The enthusiasm for Saturday’s Radical Independence Campaign event reflects the deep and profound political awakening that has taken place thanks to the referendum process says Jonathon Shafi
Everyone remembers those exciting days and weeks in the lead up the referendum. For most of us this was the most exciting political period we had ever been part of. It was full of possibility and potential. This excitement expressed itself on the streets of cities, the town has of villages and in the Yes posters plastered all over our communities. The future was in our hands, and the movement of movements which was forging the way to a new Scotland was vibrant, inclusive and diverse.
After a mass canvass about two weeks before the referendum conversation turned to this years RIC conference. If it was a Yes vote, we’d have to look for a bigger venue. We would be discussing our new constitution, the massive changes in the political landscape, citizens assemblies and so on. But what if it was a No vote? Many of us felt that we should still run a RIC conference, but that it would be difficult, and small in number.
The day after the vote we announced the conference. Thousands clicked they would like to attend on Facebook. Okay, we thought, that’s great. But is it just an initial act of defiance? Could the rebellion last? It did. In many ways those days exciting days before the referendum continue. In the first 24 hours of ticket sales we sold out our initial venue catering for 1,000 people. We had to upgrade to the Clyde Auditorium, and within two weeks we had sold 3,000 tickets.
This is the kind of situation you can’t plan for. It reflects the deep and profound political awakening that has taken place thanks to the referendum process. Every pro-independence organisation reports the same: new interest, surging attendance at meetings and fundamentally a determination that we are not going back in our box. This is what happens when people feel they have a voice in the political debate. The independence movement has stoked and embraced this process. On the other hand, it highlights why Westminster does not want genuine political engagement, because when it happens, they can’t control it.
RIC has been an inspiring and testing experience for everyone involved. It is run by volunteers, and organised in local groups. It has been inspiring because it shows that even if you don’t have an established name, or any money, you can make a contribution that makes an impact. For the same reasons, it has been testing. For new campaigns, every moment in their development is a test that must be passed. If the first conference was a flop, it would not have got off the ground. If the second conference was not an improvement, there would have been speculation about its demise. If it did not transfer the energy of the meetings and conferences into mass action in communities, it would have been written off as a talking shop. All of this, and much more, has been an immense challenge.
We had to navigate the media, and in the main, we managed to get our narrative about the importance of class into the centre of the debate, without media consultants, advertising resources or special advisers. Every step of the way, for all of us, has been a learning curve.
But the biggest challenge we face now is political. What direction should we take? How can we be most useful to the movement? What are our priorities? There are no easy answers for this. But we can be sure of some key features. We will remain as a broad movement of the radical left in Scotland. We will continue to engage on the social issues affecting ordinary people, and intensify our international relationships and outlook. We will remain an outward looking body of activism, inventing our own initiatives as well as supporting other people’s campaigns for social justice.
All of this is crystallised in the conference on Saturday. 3000 people will have 3000 different ideas of what makes a good conference. With an event of this scale there is a huge challenge to ensure detailed discussion of key issues. That is why we went the extra mile of booking multiple venues, to allow for break out sessions. The discussions fit with our ethos to include broad forces, to encourage diversity of opinion, and to engage in serious debate about the issues our movement faces.
People from all sorts of backgrounds are attending. Socialists, greens, trade unionists, students, CND activists, SNP members and so on. Hundreds have even booked from across, England from Liverpool to London. We will also be joined by international delegations. The day is divided into three streams: Radical Change Now, Radical Debates and Radical Organising. In each stream there are six workshops and a mass forum running in parallel.
The workshops will allow for more specific discussion on important issues, while the mass forums in the auditorium theatre will be huge meetings on strategy and tactics, including major speakers such as Tariq Ali and an international rally with the likes of Syriza, Podemos, Quebec Solidaire and the CUP. The day will culminate in a ‘Peoples Vow’ which will contain a series of initiatives that we agree will be carried out. Our message is that the politicians' vow was not worth the paper it was written on, but that the people’s commitment to genuine social change has not dampened, and will be taken out across the country in our continuing campaign.
Logistics on the day are another huge task, full of possible pitfalls and problems. But to ensure every effort is taken to create a smooth running event, we will have a team of 100 volunteer stewards. We have over 70 speakers representing dozens of organisations. The conference passes will have phone numbers to call if you are lost, or having a problem. Our chairs will be ready to facilitate discussion. Every ticket holder is being emailed so that people can book their chosen workshop(s) in advance. We will have an interactive social media operation. Creche facilities staffed by professional child minders will help to make the event inclusive. We are doing all of this with volunteers, and trying to meet costs as best we can.
The reason for spelling this out is to make clear that we want this day to be more than inspiring, but strategic and coherent in its outcome. Every single workshop, plenary and mass forum will be recorded and put online the week after the event. We want this to help campaigning work after the event. It will allow people to show the meetings to local groups, to look back and find out the key points that were agreed. The entire event, thanks to Independence Live will be live streamed. Your comments will be noted, and added into post conference strategies and ideas.
Nothing on this scale has been tried before on the Scottish Left, at least not for some time. It is a testament to the hard work, strategic intelligence and dedication of activists the length and breadth of Scotland that it can be attempted in the first place. And it is thanks to the historic referendum process that people are so engaged with political ideas. The political awakening is here to stay and it is radical in outlook. RIC is only one part of this, and the start of our contribution post-No is this conference.
If you have a ticket, we hope you thoroughly enjoy it, have a chance to impart your own ideas, and learn for others and will join in the debate. If you don’t, we hope you will follow and engage with it on social media. We still believe that another Scotland is possible. From land reform to opposing austerity and privatisation, radical ideas are now firmly part of mainstream discourse in Scottish politics. Those ideas will help to improve peoples lives in the here and now, and they will be critical to winning independence in the long run.
Jonathon Shafi is organiser of the International Socialist Group (ISG) Scotland. He has played a long-standing role in anti-cuts and anti-war in Glasgow and a founder member of the Radical Independence Campaign.