Reflections on the #indyref and the future of radical politics in Scotland

19 Sep

I have to begin with the caveat that I write this as something of an outsider. I had to watch most of the developments in the independence referendum campaigns from a distance and although I have been involved in activism in Scotland in the past, aside from spending the few days I could manage campaigning for a Yes vote I can’t say that I’m an activist in Scotland anymore. I want that to change over the coming months and years, but that’s the situation at the moment and so what I write here comes from an outside perspective and insights gained through watching the campaign and aftermath closely as well as speaking to radical activists in the Yes campaign.

With that said, I want to offer a few theses on the referendum and its aftermath.

1.    Scottish politics has changed for the better

It’s clear who’s on which side and what those sides are. The working class and the progressive and radical left voted for independence. The middle-class, the rich and the right voted for Westminster. While some might bemoan a divided Scotland (I don’t want to say ‘nation’ because that’s not what it is in my mind: it’s a space of land with people living in it) but politics is about antagonism. Classes and other oppositions exist materially and no ideas of unity can change that. The left in Scotland will benefit from a situation in which people recognise these oppositions and align themselves accordingly in a conscious, political way. While perhaps not as clear and emotive as Occupy’s ‘We are the 99%’ slogan, which provided an identity and strategy for the movement, the emerging ‘We are the 45%’ slogan has the potential to galvanise the pro-independence movement.


2.    Scottish Labour is finished

Firstly, a large number of Labour voters in Scotland sided with the Yes campaign for independence. Before the Brown intervention it was as high as 40% and given that the vote for Yes only fell by a couple of points when undecided are taken into account, the number of Labour voters going against the party and voting Yes could still be around a third of the total. Aside from this, however, Ed Miliband has already signal a turn-around on the Devo Max vow. A switch in such a short space of time, less than three days since he signed the vow, will enrage the Labour voters who voted No in the hope of getting Devo Max. The failure to deliver Devo Max, and it will be a failure (Miliband’s already reneging, Tory back-benchers are in open revolt and let’s face it, they never intended to implement it anyway), will turn more voters away from Labour.

The specificities of Scottish politics will mean that they’ll always have a core, Labour-regardless base of support, but this will dwindle over time. I think I’m probably among the first generation to not have to make a cognitive leap to disassociate Labour from left-wing politics. For me and others my age and younger, there was never any reason to connect the two and more and more are realising this. Perhaps Labour will lose control of Glasgow City Council which they have been able to hold onto despite mismanagement and mass opposition to their policies.

3.    The Scottish National Party will benefit in the long term, and maybe the short term

Alex Salmond has resigned, a move which might take wind out of the SNP’s sails, but from what I’m hearing there is a surge in support for the party. People who voted Yes want to crush Labour and build a strong united front, and many see joining or at least voting for the SNP as the clearest way to do this. Linking this with the demise of Labour, apparently the entire Labour for Independence group has today resigned and joined the SNP. Others might go to the Scottish Greens, and I’ve also heard of a surge in their membership since this morning. Returning to the Glasgow City Council example, the Green’s have 5 seats and 5.55% of the popular vote to the SNP’s 27 seats and 32.57% of the vote. Voters could see the SNP as having the best chance of uniting the opposition to Labour, but then the SNP and the Greens, who’ve worked together in the Yes campaign, could also work together in Glasgow to unseat Labour. In either case, and elsewhere in the country, there will be a potentially massive increase in membership and popular support for both parties.

Aside from membership numbers, the SNP and the broader Yes movement now has the moral high ground and can hold Westminster to account on their promises of more powers for Scotland. When I was involved in radical left politics in Scotland, a lot was made in certain circles of the concept of ‘transitional demands’. The idea behind transitional demands is that movements can make demands of capitalism and the state that are accepted as justified by the people but which those in power cannot, because of their internal structures and interests, agree to. In this case, Westminster has made a transitional demand of itself. It probably can’t deliver and this could lead to No voters regretting their choice and turning to the former-Yes campaign groups and parties.

4.    Women are poised to play a more important role in Scottish politics

Throughout the campaign, women were a key vote that had to be won by the Yes campaign. In the end this was done to a large extent, but it was done by the autonomous Women for Independence group actually creating spaces for women in Scottish politics. This was something that the spectacle of the televised debates between Salmond and Darling, criticised by some as the politics of middle-aged, middle-class men in suits as usual, didn’t offer but the social movement for independence did. Now with Salmond resigning and Nicola Sturgeon likely to replace him as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, it seems that Scottish political life has been blown open by women activists.

5.    A new left-wing party could emerge, but this could be a bad move

Paul Mason hinted at the emergence of a Syriza/Podemos style radical left party emerging in Scotland. Perhaps the Scottish Socialist Party will return to the larger political stage, but it would more likely be a new party. Given that Mason has been speaking to Radical Independence Campaign activists in Glasgow in recent days, he may have heard of moves to form a new party. This, I think, would be a bad move for the radical left. A lot of radical activists have left the SSP in recent years in frustration with that party’s internal structures and politics. A new party wouldn’t necessarily be more of an accommodating space to those in radical social movements and they may be served better by remaining autonomous of parliamentary politics and exerting pressure on the Greens and the SNP.

What these movements could do to maintain their momentum is learn from movements in Southern Europe and take their radical activism into neighbourhood and community assemblies, providing a structure and space for those who’ve been politicised by the independence referendum. This could develop the kind of interaction with institutions Richard Gunn argues for and could prove decisive in defining the ways in which Scottish civil society opposes Westminster on the ground. This could well be what the radical movement has planned, and it’ll be interesting to see how it pushes on after succeeding in gaining ground in working class communities.


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