Scotland: A chance for ‘independence without borders’

Radical Independence Campaign volunteers have canvassed working-class communities ignored by politicians for decades.

There is a political movement in Scotland that is quite beyond anything containable by or even comprehensible through the terms of conventional parliamentary, tick-some-scoundrel's-name-every-four-years politics.

Many of us have had our political senses so numbed for so long by broken promises of change that it’s taken a long time for people to wake up to this fact.

The question posed in September's referendum, yes or no to independence for Scotland, was intended by Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron to make the alternative to the status quo look so radical that the forces of conservatism would win out. But it has not gone according to plan.

The chance to vote on Scotland's future has brought about a popular mobilisation for radical social change unlike anything we have seen in these islands for a generation.

The conditions for this mobilisation were, it is true, put in place by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its skilful, long-honed, management of conventional electoral politics.

There would be no referendum if Alex Salmond's SNP had not become the party of government in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood and used what bargaining power it had to extract the referendum commitment from Cameron.

Imagining a new society

But the referendum has become an invitation to say no to a superpower whose wars — most recently against Iraq — the Scottish people have found abhorrent and yet were forced to join.

It is a chance to say no to decades of social injustice and sacrifice at the altar of the global market by Conservative and Labour party governments at Westminster, for which Scottish voters did not vote.

It is, finally, a chance to refuse a democracy without substance in which MPs working 300 miles away and more are too distant to be accountable or subject to popular pressure.

Most importantly, Scottish people have grasped the choice as an opportunity to imagine the kind of society that they could build with the democratic possibilities of independence.

The strength of these dynamics is such that there is even a question mark over whether Salmond's SNP can survive the new political maelstrom.

Yet political commentators, especially in the English- and US-owned media, pretend that nothing has changed. For them, it is just politics as normal.

More middle-aged men in suits exchanging insults — a battle where the protagonists are Salmond and former Labour Party minister and No figurehead Alistair Darling.

But this has not been a war of political machines. Certainly the Yes campaign, through the National Collective of Artists Supporting Yes, has benefited from the contributions of many brilliant cultural creators, while the No campaign has relied on planting negative stories about their opponents with the Westminster-style peddlers of political gossip.

But the power of Yes is greater than its creative communication techniques.

The remarks of a young graduate from Caledonian University in Glasgow gave me an insight into what gives the “Davids” of the Yes campaign their unpredicted strength in the face of the “Goliaths” of No.

Beyond nationalism

Jim Bevington, born to English parents in the Shetland islands and living in Glasgow for the past five years, describes how he moved from being a passive opponent of independence to an engaged and enthusiastic activist in the Yes campaign.

First, he realised that independence was not, as the media implied, about changing letterheads and rebranding Scotland. It was not even about nationalism.

“I realised that something absolutely huge was at stake: the shake up and break-up of the UK for the first time in hundreds of years,” he said. I needed to get informed and engaged.

“When I did get informed, going to the Radical Independence website and then to one of their conferences, I realised that it’s not just about how bad the UK is, but about people's ideas about what an independent Scotland could be like... fresh new ideas that have no prospect of being implemented in the UK but would have every prospect of being implemented in an independent Scotland.”

This is the hope that draws people to get organised in virtually every neighbourhood across Scotland to share their ideas, to work out how they want to shape an independent Scotland. The dynamic of the process is self-organised, galvanised by the simple idea that every citizen resident in Scotland can vote for a different kind of society – not, as in most elections, just for a choice of elites.

The possibility of independence is a challenge to Scottish voters to take themselves seriously and to give substance to the hopes they have shared informally with friends and neighbours.

What has built the self-confidence to take up that challenge to shape a new future, rather than bumble along with the familiar but imperfect present? The answer shines clearly from any direct experience of the Yes campaign in action.

It is a strikingly generous-spirited, creative, diverse and plural movement, with a concentrated sense of common purpose.

It has many platforms, including both the official Yes Campaign of politicians and national organisations and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), whose volunteers have canvassed working-class communities ignored by politicians for decades.

A variety of different campaigns bring different constituencies to the activities of RIC: the energetic, always-present Women for Independence; the strategically vital Labour for Independence, which now has the support of many of the Labour Party's leading figures.

Then there is the Jimmy Reid Foundation, an influential think tank committed to action as well as words. It is led by human dynamo Robin McAlpine, who manages to speak to 15 meetings a week, going to bed, in his words “exhausted and tearful”.

Popular awakening

All these tributaries feed a populist movement without a charismatic leader. It is a populism organised through and around the people.

Its power lies in its many voices, in conversation with each other, and the way the RIC takes a critique of some ghastly feature of British government policy or structure and then turns the argument towards a positive solution.

An argument for independence based on escaping the London housing bubble, for example, becomes the positive case for Scotland to have the macro-economic powers to create a new kind of sustainable economy, creating socially useful jobs based on economic democracy.

Similarly, from a critique of Britain's imperial role in the world, radical supporters of independence move to a liberating vision of the opportunities opened up by joining a network of nations. They explore a wide range of collaborations, which take the debate far beyond the notion of “separation”.

Whether this intellectual as well as organisational energy and associational power will, on September 18, produce a majority for Yes is uncertain. But it is clear that there is no going back to the old politics, neither in Scotland nor Britain.

And this is about more than a new unstoppable surge of activism. McAlpine tells of a campaigning grandmother who came up to him at the end of a pro-independence demonstration and said: “When this is over, Robin, I'm naw going back to ma sofa.”

She's speaking for millions whose imagination has been changed.

The consequences of the closely fought independence referendum, with the likelihood of a result that will not be decisive and will serve to further open rather than close the debate, poses a very real threat to Britain’s ruling elites.

Breaking taboos

These elites have always ruled through an unwritten constitution: that is the secret of their power and its unbroken longevity.

Two historic features of the British political system gave a kind of sacred quality to these unwritten rules, making the idea of a challenge unspeakable.

The first is the “Crown in Parliament”, which enables the prime minister and their executive unhindered access to prerogative powers. These include declaring war and making a huge number of appointments — creating a powerful patronage machine.

The other, related source of taboo is the “union” between the nations of the “United Kingdom”, which protects the Westminster parliament against real democracy and self-government.

The strength of the Yes campaign, and the fact that it is already spreading across the borders and boomeranging back, will mean the unwritten constitution will be talked about and questioned.

The taboo of hundreds of years has been broken. Nothing can stop this, however closely the main parties conspire to restore a reverential silence.

But on both sides of the border, whatever the result of the referendum, we must do more than talk about the constitution and challenge its unwritten rules.

In England and Wales, we must follow the inspiration of the Yes campaign in Scotland and treat the fact that the union's future is seriously in doubt as an invitation to imagine a different kind of England and a different kind of Wales — and different relations between and within our self-governing nations.

In Scotland, we can already see how the collective act of imagining a new social order turns disheartened subjects into the architects of a new constitutional settlement.

Having been told for years that they did not want freedom and could not handle it if they had it, Scottish people have learned that they are willing and able. It is past time the rest of us learned the same lesson.

[Abridged from Red Pepper.]

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