How possible is another Scotland?

‘ Plans under way to create united party of the left after referendum’ was the headline. The story about talks between the Radical Independence Campaign [RIC] and the Scottish Socialist Party was by Paul Hutcheon in the Sunday Herald [29 June 2014, p. 9]. A slightly longer version is on Paul’s blog here.

But how likely is that RIC could change from being a loosely structured campaigning group to becoming part of a new political party? In their book ‘Yes-The Radical Case for Scottish Independence’, James Foley and Pete Ramand discuss the possibility of ‘building an anti-capitalist party from scratch’

The SSP in Scotland and many similar parties in Europe offered legitimate models, but almost all of these groups seem to collapse amongst tribalism or splits. Building a party that is open to grass-roots alliances while remaining principled and disciplined in Parliament has proved tricky. Moreover, right now, building parties in Scotland is liable to lead to frustration and fall-outs, because no single party is capable of monopolising opposition to the market. As a result, the many and varied leftist parties outside Parliament find it difficult to convince ordinary people that they are serious and workable….a proper political alternative should not see ‘leadership’ as gaining admittance to the mystifying cult of parliamentary politics. We should aim to remove the macho aura around political officials, which has been a negative feature of the Scottish Left. Instead we should see generalising the skills of leadership and political participation as an equal part of our mission, as important in its own way as winning elections. The true democratic alternative lies away from Parliament, on the streets and in workplaces, although this does not mean regressing into the Left’s comfort zone of bitterness, jealously and sectarianism. [p.109-10]

For many, the attraction of RIC has been that it is a campaign not a party, an alternative way to be politically active beyond the ‘bitterness, jealousy and sectarianism’ of the Scottish Left. Any moves towards RIC becoming part of a new Left party could therefore been seen as a backward step, narrowing rather than broadening RIC’s appeal.

On the other hand, the implosion of the Labour party in Scotland will create a ‘vacuum’ in the Scottish political landscape. Post-18 September, something will have to emerge to fill the space formerly occupied by Labour. Reading the Common Weal’s ‘Practical Idealism for Scotland’ it struck me that large parts of it could be re-cycled by the Scottish Green party or a reformed/ renewed Labour party. However, although there are RIC/ Common Weal connections, Common Weal’s expert-based approach to the reform of the Scottish economy along social-democratic lines contrasts with RIC’s more radical, anti-neoliberal, bottom-up agenda as set out in ‘Yes- The Radical case for Scottish Independence’.

At this point I was going to suggest that Paul Hutcheon’s story might be traced back to a series of articles Ben Wray wrote for the International Socialist Group newsletter earlier this year. These made the case for a new Left party and can be read here.
However, Ben has told me he doubts if his articles did inspire the discussions mentioned in the Paul Hutcheon’s since the idea of a new Left party has been about ever since the Left imploded in Scotland.

At a radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway meeting last year I wondered out loud if RIC might become a political party in the future. There was no enthusiasm for this and the strongest views expressed were that RIC should continue as a campaigning organisation. Both RIC Edinburgh and RIC East Kilbride have had similar discussions with similar results. It is unlikely that many members of RIC would be in favour of RIC joining a new party of the Left in Scotland.

A strong factor in this lack of enthusiasm for RIC becoming ‘party politicised’ has been the decision to focus attention and efforts on the mass-canvassing campaign. Practically this has paid -off and become a very successful strategy. RIC’s role within the grassroots Yes campaign is now recognised as very significant. The dilemma is that this success may require RIC to engage with party politics. If RIC has managed to reach and engage with the parts of Scotland mainstream politics have not, what happens after 18 September? Whatever the outcome of the referendum vote, ethically RIC must continue to engage with the disengaged and continue to encourage the voiceless find their voices. In this context , Ben Wray made an important point in a recent Facebook discussion about Paul Hutcheon’s article

The mass canvasses show that the left is capable of being relevant to people’s lives again, it doesn’t show that most people are ready to go beyond parliamentary democracy – lets not forget we are registering people to vote in an election, albeit one of far more significance than your average parliamentary election. If the left doesn’t stand in elections, people will look for other electoral options to voice their discontent – lets not forget UKIP just won a seat in an election in Scotland, winning a higher percentage of their votes from the working class than any other party. [1 July 2014]

Although the independence campaign might feel like a marathon for the politically active and engaged, for the ‘don’t knows’ and the disengaged, the ramping up of the campaign over the next few weeks is going to look more like a sprint, with 18 September as the finishing post. For Yes campaigners, including RIC, the sprint phase is going to be exhausting. Right now, wondering what RIC will do next is not keeping many of us awake at night. But whatever outcome emerges in the cold light of dawn on the 19th , the question will still have to be asked .

Even if RIC does not get directly involved in the formation of a new Left party, any such party which emerges will be keen to gain RIC’s support. To the extent that RIC has become the focus or vehicle for Left radicalism in Scotland, any Left political parties which emerge to fight the 2016 election will be very keen to gain RIC’s support. At the most basic, any political party would give their eye-teeth to have access to RIC’s committed campaigning activists. At the next level up, for groups like Common Weal, supporters of land reform and even the Scottish Green party; to actualise their various proposals for a better Scotland, they will need strong support in the Scottish parliament. Here, RIC support and approval for a range of ‘radical’ candidates and parties would be welcomed. [Examples -to help an independent land-reform candidate get elected in the Highlands or a Green candidate in the rural south.]

To conclude- although Paul Hutcheon’s Sunday Herald story appears to be accurate and there have been discussions between RIC and the SSP about forming a new Left party, there is little support for the idea within RIC. However, the success of RIC’s mass canvassing strategy does mean that RIC are now seen as a significant and important force within the grassroots Yes campaign. This means that whatever new political landscape which emerges after 18 September, RIC’s campaigning power will be a factor to be reckoned with. The challenge for RIC will be how to engage with and influence parliamentary politics without compromising its radical agenda.



4 thoughts on “How possible is another Scotland?

  1. A thoughtful and reasoned article as ever Alistair.

    A few thoughts. First it should be said, there have been no discussions between anyone in RIC and the SSP, at least none that I’m aware of. Colin ‘confirmed’ these talks for tactical reasons (I’m not bashing Colin by saying this, I’d probably have said the same thing in his position). He isn’t going to say there are no talks as that would make him look ‘out of the loop’ and if a new party does transpire he’s going to want to appear in on the ground floor.

    My own perspective on the future of the left in Scotland is based upon my outlook concerning the vote in September. We are going to lose the vote, of this we can now be fairly certain. Given that RIC is an outfit based on campaigning for the Yes vote this puts its continued existence post Sept in doubt. We have to accept that the majority of Yes campaigners will be bitterly demoralised.

    It then becomes a question of what next. For me its got to be a party, the 2016 elections being the next important staging post for developing a new left in Scotland. In my view if we don’t achieve that party all the momentum we have built up these last few years will be lost. Crucially we have a unique chance after September to end the period of stagnation and division opened up by the SSP split in 2006. If the logic of that split re-introduces itself following September, and there are some who will want to re-introduce it, then the left could easily re-enter the doldrums for another decade. Also, I don’t see the evidence that people in RIC largely don’t want a party (although of course there will be some who don’t). I also think it would be a tragedy if RIC were to become a sort of war chest for various existing political parties.

    Above all we must guard against complacency. The left is in its healthiest state in many years but that can all turn sour very quickly. The decision we make now (after Sept) about the future form of the left in Scotland will be the most important decision made for a generation.

      • I admire the confidence of many on the left that we can win, and it is true that we probably ‘can’. Alas, I agree with David, we almost certainly won’t win in September and as such any thoughts of mine around the issue are very much focused on what to do after that eventuality. My reason for this pessimism is simple, not one poll has ever put Yes in the lead. That simply does not happen only then to be followed by a turnaround. The reasons for this are in the hundreds, but what’s more important is ‘what is to be done’.

  2. Yeah, my thoughts exactly mortalash. I think we have a 10% chance of a ‘Yes’ vote. That’s a small chance but a real chance – and everyone will be campaigning flat out for that chance. It would be irresponsible for us not to.

    But its also irresponsible to depend for our future on unlikely outcomes. It was always highly unlikely that we would win independence with the first vote. Support for independence has remain fairly consistent at about 1/3rd for to 2/3rds against for decades. We have undoubtedly pushed the Yes vote ahead significantly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vote were to come down to 45% Yes to 55% No – which leaves us in a strong position to argue for maximum powers and also to pose the question again in the shorter rather than longer term.

    A responsible movement views the 18th September as just one in a series of staging posts – the next being the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. This is only round one. Viewed in this way the left has a long period to build up forces and steadily increase the level of radicalisation in society. If the left chooses to collapse in dismay or to fall back into old routines and practices after September, then this long game is lost before its even really begun.

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