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If you think Yes voters were backing nationalism, then you weren’t paying attention

Scottish independence campaigner Cat Boyd reflects on a movement that had the whole Westminster elite against it – yet still managed to run them close

September 19, 2014
7 min read

This has been a long campaign. Two years ago, even the very notion of imagining winning the referendum would have seemed absurd. Yet as the polls inched closer, the prospect of a Yes vote came into our sights. Millions of people were mobilised by the Yes campaign, and by Radical Independence within it – some who have never been involved in politics before and others who have been let down by politics for decades. The radical left’s role now is to ensure they stay part of a movement for the real and radical social change they voted for.

At a recent debate, I heard a Labour MSP lament the ‘binary’ nature of the referendum. But for people in Scotland this was not a binary choice: it was not a choice between the SNP’s White Paper and the unqualified failure of the Scottish Labour Party. Instead, a growing majority of people in Scotland recognised that, while there were only two options on the ballot paper, within one of those choices lay the possibility of a new type of Scottish society.

It was not a wave of Scottish nationalism that powered the momentum towards a Yes vote: this was a debate about social justice, economic democracy and an opportunity for radical change.

catboydCat Boyd speaks at a Red Pepper meeting on independence. Photo: Jack Macbean

When David Cameron talks about ‘British values’, he refers to a UK culture of war, imperialism and profit. Of course, Scotland too suffers from the hangover of empire. It was slave-owners and tobacco barons who built huge parts of Glasgow. In this regard that Scotland is still too British. It is British nationalism, and allegiance to the British State that has caused more bloodshed, slavery and war than the democratic establishment of an independent Scotland ever could.

Scotland has also suffered from the same neoliberal policies as elsewhere in the UK, despite devolution. The difference however is that there is a social-democratic consensus in Holyrood, where the Tory party is an insignificant player. The independence campaign was not about Scottish ‘blood-and-soil’ nationalism. It was a rejection of those ‘British values’ to which Cameron refers.

Undemocratic regime

First and foremost, it was a rejection of the last 30 years of neoliberalism and its concurrent failures. It is 59 years since Scotland returned a Tory majority in a general election, yet for more than half that time we have been ruled by the Conservative Party. The Tories are not just the ‘more-centre-right’ option. They are the enemy of socially progressive policies, no matter how incremental the policy may be. The Conservative Party undermine even the most minor of Labour’s social reforms.

Whenever the Conservative Party are in control of the Westminster parliament, not only will they push back against any negligible reform, but will force a regression on the issue. They have done so over and over again during the last 40 years. This, combined with an archaic electoral system which pits Labour against Tories for the same middle class, middle England swing votes, drags politics rightwards.

Neoliberalism is deeply entrenched in Westminster: not only within all the main parties, but also in Westminster’s links to the financial capital in the City of London, to the arms trade, to providing diplomatic cover for Israeli aggression, to inherited wealth and privilege. The Yes voters were rejecting of the most decayed and undemocratic aspects of the current British regime.

For the last two years we have worked together – and we need to continue to do so to ensure that our demands are heard. Before our conference in November 2013, George Kerevan wrote in an article in The Scotsman that the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), with its focus on working class voters, was the ‘wild card’ of the referendum. The message from that 2013 conference was that independence is a class issue, that the rich are voting No – and that remained the case for the rest of the campaign. As the vote got closer we saw a surge in support for independence among working class people who saw a Yes vote as a chance for change.

Keeping the links alive

The Radical Independence Campaign’s responsibility, in the wake of the vote, is to have a way to keep the links we have established at a grassroots level with working class communities and to ensure that working class interests are pushed on to the table in whatever comes next. We want a radical redistribution of wealth, progressive taxation, a green ‘new deal’ for creation of sustainable worthwhile work, a repeal of Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation, and we still absolutely and unequivocally want rid of the Trident nuclear weapons system. We are entering this new era in Scottish politics with our eyes open – we do not expect the SNP, or Scottish Labour, to simply give us these things.

Within the Radical Independence campaign, we have battled against the ‘other’ nationalist myth; that Scotland is more inherently egalitarian than anywhere else. Concurrently, we need to confront the reverse of that myth: if we are no more left wing than anywhere else, then we are no more right wing, either. There is no reason that we cannot have a sustainable and successful socialist party, like elsewhere in Europe. In Scotland, there is a demand for a new, strong, representative left organisation that is absolutely accountable to the movement which produced it. This demand was articulated time and time again at meetings across the country.

The No vote will likely mean a drop in the incredible momentum that has been built up – for a while. But there are also thousands of people who will continue to fight, not just for an independent Scotland but for freedom from the tyranny of market forces over everyday life. The consequences of a No vote for the radical left are insignificant in comparison to the material realities for the people in Scotland.

There will be a backlash now from the establishment. There will be huge pressure, particularly from the aforementioned swing constituencies, for ‘reviewing the funding to Scotland’ as Professor David Held has stated. After the 1979 referendum, Scotland was rewarded for its loyalty to the British state with the destruction of its industries, the misuse of its natural resources, the disinvestment from rural communities and infrastructure: we will be rewarded in the same fashion again. It is the threat of independence which provides Scotland with the lever for devolution. If independence is no longer a threat to the establishment, it will be funding to Scotland that is on the chopping block. That is the next battle we face together.

The referendum debate transformed Scotland. In every pub, in every close, in every shop, debates burst out about politics among millions who rarely, or never, vote. Scotland is changing forever, and can change the rest of the UK with it. For progressives, socialists and radicals in every part of the UK, we say keep supporting us. This referendum opened up the possibility of a different type of society: one that unlocks the neoliberal consensus at Westminster. Our day will come.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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