I was talking to Jim Sillars this week….would be a great way to start a blogpost – but a little context might be better rather than a fraudulent attempt at name-dropping. 🙂
I first had contact with Jim when he was Glasgow Govan MP, and I was working for the University of Edinburgh Students’ Representative Council. Within the SRC there was what was called the ‘External Committee’ – basically it was the political section, for international or more national political issues, so we organized campaigns against student loans as well as apartheid. A standard fixture was ‘International Week’, where something ill-defined (largely whatever the External Convenor wanted it to be – if they wanted it to happen at all) could be organized by the External Committee for a given week. As I have written before, I had become particularly politically aware around 1988 with the twentieth anniversary programmes on Channel 4 dealing with the Prague Spring, Danny Cohn-Bendit in Paris, and other related issues – which subsequently fed into my interest in Croatian self-determination. So I wanted to hold an International Week that would reflect these interests, and I arranged a variety of speakers to talk about different political aspects – including some active for the campaign for Ukrainian independence. I saw Scottish independence very much in the context of these political events, so having seen Jim Sillars speak at the University before, during which he talked about the idea that devolution had never been a road to independence for any nation (see earlier post on Sillars, Synergy…), I saw it as an opportunity to subversively place Scottish independence within an International Week agenda, and had received his agreement to speak during the week of events.
It was summer 1990, and with only a few days to go to International Week, I took a call in the office. It was Jim, saying that he was going to have to cancel his talk, because Westminster had been recalled due to the imminent Gulf War, and as SNP foreign affairs spokesperson, he really had to be present that night for the debate. I laughed at the idea that a puny little Students’ Representative Council talk might even hope to compete with such a matter, and told him that of course I understood, and wished him luck in the debate. We did not reschedule, and did not speak again.
I came very close to meeting his wife once – but suffered from a ‘fanboy paralysis’ which I deeply regret. It was the week after the first Yes September Rally, in Princes Street Gardens in 2012. I was working in the Scottish Parliament (long boring story about paving stones and fossil fish, believe it or not) and was just exiting the private area back into the public lobby, when I realised that there was a figure following me. As I made way for her and held the door, I realized it was the legend that is Margo MacDonald. I had this surge inside me – I wanted to tell her how much I had loved her speech the previous week, where she had urged people to just each convince one other person to become Yes (she also noted Frankie Boyle’s alternative message, that each person should convince 10,000 people…), and we would win this at a trot, how she had talked about the importance of everyone living together afterwards no matter the result, and how nice it was to be on “the side of the angels” for a change. But I completely dried up – nothing came out. As she walked past, she looked up at me from the walking sticks, and I saw this gentle smile cross her face. She could see my expression, and I fancy that she saw exactly what I was going through. The moment passed.
Fast forward to this week, and I was walking up North Bridge, when I recognised a figure standing outside the former ‘Scotsman’ offices. I nodded and smiled at him as I walked past, knowing that he would get a lot of such contact, and made to keep walking, rather than take up any of his time. And then I stopped. I had spoken to Jim Sillars before on a 1 to 1 basis – maybe that entitled me to approach him again. (And I know I was thinking of that much regretted missed moment with Margo.)
I walked back to him, apologising for the intrusion, and gave a cursory summary of where he would not remember me from, almost 25 years earlier. I asked him if he still believed that devolution was not a viable route to independence, and he averred that he did – perhaps, in a way, the No vote had vindicated his position entirely. We talked briefly about the prospects for independence, and – like so many others – he hinted that there might be a chance for a rerun of the referendum in around three years time. “They’ve given so many hostages to fortune”, he said – that it will be more difficult to fob off the people of Scotland with not delivering, I interjected? He agreed, and I was about to question him further, when his lunch appointment showed up, and so I excused myself and left.
And there I felt such a strange upwelling of emotion as I walked away up towards South Bridge – a combination of the bitter regret about not speaking to Margo, a sense of wanting to express my regret in some way that maybe ‘we’ let her down…all mixed in with a final emergence of sadness about the result. There I was in my last post, proclaiming to have not had the obligatory ‘wee greet’ after the Referendum result, and no sooner had I posted it than…..well. That was definitely the closest that I have come since the 18th.
But, more interestingly, Jim had moved so much further on than I had. He is part of the movement going forward over these next 6 months – part of the group that Westminster seems keen to nervously urge to ‘forget about independence’, just as SNP membership goes over 80,000, and the Hope Over Fear Rally takes place in Glasgow today.
As has been said by so many, we have three years to a possible rerun, to try and turn around the ‘Conditional Nos’, and avoid repeating the same defeat. We cannot expect ‘No’ to run as execrable a campaign the second time around – we can’t be so lucky – or they be so arrogant – twice.
I remember watching the leaves start to heavily fall on the morning of the vote as I stood outside a polling station – a Caledonian Autumn may have come, but there is a chance that maybe Spring will come again soon, even if we are just about to head into a bitter winter.
“We’ve got one more chance” (Jim Sillars, October 2014)