This piece was first published on the Labour Hame website as The Radical Independence Campaign Conference 2014: A Labour view.
Some 12,000 SNP members, 3,500 Radical Independence supporters, several hundred bemused Country Living Christmas Fair shoppers, and – at least one – very quiet Labour member found themselves assembled on the banks of the Clyde on Saturday (22 November).
For a day the SECC was the capital of the ‘People’s Republic of Glasgow’ with an evangelical SNP rally and the largest RIC conference yet taking place within yards of each other at the SSE Hydro and Clyde Auditorium.
I’ve been an admirer of RIC for some time, frequently attending their Edinburgh meetings, listening in, hovering around at the back. Saturday’s conference was a fascinating opportunity to watch the movement work out how to sustain its momentum after the referendum.
It won’t be possible to assess the day properly till the recordings of all the sessions are online: there were more than 20 in all, the logistics sadly making it possible only to attend a few. The agenda was full, including austerity, land reform, the Smith Commission, fracking, the media, the currency, TTIP, and trade unions, with the sessions facilitated by familiar RIC figures and guests from putative sister movements such as Syriza and Podemos and independence activists from Catalonia and Quebec.
The good and bad of RIC
From the perspective of this Labour supporter, the day was a mix of all that is good and bad about RIC.
The good is very good indeed.
First, and above all, it’s a movement built on unashamed idealism, a belief in the possibility of ideas to make another world possible. As Saffron Dickson, one of the young speakers commendably invited to speak at the opening plenary said: ‘Without idealists we would never have any change anywhere.’ Indeed for RIC radicalism is not an indulgence but a pragmatic response to the severity of the multiple economic, environmental and social crises facing Scotland, the UK and the rest of the world. To quote RIC Chair Jonathon Shafi: ‘Today radical ideas don’t seem that radical anymore.’
Second, the range of issues under discussion, and the eloquence of many of the contributions, was further evidence of the movement’s intellectual vibrancy.
Third, the conference looks a lot like modern Scotland, attended by a wide range of groups covering all age ranges.
And fourth, the conference’s careful organisation not withstanding, delegates seemed determined to hold on to RIC’s somewhat anarchic spirit, many of the sessions spilling well over their alloted times.
The bad is still quite bad.
Like all idealists RIC’s members find it hard to comprehend how anyone might possibly see the world differently, and are prone to attribute such instransigence to the darkest motives. But the hard fact is a couple of months ago it was not self evident to 55% of Scottish voters that independence is a precondition for realising a better Scotland. Indeed it may even be that some of those voters had reasons for that view, good reasons requiring good answers.
Certainly, there were indications at Saturday’s conference that RIC is trying to find a less confrontational language for communicating with No voters. But, for now at least, it still oscillates between two default modes of engagement.
One is to patronise. The 55 is a constituency that is ‘not quite there yet’, but once furnished with the facts to which RIC members are privy will come to see the error of its ways.
The second is to condemn. While it may be possible to sympathise with the befuddled No-voting masses misled by a partisan media, those who actively – and wilfully -campaigned against independence remain beyond the pale.
And of course a special place is reserved in that outer darkness for Scottish Labour. The lexicon of insults rehearsed extensively on Saturday is familiar, and growing: my list included ‘Red Tories’, ‘traitors’, ‘quislings’, ‘betrayal’, ‘corrupt’, collaborators’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘scabs’, ‘an ideologically vacuous electoral machine’, and – my favourite – ‘bloodsucking war mongering imperialists’. Lesley Riddoch was solicitous: ‘You can only weep for poor Labour members walled up alive in a party with so little comradeship.’
I think we can agree that this is – shall we say – a ‘transitional’ time for Labour in Scotland. Questions might well be asked about the wisdom of joining Better Together, and the negativity of that and Labour’s own campaign. And everyone will have their own views regarding what past Labour administrations at Holyrood and Westminster could have done better.
But one can only hope that RIC will come to appreciate that continued use of a hysterical language of betrayal to describe Labour’s defence of the union works only to undermine the movement’s credibility. The simple truth is that Labour has always been a party of devolution, not independence, and by campaigning accordingly did no more or less than honour that abiding commitment. It’s high time RIC moved on.
Fortunately, amidst the bombast, there was evidence that some within RIC are acutely aware of the need to do that, and to think strategically about the existential challenges the movement faces. Two questions in particular were widely discussed. First, how to prevent RIC – and the wider independence movement – being simply swallowed up by the SNP. And second, how and when to push for another referendum.
The first issue has been sharpened by the extraordinary growth of the SNP over the past few weeks. Impressive as the RIC gathering was, the SNP rally next door – which was just for Glasgow – was nearly four times larger. The independence movement now consists of a giant nationalist party orbited by satellite parties and groups such as the Greens, the SSP and RIC. The movement’s ostensible unity is threatened by differences over electoral strategy and underlying ideological tensions.
The electoral issues surfaced in the conference’s opening plenary, which included contributions from SSP and Green leaders Colin Fox and Patrick Harvie, both of whom were at pains to stress that independence is a movement, not a party: while acknowledging the SNP’s recent offer to fast track prominent Yes campaigners as SNP candidates they wanted an independence alliance. The great unspoken truth though is that it is surely unlikely that the SNP, given its determination to go to the wire with Labour next year, will be willing to stand aside in certain constituencies to give the other Yes parties a clear run, which will more likely be seen as irritants than allies if they get in the way.
And the ideological tensions were evident in an intriguing session that attempted to define what kind of party the post-referendum SNP is. During a packed, polite, but at times tense discussion, well attended by savvy SSP members, speakers from the panel and the floor subjected the SNP’s social democratic credentials to forensic scrutiny, and found the party wanting both in terms of the progress it has made in addressing social inequalities while in office, and in regard to founding principles: the SNP’s prioritisation of national unity over class interests makes it impossible for it to adopt an economic strategy expressly designed to redistribute resources from one group at the expense of another.
On the second of the big questions – when to push for another referendum – some of the most interesting thoughts came in a powerful address by Robin McAlpine of Common Weal. McAlpine suggested 2020 as a possible date, close enough to maintain the momentum for independence, yet far enough away to give the Yes movement time to build the institutions and infrastructure necessary to win and facilitate a smooth transition to independence.
This infrastructure would include: the development of a rigorous programme for independence that would learn from the mistakes of the 2013 White Paper, notably in regard to economic matters such as currency union; the founding of ‘socially progressive business organisations’ sympathetic to independence; and the nurturing of a pro-independence press to counteract the perceived pro-union bias of the ‘mainstream’ media – a particularly sore point with RIC – of which The National launched this week would be one component. (These thoughts are developed further in an interesting post-conference blog by Peter Arnott, which also picks up on the 20/20 vision resonance.)
A ‘People’s Vow’
The conference concluded with the reading of a People’s Vow by the mellifluous Alan Bissett, which was not free of hyperbole. To quote part of the first paragraph:
We, the Radical Independence Campaign, hereby make a Vow in reply, on behalf of the disappointed, the disaffected, the impoverished and the frightened: the People’s Vow. This Vow is eternal, and will be honoured for so long as we, and the generation which follows us, and the generations which follow them, have breath in our lungs to do so.
Beyond the soaring rhetoric, however, the Vow didn’t do much more than commit RIC to a set of commitments it has held for some time – opposition to austerity, selected renationalisation, green growth, republicanism and equality – its primary purpose seemingly being to stand as something around which RIC can unite in the runup to next year’s General Election.
I left the conference with the impression that, much hot air notwithstanding, RIC and the wider independence movement is already starting to work out a hard-headed strategy for forcing another referendum. In McAlpine, Shafi, Riddoch and others the movement has focused, smart and articulate campaigners intent on building an electoral coalition capable demanding another vote, and an infrastructure – a ‘Scotland within Scotland’ as it were – ready to hit the ground running in the event of a Yes vote.
The coming elections at Westminster and Holywood will be critical in determining whether they succeed in preventing the movement for independence collapsing back into the SNP. But even if that happens, it should be remembered that many new SNP members are also RIC supporters, and will continue to work to pull the SNP to the left. A genuinely social democratic SNP could turn out to be RIC’s lasting legacy, an outcome that would make Scottish Labour’s recovery harder still.