Ian Merrilees: Why Jim Sillars' tongue is running ahead of his brain over independence in Europe

Prominent independence activist Jim Sillars has been vocal in his opposition to EU membership. Former law lecturer Ian Merrilees takes his views to task

I BEGIN by confessing to an act of theft. I stole most of the words in the headline from an article Jim Sillars wrote for the Daily Record in November last year. 

In mitigation, it isn't total theft. I left some words behind and replaced them with a few of my own. Sillars' headline was: 'Why Nicola Sturgeon's tongue is running ahead of her brain over Brexit.'

The article could have been written by Ruth Davidson or David Mundell or any other diehard unionist. He embraced the Tory argument that as Scots voted as part of the UK they have no voice of their own so no one should listen to the 62 per cent who voted to stay in the EU. 

Why would someone who has spent more than 30 years campaigning to make Scotland an independent state turn against the movement at a time when the goal has never looked more attainable?

He repeated Boris Johnson's wishful thinking that everyone in the EU will bend over backwards to strike a free trade deal with post-Brexit Britain because the British buy so many European goods. 

He reminded Nicola Sturgeon that a lot of people who voted Yes in 2014 also voted Leave in 2016 and, as every loyal unionist does, brought up the trade estimates that suggest Scotland sells more to England than it does to the EU. 

Like the unionists, he didn't bother to point out that there is no official data on Anglo-Scottish trade and that the widely-quoted figures are based on questionnaires and conjecture. Every unionist likes to quote the figures from 'Export Statistics Scotland' but no one ever mentions they come with a warning that "Scottish estimates of exports to the rest of the UK should be treated with caution due to the difficulty in obtaining this information". (It's on page 19 of the latest report, on trade in 2015, if anyone wants to check.)

Sillars recently told listeners to Radio 4's Analysis that he will not vote for Scottish independence if it means Scotland remaining in the EU. Younger readers might be surprised to learn that Sillars used to be a formidable politician and a respected figure in the SNP. 

They might be even more surprised to learn that he was the prime mover of the independence-in-Europe policy that has been the party's rallying cry since the late 1980s.

Sillars' change of heart matters because he might not be alone in putting his hostility to the EU ahead of independence.

Older readers who remember him from these days will be wondering if his tongue has, in his words, run ahead of his brain. Why would someone who has spent more than 30 years campaigning to make Scotland an independent state turn against the movement at a time when the goal has never looked more attainable?

Sillars' change of heart matters because he might not be alone in putting his hostility to the EU ahead of independence. According to press reports, 30 per cent of voters who supported independence in 2014 voted to leave the EU in 2016. So, too, did 400,000 SNP voters.

The existence of a sizeable number of Yes-Leavers gets mentioned frequently by people on both sides of the debate. Some supporters of independence seem to believe that the correct response would be to dilute or drop the issue of EU membership in the next referendum.

Leave aside for the moment questions about principle and the long-term benefits of European integration, the arithmetic in this proposal is ludicrous. No plebiscite can ever be won by a side that turns against 70 per cent of its supporters in order to accommodate the wishes of the other 30.

The logical response is to point out the folly of Sillars' threat to abstain. The EU has many imperfections, which puts it on a par with every system of government in the world, but no one can deny it has more respect for its member states than Westminster shows to Scotland.

According to press reports, 30 per cent of voters who supported independence in 2014 voted to leave the EU in 2016. So, too, did 400,000 SNP voters.

Take, for example, financial control. The EU is funded by the member states making a contribution to its budget. In the UK, the government in London takes money from taxpayers in Scotland and gives back what it deems appropriate.

If the EU wanted to make a constitutional change as momentous as Brexit, it would have to change the treaties, which requires the consent of every single member state. The contrast with the UK - where two out of the four constituent nations voted to Remain in the EU but are being ignored - is stark and dismal.

Sillars dismisses the EU as an "unelected undemocratic elite" and raises the old chestnut about it being dominated by Germany. As Europhobes do, he contrives to misrepresent the balance of power in the EU institutions.  

In reality, no law could be passed without the approval of the heads of state and government who meet in the Council of Ministers (officially it's called the Council of the European Union, but the old name rolls off the tongue more easily). 

Members of an elite group they may be, but they are not "unelected." To get into the Council each had to win a national election. The voting procedures in Council make it impossible for any one country to dominate. In a few sensitive areas, like tax, action is taken only if there is unanimous agreement. 

The EU has many imperfections, which puts it on a par with every system of government in the world, but no one can deny it has more respect for its member states than Westminster shows to Scotland.

In most cases proposals must win a double majority - at least 16 of the 28 states have to approve and those in favour must represent at least 65 per cent of the EU population. (Anyone interested in the permutations of the voting system can explore them with the voting calculator on the Council's website.)

Although members of the Council are all elected politicians, the English nationalists behind Brexit are disturbed that 27 of the 28 were elected by voters in other countries. From a Scottish perspective, however, all 28 won their mandate in another country, as the Conservatives govern Scotland with only one out of 59 seats and make no concession to the differences of political opinion between voters in England and Scotland. 

The EU referendum brought those differences to the fore and Theresa May's attitude to Scotland since then has been a mixture of arrogance, contempt and condescension. That really is a serious democratic deficit.

If Sillars was genuinely concerned about small countries being bullied by their neighbours he wouldn't be willing to perpetuate the democratic absurdity of the UK. 

England has 10 times the number of voters as Scotland (and Scotland has more than Northern Ireland and Wales combined). In a proper political union there would be some way to prevent the smaller nations being crushed by the big one. But politicians and voters in England would never tolerate any method of tallying the votes that sought to curb their numerical strength. 

If Sillars was genuinely concerned about small countries being bullied by their neighbours he wouldn't be willing to perpetuate the democratic absurdity of the UK. 

Even apologists for the UK, like Professor Robert Hazell at University College London, admit that England's dominance prevents the UK from ever being a genuine union. It will always be England with its Celtic territories in tow. That’s not an anti-English gripe, merely an arithmetical fact.

To hear Sillars say he would rather abstain then vote for independence in Europe sounded like sabotage.

The Yes-Leavers might dream of Scotland becoming a truly independent state, standing alone outside the EU, EFTA and maybe every other international organisation as well, but they are surely sensible enough to realise that a vote for independence in Europe would take them closer to their isolationist goal than staying in the UK.

Picture courtesy of Independence Live

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Comments

MauriceBishop

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 16:51

"Like the unionists, he didn't bother to point out that there is no official data on Anglo-Scottish trade and that the widely-quoted figures are based on questionnaires and conjecture."

Not a good start. The statistics on Scotland's trade with the rUK are compiled by the Scottish Government.

"But politicians and voters in England would never tolerate any method of tallying the votes that sought to curb their numerical strength. "
Why should a person's vote carry 10x more weight if he lives 50 yards north of a line on a map than if he lives 50 yards south of it?

Dave Coull

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 17:51

So, Jim Sillars, the chief architect of the SNP's "Scotland in Europe" policy, has now abandoned his own brain-child to embrace Brexit. Is this man ever consistent about anything?

Yes. He is consistent that everybody has to do what Jim Sillars wants or he will throw his toys out of the pram. Or, in this case, he will back the un-elected Tory Government if we don't do what he wants.

This man has in the past been invited to speak at a Radical Independence Conference. I'm an active member of the Radical Independence Campaign, but I played no part in organising that conference. Nobody asked me, but if anybody had, I would have said it was a bad idea to invite this dodgy character. I have never trusted the man. I think my dis-trust has been proved correct.

gjm's picture

gjm

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 19:25

deleted.

gjm's picture

gjm

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 19:25

These statistics aren't based on tax receipts they seem to be based on a few thousand responses from questionnaires sent out to businesses added to information gleaned from UK government department statistics. The Scotland Account was closed back in history I doubt if the British Government has an accurate picture of Scotland's trade figures or revenues. It was a reasonable point.

Why should a person's vote carry 10x more weight? Scotland is a country in a political union. We can look at it in other ways but It is still inevitable that any UK wide vote will also be weighed up in Scotland from a Scottish perspective.

MauriceBishop

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 19:27

The SG clearly explains how it creates the statistics on their website.

And the vote in the Central Belt will be weighed up from a Central Belt perspective and the vote in the Highlands will be weighed up from a Highlands perspective and the vote in Yorkshire will be weighed up from a Yorkshire perspective and the vote in Cornwall will be weighed up from a Cornwall perspective.

orcadia

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:19

Jim Sillars was originally labour so what do you expect? Don't they always bite the hand that feeds them

Sjfairlie

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 10:46

While I feel Sillars is cutting off his nose despite his face, for the holy grail of independence, I do understand his underlying reservations. Why would the Scottish government be prepared to hand back newly acquired powers for farming and fisheries, back to Brussels? Another gripe is why are we so eager to get out of one union while embracing another? Just remember the bully tactics the EU played in 2014!
While we can't get exact figures on how much Scotland trades with the rUK and Ireland, we do know it is substantially a lot more than with the EU!

morton51

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 10:57

"The existence of a sizeable number of Yes-Leavers gets mentioned frequently by people on both sides of the debate. Some supporters of independence seem to believe that the correct response would be to dilute or drop the issue of EU membership in the next referendum.

Leave aside for the moment questions about principle and the long-term benefits of European integration, the arithmetic in this proposal is ludicrous. No plebiscite can ever be won by a side that turns against 70 per cent of its supporters in order to accommodate the wishes of the other 30."

With respect to an otherwise good article, this is a straw man argument. The idea is not to drop the issue of EU membership but to leave that specific policy for the people of Scotland to decide after independence. A Yes campaign can simply declare its interest in joining EFTA with the access to the common market and freedom of movement that it entails, without alienating Leave voters or having the fabled Spanish veto undermining its stance during the campaign. That doesn't "turn against 70 per cent of its supporters" at all. On the basis of Scotland's remain vote, the pro-EU camp would start with a firm advantage in that debate; the onus would be on Sillars and other critics to win that argument in an independent Scotland. If Yes wishes to win then its arguments need to be less prescriptive on matters that aren't directly related to forming a Scottish state.

JohnMcC

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 13:11

I switched from Labour to SNP in the 1980's largely through Jim Sillars' impact on SNP, but I now regard Jim as a liability to the Scottish independence cause. I'm pro-EU but would be satisfied with EEA membership, like Norway. I'd also respect an independent Scotland voting against EU and EEA membership in the future should that then be the will of the Scots....but let's pull together first to achieve independence!

Ron Murray

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 13:25

Mr Sillars has stated that he is for independence, no question. The problem seems to be how we get there. He is a good orator and comes across as someone who has thought the problems through. I have sympathy for his view of not wanting Scotland under Independence join the European Union and in my opinion it would have been better to have independence first and then decide which trade organisations would be best suited to our future. We are where we are and the EU vote would give us the opportunity of a further stepping stone to independence at this time.
Sometimes the benefit of the EU is forgotten and if the overriding vision of the European Union is brought to mind it is that with integration of European countries it guarantees no further wars will be fought between our nations.
Unfortunately, when BREXIT negotiations are concluded (with little if any, input from the viewpoint of Scotland or the other UK nations being considered), be it for better or worse, Scotland will be out of the EU regardless. It is accepted that there will be another referendum but In the meantime it could be assumed that the Scottish Government will be negotiating behind closed doors with the ‘powers to be’ in the EU in order to determine the likely outcome of an independent Scotland’s application for either continuing our present situation within the EU or having to reapply hopefully, with no detriment to trading in the short term.
For obvious reasons the EU cannot give Scotland a written guarantee during a referendum period.
My understanding is that if the SG does not have a verbal agreement with the EU we are likely to find that the Westminster government will be introducing laws within the UK after BREXIT Scotland has to accept, that may be incompatible with laws in the EU thus, making a future application for Scotland to join the EU more difficult because of the legal systems having to align.
Going back to Mr Sillars’s point of abstaining from the independence vote if we continue to push for EU membership, it begs the question, how at this late stage could we change from making membership of the EU into membership of EFTA which he supports, without destroying credibility with our supporters and giving the opposition a stick to beat us with.
EFTA appears to me as being an option that lets Scotland keep its’ own way of doing things, gives us back control of fisheries but questionable as to the benefits to the agriculture sector compared to the CAP in the EU, gives access to the European free trade area also control over our natural resources and is more democratic. It could also solve the problem of border controls with England.
Another plus factor would be that people within Scotland who voted ‘Leave’ may well accept EFTA as being a good compromise. It is also a consideration that supporters of independence are desperate to see another referendum a.s.a.p. and that has to be weighed against the long game.
It would take time for a membership of EFTA to be negotiated then ratified. What do we do in the meantime?
I’ve no doubt, that in Scotland the initial days of independence will require sacrifice but we have to remember that this decision is not just for the present inhabitants of our country but for the future and of a good standard of life for generations to come.

andyk

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 17:24

The plain figures on Yes - Leavers are one thing, but what was the intent behind those votes ? I daresay that some of them will have been tactical, the aim being to secure Brexit, bring about the material change of circumstance and thereby a second Scottish Independence referendum. Why is it assumed Yes, Leave would move on to Yes, Leave, No instead of reverting to Yes, Leave, Yes ?

Janderson

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 12:06

Why does this article misrepresent Sillars argument? No I don't agree with all he says, yes I have had arguments with him on Twitter.

But we do agree on one thing that Scotland should join EFTA, then the EEA as a much easier route the free market and the four freedoms. while gaining policy over agriculture and fisheries.

Also though admittedly I'm not a certified EU law professor, we wouldn't be able to nationalise industries as full EU members under present regulations, although this wouldn't be a problem as part of the easier to join EFTA/EEA club.

I sat through an hour of Sillars rants on Independence live, it was a tough watch but if you cut through the bluster, he has some good points about membership of the EU.

This piece just doesn't represent all he is saying fairly, makes him out to be a typical brexiteer, not the case.

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