A Revolution of the Possible: Radical Independence Conference 2013


“Look at the forces that stand behind no. Look at the forces that stand behind yes. Choose your side.”

Declaration of Radical Independence

What if independence does ‘fail to deliver’? Imagine it: the Scottish people vote Yes, energised by a fresh start, set free from a politically moribund UK, but, tragically, the infant state is brought into being after a painful labour. Perhaps through a combination of external factors, scheming negotiators and bitter internal struggle, very little will change on the ground. In some instances, in some already blighted areas, there is an even greater decline.

Such a scenario is clearly not impossible. It could happen: though it does seem unlikely that the growing number of activists demanding a new politics would be able to stomach it. Independence has created a tidal wave of expectation; it will be politically impossible for the victor in 2016 not to deliver substantive change and to take a new direction. Though many prefer the abstractions of ‘continuity’, market-driven anxiety and consumer politics, a real grassroots movement cannot be wished away by any politician.

Last weekend 1,000 people met at the Radical Independence Conference. For all the divergent characters on show and the lack of a single party banner to get behind, there was a surprising amount of unity. This wasn’t a fringe meeting, it represented aspects of many big currents in Scottish politics, all willing to come together under the compelling and simple assertion that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’.

In this sense Better Together was right to comment that, “This is the true face of the independence movement.”

Independence is, above all else, about what it could enable, about the possibilities offered by a new society.

The unionist left, if it still exists in Scotland; shorn of a platform, simply refuses to engage. Imagine a ‘Radical Unionist Conference’: UKIP are probably the only party in the No camp daft enough to contemplate such an idea. Why this vacuum? It’s simple really: you can’t build a grassroots political campaign out of fear, reaction and smears. Just as importantly, you need be comfortable with your own side. As Saturday’s event showed, much to the chagrin of a mostly silent media, SNP bashing was not the order of the day.

The big existential quest for ‘society’ in the British Isles is the narrative that underpins the Yes movement, even amongst its less radical advocates. Indeed, though very few pundits are able to understand this: the opportunity to return to first principles out of a largely hopeless, Thatcherite status quo, is the real emotive and intellectual glue that keeps the movement together. Given the context of the neoliberal consensus, simply to state that there is an alternative is an inherently radical act.

However, politics, whatever its claim, should not be eclectic in today’s Britain. It is far easier to manage a spectrum made up of narrow sects than one of broad churches. Yet the key factor that struck me about the Radical Independence Conference was its often surprising variety: it was not a Sheridan like hard man who proclaimed ‘bring it on’ from the podium at the conference’s close, it wasRuth Wishart. Well spoken Edinburgh Greens, former shop stewards, peaceniks, feminist economists and veteran socialists were all present, and seemed to get on quite well. What this diversity shows is that there’s a clear unanimity across groups and minds that cleave to Yes. Broadly speaking, they all start with support for the basic democratic principle and rally behind the desired result of a more equal society.

Yes there was tub-thumping, yes there were irrelevant fall-outs in the wings, but the overall picture was nothing if not impressive. Indeed, what makes this debate so tantalising, is the glimpses you catch of what a future Scotland could be like. For the likes of Murdo Fraser, such a vision is a kind of ‘red peril’ that will guarantee a No vote.

As it happens, I was also struck by the moderate, rational tone of much of the conference. It was the public sector, public transport, green jobs and decentralisation that won the loudest applause that day. Indeed this terrifying, radical, tax wielding face of independence was preaching many ‘left-wing’ policies that are a mainstream part of everyday life in much of Europe.

Though David Torrance’s ideological blinkers only permitted him to see a nostalgia fest in Saturday’s event, the reality was quite different. Without a doubt, there was a strong sense of a very tangible legacy, perhaps greater than at many party conferences. The sense of continuity with the likes Jimmy Reid was almost tangible, as was a wider sense of the need to go on developing a politics of the marginalised in Scotland. Let’s not forget Reid himself made a political journey from the Communist Party, via the Labour Party, before ending up in the SNP.

The other, more recent legacy that Radical Independence can claim is that of the 2003 ‘rainbow parliament’. It was that election that embodied the realisation that devolution could be a radical, interesting catalyst for a different type of politics to that of Thatcher and Blair.

Neoliberalism is an odd, contradictory creature. It pretends to redistribute when it does it the opposite. It says that markets are free when they’re riddled with monopolies, state-bailouts and insider trading. It holds that people are free, while enshrining the freedom to exploit others. Most ludicrously of all it says that labour, land and currency are commodities, when they are inherently unable to be. Its real significance however, is that it has returned wealth and power to the hands of a tiny global elite on a scale not seen since the 1920s.

Though their soon to be derided White Paper may not set the heather alight: the SNP, as the largest player in the Yes movement has created a rising tide of expectation about what can be done to make Scotland a more equal country. In doing so, whether it wants to or not, it is throwing down a gauntlet to Britain’s economic and political orthodoxy.

So let’s imagine that, post-independence, a tangibly worse future awaits us than that within the UK. Would these thousands of activists not also be organising against it? Would they be content with anything other than transformation? The Yes campaign is unified by enthusiasts for empowerment: not flag waving. This cannot be undone. A movement built on the hopes of thousands of people cannot be packed away once the party is over.

I was aware; on hearing Robin McAlpine speak at the end of the event (with such urgency that he asked the audience to stop clapping) that something very unique is taking place in Scotland at the moment. It’s a unity of intellect and purpose: something that does not come along often. It’s a sense that a door is about to be unlocked: that if we win a Yes vote there will be a chance to build something new.

Independence, if nothing else, is a revolution of the possible.

Christopher Silver
National Collective