Independence referendum is transforming Scotland’s political landscape

Scotland goes to the polls a week today. The independence referendum has helped to transform the political landscape in Scotland. Leading activists in the Radical Independence Campaign, Suki Sangha and David Jamieson, explain the significance of RIC to rebuilding the left. First published in the autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine.

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Just three years ago the Scottish left was in its deepest slump in over a century. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) implosion may have registered south of the border in the immediate months of the split, but its ­corrosive legacy dragged on for years through a succession of ­media circuses and high-profile court cases.

During this eight year saga the Scottish left also had to ­shoulder the same burdens as the socialist movement in the rest of the UK and internationally – the continued atrophy of the trade union movement, the left’s lack of answers ­concerning the ­economic crisis of 2008, and the “capitalist realism” ­characteristic of the Western world following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc from 1989; the widespread feeling that alternatives to the ­capitalist system had been exhausted.

It was against both this global context and the particular agonies of the Scottish left that Scotland’s leading public ­intellectual Gerry Hassan could summarise in October 2011:

“The new parliament is far removed from the ‘rainbow parliament’ of 2003 when the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists significantly broke through in votes and parliamentary representation…After the 2003 elections, the state of the Scottish hard left and Trotskyism attracted international attention, whereas today they have descended to a level of minuscule support making them irrelevant.”

He was correct – the Scottish left had shrivelled from its peak in around 2003-2004 from a significant party with 6 MSPs and a membership of over 3,000 rooted in working class communities across the country and with a significant trade union following, to just dozens of socially isolated activists scattered across several outfits, without a single voice in parliament and with public trust and support dissipating to nothing.

Background to the Campaign

The few young people who remained in a rapidly ageing left threw themselves into the student movement of 2010. The Scottish student movement was at least as vital as its English counterpart. In fact Glasgow ­University ­hosted arguably the longest standing and most successful ­student occupation in British ­history – the Free Hetherington – lasting well over six months without break and involving many thousands of students, ­eventually winning all of its demands and effectively destroying the authority of the university management.

Despite this movement, the thousands of young people ­newly attracted to radical politics barely even noticed the tiny and decrepit socialist left. To many young socialists, the hope that a new generation of activists would emerge from mass struggles and sweep the lethargy and sectarianism out of the old instruments of the left had been tested to destruction.

Mostly younger activists regrouped from this experience and pursued a new approach. There are many examples from the last few years, but probably the most important was the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) launched in Glasgow in 2011. It drew together new forces from the student and anti-austerity movement in a leadership role with the aim of creating a single united campaign that would overcome the division and stagnation of the left in recent years. Scotland, like much of the UK, had entered a series of stale party-front type organisations, which all issued from the competing and diminishing pre-crash grouplets. CoR permitted old differences to be placed aside to allow for the immediate work of resisting the cuts. Several large scale demonstrations, direct actions and coordinated solidarity work during strikes ­allowed the left to recover a sense of purpose and meaning, even pride in what we were doing.

The anti-austerity movement subsided due to the UK-wide weakness of the left and the trade union leadership backsliding that this weakness indulged. At the same time the constitutional crisis began to pick up momentum.

Offensive united front

The approach tested with CoR was rolled out on a much ­grander scale. In its basic mode the Radical ­Independence Campaign is a united front. It combines revolutionaries and reformists in a common enterprise to address the burning needs of the movement and the working class. But it is significantly different to recent united fronts such as Stop the War, Unite Against Fascism, Coalition of Resistance and the People’s Assembly in two important senses.

First, it is not a defensive campaign demanding an end to a war, austerity policies or racist organisations but an offensive campaign laying out a more comprehensive vision of social and ­economic change. Second, it is a campaign whose basic duration and momentum is set not by the vicissitudes of the movement itself but by a calendar of political events established by the state and the ruling class – the movement, or at least this first ­major phase of the movement, will reach a climax on 18 ­September when the nation casts its ballots.

Both of these factors have proven blessings for the Radical Independence Campaign. Its first conference was held in November 2012. Around 800 attended, including delegations from Catalonia, Greece, Quebec and many others who were invited to speak at its main rally. From the outset we wanted to stamp internationalist credentials on a campaign already being billed as “nationalist” by our unionist opponents. But the real purpose of the campaign being launched so early was to allow local ­campaigning groups to be established across the country.

A year later at the second conference we took in over 1,100 tickets. These conferences not only established RIC as the largest and most unified expression of the Scottish Left in recent years, but on the days they took place as the headline political issue. That is no doubt a symptom of the sensitivity of the Scottish political climate and the relatively small ecosystem of Scottish media, but it still represents more than symbolic importance when all the countries political parties have to acknowledge the radical left’s existence whether it’s to politely tip the cap or to scowl and heckle.

Local and national

Another major benefit of the referendum format is that the main body of its work – door-knocking or canvassing – can only be carried out locally. At the same time votes count identically everywhere in the country – we don’t have t­o ­worry about constituency majorities. These two factors pointed in the direction of a campaign that was both truly local and truly national.

There are now around 30 local groups across Scotland in most major conurbations across the country. They engage in constant door to door campaigning and hold street stalls and rallies in central locations. Many of the groups also put on social and fundraising events with music and stand-up comedy. These local groups are the real basis for the RIC. They have been established in many working class communities that the socialist left hasn’t touched in many years. National forums bring together delegates from the local groups and deal with necessary questions facing the national movement – often through recourse to motions passed by local groups.

The scale of the campaign is matched by its plurality. From the time of the first conference and before RIC has drawn its activists from the left wing of the Scottish National Party and other left nationalists, Green Party, disaffected Labourites, feminists, environmentalists, disability rights ­activists, aligned and unaligned socialists and even anarchists and left communists.

How this large, relatively rooted and enormously plural movement has held together with, frankly, fewer bust-ups than you would expect from a left wing campaign a tenth of its size is down to some of the same factors discussed above. The timeframe and scale of the referendum holds many activists to a tight regime of self-imposed discipline. The mountain to be climbed is huge and the possible rewards of independence so stark that most are forced onwards through difficulties and frustrations.

Besides local rootedness and discipline, the other great ­merit of the campaign has been the exposure it has received. In Hassan’s 2011 (mentioned at the beginning) the left was all but forbidden from the papers, TV and radio. Now, in addition to a spirited social media offensive that the ruling class are wont to define as “Cyber Nats”, RIC is never out of the traditional media. A series of extensive newspaper “exposés” have aptly recirculated RIC’s deliberately ­inflammatory ­campaigns.

The beginning of RIC’s major “Britain is for the Rich, ­Scotland can be Ours” drive was greeted by a much welcomed consternation from the mainstream Westminster parties. Labour called it “appalling”, the Conservatives, a fringe element in Scotland branded it “hate”. A major Sunday Herald essay noted that RIC “focus relentlessly on Britain’s chronic social and economic problems”. When was the last time you heard the BBC mention that Britain has “chronic” problems, not of immigration or crime, but of capitalism? This is what happens when you muster huge numbers, coordinated with a media strategy, to ­marginalise the political mainstream.

And marginalise them RIC did, with its first National Mass Canvass. Over 1,000 activists were mobilised in a single day into traditional Labour heartlands, where they canvassed well over 10,000 persons. Our MailChimp account tells us that some ­Labour MPs and MSPs reopened their emails regarding the mass canvass over one hundred times!

The mass canvass took place in over 40 localities. We are now reaching into all major settlements in Scotland. But because we recognised that the poorest, most densely ­populated communities must bear the most votes and the most ready support for a decisive political and social change, we canvassed these areas the hardest.

RIC is also concerned with a scheme for voter registration and for the recording areas of greatest Yes support – for remobilisation closer to the vote. We recognised early that those voters who would buck the polling trend would be those voters who don’t talk to pollsters and hate politicians; those voters who have told our activists: “You are the only people to ever ask me what I think about politics.”

The future of a recovery

As mentioned before, the timescale for the RIC has been pre-established by the British state. The campaign has achieved an enormous amount in its two and a half year ­history, beginning as it did in a room in the Scottish Trade ­Union Congress offices in Glasgow with fewer than a hundred activists and now able to muster over a thousand activists across the country to campaigning work.

There has not been room here to discuss the wider changes in Scottish society prompted by the overwhelming nationalist victory in 2011 and the subsequent referendum campaign. RIC is only one small part of a much larger galaxy of mostly left wing initiatives attached to the independence movement. Scottish society, whatever the outcome of the vote, has moved away from the centre ground of British politics.

But all these developments are time and outcome dependent. We went into this campaign knowing that a Yes vote was very possible, but the pre-existing No majority would be a difficult obstacle to overcome. The question for Scotland’s new radicals is: can we maintain momentum and adapt to the new climate whatever the vote? That will be easier with Yes, than with No, but we’ve come too far in these last few years to slide back to our nadir.

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