"Scottish independence isn't about borders or flags, it's about people's lives and change" Cat Boyd, at Meeting presenting the arguments of the Yes Campaign in the House of Commons
“Gordon Brown had said that this is a campaign for or against the SNP but he is completely wrong. It is not about the SNP. It is a huge mass mobilisation, with Labour supporters not trusting Salmond and yet cannot bring themselves to vote no” Neal Ascherson at the same meeting organised by Red Pepper and openDemocracy
Many of us south of Hadrian's Wall have had our political senses so numbed by promises of change which reinforce the status quo, that it's taken a long time for people to wake up to a political movement in Scotland that is quite beyond anything containable by or even comprehensible through the terms of conventional parliamentary, tick-some-scoundrel's- name-every-four-years, politics.
The question yes or no to independence, intended by Cameron to make the alternative to the status quo so radical and sheer that the referendum would consolidate the conservative forces amongst the Scottish public, has in fact brought about a popular mobilisation for radical social change unlike anything we have seen in these islands for a generation. The conditions for this mobilisation were certainly the put in place by the SNP’s skilful, long-honed, management of conventional electoral politics and its associated media. There'd be no referendum if Alex Salmond's SNP had not become the party of government in Holyrood and used what bargaining power he had to extract the commitment to a referendum from David Cameron. But as Neal Ascherson and Cat Boyd insist above, the movement for independence that the yes or no referendum has unleashed is not about Alex Salmond, the SNP or the normal accoutrements of nationalism.
Rather, the referendum has become an invitation to say no to a super power whose wars, most recently against Iraq, the Scottish people found abhorrent, and yet have been forced to join; a chance to say no to decades of social injustice and sacrifice at the altar of the global market by Conservative and Labour Governments at Westminster, for which Scottish voters did not vote. And finally a chance to refuse a democracy without substance by which MPs working 300 miles away and more, are too distant to be accountable or subject to popular pressure. Most importantly, Scottish people have grasped the choice that they have to make directly – unmediated by the political class - as an opportunity to imagine the kind of society that with the democratic possibilities of independence they, the Scottish people, could build. The strength of these two dynamics, refusal and the sudden birth of new political imaginary is such that there is even a question mark over whether Salmond's SNP can survive the new political maelstrom.
Political commentators, especially in the English and American owned media , pretend that nothing has changed. For them, it's just politics as normal. Middle aged men in suits exchanging insults, Salmond versus Darling etc.
I became interested because I sensed something politically special was taking place, mainly from the involvement of artists and cultural creators - radical theatre directors like David Greg and journalists like Joyce MacMillan (ie. not the usual suspects) - and from the imaginative excitement among students conveyed to me by my niece, Rosie Scott, in her final year at Glasgow Art School and drawn to stay in the city by its cultural vibrancy. I felt, like Adam, that at last there could be an opportunity to shake to the core "the foundations of Britannia as a pompous, blue-blooded colossus” as Niki Seth-Smith from openDemocracy put it, quoted in Adam's text. Mighty and militant movements against Thatcher , like the miners strike and the poll tax rebellions could not bring the colossus down. Parties of the left could not overcome the obstacles of the electoral system to pose a challenge to Labour from the left that might have prevented its submission to the neoliberal consensus.
Could the Scottish movement for independence be one of those stones in a modest sling that finds the lethal crevice in the armour of the British Goliath state? What Adam's lively and creative text makes clear is that this has not been a war of political machines. Certainly the Yes campaign , through the National Collective (of artists of various kinds supporting 'Yes') has benefited from the contributions of many brilliant cultural creators while the no campaign has relied on planting negative stories about their opponents with the Westminster style peddlers in political gossip. But the power of the yes is greater than its creative communication techniques.
The remarks of a young graduate from Caledonian University in Glasgow gave me an insight into what gives the Davids of the Yes campaign their unpredicted strength. Jim Bevington, born of English parents in the Shetland islands, living in Glasgow for the past 5 years, describes how he moved from being a rather passive opponent of independence to an engaged and enthusiastic activist in the yes campaign. First, he realised that independence was not, as the media implied, about changing letterheads and rebranding Scotland. It was not even about nationalism. “I realised that something absolutely huge was at stake: the shake up and break up of the UK for the first time in hundreds of years. I needed to get informed and engaged. When I did get informed, going to the Radical Independence website and then to one of their conferences, I realised that it’s not just about how bad the UK is but about people's ideas about what an independent Scotland could be like. So what makes it exciting is that it isn’t just about identifying the bad but about fresh new ideas that have no prospect of being implemented in the UK but would have every prospect of being implemented in an independent Scotland. This is what has reignited political interest in Scotland, “ concluded Jim, “and made it an amazing place to be. It's why I’m an avid supporter of the yes campaign”. “Fresh new ideas with every prospect of being implemented in an independent Scotland”. This is the feasible hope which draws people to get organised in Comrie, in Ulapool, in Troon, in virtually every neighbourhood across Scotland to share their ideas, to work out how they want to shape an independent Scotland. The dynamic of the process is self-organised, galvanised by the simple idea that every citizen resident in Scotland, can vote for a different kind of society – not, as in most elections - just for a choice of elites. The possibility of independence is a challenge to Scottish voters to take themselves seriously and to give substance to the hopes they have shared informally with friends and neighbours.
What has built the self-confidence to take up that challenge to shape a new future, rather than bumble along with the familiar but imperfect present? The answer shines clearly from Adam's text and from any direct experience of the yes campaign in action. It is a strikingly generous- spirited, creative, diverse and plural, non-competitive, non-sectarian movement, with a concentrated sense of common purpose. It has many platforms- including both the official 'Yes' Campaign of politicians and national organisations and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) whose volunteers have canvassed working class communities that have been ignored by politicians for decades.
A variety of different campaigns brings different constituencies to the activities of RIC: the energetic, always present Women for Independence; the strategically vital Labour for Independence, that now has the support of many of Labour's leading figures – ex council leaders, party officials, union leaders – and leaves the Labour Party as an empty shell through which Alistair Darling hears only the echo of his own voice. Then there is the Jimmy Reid Foundation, an influential think tank committed to action as well as words, led by a human dynamo Robin McAlpine who manages to speak to fifteen meetings a week, going to bed in his words “exhausted and tearful”, but still managing to exude energy and enthusiasm to all who meet him. The Foundation has brought together the ideas for a new Scotland coming from local meetings into a book-length manifesto: The Common Weal.i
All these tributaries feed a populist movement that does without a charismatic leader. It is a populism which is actually organised through and around the people, in all their particularity. Its power lies in its many voices, in conversation with each other and with strangers. Adam's is one of these voices and its positive , humane and generous character, ambitious and yet simultaneously realistic and expounding a new common sense, is typical. What is also typical too, echoing Jim Bevington's reasons for being such an avid supporter of yes is the way that Adam begins many of his 42 points with a critique of some ghastly feature of UK government policy or structure and then turns the argument powerfully towards a fresh new perspective and positive solution.
An argument for independence based on escaping the London Housing bubble, becomes, after an analysis of the macroeconomic implications of speculation through inflating house values, the positive case for Scotland to have the macro economic powers to create a new kind of sustainable economy in Scotland, creating socially useful jobs and based on a variety of forms of economic democracy.
Similarly from a critique of Britain's imperial role in the world and the one-dimensional nature of Scotland’s international relations so long as Scotland is part of the union, Adam moves to a liberating vision of the opportunities opened up by joining a network of nations. Adam explores a wide range of collaborations which take the debate way beyond the notion of 'separation' and a single, closed, national sovereignty. With the example of the Nordic Council in mind, he points to the feasibility of autonomy being the basis of a shared and pooled sovereignty and a chance to balance out power across our archipelago.
Whether this intellectual as well as organisational energy and associational power will on Sept 18th, produce a majority for 'yes' is uncertain. I, and many more English people than is publicly acknowledged, hope it will. But it is clear that there is no going back to the old politics. Neither in Scotland nor across the UK. And this is about more than a new unstoppable surge of activism. Robin McAlpine tells of a campaigning grannie who comes up to him at the end of a pro independence demo and says “When this is over, Robin, I'm naw going back to ma sofa”. She 's speaking for millions whose imagination has been changed. There are several historical comparisons that could be made: the awakening, for example, of the feminist imagination in the early 70s, which changed society for ever and began a still unfinished revolution, driven by a sense of glimpsed but as yet unrealised possibilities.The consequences of the closely fought independence referendum, with the likelihood of a result that will not be decisive and will serve to further open and deepen rather than close the debate, poses a very real threat to the UK's ruling elites.
These elites have always ruled through an unwritten constitution, that is the secret of their power and its unbroken longevity. As Margaret Thatcher famously proved – with Charter 88 sounding the alarm – unwritten rules known and made only by those with power means that those at the top can do what they like, protected by an opaque membrane of taboo.
Two historic features of the British political system gave a kind of sacred quality to these unwritten rules, making the idea of a challenge unspeakable. The first is the Crown in Parliament, which enables the Prime Minister and his or her executive unhindered access to prerogative powers – to declare and conduct war, to make a huge number of appointments and so create a powerful patronage machine. More than that, the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament gives any government with a stable majority the ability to do things through ordinary legislation – like dismantle local government as Thatcher did – that would be impossible in a properly constituted state.
The other, related source of taboo is 'the Union' , which protects the Westminster parliament against real democracy and self-government. The strength of the yes campaign and the fact that it is already spreading across the borders and boomeranging back (as I write, readers of the magazine that I co-edit, Red Pepper, are organising a train coach of English 'yes' supporters to go to Glasgow to give whatever practical and symbolic support that they can) will mean that the unwritten constitution will be talked about and questioned.
The taboo of hundreds of years has been broken. Nothing can stop this, however closely the main parties conspire to restore a reverential silence. But on both sides of the border, whatever the result of the referendum, we must do more than talk about the constitution and challenge its unwritten rules. In England and Wales we must follow the inspiration of the yes campaign in Scotland and treat the fact that the union 's future is seriously in doubt as an invitation to imagine a different kind of England and a different kind of Wales and different relations between and within our self-governing nations. We can already see in Scotland how the collective act of imagining a new social order turns disheartened subjects into the architects of a new constitutional settlement. Having been told for years that they did not want freedom and could not handle it if they had it, they have learned that they are willing and able. It is past time the rest of us learned the same lesson.
The book you are about to read is a resource for building such movements, written by someone who himself is the kind of “citizen without borders”, of which at this decisive moment, we need many more.
i The Common Weal is available as a free download at http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Common-Weal.pdf
Hilary Wainwright would like to thank Jane Shallice for their collaboration in bringing civic and cultural speakers from the yes campaign to spread the liberating quality of the campaign to an English audience at one of the most exciting meetings the House of Commons has hosted in the past decade. And Tom Nairn for writing his book The Break up of Britain in 1977.
Adam Ramsay's "42 reasons to support Scottish independence" is available here.
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