That was then this is now

Some brief notes from the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow – written for myself, and not in the spirit of “translating” abstractions and theories for wider use, something often demanded in the halls today. For which narcissism (and tiredness), apologies.

1. Mon the weans! A real sense of generational handover today. The organisers were below thirty, gender-balanced, super-lucid and -smart, and in terms of the evident leadership of the event, notably non-white/Scottish-Asian. It felt like a meeting point between an old and a new current of Scottish radical politics. One, the stalwart history of left-constitiutional politics in Scotland – democratic-socialist/social-democratic, anti-Trident, pro-public-services, represented by voices like Isobel Linsday, Dennis Canavan and Jean Urquhart in the opening discussion. And two, the recent forces of student protest and Occupy: network-and-tech-savvy (hashtag #ric2012 on the screen all day, good social media promotion), as well as internationally well-connected (mid-conference, there was an impressive top table of Greek, Basque, French, and Palestinian anti- and counter-capitalists).

The actual experience of the day (a Glasgow city-centre sell-out with 800 attendees) was well-put-together and stewarded, minus any of the chaos or grandstanding that can happen at radical events – something of an indication of the kind of organisational skills and autonomous discipline that has come out of the last few years of student radicalism. As it all moved excellently along, I had a strange feeling of weight lifting from my shoulders. “It’s not just us foaming middle-agers anymore”, I mentioned to Lesley Riddoch sitting beside me, to which she enthusiastically nodded.

A8eqPL_CAAAOwak-2.jpg-large2. It’s all overlapping and emerging and idealistic, and that’s completely fine. As an advisory board member of YesScotland, I wanted to test whether the pluralism that must define how the organisation gathers together Yes voters would be able to contain the explicit “radicalism” of RIC. My sense is that the test was passed. This is not just in terms of the critical but measured commentary from the lead speakers about the broad Scottish Nationalist movement (Jean Urqhuart’s gentle reminder that without Salmond’s achievement of the referendum, this conference would not be happening, was equally gently cheered).

But at least in the two breakout sessions I attended, there was a rare openness to the discussion between a “radical”, and what one might call a “standard” independence position. In the green economy session, The Scotsman’s George Kerevan – known fortaunting his erstwhile lefty comrades – was instead constructive about what a Scottish state could proactively do for progressive causes (his main notion was to establish a green-and-cooperative-friendly state bank, so that “capital as well as organisations can be socialised”). He was responded to in the same equable manner by a room and top-table full of grass-roots, practical Greens.

In the “Strategies For Independence” session, I would have said there was a genuine and generous response to YesScotland’s Gail Lythgoe’s non-flashy request for campaign and strategy ideas. But my sense was that the relationship between the more official YesScotland organisation, and the impressive Millenial/Y-Gen energy of RIC, should be contiguous rather than incorporating – side-by-side in a loose and capacious relationship, rather than one side either absorbing or challenging the other.

In the closing plenary, Robin McAlpine from the Jimmy Reid Foundation – itself a fulcrum point in all this, bringing old and new independistas, and the Scottish labour movement, into dialogue – claimed that “the Scottish Left” were “coming out of the shadows today”. But he also made the crucial point that RIC was as much about “an idea” as anything else – that is, a horizon of possibility for ambitions and aspirations towards independence. The politics of the “idea” is something that very much animates the new radicalism – its gurus like Slavoj Zizek, Negri/Hardt, David Graeber or AdBusters magazine mesh well with the highly-educated but lowly-prospected grads that constitute its members (Paul Masonwrites brilliantly about this). It’s exciting to think that a Yes vote could partake of that “infinitely demanding” excitement about the future coming from the new student movements.

(NB: I was asked to read a general statement from the conference organisers mid-afternoon. I hope I did their collective production justice. I append the text below the fold of this post).

Glasgow-monkeybar3. Getting to the friendly life together. I can’t move past those Brecht lines these days: “Oh, we/Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/Could not ourselves be friendly”. It would seem to me that Brecht’s tough self-admonition about the interpersonal anger and aggression of the radical had an answer today in the Radisson Hotel. The very human experience of the event – a festival of constructiveness and polite argumentation – kept pushing this version of the old Gandhi line into my head: Be The Scotland You Wish To See. As Robin McAlpine again brilliantly pointed out at the end of the event (and elaborates here), the experience of skilling ourselves to take an argument about Scottish potential to the streets and workplaces and front-rooms of Scotland, will itself be transformatory. We will – or should – come alive as citizens through the Yes campaign.

Yet I’m left with a final note of worry. I walked out of the stylish environs of the Radisson Hotel and strolled down the Saturday night streets of Glasgow – where shoppers struggled onto buses laden with bags, karaoke sailed out of pubs, wee hard men roamed around in packs: Glasvegas, beginning to crank up to all its post-working-week, hedonistic splendour. Can the experience of “being Yes”, the activism and conviviality that can connect up social yearning with action and friendship, compete with the knuckling-down-to-work and spending-what-it-gets-you of the mainstream Scottish lifestyle?

An insufficiently enjoyable and engaging Yes campaign, unable to quell fears of disruption with tangible visions for a better life, might easily bounce off the brittle shell of everyday Scotland, defensive of its precarious mix of grind and escapism.  Part of the problem a Yes campaign has to solve, and in double-quick time, is the overall decay of citizenship in the developed world. We not only fight with our Unionist opponents, but with a generalised contempt for all politics, including independence: a comfortable numbness which characterizes our work-to-consume societies. Will a rich and deep independence movement over the next two years become the antidote to such a malaise? Perhaps one of the sharp tactics that emerged from today – making sure that working-class/poor areas are registered and ready to vote – will be the activism that dispels it?

Don’t know, not sure, maybe. It’s at least worth an almighty, life-defining try. And I am genuinely grateful to the Radical Independence Conference organisers for demonstrating that the torch of a radical Scotland (to cite the old magazine) has definitely passed onto the next generation. There was a great Hamish Henderson line from the Freedom Come ‘A Ye, quoted at the end. We indeed walked through “the Great Glen o’ the warld” today, in our perhaps too comfortable surroundings. The task is to take it out to the tough, unhappy, tawdry, ground-down parts of Scotland. And make the idea generate a thousand new Scotlands.