‘On a different level to anything else organised by the left in Britain’ – Alex Snowdon reports from the Radical Independence Campaign conference in Glasgow

The sheer scale of the 3rd Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow was extraordinary. Around 3,000 people attended. Considering Scotland’s population, this puts it on a different level to anything else organised by the left in Britain.

The atmosphere was electric, but there was also a serious sense of purpose about building a stronger movement, mapping a strategy and articulating alternatives to both Westminster and the limits of Holyrood.

Westminster politics and Scottish Labour were the main targets for criticism (the disgust with the latter was understandably visceral), but there were also warnings that Holyrood must consistently champion an alternative political vision and approach to the discredited British mainstream parties. For example, the recent SNP conference was somewhat half-hearted and equivocal in opposing fracking, but at RIC 2014 any calls for total opposition to this environmentally damaging practice were greeted with rapturous applause.

A nation in political turmoil

The great success of the conference was made possible by the political ferment which developed in the run up to September’s independence referendum and which, unexpectedly, has continued without faltering since polling day. Prior to referendum day, RIC organisers assumed that in the event of a ‘No’ victory the conference would be at best the same size as the previous two conferences. Yet all 3,000 tickets sold in a few weeks.

Suki Sangha – RIC activist and a member of the Scottish TUC Council – made the opening speech of the conference, in which she recalled how the referendum campaign had galvanised participation in politics and public debate by many thousands of people for the first time. That political ferment and mass campaigning, she said, provided a baseline for the conference and for future action.

Instead of the widely predicted demoralisation, the ‘Yes’ movement has been, and continues to be, buoyant after a defeat that increasingly seems to have been anything but. One thing that appeared to unite conference speakers was a conviction that independence is a matter of when not if – that on 18 September independence was deferred not defeated.

But the success also rested upon serious coalition-building stretching back to the preparations for RIC’s first conference two years ago. The 2012 and 2013 conferences each drew up to 1,000 people. Together with the growth of local groups  nationwide and on-going campaigning, those conferences laid the basis for such an unprecedented success. Organisation matters: these things don’t happen by accident.

Bernadette McAliskey, who became a socialist and civil rights activist in Northern Ireland in the 1960s (she was then Bernadette Devlin), paid tribute to the role RIC has already played, saying ”The Radical Independence Campaign has organised from the bottom up and engaged people in the political conversations we need to have… You have reminded us old veterans how this job is done”. The wider engagement of RIC activists and groups with local communities – often the poorest, those neglected for generations by politicians – through mass canvasses, street stalls and other activities marked a step forward for the Scottish left in connecting radical ideas with wider society.

Re-shaping the political debate

In general the independence debate shifted Scottish politics to the left. Increasingly the arguments for independence became centred on big social and economic issues, not dry constitutional matters or national identity. Radical Independence and other organisations with an alternative social, political vision to ‘politics as usual’ played a vital role in that process. The more the radical potential of independence was highlighted, the more enthused and engaged people became in the run up to independence.

On top of the long-term trajectory of devolved Scottish politics – with Holyrood more hospitable to ‘social democratic’ politics than Westminster – this makes the Scottish political landscape very different to the UK-wide level. Scapegoating of immigrants, for example, barely figures in political discourse. 17-year-old Saffron Dickson, a ‘Generation Yes’ campaigner speaking in the morning plenary, pointed out that she’s never known a time when ‘immigration’ wasn’t a dirty word across mainstream British politics. The Scottish political scene is proving this isn’t inevitable - and opposition to the racist scapegoating sadly endemic in Westminster politics remains a key driver of support for independence.

This political landscape is not as it is because social and political attitudes are substantially more left-wing in Scotland, but a matter of how organised (especially electoral) politics has given expression to people’s attitudes, and the whole direction of travel during the referendum campaign.

This enlarged political space for left-wing ideas – and political demands that dissent from a narrow and sterile ‘orthodoxy’ – was part of the context for today’s ‪conference. There was a powerful sense that the terms of political debate have shifted recently, and this offers openings to RIC and the left. The conference was explicitly left-wing, yet also tangibly part of a larger mainstream political discussion in Scottish society: as RIC’s national co-ordinator Jonathon Shafi noted, it is a crucial step in creating a mass left that is taken seriously and capable of influencing the national debate. 

Another Scotland, another world

There was a tremendous ‘mass forum’ in the afternoon with speakers from left-wing parties Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and socialist activists from Quebec and Catalonia, highlighting the internationalism of the movement and the lessons to be learnt from experiences elsewhere.

A theme of the speeches from the Catalonia and Quebec campaigners was the need to go beyond the limits of nationalist campaigns for independence and consistently campaign around specific social and economic demands. The speakers from Podemos and Syriza highlighted the potential for mass discontent with austerity and the establishment to find electoral expression – providing that is linked closely with movement struggles – though the exact implications for Scotland will be a source of on-going dialogue for some time.

Focus E15 on stage. Photo: Sarah Beattie-Smith

Focus E15 on stage. Photo: Sarah Beattie-Smith

The same session also included speakers from two important campaigns in England, indicating that RIC has nothing to do with ‘separatism’ but instead seeks authentic solidarity and common working class interests. A Bectu union organiser talked insightfully about low-paid Ritzy cinema workers organising and striking for a living wage and against threatened job cuts, followed by one of the Focus E15 women talking about their militant and creative housing campaign in east London (while two other members of the campaign held up a banner declaring ‘London, Glasgow – one struggle, one fight – decent homes for all’).

The conference concluded with practical commitments to take the movement forward. This was centred on the new ‘People’s Vow’ – an antidote to the empty politicians’ vow pledged, in desperation, by Westminster leaders on the eve of the referendum. The challenge now is to use it, and the whole conference, as a launchpad for concerted campaigning that can win victories, shift the political debate further to the left, and move Scotland closer to not only independence but a version of it that involves decisively rejecting the injustices and inequalities that have driven the movement this far.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

Tagged under: