Three thousand people took part on Saturday in the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow. Christine Bird reports from an inspiring event, part of the renewal of the left in Scotland.
Can anyone think of a time when masses of people rushed to join political parties as a result of a social movement? (Comments below, please!) I struggled to think of a comparable situation, as I watched 12,000 people stream out of the SNP supporters rally in Glasgow Hydro. 2,000 people joined their organisation during the event; approximately 1 in 50 people in Scotland is a member. The Greens have also trebled their numbers since the referendum.
I was not among those showered with golden tissue paper, and was in possession of neither a big foam hand nor a saltire. Instead, I was next door at the SECC, among the 3,000 participants in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) conference (timetable and speakers).
The continued existence of RIC, let alone its size – an increase in attendance from 1,000 last year – draws attention to the remarkable durability of the Yes movement. This feels more like victory than defeat. The RIC conference was hopeful, energetic and impressive. “Professional,” even, to quote Jonathan Shafi, as he opened proceedings, outlining his hopes for the day. Principled socialists with impeccable personal credentials enumerated RIC’s achievements to date in the most glowing and sincere terms. Tariq Ali paid, “warm tribute to Jonathan Shafi, who has organisational skills and political maturity which should be envied by any left-wing politician in Europe today.” Ali also congratulated Cat Boyd, noting the historic importance of the conference to the Scottish left, filling a vacuum in discussion. RIC has related to young people, been active and campaigned on a scale Ali has never seen. Bernadette McAliskey (known to many as Bernardette Devlin) also heaped praise on RIC – for bringing the conversation about national self-determination back onto the left’s agenda; for insisting on a pro-immigrant standpoint in the face of UKIP and the popular right and for challenging the very notion of British democracy as a contradiction in terms. By taking such an active role in the independence campaign from the start, RIC has been able to influence the wider campaign, pulling it to the left. I was impressed by the inclusive ethos evident throughout the conference – a free, well-run creche and thought given to having speakers of different ethnic backgrounds, ages and gender, as well as disabled speakers and an accessible venue.
The workshops were illuminating and inspiring. In a session on fracking, I learned that non-conventional shale-gas exploration provides jobs for a few years only, since each well becomes unprofitable within around 5 years. This is the sort of argument which has the potential to push the SNP into opposing fracking – not to mention the cost to the public purse of clean-ups and associated health problems. Coming from a background of debating mostly broad political questions and tactics, I greatly appreciated some of the nitty-gritty details, born of patient work at local level, raised particularly by Green participants and speakers. For example, Scotland may not have overall control over companies’ right to frack, but it has planning regulations which it could use to make any deals struck practically unworkable.
In a workshop on democratic revival across the British Isles, Alan Ramsay argued that just as Lloyd George came to rue the defeat of the Home Rule bills, we too must make Westminster regret their victory. Since SNP membership outnumbers UKIP’s and the Lib-Dems’ combined, there is every possibility that the next Westminster government will be reliant on radical Scottish MPs. Angharad Tomos made an eloquent case for equal status for all the languages of the British Isles. I was fascinated to find out that there is an organisation in Wales, with a socialist soul, much like RIC, called the Welsh Language Society, with the strapline, “for the language to survive, everything must change.” The revival of Gaelic is less evident in the Scottish debate. In the workshop on UKIP, David Miller made a clear case that the best guarantee against popular nationalism is a strong left, and that within the left there must be a strong anti racist/anti-Islamophobic current. Given the overall size of the event, it was perhaps inevitable that even the breakout sessions felt like mass rallies, and there was some discontent with a lack of opportunity for true participation from the floor. It is to be hoped that promised local RIC events can begin to address these concerns.
Back to the larger meetings and rallies which began and ended conference… Big cheers were for redistribution of wealth, against war, racism, poverty, fracking and nuclear weapons, for feminist issues, for a determination to continue the campaign for social justice in Scotland. Debates which dominated in the immediate post-referendum days have moved on: the 45% must now “reach out to the rest of the 99%” – we need unity in the struggles ahead; we’re not nationalist, we’re for national self-determination, which is a democratic issue… The Labour party was sharply criticised by a series of speakers – for supporting an illegal war in Iraq; for pandering to Ukip and for coalescing with the Tories in Better Together. It was widely felt they would feel the effects of this at the ballot box come May. Neil Davidson argued that the SNP now has a greater capacity for social reform than the Labour Party. In the same meeting, the chair did a straw poll of party membership – a friend reports that around 80% of the room were SNP members. Organised trade union representation was largely notable by its absence, and more systematic work on this is needed.
Which leads to the nub of the debate – where next for the Scottish left? Some believe that independence must precede social reform. (“You have to build a house before you can decorate it”) Others argue that this lets the SNP and Scottish Labour off too lightly – they already have significant powers should they choose to exercise them. It is evident that some sort of victory for working class people would make the terrain more favourable – be it a victory in strikes for public pay and pensions, or getting Trident out of Scotland.
Lively discussions took place both within meetings and outside them about whether the left should launch a new electoral organisation. Some feel we’re in danger of missing the boat on this issue, and we urgently need a counter-weight to the SNP, which is at heart neo-liberal and tightly controlled from the top down like the rest of the mainstream parties. Others (myself included) feel that we don’t have enough clarity in aims and purpose to embark upon such a path in the immediate future. We could risk falling apart due to lack of cohesion, and in any case aren’t large enough to affect real change at the ballot box. How would we relate to the SNP? To the Greens? To the Labour left? To other socialists even? – Tommy Sheridan and the SWP were both seen as too divisive to speak at this conference. RIC is to continue as a platform for left-wing debate for people who are members of political parties as well as those who aren’t. Further debate can be found on their website.
The most-widely reported aspect of the conference was The People’s Vow. I have to confess, it wasn’t clear to me at the time of its unveiling which people had made or written the vow. For what it’s worth, I hope that as many people as possible are actively involved in contributing to and campaigning for this. There is an important distinction to be made between a vow TO and a vow BY the people – does socialism come from above or below?
Bernadette Mc Aliskey shared her valuable wisdom on where things went wrong for socialists in Northern Ireland, and where it could go wrong for us in Scotland. While she was in favour of the Peace, Mc Aliskey was not in favour of the Process, where Sinn Fein allowed socialists to be left out, its leaders seduced by their sudden rise to prominence as players on the world stage. We should never go in to coalition to form a government, Mc Aliskey warned, for then we must take responsibility for what we can’t control. We must be wary of anyone who wants to be a politician, better someone who is unwilling, but will stomach it for a short time. We ought to be careful about who we send to negotiate on our behalf to Westminster. Better the uncompromising person without airs and graces whose head would have ended up in a pike in years past than the silver-tongued negotiator who will come back with a clever explanation of why we must water down our demands.
The radical left in Scotland is currently plotting a course through uncharted waters. RIC has proved itself to be an impressive force in the two years since it was founded. We may not have all the answers, but at least we have a space which feels friendly and open enough to ask the right questions. It is a much needed platform for debate. Most exciting of all, ever since the referendum, people believe that their voices matter – together, we can change things for the better.
Tariq Ali’s speech at RIC 2014: