‘We have to eradicate poverty. Not talk about it, not produce ideas about it, but take action’
Jim Sillars talks to Independence Minded? about the Scottish referendum: The former Labour and SNP MP has become a figurehead for many in the Yes movement, balancing emotive and powerful arguments that appeal to the heart with a pragmatic, fully formed vision of an independent socialist Scotland, one which he has been fighting towards for more than 30 years.
On a miserable, wet, cold evening, it is not a great start to our feature with Jim Sillars to find that there has been a bit of a snafu, and organisers for the evening’s Labour for Independence event do not have the keys to access the venue.
It is too blustery and downright awful to try and film our interview outside, which means we have to wait in our respective vehicles in a nondescript East Kilbride car park before — about an hour after we were supposed to be filming and with less than half an hour until the event starts — we finally get access and quickly find ourselves an indoors location to speak to the former Labour and SNP MSP. Oh, the glamour of the Scottish independence debate.
Sillars is kind, calm and courteous, his only concern being that he is in place for the start of the evening’s proceedings. It would be tempting to describe him as something of a spiritual godparent to the Yes campaign, ushering along those following eagerly in his footsteps, but this would be to do him a disservice — in his (temporary) retirement from retirement he has seemed revitalised. Those eager to show that the pro-independence campaign has many more facets and nuances than Alex Salmond and the SNP often hold up Sillars as an example.
Delving into Sillars’ own backstory quickly reveals why he is well positioned to appeal to those who have been a No, or are undecided about which way to vote. Born in Ayrshire, at the start of his political career he was himself a staunch Unionist — first elected as an MP representing Labour in South Ayrshire in 1970 — before a 12-year journey resulted in him deciding that the best thing for Scotland was full independence, and joining the SNP. Sillars went on to become deputy leader of the party.
As he puts it: “I wasn’t always in favour of independence. I went into the Westminster parliament in the 1970s as a Labour MP convinced about the case for the United Kingdom.
“After a couple of years at Westminster I came to realise that what I believed actually wasn’t true. It’s a very difficult thing: it’s quite painful to face up to the fact that you’ve been wrong on something as fundamental as independence for Scotland.
“So I travelled into the next cosiest thing, which was devolution. And when you go into the devolution mentality you realise that you can think of things, and then you realise there’s a glass ceiling. Devolution is power that’s limited. I moved from there to independence.”
We were speaking to Jim well before the recent dramatic swing towards Yes, but even then he felt confident that the result would be an emphatic victory for those campaigning for independence. Buoyed by the grassroots activity that he has witnessed first-hand across the country, he also spoke of his happiness at the way that younger, previously apolitical people have been driving forward the argument for independence, and that they can take on the role of shaping any transition while he retires “for the second time”.
Author of In Place of Fear II: A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland, Sillars was talked out of his first ‘retirement’ by his late wife Margo MacDonald, also a hugely popular Scottish political figure, who passed away in April this year. Margo was a well known independence campaigner, and it has been clear from our own travelling around the country that she continues to inspire others following in her footsteps, particularly in groups such as Women For Independence.
A ‘Margo Mobile’ has also been travelling around Scottish housing estates and other communities over the past couple of months, Sillars and other campaigners using it to bring their — and her — message to as wide an audience as possible. It could be seen as as a way for him to work through his grief, but more than that it’s plain that it is what she would have wanted.
What might be seen as Sillars’ most compelling argument concerns the poverty evident across the country, especially with the rise of food banks. Asked about its effect, he paused and explained: “I get really quite upset.
“When I was a member of the Westminster parliament in 1973, we debated a document called Born to Fail, the number of children in our country, and how they were born to be failures.
“Still being born to fail. 1973, now 2014.
“We’ve got 250,000 children living in poverty in Scotland. In the city of Glasgow, a third of children are living in poverty. Now that’s damaging to their educational opportunities, and this is one of the reasons why I campaign for Yes.
“We have to eradicate poverty. Not talk about it, not produce ideas about it, but take action that produces work in the community, reduces poverty, and eliminates poverty, so that the greatest resource we have — which is our children — actually get the opportunity to get a full education, with their full potential actually recognised by them and the rest of society as well.”
Looking at his work, Sillars isn’t someone campaigning to keep his job, or to position himself nicely to profit from the prospect an independent Scotland. He is here to fight for those communities which he feels have been let down by the current set-up, and which have been seen as disengaged from politics. That the referendum will likely see a massive turnout from communities across Scotland seems a fitting high for Sillars to go out on. A Yes would be the culmination of a long-held dream, and it’s a reality now tantalisingly close when all hope had seemed lost only a month back.
For a man whose life has been defined by a carefully considered change of heart, the current Scottish climate will be of little surprise and of great satisfaction, with the knowledge that a short but enormously significant fight remains ahead. There will be plenty of opportunity to relax after September 18. Well, perhaps.
We’ve got 250,000 children living in poverty in Scotland. In the city of Glasgow, a third of children are living in poverty. Now that’s damaging to their educational opportunities, and this is one of the reasons why I campaign for Yes. We have to eradicate poverty. Not talk about it, not produce ideas about it, but take action that produces work in the community, reduces poverty, and eliminates poverty, so that the greatest resource we have — which is our children — actually get the opportunity to get a full education, with their full potential actually recognised by them and the rest of society as well.
Jim Sillars, former Labour and SNP MP, and author of In Place of Fear II