Nearly 70 people attended the Radical Independence Campaign’s 2021 AGM last Sunday, its first national meeting in nearly a year and its first-ever held via Zoom as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. What could have been an important step towards re-cohering the pro-independence left amid strengthening majority support for independence, in tandem with similar processes taking place in other parts of the wider independence movement, unfortunately collapsed into an acrimonious row and was adjourned for two weeks. This report aims to contribute to a collective reflection on what went wrong in the first half of the AGM and how we fix it moving forward.
Where RIC stands now
It is important to locate the 2021 AGM in the wider context of RIC’s present state across the country. The list of local groups on the RIC website offers a window into the past, when there were functioning and active local RIC groups across the length and breadth of the country. This is no longer the case. Only two local groups – Edinburgh and Angus & Mearns – have had “continuing existence and activity since the Radical Independence Campaign was first formed”, as Angus & Mearns pointed out this month. However, there have been limited signs of renewed interest and growth since the announcement of the RIC conference in Glasgow in October 2019.
Activists who were involved in Dundee RIC during the 2014 referendum campaign met in September 2019 and agreed to re-establish the lapsed group, which has since provided a useful platform for political discussion and some limited campaigning. A new Glasgow group was launched last February and, after laying dormant for most of the Covid-19 pandemic, began meeting online in December; it has recently helped to start a discussion about the feasibility of a new North Lanarkshire group. There were also promising moves in late 2019 and early 2020 towards establishing local groups in Paisley and Perth, but these appear to have fallen to the wayside due to the pandemic.
Although much of this growth was catalysed by the October 2019 conference, the way in which the conference was organised came under criticism. I was among the co-authors of and signatories to an open letter circulated on the conference floor, which argued that the organising of the conference “by a small handful of people, without any public appeal for input or volunteers … recalls the worst features of RIC’s heyday, in which local groups were afforded autonomy but national decisions were ultimately taken and implemented by an unaccountable clique”. I was kindly invited to Forfar to discuss the contents of the letter at an Angus & Mearns meeting. It was also discussed more informally by other RIC activists. At a minimum, we can say there was sympathy and support for at least parts of the letter beyond its 15 original signatories. This letter helped to precipitate the founding of the Republican Socialist Platform in September 2020.
In many ways, the letter predicted the row at the next meeting of RIC’s sovereign decision-making body, the National Forum. When it met in Perth in December 2019, its first meeting in more than a year since a poorly-attended meeting in August 2018, there was a relatively short discussion about the Glasgow conference itself and a much longer discussion about RIC’s constitution and structures. There were very stark differences in opinion, some of them rooted in ideological differences. In the end, the National Forum agreed to establish a working group to explore the issue and report back to the wider meeting. I was one of the eight members of this working group, which met twice in early 2020. It failed to reach a consensus, but a majority of its members gave support to a draft document which was widely circulated and ultimately formed the basis of the ill-fated 2021 AGM on Sunday 17 January 2021.
The working group document
The draft constitution backed by the working group majority in February 2020 proposes a number of significant changes in the way RIC is organised. These include:
- A more formal national membership system whereby members must pay an annual subscription.
- A small handful of elected national office-bearers, namely a secretary, minutes secretary, treasurer and blog co-ordinator.
- Decisions to be made at the National Forum on the basis of a simple majority of delegates, rather than consensus or a two-thirds majority.
It is worth pushing back against some of the misinformation circulating in relation to this document. One of the most egregious has been the claim that adopting this structure would transform RIC from a pluralistic campaigning organisation into a “political party” with a “central committee”. This is emphatically untrue. This also obscures the fact that elements of RIC did argue for a more hierarchical organisation with a clearly delineated political leadership, and lost the argument for this at the National Forum and on the working group. Those who drafted the document, supported it and argued for it do not want a ‘leadership’.
There are countless organisations in Scotland which have a paid membership but are not political parties. A prominent example would be the new national membership organisation for the independence movement, which will operate on the basis of a paid membership while encompassing people from various political parties, drawing on the model of membership-based campaigning organisations like YesCymru in Wales and the Assemblea Nacional Catalana in Catalonia. Scottish CND charges £24 per year for an adult membership. Women for Independence, a prominent actor in the 2014 campaign, has a sliding scale of membership fees; while women with a full-time income pay £15 per year, unwaged women and under-21s can join for free. Nobody can argue these organisations are secretly political parties by virtue of having a membership fee. The working group document also makes clear that local groups are not required to exclude non-members, protecting their autonomy to organise in the way they see fit.
Neither does the creation of office-bearers imply the creation of a “central committee”. For starters, “central committee” implies a group with the power to meet and make decisions. The working group document proposes the creation of office-bearers with strictly-defined administrative roles, who would never meet independently of the National Forum or AGM. The National Forum and the AGM would continue to be structured on the basis of voting delegates sent by local and affiliated groups. I argued clearly, as a member of the working group, against taking any political power away from delegates. When others argued in favour of an elected committee that could issue statements to the press, I argued for any statements to be considered and issued by the National Forum. The working group proposal to create office-bearers isn’t rooted in an attempt to take political control away from delegates, but simply recognises the fact that the “national coordination teams” set out in the 2015 constitution have collapsed and important functions, like the drawing up of agendas and the booking of rooms, have been carried out on a largely informal basis by individuals with no meaningful democratic accountability. The most straightforward way to rectify this is by electing office-bearers. It is worth noting that the two longest-functioning RIC groups, Angus & Mearns and Edinburgh, have elected accountable office-bearers who take no decisions outwith the democratic structures of their own groups.
Many local groups involve people from a wide breadth of political traditions. Edinburgh and Dundee, for example, have made a deliberate effort to involve people from socialist organisations like the Republican Communist Network, RS21 and Democratic Left Scotland, as well as Greens, SNP members and activists from movements like Extinction Rebellion. People from these various backgrounds have been delegates at recent National Forums and AGMs. This pluralism would clearly not survive in a “political party” with a “central committee”.
There are, of course, very legitimate reasons why some people in RIC oppose these changes, either in full or in part. For instance, genuine concerns have been raised about whether membership fees would exclude people on low or no incomes – the very people on the sharp end of the austerity we oppose. I voted against a subs increase at my union branch meeting earlier this week for a similar reason. Concerns have also been raised about whether individual office-bearers would have too much responsibility on their shoulders as individuals, particularly in the case of a role with responsibility for RIC’s website and social media pages. These issues should be fairly debated, whereas the prospect of RIC turning into a “political party” with a “central committee” needs no debate because nobody is proposing it nor intends to propose it.
The breakdown of the AGM
It is worth emphasising how long the build-up to the 2021 RIC AGM was. The working group draft constitution had been circulated in advance of the National Forum in February 2020, but was only briefly mentioned there. A member in Aberdeen was chosen to facilitate the next meeting, where a fuller debate would take place. The Covid-19 pandemic then struck and delayed this process extensively. It was not until October 2020 that a proposal from Edinburgh RIC for a Zoom AGM in January was circulated. Dundee and Angus & Mearns confirmed that they would participate. Deadlines for motions and amendments were set. I wrote two amendments to the working group document and my local group, Dundee, agreed to submit them for debate at the AGM. The deadlines passed. The full set of documents was circulated well in advance.
At the eleventh hour, an additional document was suddenly circulated in the name of RIC Aberdeen. This was sent at 12.16pm when the AGM was beginning at 2pm. It was described as a “compromise between the proposed new constitution and the existing one”, taking the form of proposed amendments to the 2015 constitution reflecting some of the content of the working group draft. Although the document itself is clearly a genuine and welcome attempt to find common ground between the two documents, there are two glaring problems here. Firstly, it was presented as the product of a local group, even though RIC Aberdeen has not had any formal meetings for some time now; in reality, it is not a local group so much as an informal network of activists who openly admit their focus is now on other projects. It is fundamentally wrong for an informal and exclusive group of people to demand the same consideration as genuinely democratic local groups whose meetings are open to all. More importantly, however, the document was circulated at a ridiculously late stage, placing an unreasonable expectation on those attending the AGM to read and digest it and removing the possibility of any discussion in local groups. The only acknowledgment of this in the email from ‘RIC Aberdeen’ was the final line, which read: “Apologies for lateness, thought this went out last night.” A more thorough examination of the impact of this, among other things, on the accessibility of the meeting has been written by three disabled RSP members and is well worth a read.
This email was the first indication of what became clear shortly into the debate at the AGM, namely that those broadly supportive of the working group document and those broadly opposed to it had very different views on how the debate would be conducted and concluded. Supporters of the working group document expected that it would be moved, amendments from local groups would be moved, there would be a general discussion, and then votes would take place. This would have been consistent with Edinburgh RIC’s original proposal for the Zoom AGM, circulated in October, which proposed that “the working group’s new draft constitution would be debated and after any amendments voted upon”. Opponents of the working group draft wanted both the 2015 constitution and the 2020 draft to be read through “line-by-line”, amendments to be taken from the floor and the final document to be agreed by consensus. There was no indication of this beforehand, but it was suggested that this latter approach would have more closely resembled the process which led to the agreement of the 2015 constitution.
On top of this, the debate was derailed by a number of contributions that had nothing to do with the draft constitution at all. The first of these was from Jonathon Shafi, one of RIC’s founding members, who announced that he now believed RIC should be brought “to a conclusion”. He was one of a handful of RIC activists drawn from a particular political tradition and with little to no involvement in local RIC groups in recent years who showed up to argue for the dissolution of the organisation and to make no other contribution. David Jamieson reiterated the same view while insisting he didn’t want to “disrupt the agenda”. A number of other participants argued that the AGM should be having a political debate about strategy rather than a debate about RIC’s constitution. In retrospect, a general political discussion may have helped to find common ground between delegates before a contentious debate – but given the debate had already begun, this was hardly a helpful contribution! It is difficult, in any case, to imagine how RIC can host a productive debate on strategy (rather than another left-wing talking shop) without having a clear process in place to decide how that debate will be organised and structured and by who.
This would have been a difficult meeting for anyone to facilitate, particularly in two hours. It is unfair to lay the blame for the breakdown of the meeting on the facilitator alone. The facilitator faced particularly harsh and sometimes quite personal criticism by the end of the meeting. In one case, an RSP member fell short of the standard set out in our code of conduct by interrupting and shouting at the facilitator, accusing him of “deliberate incompetence” among other things. The fact that tensions were running high as time went on without meaningful progress does not excuse this behaviour. This said, the meeting would likely have proceeded more smoothly if members opposed to the working group document and amendment process had circulated alternative documents and proposed processes before the day of the AGM.
There was only one vote taken during the AGM, at a late stage, which was on the question of which document should form the basis of the rest of the discussion: the working group document or the 2015 constitution. Because of technical problems with Zoom’s polling feature, I circulated a Google Forms link in the Zoom chatbox – with the agreement of the facilitator – to allow a vote, no matter how far from ideal given Google Forms’ insecurity and unreliability as a voting platform. The result was 38 in favour of proceeding with the working group document (55%), 17 in favour of proceeding with the 2015 constitution (25%), and 14 abstentions (20%). The only other decision was to adjourn the AGM until Sunday 31 January and then attempt to resume.
Although the AGM was a demoralising and dispiriting experience for those of us who had the misfortune of spending our Sunday afternoon enduring it, there were also some positive features. For instance, it illustrated that there remains a significant appetite for RIC to continue in some form in spite of proposals from some quarters to dissolve it. It also made as clear as possible the key points of disagreement on the proposed constitution and perhaps even shone a light on the areas where compromise might be reached on the 31st.
However, what was most evident at the AGM was the poorness of RIC’s organisation and democratic culture at the national level. This is the biggest problem that the new constitution, whatever its content, will have to resolve. All participants should have known the proposals on the table and the decision-making processes being used before the meeting began. There have already been some informal discussions between local groups, AGM facilitators and members of the working group about the 31st. It would be useful if these discussions could lead to a basic written agreement about how the meeting will proceed, including how decisions will be reached in the absence of consensus, so we can conclude this chapter and turn our attention back to the more important tasks: building a strong, effective and militant pro-independence left.