeon voted herself a pay-rise above what the Prime Minister earns - all at a time when Nurses can't even get a pay rise. It's utter hypocrisy, and leaves people uncomfortable. The SNP have to go back to their roots, and disregard the unthinking muppets who have taken over the party. You have to try and look from another frame of reference, from another person's perspective for a change, if you are going to realise what has gone wrong. All that online bullying from the cyber-nats, all that smugness and insults from gloating Salmond, has come back to roost. That carry on does not make friends and allies, it makes enemies. It's worse, it makes the SNP look intolerant and fascistic. Enemies once made will NEVER vote for your party. As a Marketing Director, I reflect on one thing I learned back in University. 'It is far easier to win a new customer, than an old customer that you chased away.' I am sure that this posting will fall on deaf ears however, and the people who are now the very root and cause of the SNP's problems will show their cognitive bias, and insist that they are right, and Sturgeon is the best thing since a pan loaf. No, it's time she went, and went gracefully.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 15:46

Well from your frame of reference you claim the 'The SNP won more seats than the three unionist parties COMBINED'. Well from most people's frame of reference the SNP LOST 21 seats, and a bunch of them to the Tories. It clearly hasn't sunk in (for you) that losing a seat to the Tories in Scotland (of all places) is a significant defeat of one's viewpoint. All I see in your posting is your cognitive bias showing, and frankly you are in denial. Arguing that Black is White, and spinning the bad news as a victory is just ludicrous.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 15:48

Well from your frame of reference you claim the 'The SNP won more seats than the three unionist parties COMBINED'. Well from most people's frame of reference the SNP LOST 21 seats, and a bunch of them to the Tories. It clearly hasn't sunk in (for you) that losing a seat to the Tories in Scotland (of all places) is a significant defeat of one's viewpoint. All I see in your posting is your cognitive bias showing, and frankly you are in denial. Arguing that Black is White, and spinning the bad news as a victory is just ludicrous.


Sat, 06/10/2017 - 16:13

You are wise WindyMiller, more power to make your sails go 'round. I have two major issues with the SNP. 1. No one takes the blame for anything and the party spins everything. 2. (Related to the first) No one puts their name to anything, and in the news all we hear is a 'a Scottish government spokesperson said...' It's cowardly not to put your name to your actions. I am from a time when politicians stood by their convictions rightly or wrongly, and fought a cause honestly or went down with the ship. Oddly enough that would be Big Jim's era.


Sun, 06/11/2017 - 11:38

You lost almost half a million voters. You lost over one third of your seats. If you see that as a reason to celebrate then you are deluded.


Mon, 06/12/2017 - 17:45

Jim, I know you've been told more than once, but here goes again. The SNP is the only party that can get the independence referendum for us. Complaining about the SNP in public harms our cause. If you have complaints, do it in private. Send the SNP an email. Or a letter. In public, please support them.


Mon, 06/12/2017 - 17:46

One more comment - while I value most of the effort of commonspace, I won't donate due to articles like this that hurt the cause, not help it.


Mon, 06/12/2017 - 19:07

roorooyes4, clearly you don't like hearing the truth. That is the whole problem with the cult the SNP has become where everything is spinned to look like a victory even when it's a knee in the hee haws. Well, what a load of cybernat crap that is, it doesn't work. Sturgeon has done more to harm the independence cause than 1,000 of these articles ever could. She has to go. People are sick of her staccato speech rubbish. This was a rejection of her assumption that she speaks for Scotland, clearly she does not. This was also a rejection of Salmond's smugness. It just all came home to roost. The SNP needs a new leader, someone who has learned not to bully, mock or gloat at people who vote against it. If you do that, those same people never will support you.


Mon, 06/12/2017 - 19:10

roorooyes4, what a joke that you ask Jim Sillars to support the SNP! Big Jim's Govan victory relaunched the SNP. They wouldn't be where they are today without Jim Sillars. Seriously, who are you to tell Jim Sillars what he should do?

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