On Sunday 31st Jan 2021, a vote was taken to wind up the national organisation of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). Important decisions now lie ahead and there are important lessons in how we got here that will inform what happens next.
As the independence referendum of 2014 approached, I had been politically inactive for over a decade. Sure, I had been on various marches but was not really involved beyond that. Having drifted into inactivity in the mid 90s, I had the fortune to have missed the various fractures that arose on the left but the terrain this had left behind were less than inviting.
Then came RIC and a fresh, vibrant and inclusive approach that mobilised and reached into working class communities in a way arguably not seen since the heights of the anti-poll tax campaign. It was a much needed intervention, articulating a fundamentally different view of independence and pulling the Yes movement leftwards. RIC had a visible presence on demonstrations, was an initiator of mass canvasses and was firmly positioned within the wider Yes movement.
Much has changed since 2014 and the period since saw RIC slide into inactivity. Some big and useful conferences were held but this was not matched by feet on streets. RIC’s banners were still seen at marches and demos but thanks to key activists rather than anything else. Many local RIC groups ceased to operate altogether (with notable exceptions).
Beyond RIC, the SNP mushroomed in size, sucking a large chunk of the wider movement, including those who had been active in or close to RIC. The well-intentioned but ill-fated RISE project left other activists burned out. The rise and fall of the Cobyn project also had its effects as did fundamental disagreements over Brexit.
2019 saw RIC’s final big conference and, while it was a success, numbers were down compared to some previous ones and there was a notable tension in the air between different constituencies under the RIC umbrella.
When things fall apart, healthy debate itself often degrades as well, veering away from the political towards impugning motives and general mistrust. A cloud descended on an already dysfunctional organisation, leading us to what happened on 31st January.
David Jamieson rightly points to various mistakes RIC has made in recent years but had it really become, “precisely the type of organization it was set up to avoid”?. What it is, however, is an example of differences that have emerged over what RIC was, is, could be or should be.
The specific question before us was whether RIC could be revived and, if so, how, or whether something entirely new was needed. A number of those taking the former of these (myself included) had already begun to meet and discuss and the Republican Socialist Platform within RIC was born in September 2020. Involving a diverse and eclectic (and at times chaotic) range of socialists from different traditions and none, it was launched in September 2020 and was met with both acclaim and suspicion.
Meanwhile, others were taking a different view, believing that a new organisation of some sort was needed and RIC’s continued existence was a barrier to that. Some have characterised this as a descent into factionalism and agendas being pursued that have little to do with building the movement and organisation that we need. While undoubtedly some of this is at play, it is far too crude a description and does much disservice to a lot of committed activists (of different views) who are still focussed on the principal task ahead.
Prior to the 31st January meeting, the proposal to disband the national organisation was circulated. It was first announced at the first part of the meeting two weeks previously but was getting talked about, at least amongst a layer of activists, earlier still.
With it hanging in the air, the meeting of 17th January, primarily to discuss constitutional revisions, descended into acrimony and was adjourned until 31st, with the motion to disband becoming the first order of business. Lessons were learned from the 17th and the meeting on the 31st, while tense, was far more comradely.
A range of views were aired in the debate. My position was that any decision to disband now was premature and that a much wider and deeper discussion was needed than two hours on Zoom could facilitate.
More crucial still was reaching a decision that had legitimacy amongst those present and beyond. Technical issues led to the vote being a shambles and a real low point in an otherwise (relatively) comradely meeting and unresolved questions were raised, from those taking different views on what was before us, on whether the vote was valid.
One commentator described Sunday as a piece of Zoom theatre, which really changes very little. The need for a strong, left voice remains. The need for a fractious left to work together remains. The urgency to find a way forward remains.
It is worth noting here that the decision taken does not affect any local RIC groups. Both established and newer groups have indicated that they plan to continue.
Connor Beaton correctly describes RIC as being in crisis. The question that raises in my mind is whether Sunday was integral to the crisis or was merely a symptom of it. Regardless, we need to get beyond this. In an already more fragmented independence movement and with the SNP’s own internal contradictions playing out dailly, a clearly articulated message from the left is badly needed.
In the weeks and months ahead, we either move forward or ossify further. The left’s role in the next indy will not be as it was in 2014. As RS21 members (who were divided on the proposal to disband) put it, we need, “an organisational form for a united radical left voice on independence, and working through the basis on which such a RIC2.0 could be built should be a priority.”