Report: Now Scotland Assembly 21/3/21

Now Scotland, the national grassroots organisation established late last year on the initiative of All Under One Banner (AUOB), last month held its inaugural National Assembly, bringing together around 350 members for a series of workshops and discussions aimed at cohering the nascent organisation, which now boasts more than 2,500 paid-up members.

Although in many respects a successful event, it is hard to conclude that the Assembly has moved Now Scotland forward in either practical or political terms. There was little to differentiate it, either in format or in content, from the two AUOB Assemblies which were convened last November to discuss its foundation, which I reported on for the RSP website at the time. This report is probably best read in conjunction with those previous reports.

May’s election loomed large over the discussion; a significant number of delegates were anxious to discuss tactical voting strategies and new list parties, rather than the extra-parliamentary action Now Scotland is geared towards. Many of those are undoubtedly among the thousands who have since joined the ‘Alba Party’ launched by disgraced former first minister Alex Salmond. It is not yet clear what long-term impact the new party will have on the politics of Now Scotland or of the independence movement as a whole, though it is a subject that will be explored in further articles on the RSP website over the weeks and months to come.

The first Assembly

The Assembly programme, running from 12 noon to 5.30pm, was put together by Now Scotland’s interim national committee based on the outcome of a survey of members. It was billed as including “combating unionist propaganda, building unity across the movement, our collective vision for a new Scotland, and reframing the arguments for independence”.

Former SNP MP George Kerevan and activist Gillian Mair, elected by the committee to serve as Now Scotland’s co-conveners, opened the event with the announcement that its membership figure now stood at more than 2,500. This is undoubtedly impressive – albeit significantly short of the “tens of thousands” which Kerevan predicted in January – and places the organisation on a firm financial footing, bringing in at least £5,000 per month and probably more.

This introduction was followed with a panel discussion led by committee members Charlotte Ahmed, Ian Grant, Suzanne Blackey and Linda McCorrison. This, regrettably, brought no clarity on a number of unresolved organisational questions, including the crucial matter of Now Scotland’s constitution. No drafts have been circulated since last November, when AUOB circulated a draft document based almost entirely on the constitution of YesCymru in Wales, and no document has been put in place on either a temporary or permanent basis.

In practice, this means there is a democratic deficit at the heart of Now Scotland, where members can only shape the organisation to the extent that the committee invites them to do so. The interim committee, which has decided by itself that it will remain in place until May, puts its own proposals to the membership, but there is no clear mechanism for ordinary members to make their own proposals. This is a top-down form of democracy, rather than the bottom-up, members-led democracy that RSP members have argued should be put in place. Admittedly, this shortcoming is forgivable for such a new organisation; what is needed now is for the drawing up and ratification of a democratic constitution to be treated as an urgent priority.

Presentations, workshops and discussions

From this point, the Assembly moved on to a half-hour presentation on “reframing”, delivered by long-standing SNP activist Bill Mills and developed by the Framing & Reframing Group he co-founded in 2014. This group has now been incorporated as a private company called Creative Community Communications, with financial support from the Scottish Independence Foundation. It has made presentations to over 4,000 activists from more than 60 groups, including the SNP, Greens, Women for Independence and local Yes groups.

Mills introduced ‘reframing’ as “the breakthrough method of combating propaganda”, which focuses on challenging the ‘frames’ through which voters understand political issues. This draws in large part from the work of US linguist George P. Lakoff and his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, which remains influential within the echelons of the US Democratic Party. In essence, Mills appealed to activists to try to shift the independence debate onto different grounds instead of focusing on fact-based rebuttals to unionist arguments. Lakoff has argued that Hillary Clinton’s focus on rebutting Trump’s audacious claims in 2016 cost her the election. Socialists might counter that her neoliberal policies had something to do with it as well.

However, the workshops running from 2pm to 3pm represented the real meat of the Assembly programme. These took the form of wide-ranging political discussions under the following titles:

  1. What does independence mean to you?
  2. The role and reach of Now Scotland
  3. After independence
  4. Pathways to independence
  5. Campaigning for independence

Politics, anti-politics and civil disobedience

Because the workshops ran concurrently, I can only offer an informed take on the second workshop on Now Scotland’s “role and reach”, though I can also draw some limited conclusions from the plenary session which involved reports from the workshops and further discussion.

First of all, it is worth recognising that the discussion at the Assembly largely reflected the generally progressive character of the broader independence movement. There was ample discussion about breaking from Westminster’s neoliberalism, its warmongering, its racist and anti-migrant politics, its dismantling of the NHS, and its mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is hard to judge how organic this is, given the extent to which well-disciplined members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) succeeded in dominating the discussion in some workshops, but I think it is fair to say these arguments found resonance with many rank-and-file Now Scotland members outwith the world of organised socialist politics.

There was also a welcome opening of a debate about the role of civil disobedience or direct action in breaking the impasse created by the UK government’s intransigent refusal of permission for a new independence referendum after the May election. Though this was vague, a straw poll found that 80% of delegates thought Now Scotland should “take forward civil disobedience” (in hard numbers, 134 voted in favour and just 34 voted against). This is welcome insofar as it represents a growing section of the independence movement wanting to grapple with the question of how we can effectively escalate the crises of the British state. This could be developed further into an explicitly republican perspective which upholds the sovereignty of the people over the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster (though not with the help of opportunistic socialists like Tommy Sheridan who showed up simply to argue that any discussion about republicanism should be left until after Scotland becomes independent).

“After three all-day Assemblies – two held under the auspices of AUOB and one as Now Scotland – there is still very little we can definitively say represents the agreed position of the organisation. Members may well be forced to have these same debates again and again.”

However, it is hard to agree, as some others have argued, that the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign is therefore redundant and socialists should instead focus on building Now Scotland and intervening in these debates to pull it to the left. The fact that the Assembly was disproportionately made up of older, retired men raises questions about Now Scotland’s ability to connect with women, young people and trade unionists, perhaps connected with the reactionary and transphobic politics of some of its leading members. It is also the case that despite many members clearly wanting to actively link independence with broader progressive causes, there are also more conservative members hostile to what they see as the intrusion of “politics” into the independence movement, for whom the very word “policy” sets alarm bells ringing; unsurprisingly, these people also provide the bedrock of opposition to a strategy of civil disobedience on the basis that it could scare off more cautious independence supporters.

These are tensions which Now Scotland must resolve in order to make progress, and the Assembly did little to achieve this. There were only two concrete proposals put to the Assembly by the committee – a proposed statement endorsing a new independence referendum in the event that pro-independence candidates garner a majority of votes in May’s election, and a proposal for a vague ‘day of action’ between now and then. These are currently being voted on by the membership as a whole, as all of the votes taken at the Assembly were purely indicative. After three all-day Assemblies – two held under the auspices of AUOB and one as Now Scotland – there is still very little we can definitively say represents the agreed position of the organisation. Members may well be forced to have these same debates again and again.

There is still time for the left to seize the initiative. A renewed Radical Independence Campaign could more easily overcome these divisions and make an appeal to the most militant sections of the independence movement, including some within Now Scotland; it could undoubtedly make a more convincing overture to dissidents in the Labour Party and trade union movement by embracing a more explicit class politics in contrast to the contrived nationalism of those socialists most deeply embedded in Now Scotland. As we inch towards the May election and the promise of a post-vaccination summer, the streets may again become the site of mass political action. Only time can tell who will rise to meet the moment.

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