There was a touch of class about the Radical Independence conference: 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 belie 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 tubthumping 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, 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: ‘when 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.
This 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 the problem. This article is not for you; in fact it’s against you. There were plenty 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 delegates. 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 Robin McAlpine’s argument: 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 antepenultimate 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.