GEORGE KEREVAN reports on the Radical Independence Conference held in Glasgow on Saturday.
SOME 900 people attended the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) in Glasgow’s swanky Radisson Blu hotel on Saturday 24 November. Given you had to pay £10 a head to get in, this was the most significant gathering of Scotland’s pro-independence left in many a long year.
While the top table speeches were often predictable copies of populist rhetoric you could have heard any time over the past 30 years, RIC proved much more than a tribal gathering of the left. In fact, a new political movement looks likely to emerge.
For the first time in my experience RIC brought together four different political constituencies under one roof, to seek common cause: the old far left led by the Scottish Socialist Party; a new SNP leftwing galvanised into life by the party’s NATO membership debate; the increasingly leftist Scottish Greens; and a host of leading (non-party) intellectuals seeking a political home.
First, there were the far left groups, till now shell-shocked by the sectarian infighting and electoral meltdown that followed the Tommy Sheridan affair. But they were all at RIC and – much more important – willing to talk to each other again. (Mr Sheridan was conspicuous by his absence.).
Represented were the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which lately has an influx of serious players such as John McAllion, the former Labour MSP, and Campbell Martin, a former SNP MSP. But there were also refugees from Sheridan’s semi-defunct breakaway, Solidarity, suggesting many are fed up with the split.
Playing a significant part in organising RIC was the International Socialist Group (ISG), a major split from the UK Socialist Workers Party. The ISG, led by Chris Bambery, is virtually the former youth wing of the SWP, and is heavily pro-independence. What was interesting about RIC is that it seems to have attracted a new generation of young activists missing from the traditional parties, including the SNP.
If this was all RIC turned out to be – a re-composition of the various elements that composed the SSP before the Sheridan madness – it would be important but not earth shattering. What makes RIC significant was the presence of large numbers of rank and file SNP activists and local councillors. Also present was Jean Urquart MSP, who has just quit the party over its pro-NATO stance.
There has always been a big leftwing in the SNP but it has been atomised and quiescent for over a decade. This is because, under the tight leadership of Alex Salmond, the SNP has scored a series of electoral victories and the rank and file were happy not to rock any media boats. It is also because the SNP’s new emphasis on MSPs and Holyrood, plus Salmond’s inclination to avoid divisive policy wrangles, has reduced the party’s annual conference to a little more than a rally.
Until, that is, the recent NATO debate. While the party leadership got its way on accepting NATO membership, the issue gave the SNP left its first chance in 15 years to organise internally. The NATO debate has also fed a fear among SNP members that the party leadership is failing to spell out clearly just how a Yes vote would change Scotland radically and for the better. That absence of radical policies has sent the rejuvenated Nationalist left looking for allies. Hence their involvement in RIC, which could give them a campaigning platform.
Then there are the Scottish Greens. Their leader, Patrick Harvie MSP, gave several interesting speeches at RIC arguing for public and community ownership of the renewables industry. Under Harvie, the Scottish Greens have moved much further to the left than many of their middle class voters realise.
But what could turn RIC into a genuine social movement is the involvement of a whole stratum of Scottish intellectuals, including musician Pat Kane, the economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, journalist Lesley Riddoch, commentator and writer Gerry Hassan, and peace activist Isobel Lindsay. The traditional far left has been bereft of new ideas for decades. The involvement of these intellectuals made Saturday’s event much more interesting. There is a chance that RIC could actually be radical.
The atmosphere on Saturday was actually quite relaxed. Gone were the orchestrated ‘interventions’ from party factions (at least in the sessions I attended). There was a good deal of mingling, open discussion and genuine bonhomie. This was aided by being held in a comfortable hotel of the kind ordinary mortals inhabit, rather than the traditional Spartan halls favoured by the left.
There were weaknesses evident in the event. For a conference billed as radical, the session topics were very, very traditional. Next time, why not have sessions on ‘urbanism, architecture and politics’; ‘science fiction as a pointer for building a new Scotland’; ‘popular control of cultural production’; ‘science and independence’; ‘how do we create a new Scottish national identity?’; ‘what will we make when the oil runs out?’; ‘how do we defend ourselves if we are not in NATO’; ‘lessons from the public banking movement in America’; ‘writing a new Scottish constitution’; ‘should everyone go to university?’; or ‘what currency should an independent Scotland adopt?’.
Where does RIC go next? Wisely, the organisers are not being prescriptive or running to create a new political party. There’s talk of a roadshow to take round Scotland, local “confidence building” activities, and another conference next year. Just how this dovetails with putting energy into the Yes Campaign remains to be seen.
New movements are difficult to predict or direct, which is why they are movements not parties. But the emergence of RIC suggests that there is a space in Scotland for a Red-Green Republican Left Party (or coalition of parties) committed to Scottish independence – a grouping that could command 10 or maybe 15 per cent of the popular vote on a good day.
Alex Salmond sent a brave message of greeting to the RIC gathering – remember his membership of the 79 Group? But a No vote in 2014 will see the party’s rank and file blame any debacle on the lack of radical policies put forward by the leadership. And that would only strengthen the RIC current.
Of course, on past experience, the radical left is congenitally incapable of unity for very long. Yet the prospect of an independence referendum in two years time creates a unique framework that could force cooperation between the disparate forces making up RIC. On the basis of last Saturday, it is certainly a movement that deserves watching.