Chris Bambery: whatever the final result it’s worth looking at what the Radical Independence Campaign has achieved and how it might be emulated elsewhere in the world
We are now counting down the hours to the final result of Scotland’s referendum. Whatever the outcome the broad pro-independence campaign has come nearer to winning than political opinion at Westminster allowed for. The reason for that is in large part the campaigning work done by the Radical Independence Campaign and a host of other groupings who stand on a broadly left wing, progressive platform.
The only comparison I can make with the atmosphere in Glasgow, in particular, in the final fortnight of campaigning is similar to that in London prior to the giant demonstration against the Iraq invasion in 2003, in the sense that on both occasions it felt like we were the majority.
Radical Independence has largely escaped the attention of the left globally and in England, with a few honourable exceptions. Strange because it’s twice had conferences of approaching a thousand people which if translated into England (proportion to population) would require the hiring of a football stadium to accommodate them. It’s united the left of the SNP including those who quit over its vote to back Nato membership, the Greens, Labour Party members, the radical left and, most of all, folk belonging to no party whatsoever.
RIC combined traditional campaigning methods, conferences, public meetings and protests, with a wealth of other initiatives. Its attitude was 'let a hundred flowers bloom' and it used social media to huge effect. Its history should be written up somewhere for the benefit of us all.
But perhaps the single most important thing it did was the mass canvasses of working class communities and estates on the edge of the great cities. Communities where the organisations built by working people in the course of the 20th century have been destroyed in the past four decades, not least the Labour Party as a membership based organisation. Communities who are deeply alienated from Westminster and feel that no-one speaks for them. By going out on the doorstep and talking to folk RIC took an important step towards re-building working class organisation.
So as we await the final result it’s worth pondering on what RIC’s done and how it might be emulated elsewhere in the world.
All of this takes place against a background globally of a radical and revolutionary left which is in a dire state, with a few exceptions. What was refreshing about RIC was that it escaped the dead hand exercised these days by the left. But it’s worth just recording why that left could not recognise a vibrant mass movement when it was in front of its nose or knowingly refused to immerse itself in it,
First up are those on the left of the Labour Party and the remnants of the old Communist Party who campaigned for No on the basis Scotland could only retain the welfare state with the support of the British state, and that the unity of the British working class has to be maintained at all costs, chief of which is maintaining the United Kingdom.
I shan’t deal with those arguments beyond saying it’s the British state which has been the chief agent in the erosion of the welfare state, with the last Labour government playing a key role in that, and solidarity is not best achieved by keeping Scottish workers trapped in a state from which they want to escape.
Another additional argument deployed is that the attitudes of Scottish working people are little or no more different from those in England and Wales. Agreed, but in Scotland there is an escape craft available from which to escape the wreckage of the British state in the shape of the Scottish parliament and independence not available to our brothers and sisters south of the border. Independence can open up a debate in Liverpool, South Yorkshire and Inner London how working people there can also escape Tory governments they don’t vote for, austerity and permanent war.
But let’s ask why Labour, from right to left, is almost entirely committed to a No vote, despite the fact that currently 40 percent of its supporters in Scotland intend to vote Yes. Since 1914 when they virtually all backed their respective state’s entry into World war One social democratic and labour parties have identified with that state. But Labourism in Britain has also involved a strong love affair with Westminster parliamentarianism. Former Labour leader, Michael Foot, celebrated his friendship with the racist Tory renegade, Enoch Powell, on the basis he was a great parliamentarian. Dennis Skinner is the House of Commons expert on Erskine May, “the bible of parliamentary procedure.”
A number of Marxist groups have taken a No position because the Scottish situation fails the criteria posed in Joseph Stalin’s 1913 checklist on the national question - above all that Scotland is not an oppressed nation.
That is simply to ignore the debate going on in Scotland and what motivates people to Vote Yes. Few if any are arguing Scotland is living under the English heel. Rather they want to escape Westminster politics and to assert their democratic right to have governments they actually voted for.
The fact that after four decades of neoliberalism hollowing out of what democracy we achieved, democracy has become a central issue for a whole generation of anti-capitalists across the globe has escaped so much of the traditional left, who dismiss the fight for democracy as belonging to the 19th century – cutting themselves off from what actually concerns those in Occupy and other movements against neoliberalism.
Strangely those traditional British left groups present in Scotland who formally support Yes have stood back from Radical Independence. At best they “intervene” turning up to sell papers and set up paste tables outside and perhaps sending a few “cadre,” who can resist contamination, off on the mass canvasses.
Such resistance into throwing themselves wholeheartedly into a genuine mass movement seems to strange, you might think better to be arguing your case from the inside than from the outside, walking alongside all the rest rather than standing on the sidelines but that is what so much of the left has come down too.
The decision to initiate RIC as a broad movement for independence on a left wing and internationalist platform (that’s been an important part of RIC’s campaigning with participation of representatives of Syriza, Quebec Solidaire and others from the international radical left as well as figures like Bernadette McAliskey and Tariq Ali) was taken when the result of the referendum was taken for granted by the British elite, the media and various academics. A No vote was going to triumph big. That might have happened if the official Yes Scotland and SNP line that a Yes vote would change nothing fundamental had been maintained. But as RIC and others helped create the amazing national debate about what sort of Scotland working people wanted the official campaign had to tack to take into account this new cross wind.
That decision was a gamble. It’s paid off in style.
Whatever the result there is still a job of work ahead. If its No the left in Scotland needs to campaign to turn promises of further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament into a reality, and not just giving it power to increase income tax accompanied by the slashing of the block grant paid by Westminster to it, which gives nothing, which is what it looks like will transpire.
If it’s a Yes vote there will be 16 months of negotiating. Radical Independence has a job of work to do in rejecting the idea that “Team Scotland” in those negotiations should include the likes of Alastair Darling. In England the left should be fighting attempts to deny an independent Scotland the bulk of North Sea oil and against attempts at economic sabotage.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain - book review
- 1933: Warnings From History - book review
- The anti-Irish racism rooted in Scotland's elite
- Forty Lost Years - book review
- Transforming the past: Walter Scott and the historical novel
- Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe - book review
- Remembering Otelo Carvalho: from colonial war to revolution