Since June, seven consecutive opinion polls have recorded majority support for Scottish independence among decided voters, the largest proportion since the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016. The pro-independence Sunday National, which has emblazoned the figures across its front page, says that “momentum is now with the independence movement”. But if this is indeed the case, why is it still so hard to picture a viable route to independence? The significant increase in support for independence has been matched with little progress on the holding of a second independence referendum, firmly established as a necessary prerequisite by the precedent of the 2014 campaign. This impasse has been, for some time, the central issue for the independence movement, and there is growing evidence of frustration within the movement with the SNP’s failure to overcome it.
For its part, the SNP leadership remains in a comfortable position. Having reinvented itself as the ‘party of government’ since entering Bute House 13 years ago, a significant layer of politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists now orbits the SNP administration in Edinburgh, which is as concerned with the administration of the country – in a particularly insipid, managerial way – as it is with winning independence. While distancing itself rhetorically from the Tories, the Scottish Government has made consistent overtures to the Scottish establishment, vividly illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic by its bail-out of landlords and its appointment of former Tesco Bank CEO Benny Higgins to lead its advisory group on economic recovery. The SNP’s rule in Holyrood is effectively unchallenged, with all election polls giving the party an unassailable lead.
This contradiction between the SNP’s success and the lack of movement on independence has led to a partial re-emergence of the grassroots independence movement, which was largely demobilised in the aftermath of 2014 with its creativity and self-initiative subsumed into the SNP hierarchy and its natural distaste for extra-parliamentary politics. This resurgence has best been illustrated by the All Under One Banner (AUOB) street movement, which launched in 2014 but organised its largest-ever march, with up to 90,000 participants, in Glasgow in May 2019 without any formal SNP backing. Largely in response to this organic resurgence, a conference of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) was held in October 2019.
During the 2014 campaign, RIC effectively functioned as an umbrella group for the pro-independence Scottish left, which had otherwise lost organisational coherence following the collapse of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) after 2006. It was initiated in 2012 by members of the International Socialist Group (ISG), a splinter from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who continued to dominate RIC at a national level for the duration of the referendum campaign. The first serious steps towards democratising RIC did not take place until early 2014, when its first National Forum – made up of delegates elected by local RIC groups – was held, but even then, as Allan Armstrong once explained, “much was still left to the behind-the-scenes ISG organisers”. A notable side-effect of this was that political power and organisational strength within RIC became centralised in Glasgow, forming a one-way relationship with activists outwith the central belt who are incidentally best positioned to tackle serious issues such as land reform and ecological radicalism.
The failure to embed a democratic constitution and culture within RIC probably contributed to its sharp decline in profile and activity after the referendum. Despite attracting nearly 3,000 people to a major conference in October 2014, RIC became smaller and narrower; by the time a formal constitution was put in place in 2015, its core ‘founders’ from the now-defunct ISG had shifted their focus to the ultimately ill-fated electoral project RISE, leaving a difficult gap to fill. While never disappearing – with a small number of branches continuing to meet and conferences continuing to be held – RIC has yet to regain its stature during the 2014 campaign.
As of last year, however, it appears that RIC has finally started to break out of its decline. A number of its founders have returned their attention to RIC after a period of indifference, presenting the October 2019 conference as an opportunity to re-establish the organisation. There was, unfortunately, no open call for volunteers to help shape or organise the event, a shortcoming that some of us highlighted in an open letter distributed on the day, which argued in particular for the “cultivation of a genuinely democratic political culture, asserted from the outset and deeply embedded in [RIC’s] constitution”. The subsequent RIC National Forum in December 2019 confirmed that the open letter was right to anticipate a conflict over RIC’s internal democracy.
Prominent figures have pushed for a complete overhaul of RIC’s democratic structures, raising suggestions such as a formal political leadership and the creation of a ‘national organiser’ post with a broad, vague remit. The trade unions and the Sanders and Corbyn movements have been held up as examples of how RIC can reorganise itself, presumably as a more hierarchical organisation with a focus on campaigning at the expense of political debate. This has thankfully failed to win wider support, but these suggestions have revealed a preference among an influential bloc for a more narrow and top-down organisation, which would prioritise the recruitment of foot-soldiers taking orders from above over the development of the independent intellectual and organisational capacity of the left. This was even reflected to some degree in the line-up of the 2019 conference, where most of the prominent headline speakers were MPs, lawyers, journalists and NGO and trade union staffers, removed by one or more degrees from the campaigns and struggles underway across the country (and many of whom would reject any formal identification with the socialist movement).
Our alternative vision was set out in part in the open letter last October, which argued that RIC could help to develop “a strategy for the pro-independence left, one that places the dismantling of the British state at the centre of a wider project of transformational political and economic change that can reverberate far beyond Scotland” and, in doing so, “become the thread tying together otherwise isolated working class organisations and movements, firmly locating their goals within a common understanding of how power is distributed in Britain and how its institutions can be overcome”. In contrast to the SNP – which insists on fruitlessly working within the confines of the British constitution, designed and honed over centuries to act as a bulwark against progressive change – RIC should develop and champion a republican strategy based on the principle of sovereignty of the people and underpinned by popular mobilisations and extra-constitutional action. The struggle against the poll tax is a powerful example of this type of republican resistance in a Scottish context: the legitimacy of the tax’s imposition on Scotland was readily denied, and sheriff officers and others trying to enforce the hated tax were openly opposed, eventually leading to the poll tax’s defeat. This preparedness to defy the British state, buttressed by the authority and undemocratic powers of the Crown-in-Westminster, is what will transform RIC’s call for a Scottish republic into an immediate and tangible demand instead of a vague future aspiration. In recognition of the fact that RIC is challenging forces organised across the UK and beyond, it should actively seek to bring its struggle into the rest of these islands, as well as continuing to build genuine, grassroots solidarity in Europe as beyond, as with its long-standing relationship with the Catalan pro-independence left; in other words, a strategy of ‘internationalism from below’ counterposed to the bureaucratic, nominal internationalism common to nationalist, unionist and many left parties. This approach is not limited to the struggle for self-determination, but can also be extended to the building of meaningful two-way solidarity between RIC and the likes of workplace and community struggles, the tenants’ movement, environmentalists, feminists, and international solidarity and anti-war campaigns, at a local, national and international level.
The open letter also voiced our frustration with “self-proclaimed radicals who, justifying themselves with a profane understanding of class politics, either turn a blind eye to misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia within the independence movement or deliberately stoke it”. This concern has become only sharper since October as the reactionary wing of the independence movement has gained in confidence. LGBT+ people (particularly trans people) and women have been on the frontline of abuse from this particularly vicious section of the movement. In recent months, organisations such as Time for Inclusive Education, Glasgow Women’s Library and Rape Crisis Scotland have been targeted as part of concerted campaigns against LGBT+ rights or in misguided solidarity with former SNP leader Alex Salmond in the aftermath of his sex offences trial. The new Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) has explicitly aligned itself with this reactionary wing, while its adherents within the SNP have successfully bullied out prominent LGBT+ activists, young people and women.
There is a disappointing tendency within the pro-independence left to shy away from open criticism of these elements of the independence movement, either out of convenience or a strictly economistic understanding of the left’s role. This stands in rejection of the Scottish socialist movement’s historic link to and influence on LGBT and women’s struggles. When, in 1977, an Edinburgh conference declared men were the enemy and that the primary class relationship (and antagonism) was the conflict between men and women, it was socialist feminists in St Andrews and Aberdeen who pushed back on the ideological failings of this biological essentialism. The class character of those competing positions is clear: the biological-essentialist feminist separatists were largely bourgeois, able to maintain their gender segregation by virtue of not having to occupy workplaces with men; the non-essentialist socialist feminists, largely working class, were not afforded this luxury. Those researching global feminist movements have often noted that the Scottish movement has maintained its ferocity and vibrancy, even when feminism had largely lost ground in other liberal democracies in the 1990s. In part, this is due to the successful tethering of feminism to the working class and trade union movement.
An increasingly significant challenge for the LGBT and feminist movements has been American cultural imperialism in the form of money laundered by right-wing evangelical groups and flowing across the Atlantic to prop up rabidly anti-woman campaigns, including but not limited to anti-abortion groups (particularly across Ireland in recent years). In light of the US bourgeoisie’s vested interest in ‘astroturfing’ reactionary social movements, especially the anti-LGBT and anti-abortion movements that have seen a startling upswing in funding, media attention, and indulgence by the bourgeois parties, it is not enough to wave away these problems as a ‘culture war’ which socialists should rise above. Instead of the disinterested condescension towards social issues from others in the pro-independence left, RIC can and should appreciate these social movements as vectors for radicalisation, agitating for class consciousness within them and recognising that, more often than not, these social movements form part of the expression of the very new makeup of the Scottish working class in the 21st century. It was positive that RIC’s National Forum agreed to the establishment of an autonomous LGBT+ wing, Radical Independence Queers (RIQ), but more work is necessary to ensure that liberation struggles are at the centre of RIC’s politics and practice, not at the periphery.
Successive meetings and conversations, including those initiated by the open letter distributed last October, showed that many of our ideas resonate widely with others on the pro-independence left and convinced us of the opportunity to found a permanent platform within RIC. Our formal founding meeting platform on Saturday 5 September drew support from RIC members across the length and breadth of Scotland, including members and former members of the SNP, SSP, Scottish Greens, Scottish Labour Party and RS21, as well as the formal backing of the Republican Communist Network (RCN), a longstanding RIC affiliate, and the small but spirited Red Party of Scotland (RPS). By serving as a forum for discussion on socialist theory and practice, this platform can also partly satisfy the aspiration of many of those who have previously called for the establishment of a new socialist party, something most of us currently consider to be premature.