Some brief notes from the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow - written for myself, and not in the spirit of “translating” abstractions and theories for wider use, something often demanded in the halls today. For which narcissism (and tiredness), apologies.
1. Mon the weans! A real sense of generational handover today. The organisers were below thirty, gender-balanced, super-lucid and -smart, and in terms of the evident leadership of the event, notably non-white/Scottish-Asian. It felt like a meeting point between an old and a new current of Scottish radical politics. One, the stalwart history of left-constitiutional politics in Scotland - democratic-socialist/social-democratic, anti-Trident, pro-public-services, represented by voices like Isobel Linsday, Dennis Canavan and Jean Urquhart in the opening discussion. And two, the recent forces of student protest and Occupy: network-and-tech-savvy (hashtag #ric2012 on the screen all day, good social media promotion, great taste in graphics/art), as well as internationally well-connected (mid-conference, there was an impressive top table of Greek, Basque, French, and Palestinian anti- and counter-capitalists).
The actual experience of the day (a Glasgow city-centre sell-out with 800 attendees) was well-put-together and stewarded, minus any of the chaos or grandstanding that can happen at radical events - something of an indication of the kind of organisational skills and autonomous discipline that has come out of the last few years of student radicalism. As it all moved excellently along, I had a strange feeling of weight lifting from my shoulders. “It’s not just us foaming middle-agers anymore”, I mentioned to Lesley Riddoch sitting beside me, to which she enthusiastically nodded.
2. It’s all overlapping and emerging and idealistic, and that’s completely fine. As an advisory board member of YesScotland, I wanted to test whether the pluralism that must define how the organisation gathers together Yes voters would be able to contain the explicit “radicalism” of RIC. My sense is that the test was passed. This is not just in terms of the critical but measured commentary from the lead speakers about the broad Scottish Nationalist movement (Jean Urqhuart’s gentle reminder that without Salmond’s achievement of the referendum, this conference would not be happening, was equally gently cheered).
But at least in the two breakout sessions I attended, there was a rare openness to the discussion between a “radical”, and what one might call a “standard” independence position. In the green economy session, The Scotsman’s George Kerevan - known for taunting his erstwhile lefty comrades - was instead constructive about what a Scottish state could proactively do for progressive causes (his main notion was to establish a green-and-cooperative-friendly state bank, so that “capital as well as organisations can be socialised”). He was responded to in the same equable manner by a room and top-table full of grass-roots, practical Greens.
In the “Strategies For Independence” session, I would have said there was a genuine and generous response to YesScotland’s Gail Lythgoe’s non-flashy request for campaign and strategy ideas. But my sense was that the relationship between the more official YesScotland organisation, and the impressive Millenial/Y-Gen energy of RIC, should be contiguous rather than incorporating - side-by-side in a loose and capacious relationship, rather than one side either absorbing or challenging the other.
In the closing plenary, Robin McAlpine from the Jimmy Reid Foundation - itself a fulcrum point in all this, bringing old and new independistas, and the Scottish labour movement, into dialogue - claimed that “the Scottish Left” were “coming out of the shadows today”. But he also made the crucial point that RIC was as much about “an idea” as anything else - that is, a horizon of possibility for ambitions and aspirations towards independence. The politics of the “idea” is something that very much animates the new radicalism - its gurus like Slavoj Zizek, Negri/Hardt, David Graeber or AdBusters magazine mesh well with the highly-educated but lowly-prospected grads that constitute its members (Paul Mason writes brilliantly about this). It’s exciting to think that a Yes vote could partake of that “infinitely demanding” excitement about the future coming from the new student movements.
(NB: I was asked to read a general statement from the conference organisers mid-afternoon. I hope I did their collective production justice. I append the text below the fold of this post).
3. Getting to the friendly life together. I can’t move past those Brecht lines these days: “Oh, we/Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/Could not ourselves be friendly”. It would seem to me that Brecht’s tough self-admonition about the interpersonal anger and aggression of the radical had an answer today in the Radisson Hotel. The very human experience of the event - a festival of constructiveness and polite argumentation - kept pushing this version of the old Gandhi line into my head: Be The Scotland You Wish To See. As Robin McAlpine again brilliantly pointed out at the end of the event (and elaborates here), the experience of skilling ourselves to take an argument about Scottish potential to the streets and workplaces and front-rooms of Scotland, will itself be transformatory. We will - or should - come alive as citizens through the Yes campaign.
Yet I'm left with a final note of worry. I walked out of the stylish environs of the Radisson Hotel and strolled down the Saturday night streets of Glasgow - where shoppers struggled onto buses laden with bags, karaoke sailed out of pubs, wee hard men roamed around in packs: Glasvegas, beginning to crank up to all its post-working-week, hedonistic splendour. Can the experience of “being Yes”, the activism and conviviality that can connect up social yearning with action and friendship, compete with the knuckling-down-to-work and spending-what-it-gets-you of the mainstream Scottish lifestyle?
An insufficiently enjoyable and engaging Yes campaign, unable to quell fears of disruption with tangible visions for a better life, might easily bounce off the brittle shell of everyday Scotland, defensive of its precarious mix of grind and escapism. Part of the problem a Yes campaign has to solve, and in double-quick time, is the overall decay of citizenship in the developed world. We not only fight with our Unionist opponents, but with a generalised contempt for all politics, including independence: a comfortable numbness which characterizes our work-to-consume societies. Will a rich and deep independence movement over the next two years become the antidote to such a malaise? Perhaps one of the sharp tactics that emerged from today - making sure that working-class/poor areas are registered and ready to vote - will be the activism that dispels it?
Don’t know, not sure, maybe. It’s at least worth an almighty, life-defining try. And I am genuinely grateful to the Radical Independence Conference organisers for demonstrating that the torch of a radical Scotland (to cite the old magazine) has definitely passed onto the next generation. There was a great Hamish Henderson line from the Freedom Come ‘A Ye, quoted at the end. We indeed walked through “the Great Glen o’ the warld” today, in our perhaps too comfortable surroundings. The task is to take it out to the tough, unhappy, tawdry, ground-down parts of Scotland. And make the idea generate a thousand new Scotlands.
DECLARATION FOR RIC (FINAL)
Text compiled and edited by Robin McAlpine
We call for independence for the Scottish people.
No responsibility more defines a generation than its responsibility to leave a legacy of hope and possibility. Our generation has a historical opportunity to leave such a legacy. It is for us to choose not a government but a future.
We are offered two. One warns us not to risk the attempt to be a better society, one asks us to hope we can be.
Britain is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world. It has become two nations, one for the rich and one for the rest. The campaign against independence does not invite us into its Britain of wealth and privilege. It expects us to endure our Britain of austerity and exploitation.
They want us to vote No to independence because they want us to vote Yes to inequality, Yes to poverty, Yes to corporate greed. They want us to know our place, not to get ideas above our station. They do not even offer to try to be better.
They are satisfied with this Divided Kingdom. We are not. They believe their first duty is to protect wealth. We disagree. A country that believes there are things more important than the fate of its people has failed.
We believe the success of a country comes from the hard work and commitment of all. We believe that a good country is one in which all share fairly the success of good times and all share fairly the burdens of bad times. We believe that the people who run a country should reflect and represent the people of that country. We believe Scotland belongs to us all and that neither this land nor its people should be exploited only for the profit of a few.
This is what the people of Scotland believe too. At election after election Scots have used the ballot box as a loudhailer to ask for a better country. But at every turn the path from here to that better country has been blocked by the alliance of wealthy people who run British for their own benefit. The more Scots have voted for justice the less just Britain has become. Instead we have corrupt wars, a corrupt media, corrupt bankers, corrupt corporations, corrupt politicians.
But a path to a better Scotland is open once more, one that does not require us to ask the permission of those who do not want us to reach our destination. In an independent Scotland the only thing holding us back will be ourselves.
This is not a campaign for independence but a campaign for a better Scotland which we believe can only begin with independence. We are tired of complaining about Britain. It is time to talk about what Scotland can be.
- Scotland can be a participative democracy. Where no-one's view is worth more because they have money. Where financial interests don't drown out the voices of the people. Where decision-making belongs to the many and not just an elite. Where communities are not told what they will be given but decide what they need. Where our institutions are reformed to include the people in their governance. Where the media is balanced, education creates active citizens and information is free to all.
- Scotland can be a society of equality. Where poverty is not accepted. Where pay gaps are small and poverty wages are ended. Where tax redistributes wealth. Where no human attribute is a justification for discrimination and prejudice. Where human rights are universal.
- Scotland can be a just economy. Where profit never justifies damaging people and the environment. Where essential industries are owned by all and not exploited by the few. Where workers have the right to fair treatment and to defend themselves. Where industrial democracy makes better businesses. Where investment is for development, not for speculation.
- Scotland can be a great welfare state. Where the social contract is not between the state and the people but between the people themselves. Where from cradle to grave society cares for all regardless. Where delivering more and better social services is the national priority, not austerity. Where the government of the people is never used to create private wealth.
- Scotland can be a good neighbour. Where we seek to work with nations around the world to resolve global inequality, climate change and conflict. Where we never join international alliances for exploitation and war. Where we work to reform and democratise multinational institutions. Where we see our deeds, our national culture and our values as a message of hope.
- Scotland can be a moral nation. Where mutuality, cooperation and fellowship define our relationships. Where we are good stewards of our country and hand it on to the next generation in a better state than we inherit it. Where our values are not dominated by greed, selfishness and disregard for others but by patience, generosity, creativity, peacefulness and a determination to be better.
This is a Scotland which British politics has robbed from the Scottish people. We want it back.
Our future is unknown. Good. Only in uncertainty can hope and possibility prosper. We choose the chance to fight for a better Scotland; we reject the offer to endure more of the same indefinitely.
We are socialists, feminists, trade unionists, greens. We are from the peace movement, from anti-poverty campaigns, from anti-racists groups. We are community activists, civil liberty campaigners, the equalities movement and more.
[We are also creatives, artists, entrepreneurs and innovators who put our enterprise at the service of society, and use markets, audiences and our skills pragmatically to that end! - PK]
We are the Radical Independence Campaign, the start of a movement to win back Scotland for its people, to offer them the country they deserve.
A previous generation, in 1979, had a chance to offer a legacy of hope and possibility to the next generation. They failed, Thatcher took power, Scotland suffered.
We cannot afford to fail this time. Scotland cannot afford us to fail.
It is time for our generation to reject fear and choose hope. Our hope begins with independence. For the sake of the Scottish people.