The recent RIC (Radical Independence Campaign) conference in Glasgow has been described by Better Together, otherwise known as the No Campaign, as ‘the true face of the independence movement’. For the one thousand people who attended this was less of a slur than a profound source of hope: imagine if radical convictions as regards climate change, international solidarity and social security truly were the core of the independence campaign. Imagine, as actor David Hayman suggested in his speech, ‘a Scotland of the Common Weal, of shared wealth and shared wellbeing’. This is undoubtedly the reason many Scots, including the vast majority of the thousand at RIC, will vote Yes. However, as many of the speakers pointed out, for others in our society radical independence is either frightening or unrealistic. Those of us convinced that a socially progressive independent Scotland is desirable, even imperative, face an uphill struggle to win over the latter and defeat the former in debate.
There was relatively little discussion of cultural identity. Even those speakers approaching the debate from nationalistic perspectives (who were in the minority) preferred to concentrate on Scotland’s social traditions and the possibilities of these being more profoundly realised after independence. There were occasional moments of rancour, for instance when a number of SNP supporters walked out during community activist Mary McGregor’s speech, and one or two moments when argument about, say, sectarian song threatened to overwhelm debate. By and large, however, the day went by without serious disagreement on issues of nationhood and identity. As someone who spends most of their time researching and teaching Scottish culture, I found this refreshing. None of the delegates dismissed culture as unimportant – quite the contrary. Rather, the cultural confidence of the majority of those present seemed sufficient to move beyond the old discussions of national difference and towards more sophisticated socio-political arguments. It has to be emphasised, particularly when debating independence with people from large countries outside Scotland, that for many, especially those on the progressive side of the movement, this is simply not about nationalism. A passionate concern with one’s own culture and a desire to see that culture sustained by socially responsible politics does not equate to dangerous isolationism; rather the opposite.
In any case, the socially responsible ideas advocated so convincingly by many of the delegates are increasingly unpalatable to Westminster politicians of all parties. Arguments as to the practical impossibility of radical reform in a UK context are familiar; economist and campaigner Steve Freeman argued that Scottish independence might provide a rupture which English radicals could exploit. The absolute necessity of reform was frequently demonstrated. Particularly powerful was a speech by disability rights activist Susan Archibald, visibly moved as she described the degradation and despair experienced by many of the people she encounters in her day-to-day work. Much of the responsibility for this deprivation rests with the Westminster administrations of recent decades, who have allowed the UK to become the fourth most unequal state in the developed world. As a number of economists present pointed out, none of this is necessary. With or without the oil, Scotland is a rich country. Testimony from activists involved in resistance to the Bedroom Tax was salutary and lent urgency to the economic discussion.
It would be possible to go on at great length, detailing individual arguments and weighing the pros and cons of each. Lacking the space to do so, a number of key points beg specific mention. Patrick Harvie, co-spokesperson for the Scottish Green Party, placed the independence debate firmly in the context of a planet in ecological crisis. Shona McAlpine of Women for Independence emphasised the role of feminism in the independence campaign. Leading Human Rights Lawyer Aamer Anwar was one of several speakers from a Scottish-Asian background. Peter McColl, Rector of Edinburgh University, urged for the universal extension of social security in an independent Scotland.
A Welsh readership, many of whom presumably disagree with Carwyn Jones’ recent assertions on behalf of the UK, will no doubt be curious as to the future of a Britain without Scotland, and what that might mean for radicals in Wales. Sadly an invited Welsh speaker was unable to attend a workshop discussing the potential effects of the referendum on the UK as a whole. However, this workshop saw Irish socialist and republican Bernadette McAliskey give one of the best speeches of the conference, in which she reflected upon the independence movement in terms of her own experiences in Northern Ireland. She reminded the conference of the pitfalls of any movement towards a more radical society, emphasising the shortness of the window of opportunity before us. One of her closing remarks – to the effect that you don’t dare lose, because if you do they’ll make you pay for it – was clearly felt by many in the room. This was a sentiment echoed by Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, in one of the last speeches of the conference: the referendum is the beginning. Once we win it the real fight starts. The real fight is to ensure that the constitution and institutions of an independent Scotland are set in place by people with radical, progressive consciences, who care more about the health and social security of those around them than the wellbeing of a minority elite. As McAlpine argued, it is up to us to make sure that an independent Scotland avoids making the same mistakes as the UK. I find it hard to express how much I hope this conference really does reflect the true face of Scottish independence.