Alister Black reports on the success of the Radical Independence Conference, and what comes next for RIC. He also looks at the issues facing socialists who are campaigning around Scottish independence and how best we can build a strong socialist force in the post-referendum world.
November’s Radical Independence Conference was a highly significant event both for the Scottish left and the independence campaign. It brought together 900 participants from a broad range of political backgrounds for a day of debate and discussion.
It sought to thrash out a radical consensus on the type of independent Scotland that we want – one where social justice, equality and workers rights were central. It talked about a Scotland where the environment and culture were cherished and peace and internationalism were at the heart of our policy.
Who was there? What was clear was that this was nobody’s ‘front’ organisation. The conference was attended by Greens, with Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie speaking at the opening plenary. There were also those who were not embarrased to call themselves nationalists coming from the left of the SNP and ‘Labour for Independence’ supporters. There were many from campaigns such as CND and those who were members of no organisation.
The socialist left were, of course, well represented. It was significant, given the poisonous splits of the past few years which have seen groups denounce each other in meetings, the media and the courts, that there was little visible rancour. Whilst there were not exactly hugs being exchanged, people listened to each other and behaved respectfully for the most part.
The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and International Socialist Group (ISG) were the largest contingents of the socialist left in Scotland who were present.
The mood at the conference was reminiscent of the social forums that galvanised much of the left in Europe and Latin America in recent years. Broad movements that could agree on much.
There are some underlying questions that need to be addressed in regards to how RIC intends to participate in the fight for a Yes vote. Most agree that economic questions will be the key factors determining how most Scots will vote. RIC needs to make the case for independence in a way that demonstrates that jobs, conditions, social services, health and housing will be in a better place in an independent Scotland which rejects the capitalist consensus.
Just how to best organise across campaigns like those against cuts, the ‘bedroom tax’ and in defence of public services is more difficult. However, whilst important, campaigning on issues like Trident and Palestine alone, or focusing on campus votes will not win the thousands in the schemes and workplaces of Scotland that we need to win.
Just what RIC’s economic vision is was also unclear from the conference which unfortunately did not have a session on the economy. Questions we need to answer include, what will we do with the banks, how will we secure the resources to make sure all Scots have a job, an education and somewhere to live?
Organisers and participants were on a high following the conference. It was no surprise therefore that proposals were soon made to step up and expand the remit of RIC. At a recent steering committee group an aside was made regarding changing the name of the RIC facebook page from Radical Independence Conference to Radical Independence Campaign. Moving from being a conference to being a campaign is quite a significant move and one which a few will have issues with. But with hundreds having contacted RIC on top of the 900 attending conference, it was to be expected.
The next steps planned are to hold local assemblies across Scotland, including areas where the left has never had a strong presence such as Inverness and Dumfries and Galloway. The aim is to form grassroots groups across Scotland with immediate campaigning priorities being voter registration and building for the anti-Trident weekend of action.
Another plan is for a series of ‘Red Papers’ from campaigners and academics laying out our vision of an alternative Scotland in more detail. A campaign appeal of £10, 000 has been launched.
How does this fit in with the official ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign, with its team of full-time staff, big budget and the electoral experience of the governing Scottish National Party? Yes Scotland also has plans underway to establish local groups across Scotland. For example they want to see a local group in every council ward in Glasgow and in every village and town in the nation.
The answer is that the independence campaign is a movement. It is a movement which ranges from wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs to impoverished socialists. RIC is the left of that movement. It aims to speak for working people, for the poor, for those who will suffer from cuts and from the crisis-ridden capitalist system.
Whilst attitudes towards Yes Scotland differ within RIC, many are active in both. Yes Scotland recently invited young trade-unionist Cat Boyd to speak at the well-attended Glasgow launch of the campaign on behalf of RIC and First Minister Alec Salmond sent a congratulatory message to the November Radical Independence Conference.
So far there is little evidence to suggest that the two are rival campaigns.
At launch meetings for the official Yes Scotland campaign, campaign officials have made it clear that the campaign will not be talking about policy or ‘taking sides’ over issues like council cuts. RIC is not held back by those constraints and it can speak for those for whom independence does not just mean hauling down the Union flag and replacing it with a Saltire.
What next for the Scottish left?
The success of the Radical Independence Conference has raised questions about the future for the socialist left in Scotland. If we can all get together in a room and agree on a broad range of issues, then why can we not have some kind of united front or electoral list in preparation for new political realities post-referendum, whichever way the vote goes?
Some, like the Scotsman commentator George Kerevan went further writing “New movements are difficult to predict or direct, which is why they are movements not parties. But the emergence of RIC suggests that there is a space in Scotland for a Red-Green Republican Left Party (or coalition of parties) committed to Scottish independence – a grouping that could command 10 or maybe 15 per cent of the popular vote on a good day.”
Certainly the experience of similar parties in Catalonia, the Basque Country and elsewhere would support such a claim. There are real obstacles to overcome even with the lowest level of unity. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party around the Sheridan trial left a bitter legacy with many simply leaving politics and others deeply hostile to working with those who split ever again.
But nature and politics abhor a vacuum and there is clearly a space to the left of Labour and the SNP. New generations of activists have no interest in the splits of the past and will be attracted to organisations who are unsectarian and hold socialist unity as a principle. A new electoral list, coalition or party remains necessary to give us the strength to stand up to the neo-liberal onslaught that we will face regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
Scottish Socialist Party
The SSP has survived, although it is clearly in a much weaker state than in its heyday when it united virtually the entire Scottish left and had six members elected to the Scottish Parliament. The number of branches and activists has shrunk but recently it has been recruiting and holding well attended public meetings.
Attitudes towards RIC within the SSP are not homogenous. Some, particularly the youth, were enthusiastic and played a key role in building the conference and indeed, SSP conference voted to back RIC. Others within the leadership seemed suspicious and played down the potential for a big conference, a perspective that was not borne out. SSP co-convenor Colin Fox sits on the Yes Scotland board and has strongly encouraged members to throw all their energy into the official campaign with RIC being seen as a sideshow.
The Yes Scotland campaign is seen as a way to appeal to a broader layer of pro-independence activists both inside and outside the SNP and to hopefully bring some of them into the SSP.
Whilst ‘building the party’ is ABC for socialists and it is healthy to recruit to the SSP, it is not an end in itself and it is important that other socialists are not simply seen as rivals. The danger is that unless the party has a more strategic approach to the variety of social movements making up the pro-independence campaign it could lose opportunities and lose members. The SSP was founded on the principle of uniting the left and sectarian attitudes should be an anathema to it.
International Socialist Group
The International Socialist Group are one of the newest groups on the left. They formed recently from a split within the Scottish SWP which saw most of the youth and student members leave to form the ISG. The ISG have been the driving force behind RIC and have been able to work constructively with the rest of the left.
The largely student membership base of the ISG has advantages and disadvantages. Their members are young and have time, energy and elan – all of which have been clearly seen in the RIC. They reflect the makeup of the recent youth and student campaigns, inspired by the Arab Spring and the rise of Syriza in Greece. The downside of this is a lack of any base in the workplaces and communities and the problem of membership turnover as courses end. The ISG have been clear that they see their organisation as transitional and are open to collaborating with other forces.
Socialist Workers Party
As detailed in Gregor Galls article in this issue of Frontline, and many other places, the SWP are in crisis. The Scottish SWP are already reeling from the ISG split and now face further division. Leading members such as Neil Davidson and many of the key activists in Edinburgh have come out against the leadership. Whilst in Glasgow most seem to back the leadership.
The SWP has had some involvement in RIC and has continued to attend RIC meetings and events. Whilst there is an element of ‘kremlinology’ in trying to predict what will come next for the SWP, it is clear that things are moving. Another significant split in the SWP in Scotland will mean some kind of re-alignment of forces.
Everything solid melts into air
The Radical Independence Conference offered hope to activists in Scotland. In particular it offered hope to the new generation of young activists many of whom can barely remember the anti-war demos of ten years ago, let alone the poll-tax battle or miners strike.
Those older activists who have been through those battles owe it to them to listen. We also owe it to them to help teach the lessons of those struggles. To do that we need to think about what is best for socialism not just what is best for our particular socialist party.
We also need to consider the shifting elements of the Scottish left, the wider groups of unaligned activists and the thousands of current and former SNP members who are unhappy at the party’s shift to the right over issues like NATO membership.
There are no easy options and no guarantees of success in any strategy but socialists seeking to change the world need to recognise that Scottish politics is changing, with or without them.