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Is Scotland’s Radical Independence movement a Class act?

1503917_811111418930048_8232632660068068253_nThere was a touch of class about last weekend’s Radical Independence conference (RIC): slick presentation, businesslike suits, and bold stage-lighting that shone a pinkish tint on the pale faces that packed the Clyde Auditorium one bright November day. If the job was to give RIC a new sheen, the organisers can be pleased with the result. There is a fresh coat of varnish on the rough jigsaw of local events, campaign groups, political parties, and mass canvasses that was pieced together into a recognizable brand over the course of two frenetic years’ campaigning.

No question, RIC has reasserted its institutional and radical identity after the referendum defeat – but there remains a lingering doubt that a gloss of leftish optimism and the pinkish glow of high-power bulbs concealed the superficiality of this new left-wing populist movement. Did a classy style conceal the classless substance running through RIC’s veins?

Colleagues in Labour and in the media have dismissed the ‘new radicals’ already – but most of them failed to attend the conference, where the tub-thumping speeches and heated break-out sessions contained substantial politics as well as the usual sheer idealism. Should we join cynics on the Labour left who denigrate RIC and call it void, nationalistic, petty-bourgeois grandstanding by yuppie trots who do nothing more than gnash on the leash of their nationalist masters?

I hope not – given the uncertainty surrounding the future of Scottish Labour and the labour movement, class-focussed socialist politics urgently needs other active bases, including Radical Independence and its fellow travellers. Nor do I think so – for the organisers of this amorphous movement are intelligent and conscious of the need to distance themselves from the nationalist movement, and to win votes by fighting with the SNP. Furthermore, its leaders’ refusals to adopt the SNP mantle for electoral gain seems more than tactical: the independent spirit of a left that is recognized as new, serious and free from past failures is worth a million votes under an SNP banner.

RIC does not intend to be subsumed into the nationalist movement, and is committed to a radical, confrontational politics the SNP will never condone. (At any rate, this was what organisers kept telling me between sessions and later between pints, in the endearing way that radicals tend to rehearse a line and repeat it for all its worth to win you over. Like their Trotskyite counterparts, they possibly protested just a wee bit much.)

National Populism: The Hydra in the Hydro

Of course the ‘new radicals’ will insist on their distinctiveness again and again, but the power of movements can overwhelm the intentions of sincere activists. Even if they speak and act in their own right, from what source do they draw political life? Are the creatures of the radical independence campaign not various heads of that strange beast of nationalism – the Hydra in the Hydro whose snarling malice towards any potential political challenge remains hidden behind the smiling masks of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond?

The SNP seek to promote national unity, but in the audience, twelve thousand Scots sneered at class politics, spat when the Labour party was mentioned, and cheered when Sturgeon declared that ‘democracy rocks’. These types take their cue from their independence dream, and that suits the SNP down to the ground. They think nationalism has them at heart and they’re right: the vague, classless demands of enthusiastic activists are the lifeblood of the many-headed monster.

A few weeks ago, when the RIC tickets had sold out, one of the more sceptical organisers confessed his belief that the RIC conference would be packed with left-nationalist types who also sneer at class politics and believe the people’s interest can be delivered in the programme of a nationalist government. When it can attract 3,000 people to a concert-hall on a Saturday, there is good reason to think RIC thrives on nationalism, albeit a more critical kind than the gaudy tinsel show of half-rate pop stars and clinical speeches on show across the square. It worries me that radicals deny their movement’s nationalism – one of the mantras of Cat Boyd, Scottosh Green leader Patrick Harvie, Colin Fox et al – for it is imperative that Radical Independence accept that their ‘radical’ ambitions are often framed in national-popular terms rather than class terms.

National populism thrives by chaining together lots of separate demands and aspirations which produce the ‘people’, who have a share in the national party’s agenda. This is the most powerful and dominant kind of politics in Scotland presently, with the potential to absorb every challenge into its limitless aspirations once we have the “master keys” of independence. RIC is in a well-placed position to attack this national populism – to break the chains that can bind together the ambition for corporate control and the ambition for lower corporation tax.

One of RIC’s primary aims must be to expose the limits and contradictions of the SNP’s agenda: anti-austerity without raising more revenues or taxing the rich; commitment to environmental justice without passing word or deed on fracking. It should state an ambition for independence on confrontational terms of class interest. For these reasons it is good if nationalists join RIC and are corrected; but it is dangerous if nationalist contradictions infiltrate the radical agenda.

10675648_811111432263380_6962742055574206237_nThis is not to say that RIC should reject every form of populism. By creating its own set of demands and defining the people in its own way, there can be a radical populism which is good in practice if not in theory. The point here is the imperative of having a distinct agenda and an autonomous basis of support, opposed to nationalism. The commitments spelled out in the ‘People’s Vow’ were a start (not Alan Bisset’s swirling organismic poem, but the 5 commitments that Cat Boyd read which are further down this page).

Radical Independence has to resist the SNP, not just by citing differences, but by fighting nationalist interests (in fracking, inequality, land, finance etc). If it fails to do so, it will be consumed by nationalism, or else remain weak and shrivelled, starved of attention by the people in whose name it fights.

The SNP is willing to sustain any group that does not attack the beast. Its attitude towards threatening opponents has rarely been tested. Throughout the campaign, the tenor of Yes Scotland’s attitude towards RIC was in line with Nicola Sturgeon late remarks: “I do not agree with everything they say, but their campaign work was great”. From my perspective in Yes HQ, the more radical the Radicals became, the more Yes Scotland, under SNP command, moved to distance itself from them.

The day they distributed the ‘Britain is for the Rich, Scotland Can be Ours’ propaganda in Glasgow, Yes Scotland insisted on RIC’s separateness from other parts of the campaign. They were resourced only when it suited the SNP, and they were dispensable as soon as they posed a threat or challenge. If the nationalist monster is willing to bite off any head that dares challenge the unity of national purpose, then RIC has to break away, keep its distance, and only approach when it has a fighting chance.

So, after the long coalition with the SNP and the support built up on the back of the referendum campaign, can the left-wing part of the Yes campaign break away from the monstrosity of Scottish popular nationalism and commence a new radical politics of class? It is already distinguishable from the SNP – but the test is whether it can be completely distinct. This distinction will come not from its press statements, not from its ideas or policies, but from its confrontation and autonomy. RIC’s distinctiveness must relate to the material needs and conditions of working people, unserved by nationalism. It must have class as its basis.

If you identify with RIC but reject the language and aims of class politics, then you are part of the problem. This article is not for you; in fact it’s against you. There were plenty of such people at the conference this weekend. Indeed, in each of the break-out sessions one of the main debates was between those who don’t posit class as an important category, and those who do. (This latter group was itself broken into those who think class is an important category for policy and political reform but do not believe the class is the agent of that reform, though unfortunately this fundamental distinction was implicit and never developed.)

The Class Sessions

One session addressed the class make-up of the SNP, which was broadly agreed to be a multi-class party reflecting the circumstances of post-industrial society. It incorporates some socialists into an ideology that, to use Neil Davidson’s phrase, expounds ‘social-neoliberalism’. Another speaker suggested that at some point class will begin to impact on the SNP, which will probably respond as Labour did by insisting that the working class, must wait – in this instance, until independence.

This fair analysis was taken as an affront by many del1395354_812584952116028_1201266955754500901_negates. One woman, when asked to describe the class make-up of the new intake of members into her local SNP branch, made her case repeatedly and tautologically: ‘I don’t recognize class differences in my branch. The people who joined are people – people who care about Scotland and the people of Scotland’ – the yellow blur of nationalism.

These folk who refused to recognize the importance of class also tended to believe in independence first, at any cost. ‘We must’, they insisted, ‘buy the house and decorate afterwards’ (a metaphor whose obvious flaws are exposed as soon as you identify what particular we would own the house.)

Another session addressed the Labour party, trade unions, and class in Scotland. Lynn Henderson, a Yes-voting Labour member, made a robust argument that the strength of the Yes campaign grew from compromise and dynamics outwith formal structures, creating one movement (and party) bigger than Scottish Labour could ever be, yet containing in it various contradictions: for instance, SNP campaigners branded Labour’s ‘failures’ on the living wage as a betrayal of the workers, while the same campaigners were outraged when PCS criticized the 1% pay rise in the Scottish civic service at SNP conference. The SNP trumps class interests and stays a step left of Labour to form its national hegemony, Lynn said.

It was another good and serious talk that could almost be described as a lecture – not confrontational, but well-grounded and even-handed. Yet no sooner had she stopped than an angry man interrupted the session to complain about the discussion of the Scottish Labour party. Aghast at the mild defence of Labour and the criticism of the SNP, he declared that he would leave the room if that line of thought continued. In short, the tribalism and unity of purpose with the SNP extended deep into the conference halls.

Sarah Collins, Unison activist and ISG member, then gave her presentation; she insisted class consciousness is on the rise, then insisted on RIC’s success as an autonomous movement campaigning for independence – with momentum which trade unions will have to adopt if they are to survive and thrive; and she suggested that unions should disaffiliate from Labour.

Later, John Davidson, PCS activist and HMRC worker, argued that the SNP are not class-based, but ‘in fairness’ never claimed to be, so that there is ‘no natural home’ for the trade union movement in Scotland – and, now that a whole new group of people know what a movement is, there is potential for new forms of organizing.

The wish that unions detach themselves from the Labour party was echoed by others, including one-time Labour staffer and now SNP member Tommy Sheppard. My unasked question was whether the political wing of this new trade union movement would permit the inclusion of nationalist objectives as well as working class objectives – becoming another wing of nationalist hegemony?

The point of this account is to illustrate the crucial tension in RIC between the nationalist outlook it supports and the class politics it requires. Of course there will be tugs both ways, and people will be involved in both movements. But RIC cannot resist the pressure of the SNP and nationalism without great effort. There are tactical attractions to resist too: I asked one organiser to defend the pathetic appearance of Sandra White, an SNP MSP who took the ‘independence-at-all-costs’ line to extremes when she said she was almost certain there would be another referendum in 2017. He defended it on the grounds that drawing SNP members to the RIC campaign will erode the unity and power of the SNP, and in turn will help draw the SNP to the left. But the draw of the SNP is much stronger than ours, and the decision to welcome Sandra White was enough to worry those activists and campaigners who have good reason to despise the SNP. My worry is that, despite assurances, RIC’s organisers overestimate their own ability to keep their own distinctiveness and their own momentum.

Leaving the Nationalist Solar System

This takes us to the argument of Robin McAlpine (director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and editor of the Scottish Left Review): that the radical left is, and should remain, a critical friend of the SNP. This is, he said, not just a form of ‘solidarity’, it’s a question of ‘physics’. According to McAlpine, ‘the simple physics of politics is back in play – people [will stand] against each other [if they] don’t have the unifying factor’ – and so we must ‘remember what solidarity felt like’ and ‘all find common ground’ to ‘make independence inevitable’ and ‘win’. But the same ‘physics’ can help explain why we ought to be enemies.

To respond with pseudo-science of our own, we need to resist the ‘unifying factor’ for exactly the same reason that McAlpine says we should be drawn in. The gravity pulling objects into the SNP’s orbit is much stronger than momentum away from it, especially with the fading of the nationalist moment that gave the objects momentum of their own. This is just what McAlpine wants: RIC is part of the constellation at the heart of which is the SNP. (He is even building his own orrery: the Independence Convention, which, he said, is going to meet next year to redefine the planets: WFI can be Venus, the bringer of Peace; Newsnet Scotland can be Mercury, the messenger; McAlpine’s Common Weal will be Neptune, a blue gaseous Mystic…)

McAlpine’s mystical science was supplemented by another magician of the left, Tariq Ali, who was given a prominent place to muse on a subject he clearly knew nothing about. As we know, he sees everything through his own enchanted glass, the imperial project of Britain. Ali was given the last-but-one speech, and apart from (deservedly) praising the organisers, he debunked the BBC and attacked the Scottish press. Then he urged the audience to back pro-independence candidates in the next elections – even if that means voting SNP.

From their elated ovation, it was obvious that the kinds of people who came to RIC were the same kinds as flooded to the Hydro to hear the new leaders of the SNP. The question is not whether RIC’s activists are socially distinct, whether they are more or less working class, or whether they campaigned harder for Yes – it is whether RIC is more able to create a new kind of politics and educate people in class politics. There is no doubt RIC has started working to develop a new political class – with leaders, intellectuals, propagandists and many followers of their own. Whether it can stop itself from being subsumed in nationalist politics, wrest itself away to stand distinct, and form a new class of politics, remains to be explored in detail.

Clearly RIC was based on independence; that was the source of its momentum; indeed it proved that the movement for independence was not about one party, as the organisers are so fond of saying. Now it’s over, RIC might all too easily slot itself into the ongoing movement for independence. If it does so, then it is a useless vehicle for the left, it will burn up the fuel of support it has worked hard to win, and, in short, it should be criticized, attacked, resisted and undermined. But if it can resist the urge of nationalism and criticize the Scottish hegemony with half the fervour it uses against the ‘British state’, it could find a new political path of its own. Deeds will reveal whether RIC’s shell contains the radical kernel of a new class politics.

Cailean Gallagher was Labour and trade union coordinator for Yes Scotland and is now actively campaigning for Neil Findlay and Katy Clark in Scottish Labour’s leadership election. He blogs at Mair nor a roch wind where this piece was first published


  1. Chris says:

    Social chauvinism

  2. Jim Denham says:

    This article is much to kind top these petty bourgeois fake-left poseurs who are the de facto left cover for the SNP.

    The supposed “Marxists” of the ISG, in particular, should be roundly denounced for suggesting unions disaffiliate from Labour.

    Still, the auther gives a good description of Tariq Ali (“As we know, he sees everything through his own enchanted glass, the imperial project of Britain”.)

    It’s simply extraordinary that “socialists” who generally oppose borders, now want to erect a new, and unnecessary, one between Scotland and the rest of the UK – and between Scottish workers and the rest of the UK working class.

    1. David Ellis says:

      `It’s simply extraordinary that “socialists” who generally oppose borders, now want to erect a new, and unnecessary, one between Scotland and the rest of the UK – and between Scottish workers and the rest of the UK working class.’

      Kitsch liberal cosmopolitanism in the service of British imperialism posing as Marxism. Not so anti-border when it comes to Ziofascism though are we?

      The only chance the Scottish Labour Party has of not disappearing up its own rectum is to come out in support of full Scotttish sovereignty, a radical socialist programme and a federation of sovereign nations to replace the Westminster union. If they will not do that then the socialist elements in the RIC must. No to Westminster and no to a Popular Front. For a socialist Scotland in a federal Britain in a socialist EU.

      1. Robert says:

        But can you see labour having an agenda which is working class, maybe they might have one for the hard working.

        Labour has a problem we have another party which is to the left whether it’s real or not it’s working.

      2. Jim Denham says:

        “Not so anti-border when it comes to Ziofascism though are we?”

        Neither England nor Scotland is surrounded by neighbours who want to drive their populations into the sea, are thay?

        Thank about it for a moment, and -while you’re at it – renounce your antisemitism.

        1. John P Reid says:

          Well said jim,can’t see how zio, can be fascism, when they have democratic elections

        2. David Ellis says:

          Funny thing is the Ziofascists would not have neighbours who want to drive them into the sea if they hadn’t set up their little colonial settler state, their search for lebensraum, on somebody else’s land. You are using the same arguments the Australians used to justify their war on the Aborigines and the US used to wipe out tens of millions of Native Americans. You are racist filth.

  3. Gordon Gibson says:

    Plenty in this article but, in the end, disappointing in its search, in the traditions of the British left, for the true representative of ‘class’. All fail, apart from the author.

    The article hardly discusses the clear thrusts of the conference. Firstly, what is the programme of the left; what is the angle of pressure on the SNP? Cat Boyd, Bissett, McAlpine, Tariq Ali, and many others addressed this, only a footnote in the article. The emergent themes, and the unity around them are as good as anything the British left has ever produced.

    Secondly, what is the approach to the SNP re ‘independence candidates’ for May. This is a major and pressing issue. The SNP has opened the door but there is no truck with the suggestion that all should stand under the SNP banner. Just what that banner should be and the agreement, if there is to be one, with the SNP as to ‘unity’ candidates standing unchallenged is a biggy. But it is there as a result of the role of the left in the referendum campaign. Will it be hidden by the inflated ego of the much enlarged SNP?

    And finally, the Labour left can’t keep tribally writing off the SNP as ‘nationalists’. They are now better social democrats than Labour, albeit with their nationalist baggage. Hence a clear set of objectives, challenges, demands and active campaigns are absolutely vital as the basis for an approach to next May. The RIC conference took us a long way in that direction. It will be so hard to pursue that, not least in the face of snipers from the left.

  4. Barry Ewart says:

    As a leftvwing democratic international socialist in Labour (it’s where the majority of working people and trade unions are) I wonder if we should consider a Federal Britain? I mean all power devolved to Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland, The North of England, The South, The East and The West (each of the English regions with their own regional Assembly of existng MPs. Perhapds we need flexible MPs?. I mean everything devolved but Defence & Foreign Afairs. It could mean getting rid of Scottish MSPs and the Welsh regional reps etc. and having MPs meeting perhaps 3 weeks in their region (in Scotland in the Parliament, in Wales in the Assembly and in Emgland in regional council chambers) and a week in Londoon or 2 in each? But what must be central is that the money nationally is divided on population size and NEED ie regions with more poverty get more which Is fair and to me is democratic socialist. (Unllke the current Tory/Lib Dem system which they changed to population size only so the Tory South/South East of England have gained whilst LAs elsewhere have faced hundreds pf millions pf cuts). We need to be wary of Englust Votes for English Laws which is a Southern Tory power grab – if Cameron had said this before the referendum Scotland would probably be ondependent now! Just hink it may also be more family frendly for MPs not having to spemd months away in London! This is only food for thought and a work in progess but I hope may contribute to the left debate. I’m for a grassroots, bottom up, participatory, decentralised, democratic socialism. Yours in solidarity!

  5. Barry Ewart says:

    Yes Scotland etc. may have to sacrifice having regional MPs (MSPs) but their MPs would meet in Scotland and in return they would have complete control of everything apart from Defence and Forieign Affairs where their MPs would have an equal say with other British MPs. Complete decentralisation which empowers the regions plus it also destroys the Tories arguments. Yours in solidarity!

  6. James Martin says:

    The problem with the Federal Britain/UK/Federation of sovereign nations arguments is that they all start at essentially the same place, that is the solution to the problems workers have, and the road to socialism, is best achieved by dividing us all and creating a new artificial constitutional settlement (and particularly artificial in the daft calls for an English parliament – which this fantasy would need – as no one other than the English democrat fascists and various politicos with no base in the movement wants).

    And that’s the key problem here. Every time nationalist sentiment is boosted and supported in areas like Scotland, you get en equal prod towards English nationalism as a response, as that is the logic of where nationalism leads – there is nowt progressive about it at all! Thankfully workers in England have been slow to respond to these prods, and regardless of UKIP the majority clearly want a unified labour movement and not divided trade unions and drives to the bottom in terms of income and corporation tax raising powers that will set Scottish workers against the rest.

    The tragedy of the No campaign for Scottish Labour was that it lined up with the Tories rather than taking the radical working class unity position personified by Galloway, who for all his faults recognised the reactionary bile that much of the far left was spewing when it came to breaking up the working class in Britain.

  7. Barry Ewart says:

    James I liked your points and when your trying to be creative in your thinking I actually like others to point out the potential pitfalls -it’s perhaps what the left needs more of – we should not be precious as though we are always 100% right as long as we do it in a comradely way. As I said I am trying to think outloud to counter the Tory agenda and get the best for working people which is central. As an independent left wing Labour member I was exploring British MPs having both a decentralised AND national role, giving more power to the regions within the framework of maintaning the UK. Making decisions BOTH in the regions and nationally. I did think Galloway came up with the best arguments but like many Scots many of us in the North are sick to death of basically Southern Tory rule and Neo-Liberalism. If I had been in Scotland I would have voted No. I am conscious that with the ideas I am exploring we may end up with more egalitarian regions apart from the South and I am concerned that we may be leaving working people there to the mercy of the fanatical Tory Neo-Libs etc. But I guess my hope was that then the left focuses campaigns on the South to help them to get rid of the Tories. But is the status quo sufficient and as socialists shouldn’t we be supporting decision making as close to people as possible in what we all want a democratic socialist society. I am wary of the failures of bourgeois socialism (top down undemocratic rule by elite central committees ) when socialism I believe should be grassroots, bottom up, democratic and participatory. I would like to hear your thoughts on the structure of Britain in these terms. Yours comradely.

  8. Barry Ewart says:

    Footnote on the comments so far.
    Read the comments and see how nasty some of the left are to each other. Also note all the contributors are male. Did someone say be the society you want to see. Yours fraternally as a working class socialist after a few pints!

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