The closing plenary at the Radical Independence Conference
A political hurricane is happening in Britain. This weekend, a vast gathering came together in Glasgow of people demanding a new, and very different country. Tomorrow, the Scottish government will launch what they say is the most comprehensive blueprint for a new country in the history of humanity. After attending Scotland's Radical Independence Conference, here, in no particular order, are 13 thoughts.
This is the unification of the Scottish radical left
Behind the veil of the referendum, something else is happening. What we are seeing is the unification of Scotland's radical left. Back in 2008, a few of us organised an event in Edinburgh. We brought together people from the Scottish Socialist Party, the Scottish Green Party, and a few others. Both parties had been battered in the 2007 polls, and this was a new step, together. It felt significant. We were talking, working together, planning for the future together. There were 40 of us. The Radical Independence Conference brought these groups – and fellow travellers – together again. Only this time, it was 1000 people. When you think through the divisions on the Scottish radical left in recent history, this is remarkable.
Such a gathering in Glasgow without the shadow of Tommy Sheridan dividing the room is an amazing event, and that just refers to one of the many splits. If you knew the intricacies of the arguments between Scotland's socialist parties, then you could look along the front row, at the speakers waiting to take the stage, and take quiet note of who was, and wasn't, clapping for whom. But look behind them, at the hundreds of delegates, and there was no such sectarianism. Those scarred by old battles are not the leaders of this movement. And the people who are are more united by this common cause than they will be divided by histories which aren't theirs. To put it simply, a new generation of Scottish radicals have been brought together by the referendum, and they have made friends. Win or lose next year, these bonds will be mighty hard to break.
It's important to think about that scale. The Scottish Labour party certainly couldn't get 1000 activists in a room – I hear 200 would be more like it. After its second conference (the event last year had around 800), this re-established left has confirmed itself, alongside the SNP conference, as one of the two biggest political gatherings in the country.
It has a potential electoral base
There is an electoral significance here. Between 2003 and 2007, the Scottish Socialists and Greens between them had thirteen out of the 129 MSPs: seven Green, six SSP. These voters haven't gone away – they just (mostly) switched to the SNP in 2007 and 2011. The radical activist base has a large electoral hinterland in Scotland. They have been defining swing voters in all four of the Holyrood elections. If the activists chose so to do, they would have a significant chance of mobilising this base to vote somewhere to the left of the SNP – though, of course, any attempt in that direction would either involve the Greens being accepted more broadly as the electoral expression of this movement (as the only currently represented party there) or forming a new party in which Greens felt comfortable. This is no easy ask. May's European elections – in which the opening speaker at the conference and new Green co-leader Maggie Chapman, is Green candidate, will be an early test.
They could swing the referendum
There is huge significance here for the independence vote. George Kerevan in the Scotsman put it this way “RIC is the wild card in next year’s referendum. If the anti-austerity left can convince Scotland’s young people that independence means genuine change, all political bets are off.” Anger at Westminster is ubiquitous in British politics. In Scotland, this tends to have a left leaning expression. If RIC can convince working class young people to vote for a new country against Cameron's permanent austerity, then this tide could crack the foundations of Britain. It's worth thinking about.
This is about left/right
All of which highlights a remarkable change in Scottish politics. The question of independence has now become a simple left/right split. It hasn't always been this way – even five years ago, it wasn't to this extent. One side is fronted by a Blairite ex-Chancellor and funded by an oil baron controversial for his work with Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi, and Serbian War Lords. They seek to win votes by invoking reds under the bed - calling the Radical Independence Conference “the true face of independence”. The other is fronted by Nicola Sturgeon – a left wing Glasgow MSP – and backed by significant movements of thousands of people. 52% of Scots say they would vote yes if they believed the Tories will win in 2015 – the swing voters are left leaning. The RIC declaration said: “Look at the forces that stand behind no. Look at the forces that stand behind yes. Choose your side.” Many people might just do that.
This isn't a split in the yes campaign
This consensus is most visible in the form of Yes Scotland chair and former independent MSP and Labour MP Dennis Canavan. He gave a thumping speech in which, as well as calling for a radical vision of independence, he also attempted to instil some discipline. At one point, he lent over the podium and shouted – as though at each of us individually - “keep your eye on the ball!”. You can tell he is a former PE teacher, I was once again an 11 year old in a singlet and shorts. He was talking, in particular, about the Scottish Government's white paper on independence, out tomorrow. We might disagree with bits of it, he said, but don't get distracted. These arguments can come after the referendum victory.
Such is Canavan's gravitas that he can tell a room full of radicals to fall in line with a government and no one really complained. Which is telling. I think my position would be softer – those who support a radical left vision for independence ought to ensure that Scots can see that there are numerous ideas for the future of the country. But we ought not to allow those differences to define the debate, to be used as a wedge by Better Together. There is "yes", and there is "yes, and...". On the key issue of currency, for example, I think it is clear that an independent Scotland ought to have its own. But I also don't see why that can't wait for five years after independence – after all, the transition doesn't all need to happen on independence day. More generally, though there was some criticism of the SNP, the conference was clearly working alongside rather than against the yes campaign. Last year, the media waited gleefully for friendly fire. Now, people understand that radical independence and yes campaigners know they are on the same side.
You can't measure the value of independence
The conference came the week after the Institute for Fiscal Studies published its report on independence. The IFS is famed for its work with numbers – and the report included demographic projections for the next 50 years. One speaker – an economist who helped set up Norway's oil fund, threw a long list of numbers back at them. But others gave what, in some ways, is a more important response.Teenage activist Saffron Dickson had been asked to speak about what's wrong with Britain. She said that, despite all of the many failures of the country, the biggest of them all is that “I've never been inspired by Britain”. How many young people will never become a doctor, she asked, because no one told them they could? How many will never be an engineer because they'd never been encouraged? This failure to inspire and empower was also addressed in the closing speech, by Cat Boyd. She quoted Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid “the untapped potential of the North Sea is nothing compared to the untapped potential of our people”. It was touched on too, in a sense, by feminist economics professor Ailsa McKay. She told the conference that she's an economist who doesn't do numbers. Because before you do sums, you need to know you are adding up the right things.
The point is a simple one. You can do all the sums you like about how an independent Scotland might be if nothing changed but the constitution. But the whole point of independence is a desire to change almost everything. And if you believe that bringing power closer to people will help to engage them, and to inspire them, then it's no more possible to predict what they can do than it is to measure the size of their hopes.
It's the economy stupid
Which leads on to another change. Most of the discussion was about the economy. There were no Palestinian flags and little discussion of Trident. Last year, the event was criticised for not discussing matters which concern the day to day lives of ordinary people in Scotland - for focussing on what some, disparagingly, call issues of “the middle class left”. Such a criticism would have held no water this year.
And it's not just old socialist economics
In that context, the flavour of the economics was interesting. Because though this was the left, it wasn't simple trade unionism – higher wages and nationalisation. Though those, rightly, were discussed, there were themes which we returned to again and again. One policy, which speaker after speaker returned to was best summed up by Bright Green editor and Edinburgh University rector Peter McColl “when we come back, next year, after we've won the referendum, we must demand a basic income, payable to all citizens of Scotland.” Other themes included worker, municipal and co-operative ownership; feminist care economics – democratic and decentralised control as much as traditional calls for nationalisation. This is the new left.
It felt real
I am used to gatherings of radical activists where either you discuss how to stop the latest government policy or you dream of a world you don't believe you will ever live in. I have never before been to an event where people dreamed of a better world and really believed they might have the chance to build it. Robin McAlpine, the penultimate speaker and de facto strategist in chief of this movement, put it best “next year, you must walk into this room as the architects of a new nation”.
It was serious
It also felt serious. Most of the contributions came from people I would trust to run things. All too often, those with the best ideas don't seem like those I believe could deliver them. Here, though, mostly, were serious women and men, serious about building a new country.
The debate is changing Scotland
Irrespective of the result next year, the debate, the discussion from first principles of how you would run a country, is changing Scotland. Far from a moribund distraction from 'real politics', this is the most exciting political period I can remember in Scotland.
The SNP are a national, not a nationalist party. They will offer concessions to the left.
The event also operates as a reminder of the various players in Scottish politics and their roles. As the SNP launch their white paper tomorrow, it's important, particularly for readers outside Scotland, to understand something. They are not the Scottish Nationalist Party. They are the Scottish National Party. Their obsession is as much with the idea of people as citizens as it is with independence. Once Labour became a party of class, rather than a party which sought to represent one class in its struggle to abolish the structure altogether, they abandoned this other old left conception of people. This is why the SNP defend universal benefits whilst Labour demand means testing. It also informs their strategy of government. They don't see themselves as being in power because they are right, but because they are the party of Scotland. This has its risks. But it also means that they are willing to change their position on things. They have the confidence to admit they were wrong. They govern by compromise, often giving powerful lobby groups – both left and right, but more often left, what they want. With a vast block amassing to their left, we can expect concessions from the SNP.
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