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Another Scotland is – still – possible

The radical mass movement for a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum was a political awakening on an epic scale. Jonathon Shafi of the Radical Independence Campaign says it’s not finished yet

December 1, 2014
8 min read

‘Went out canvassing today in Pollock and met these two amazing young girls who were already sitting on their doorstep cutting up homemade Yes badges out of lined paper and felt-tip pens to give out on their street. After asking us for some RIC flyers, they then whizzed off on their bikes and had done all the shops, the ice cream van and their neighbours by the time we’d done five more houses. Their mum was a single mother and a staunch Yes voter, having had a stroke and suffered the humiliation of the Atos disability tribunals. People here truly understand how badly Westminster is failing working-class people. So glad I went to Glasgow this weekend to meet just a fraction of the people who have made this radical, grassroots campaign what it is.’

This was a Facebook status of an activist who came up from London to help in the last few days of the Scottish referendum campaign. It sums up the political atmosphere at the time. There was a real sense of rebellion, not just against this or that unpopular politician, but against something far more systemic. The referendum was much more than a constitutional question. It was about class, power, democracy and a deep-set disgust with the way Britain has gone in recent decades. It became the fulcrum of the alienation working-class people feel from formal political institutions. Scotland was at the epicentre of a mass, democratic and peaceful revolt against neoliberalism.

Scottish independence had, and has, such radical potential not just because of the mass movement it evoked, but because we would also have the potential to sever British imperialism in favour of nuclear disarmament and opposition to war. The past two years in Scotland have changed it as a country. People who previously switched off when politics was discussed turned into activists. Hundreds of thousands have investigated what it means to be a member of Nato, the science behind fracking and the finer points of developing a world-class social security system. The awakening has been epic.

The context of austerity and a hated Tory government was always going to provide a cutting edge to the left. But the diversity and range of radical ideas that were a permanent fixture of the debate would not have reached their full potential had it not been for the myriad of groups and organisations that set up independently of traditional left organisations.

Women for Independence, National Collective, Commonweal and the host of non-party activist groups meant the independence campaign flourished into a movement of movements. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) was part of this, and has been credited not only for bringing together the broad sweep of the Scottish left to provide a radical policy platform but also in a direct organisational sense on the ground. The impact RIC made ideologically on the overall Yes campaign should not be underestimated. Our insistence that class was central to the debate became mainstream, and our focus on mass canvassing meant that the left had risen above the talking shop.

The RIC argument for independence is well known now. But what I get asked about most, particularly by the left in England, is the organisational structure and internal culture. So here are some of the most important features of the campaign, which may provide scope for further debate.

Politics and ambition

When the left goes through a crisis, it is tempting to start with organisational procedure rather than political objectives. Unfortunately this can lead to campaigns and organisations never really getting off the ground. Discussing the precise detail of how a perfect organisation should work was not our starting point. For RIC the key was to recognise the opportunity the referendum provided for the left and set out a broad platform that could develop genuine unity over campaigning for a Yes vote. This process did not start with trying to force the existing far left together. Instead: let’s get broad forces, let’s encourage new activists, let’s try to build something inspirational, with something concrete to do. Let’s talk about things that matter to people in a language that they can relate to. Above all, let’s be ambitious.

The first conference was vitally important and hugely nerve‑racking. If it went well, there would be a real chance to build something. Eight hundred people turned up. Young and old, diverse in their backgrounds and ready to take action, their enthusiasm was palpable. We needed a slogan to sum it all up, and since we wanted to create a movement in the spirit of both the alter-globalisation and the anti-war movement, ‘Another Scotland is Possible’ seemed to fit perfectly. Perhaps people left that conference feeling that maybe it was just possible that the left could play an important role, but the key now was to avoid that trap where the conference is great but nothing happens afterwards.

Organisation

There was a real determination to develop something that local activists could embrace. Instead of forming an executive committee, the idea was to ensure that local RIC groups would have full autonomy. They could decide what to campaign on, who would speak at their public meetings – as long as the gender balance was at least 50/50 – and what their leaflets should say. This would allow members of communities to have a real say in the direction of local activity.

A member of Aberdeen RIC put it best when he said that you don’t ‘have to ask for permission’ to take action and plan initiatives. But local roots without a national strategy would undermine the impact of the campaign as a whole. So a national forum was set up to compose such a strategy, made up of delegates from local groups. Other measures included ensuring that the constituent parts of RIC were always well represented in public events, and that we had activity going on every day, whether it was a social media infographic, a meeting or a canvass. Somewhere in Scotland RIC was active throughout every week of the whole campaign.

Thinking big

RIC became known for its mass-canvass events where we would mobilise lots of people to go to an area and engage with the community. The activity would be organised by a core group of activists already in the area, then others could join. We tried this out first in Easterhouse, Glasgow. It went well, and because we put everything on social media it went across the movement. Other RIC groups joined in.

Then we thought about joining up together and doing a national mass canvass, covering up to 50 communities in one day with over 1,000 activists. So you can see how good ideas percolated through the organisation. I cannot emphasise enough the ‘think big’ aspect when approaching political organisation. We did takeovers of the city centre with hundreds of activists at once, gave out thousands of posters at football grounds, set up community events and developed a media strategy. RIC was never out of the press in the last few months of the referendum.

Thinking big not only helps us outwardly; it also aids our internal culture. It creates excitement, allows people to get to know each other and build confidence – and it is fun, which is important.

Challenges ahead

Our last conference at the end of 2013 had 1,200 people at it. It solidified local groups and launched us into a year none of us will forget. The day after the No vote we advertised RIC 2014. Thousands of people said they were going to attend on Facebook. Many of us thought this was just an initial rush of post-referendum defiance. But 3,000 people parted with their cash and bought tickets to attend.

So it seems the momentum is continuing. Scotland will never be the same again. But as a campaign we face huge challenges. We need to find focus and strategy, and we need to work out how we go forward collectively.

In the heat of the referendum, when we were all working hard in an exciting context, our organisational methods held up relatively well. Now the campaign needs more structure to allow it to develop. A team of people is taking in suggestions and presenting options. There is a mood for office-holders and more accountability. There is a debate about formal membership too.

At the same time people want to retain autonomy and local initiative. We will strike a balance, and if it doesn’t work we’ll change it where there are problems. We have disagreements, although great effort is put into reaching consensus. Consensus is not for everyone, and we recognise decisions have to be made. But the left could do with a bit of compromise – another kind of left is possible, as well as another Scotland.

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