London-based activist Matt Houlihan joined two canvasses of working class estates in Scotland to experience the infectious excitement of the radical campaign for Scottish independence
Scottish Independence has, up until now, barely touched the London radar. It’s been mentioned in derogatory tones in the media and as an amusing side issue by urbane London journalists. However, the damage it could inflict on the UK’s entrenched elite are huge. I decided to take part in this nascent movement for an alternative democracy on the streets of Edinburgh.
I joined two canvasses of working class estates, canvassing a middle class block and leafleting a number of areas. The movement, while diverse, is highly organised and extremely motivated.
Most interesting was when I took part in a Radical Independence Campaign mass canvass on an estate in the south west of Edinburgh.
An activist who drove me back explained that he’s given up his job to work full-time on convincing as many people as possible to vote yes for independence. His family were coalminers, and his grandfather fought with the International Brigades in Spain - he himself is a radical socialist. But he is also a member of the Scottish National Party. This is no clerical error. The SNP have moved to the gaping hole to the left of Scottish Labour on policies, leaving many to abandon their identity with Labour, and join in order to improve Scottish politics. Alongside them, the percentage of supporters of the Scottish Labour Party openly declaring support for independence is in the high 30s, and Labour for Indy is a campaign group openly rallying Labour members, arguably splitting the party within Scotland as a challenge to its neoliberal leadership.
A startlingly powerful graphic image on social media portrays the Yes and No campaigns as football teams, each player tagged with the name of an official campaign group. On the ‘No’ side are the Tories, Lib Dems, Scottish Labour, UKIP, the Orange Order, BNP, etc. On ‘Yes’ there are Radical Independence, Common Weal, SNP, Scottish Greens, Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Labour for Independence, English Scots for Yes, Scottish Socialist Party, Asians for Independence, LGBT for Yes, NHS for Yes. These players are depicted on the teams respectively to highlight the political and ideological patterns of this debate.
The graphic makes the ideological and class divide of this campaign vividly clear. Independence is for social and political progress. The union is campaigned for to protect privilege within the UK regime.
In the official Edinburgh North and Leith campaign office, I met a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, a member of the Radical Independence Campaign, people who had never participated in political activity before this, a retiree, students, a guy from Madrid. I was a welcome presence as a person from London and was informed a Canadian man who had given up his job was expected, as well as a woman from Catalonia. The fact that activists are coming from all over the world, while many Scots are becoming active for the first time, shows how powerfully Scottish Independence has gripped people’s imagination on a global level. I recently saw a video of solidarity with vox pops from Galicia, Basque country, Wales, Catalonia, Italy and more. In Germany, I hear, people are referring to it as ‘The Caledonian Spring.’
There is something distinctly internationalist and exciting about this. This is a key window of opportunity to assist in challenging the UK establishment, enabling a reformation of an English political setup. A progressive blow to the ingrained neoliberal status quo, impervious to actual democracy, and which we have opposed for years. People in Scotland can see this as a clear alternative path to the growing inequality that benefits an entrenched elite, and they acknowledge that the Westminster system is impermeable to any other agenda. It’s an active rejection of the narrative of ‘all is well, business as usual’. It’s a means of breaking through the media silence, the injustice.
And issues like Republicanism and land reform? As one SNP activist says, ‘first things first, one step at a time’.
Trust in the mainstream media, particularly the BBC, has collapsed for many. Labour as a party is severely compromised by its increasing desperation and vilification of Yes voters, and is widely seen as having been exposed as a lackey of the elites. These are all healthy things.
The vacuum left by that trust is rapidly being filled with online citizen media, grassroots networks of political campaigning, and a renewed democratic confidence. It has caught the public imagination precisely because it is an achievable, popular goal. People feel confident that this is actually possible. It’s like a prison break plan that could work. It is an intellectual flourishing, constant town hall discussions and doorstep conversations have created a new political sphere within the shell of the old.
The cultural and artistic flourishing of creativity is like an atomic explosion of energy, the poetry, plays, songs, art, music videos, badges, leaflets, books, visual online memes, flags, posters keep on coming. It empowers the spirit of the movement, there is an old fire engine beautifully painted in blue called the Spirit of Independence. This kind of decentralised do-it yourself attitude to activism is the sign of a sure ‘idea whose time has come’ as Victor Hugo so powerfully put it, a genuine grassroots campaign within the community. Twitter also complements this movement as a sort of ‘hive mind’ in which ideas can be formulated and new memes such as #IgnoreFarage become popular.
Removal of Trident and ending the cuts agenda of austerity, ejection of the aggressive right-wing politics of too much of the south east of England are constantly raised as the benefits of Independence. The left in England must recognise the importance of this progressive culture and must welcome this movement with open arms.
The fight is by no means won, however. The campaign needs as much financial, moral and physical support as we can give, from London and internationally. Imagine the inspiration for people seeking local democracy and progressive politics away from neoliberalism in Catalonia, Wales, Basque country, Galicia, Quebec and elsewhere.
Whatever the outcome, Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, quoted a pensioner who inspired him, involved in activity, ‘See, when this is over, I’m not going back to my sofa’.