Proposals to establish a national membership organisation of the grassroots Scottish independence movement have taken a significant step forward following a major online event organised by All Under One Banner (AUOB), the street movement which has mobilised tens of thousands of independence supporters at marches and rallies since the 2014 referendum.
Nearly 400 people attended the AUOB Assembly on Saturday 14 November 2020, which was announced in the pages of the Sunday National at the start of the month following more than a year of hushed discussion about the possibility of a national organisation to reassert the role of the grassroots in the face of an SNP leadership which is increasingly conservative on independence. Registrations for the event were closed earlier in the week out of concern about capacity after nearly 1,300 people from 250 groups signed up on the AUOB website. Although the actual turnout was lower, it remained impressive and included a broad range of activists.
The idea of a new national organisation was first quietly raised in the Radical Independence Campaign by former SNP MP George Kerevan in February 2020 (and was made public by him in Conter last month), but has been discussed in private for much longer. We in the Republican Socialist Platform discussed the matter briefly in October and agreed to promote a discussion within RIC about the merits of such an organisation and RIC’s possible role within it. Unfortunately, this discussion within RIC is now likely to be overtaken; the prevailing view within AUOB is that this new organisation should be established “by Christmas”, i.e. weeks before the planned RIC AGM in January 2021. This means that RIC has no serious prospect of influencing the basis on which it is founded.
Format of the Assembly
The AUOB Assembly was hosted on the professional online events platform Hopin, which allowed it to take on a more typical conference format than it could on Zoom. There was a virtual stage for the introduction and panel discussions; breakout rooms for workshop-style sessions; a networking function which randomly connected two delegates for a 10-minute chat; and a virtual ‘expo’ allowing delegates to visit virtual stalls from a small range of organisations. At all times, a text chat function was also available, complementing the video discussion.
This was a remarkably well-organised event with a high level of participation, though not without its technical hiccups. The breakout rooms, for example, only allowed five participants to use their camera and microphone at a time, with other participants only able to watch and participate in the text chat. In some well-moderated sessions, there was a healthy rotation of participants using their camera and microphone, allowing a range of views to be heard and discussed; in others, both facilitators and participants didn’t seem to understand the need to rotate the camera/microphone participants and only a small minority of people in the session were able to meaningfully participate. There was a curious decision to have two separate breakout rooms with two separate facilitators for each session, which seemed to achieve little other than confusing delegates and obfuscating the conclusions of each session. Each breakout room also included a link to a corresponding interactive whiteboard on visual collaboration platform Miro, though these ultimately weren’t used or even acknowledged by session facilitators.
Overall, however, the format worked well and deserves serious consideration for future events, including RIC conferences, perhaps even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, either as a replacement for in-person events or as an accompaniment to them. One delegate wrote in the chat: “This is fantastic. I could never attend SNP conferences because of a back problem and couldn’t sit for long. So after 56 years of being an activist, this is my FIRST conference.” All of the proceedings were recorded and will soon be made publicly available on YouTube, although it seems unlikely that the extensive contents of the text chat will be saved and published.
With the notable exception of SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, who was interviewed live by Lesley Riddoch, the range of speakers on the platform was relatively narrow, drawn overwhelmingly from the AUOB team and its circles. As AUOB does not currently have a formal membership or democratic structure, this team is hardly representative of the independence movement. Nonetheless, the event was thoroughly imbued with the progressive character of the broader movement, discussing issues such as climate justice, migrant solidarity and trade unionism, as well as the need for extra-parliamentary action to win independence.
AUOB organiser Keir McKechnie and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine both placed emphasis on the building of links between the independence movement and the climate movement, particularly Extinction Rebellion. The postponement of the COP26 summit in Glasgow as a result of Covid-19 – a possibility that was presciently raised at RIC’s National Forum in February, weeks before the WHO declared the pandemic – regrettably cut off the ideal moment for achieving this, though the opportunity may present itself again next year.
Mohammed Asif, a prominent human rights campaigner in Glasgow, spoke about the need to build bridges with refugee and migrant communities, which he said were overwhelmingly pro-independence in his experience. He linked this to the anti-war orientation of the independence movement, though regrettably failed to acknowledge the SNP’s 2012 U-turn on membership of the imperialist NATO alliance. It was particularly unfortunate that Asif was speaking as part of the same panel as SNP MP Kenny MacAskill, who blocked a public inquiry into the police killing of Sheku Bayoh in Kirkcaldy in 2015 during his tenure as the Scottish government’s justice secretary. When the case came under renewed scrutiny this summer against the background of the insurgent Black Lives Matter movement in the US, MacAskill arrogantly dismissed criticism from anti-racism campaigners as an example of “infantile leftism”.
These progressive themes were warmly welcomed by participants (or at least uncontested by the vast majority) though there was the inevitable current of opinion that the movement is best served by eschewing all involvement in “political” matters, as if two million people can be persuaded to establish a new state for the sake of national identity alone. One participant bluntly wrote that activists should “park the party politics and commentary on social inequalities”. There was resistance to discussions about civil disobedience, which some participants argued could alienate some independence supporters. There was stronger support for SNP MPs pursuing a “disruptive” approach at Westminster, along the same lines as their popular walkout from the chamber in summer 2018. I raised, in one breakout room on winning independence, the possibility of evaluating and adopting the tactics employed this year by democracy movements in Belarus and Bolivia, namely mass mobilisations, wildcat strikes, blockades and occupations. It was difficult to gauge how this was received. Other ideas raised in breakout rooms included a ‘permanent presence’ outside the Scottish Parliament building (which sounds a lot like the ridiculous and ill-fated IndyCamp vigil from 2015 to 2016) and a monthly march on Queen Elizabeth House, the new UK government hub in Edinburgh (which is more interesting).
SNP MP Angus MacNeil was given the opportunity to speak very briefly about his high-profile ‘Plan B’ strategy, which Séamus McGuigan has already excellently demolished in his article for the RSP website. MacNeil’s comments were limited to quite muted criticism of the SNP leadership for blocking a conference debate on the matter, which he said would force the debate into the open instead of keeping it in the party as he preferred. There was also a session on the Holyrood elections, which discussed whether or not independence supporters should back new single-issue independence parties in order to deliver a larger pro-independence majority in the chamber, as well as how the SNP could be pushed to include a stronger commitment to independence in its election manifesto. RSP member Benn Rapson took part in one of these rooms, arguing against attempts to game the electoral system. The overall outcome was apparently unclear. Reporting back later, Suzanne Blackley, who facilitated one of the rooms, said there was a “split room” on the matter of new list parties, and that the conclusion was, in typical deferential style, that “we need someone to tell us what the best way forward is”.
For his part, Blackford defended the party line to the hilt, declining to offer any proposals for action by the SNP should the UK government continue to refuse to grant a Section 30 order after an SNP victory in May 2021, as it is likely to do and has done after repeated SNP electoral mandates (most recently in December 2019). He told Lesley Riddoch that a referendum could happen in September 2021 subject to negotiation with the British state, but very few participants appeared to be convinced. Blackford’s insistence that Boris Johnson would eventually agree to a Section 30 order, even in circumstances where this would inevitably lead to the break-up of the UK, was at odds with other speakers who recognised the need for a more confrontational strategy against the British state. Although many participants remained unconvinced that civil disobedience was the answer, they were even more sceptical of the SNP’s strategy or lack thereof. The AUOB team appears to be particular unhappy that Blackford’s supposed announcement on the timing of a second referendum got the front page splash in the Sunday National instead of the new organisation.
It is also worth reflecting on what was largely absent from the event. Neither the Scottish government’s postponed gender recognition reforms nor its planned hate crime legislation were mentioned from the platform, despite becoming the obsessive focus of a reactionary section of the movement. Over the course of the six-hour event, I saw them mentioned perhaps twice in the text chat, on both occasions by someone identified as a member of the openly transphobic Independence for Scotland Party (ISP). I saw no mention, either from the platform or in the text chat, of Alex Salmond’s criminal trial nor the botched parliamentary inquiry into it. This is welcome insofar as it can be taken as an indication that the new organisation can help push these damaging and misplaced preoccupations to the margins, though does not minimise the need for the left to continue to openly champion solidarity with oppressed groups.
Where was the left?
The representation of different currents on the Scottish left at the Assembly merits some examination. There were a handful of platform speakers who can be broadly identified with the left of the movement, such as George Kerevan, Robin McAlpine and Kenny MacAskill (listed roughly from left to right!). There were also members of various left organisations among the participants, including local RIC groups in Dundee, Edinburgh and Angus and Mearns, the Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party Scotland and Trade Unionists for Independence.
What was striking and unusual was the over-representation of the tiny Socialist Workers Party, whose members featured among the platform speakers, session facilitators and ordinary participants. This suggests that the SWP, which lost a majority of its members in 2013 after its role in covering up rape allegations against its national secretary was exposed, has found some success in applying its notoriously disciplined approach to entryism to AUOB. It also reveals how far along the SWP’s decade-long slide into left-nationalism has come.
Keir McKechnie, the SWP’s Scottish organiser as late as 2013 (and author of its pamphlet Yes to Independence, No to Nationalism, helpfully reviewed by Allan Armstrong at the time), has emerged as an AUOB organiser, playing a prominent role in the Assembly. Charlotte Ahmed, SWP member and Glasgow spokesperson for its front organisation Stand Up To Racism, was one of the first platform speakers. Dave Sherry, who served on the SWP’s disciplinary structures at the time of the 2013 crisis, made prominent contributions, having also appeared earlier this year via Zoom at an AUOB public meeting about his new book on John Maclean. Raymie Kiernan, a long-standing SWP member, facilitated one of the two breakout rooms on “structure and membership”. Bob Fotheringham facilitated one of the breakout rooms on trade unions. Henry Maitles, an SWP member and academic at the University of the West of Scotland, made prominent contributions; he was paired with me in the networking room, chatted about his role in the SWP and explained that he tried to bring socialist politics into AUOB through its relationship with his local Yes group, Yes Glasgow North West, in lieu of a democratic mechanism. SWP members from Glasgow and Dundee flooded the chat with advertisements for its Marxism in Scotland Festival. The establishment of a new organisation on a democratic basis will probably help to marginalise the SWP, as they appear to have benefited from ad hoc decision-making.
If the SWP was striking for its over-representation, then the Scottish Socialist Party was striking for its under-representation. Only one participant in the entire event clearly identified themselves as an SSP member. No senior members of the SSP appeared to be present. Nobody, in either of the two sessions on the trade union movement, raised SSP industrial organiser Richie Venton’s ongoing campaign for reinstatement at IKEA after being sacked for defending the workers he represents during the Covid-19 pandemic. I circulated links to his campaign website and the crowdfunding page for the Scottish Workers’ Solidarity Fund while Bob Fotheringham reported back from a trade union session, but this was towards the end of the day when fewer people were engaged. The only time that participants would have been made aware of the SSP’s existence is when Kenny MacAskill announced, unprompted, that he agreed with Colin Fox of the SSP about the need to focus on increasing turnout in working class communities. The SSP is nominally the largest extra-parliamentary organisation of the pro-independence Scottish left with hundreds of members, but was virtually invisible at the largest gathering of the independence movement all year. This represents the party’s insularity taken to an extreme.
Although RIC and RSP members participated in a number of sessions and in the chat, there was a notable absence of any participants drawn from the broad milieu associated with the defunct International Socialist Group which founded RIC in 2012 and played the biggest role in the foundation of RISE in 2015. Although Kerevan teased the idea of a national grassroots organisation in RISE’s journal Conter, no other members of RISE or the Conter editorial board appeared to be taking part in the event. This again represents the retreat of one of the most amorphous currents on the Scottish left from agitation among the mass of the movement.
Towards the end of the marathon event, with fewer than 300 participants left, the Assembly was polled on the establishment of a national organisation called ‘Yes Alba’. This was supported by 159 participants (78 per cent) and opposed by 13 (six per cent) with 33 abstentions (16 per cent). This was the only direct vote which took place at the Assembly. The name ‘Yes Alba’ was not drawn from any of the preceding discussions but was apparently proposed by AUOB. There was some consternation among participants over this on the basis that it would not be immediately understandable, with many arguing that ‘Yes Scotland’ should be taken back from the SNP. Andrew Wilson, another AUOB figure (who is not the ex-SNP MSP and lobbyist), said this was not possible and indicated that the decision on ‘Yes Alba’ had now already been made.
While facilitating an earlier session on “structure and membership”, Wilson stressed that AUOB had not decided on a process by which to make decisions on the various proposals that had come forward for how a national organisation should be structured. However, he said that contributions from the sessions were being collated into a spreadsheet and would be considered at the next Assembly, following sharply on Sunday 22 November 2020, which he described as a “working meeting, not a discussion platform like today”. He said it would elect an interim committee charged with establishing the organisation by the end of the year. Wilson also recommended that participants at the second Assembly familiarise themselves with the constitution of YesCymru, suggesting that AUOB sees this as its model rather than the Catalan ANC.
There was a welcome consensus in the discussions around structure and membership that the new organisation has to be democratic, transparent and accountable. The greatest area of tension appeared to be over local groups and how the new organisation would organise at a local level without either superseding or competing with existing Yes groups. The greatest area of agreement was dissatisfaction with the SNP leadership on independence. The greatest area of uncertainty is how a committee will be elected at the second Assembly and for how long this committee will stay in place; it was suggested at one point that it could remain in place for a full year. There were also abortive discussions about a new youth organisation and a new pro-independence trade union group, but their relationship to the new organisation was unclear. The RSP’s coming meeting will be a useful opportunity to discuss how we approach this.
- Registration for the second AUOB Assembly on Sunday 22 November 2020 is now open on the AUOB website.