|Depute Leader of the Scottish National Party|
22 September 1991 – 25 September 1992
|Preceded by||Alasdair Morgan|
|Succeeded by||Allan Macartney|
|Member of Parliament|
for Glasgow Govan
10 November 1988 – 16 March 1992
|Preceded by||Bruce Millan|
|Succeeded by||Ian Davidson|
|Member of Parliament|
for South Ayrshire
19 March 1970 – 7 April 1979
|Preceded by||Emrys Hughes|
|Succeeded by||George Foulkes|
|Born||4 October 1937|
Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland
|Political party||Scottish National Party (1980-)|
|Labour Party (1960-1976)|
Scottish Labour Party (1976–1980)
Scottish National Party (1980-2021)
(m. 1981; died 2014)
James Sillars (born 4 October 1937) is a Scottish politician and a leading figure in the campaign for Scottish independence. Sillars served as a Labour Party MP for South Ayrshire from 1970 to 1976. He founded and led the pro-Scottish Home Rule Scottish Labour Party in 1976, continuing as MP for South Ayrshire until he lost the seat in 1979. Sillars joined the Scottish National Party in 1980 and later served as MP for Glasgow Govan after winning a by-election in 1988, and was Depute Leader of the Scottish National Party. He was married to Margo MacDonald until her death in 2014.
Sillars was born in Ayr, the son of Matthew, a railwayman, and Agnes Sillars (née Sproat), a carpet weaver. He was educated at Newton Park School and Ayr Academy. After leaving school he worked as an apprentice plasterer, before following his father into working on the railways. Sillars served as a radio operator in the Royal Navy from 1956 to 1960, before becoming a Firefighter. It was as a fireman that he became more active politically, through the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), and he joined the Labour Party in 1960.:411 He served as a member of Ayr Town Council from 1962 to 1970, and was Head of Organisation and Social Services at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) from 1968 to 1970.:412
Sillars was elected at a by-election in 1970 as Member of Parliament (MP) for South Ayrshire constituency, representing the Labour Party. He became well known as an articulate, intellectual left-winger, strongly in favour of the establishment of a devolved Scottish Assembly.
In 1976 he led a breakaway Scottish Labour Party (SLP). The formation of the SLP was inspired primarily by the failure of the then Labour Government to secure a Scottish Assembly. Sillars threw himself into establishing the SLP as a political force, but ultimately it collapsed following the 1979 General Election. At that election the SLP had nominated a mere three candidates (including Sillars who was attempting to hold on to his South Ayrshire seat). Only Sillars came remotely close to winning and it was this failure to secure a meaningful share of the vote that prompted the decision to disband.
In the early-1980s, Sillars (along with many other former SLP members) joined the Scottish National Party (SNP). Being a left-winger he had fostered close links with the SNP internal 79 Group; who had encouraged him to join.
Sillars, along with the 79 Group and the former SLP members in the SNP, started to shape the SNP as a clearly defined, left-of-centre party. Policies adopted included the support of a non-payment scheme in relation to the poll tax introduced by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, as well as the policy of independence within the European Union, of which Sillars was a leading exponent. Sillars also started talking in terms of direct action to bring prominence to the Scottish independence cause, stating that: "we must be prepared to hear the sound of cell doors slamming behind us if we are prepared to win independence".
Having failed to win the Linlithgow seat from Tam Dalyell of the Labour Party at the 1987 general election, Sillars was chosen to be the SNP candidate for the Glasgow Govan by-election. Govan was a Labour seat (although Sillars's wife Margo MacDonald had won it for the SNP in a by-election fifteen years previously, in 1973), but Sillars won a dramatic victory.
Sillars became the SNP's Depute Leader, with many surprised he did not stand for the party leadership when it became available in 1990. The 1992 general election proved a disappointment for Sillars personally; as he lost his Glasgow Govan seat. It was at this time that Sillars made his famous comment that the Scottish people were "90 minute patriots" (a reference to the amount of time a football match lasts).
This comment proved the beginning of a break with the SNP leadership. The SNP leader at the time, Alex Salmond, had been a Sillars ally, but his comments in the aftermath of the 1992 general election (and it is also suspected the fact that Sillars supported Salmond's opponent in the leadership contest, Margaret Ewing), started this break.
In 2014 his book In Place of Fear II: A Socialist Programme for an Independent Scotland was published, in which he outlined his vision of a socialist and independent Scotland. The book was named after Aneurin Bevan's 1952 work, In Place of Fear.
In 2016, contrary to the SNP position, he announced he would campaign in favour of British withdrawal from the EU during the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum. He has said: "I think (the EU) is a profoundly undemocratic organisation which has shown a callous disregard for people, in Portugal, Spain and Greece for example. They've been willing to make people destitute - beggar nations - in pursuit of a single policy to create a United States of Europe irrespective of whether the people want it."
During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Sillars said: "BP, in an independent Scotland, will need to learn the meaning of nationalisation, in part or in whole, as it has in other countries who have not been as soft as we have forced to be. We will be the masters of the oil fields, not BP or any other of the majors."
On 26 March 2021, Sillars backed Alex Salmond's new Alba Party by saying: "This is a very welcome development as it gives the independence voters a party that is not the SNP - which many, including me, with justification, believe is tainted with political corruption, and which is grossly incompetent in a whole range of its activities from building ferries to building hospitals, and boasting about being the Saudi Arabia of wind, without creating jobs." He still remains a member of the SNP.