Yesterday’s nationwide Mass Canvass by the Radical Independence Campaign was another milestone for the grassroots yes campaign, and also for the pro-independence radical left. With thousands canvassed in dozens of locations by hundreds of activists in a single day, the left can confidently attest to not only adding its own voice to the referendum debate but to pulling many times its own weight in campaigning effort.
This largest single day of activity in the independence campaign yet was preceded by innumerable local mas canvasses, public forums and rallies, all taking place in the working class towns and communities of Scotland abandoned by Labour. There is surely no political force in the country, with the partial exception of the official Yes campaign that could conceivably call forth so many activists for such consistent activity.
The radical lefts arguments have, I believe, been the most coherent and cut the deepest in the campaign so far. Its analysis of the referendum as a product of British decline and failure, and one that provides openings for significant progressive change fits the largely working class and disenfranchised profile of Yes support. By this arrangement of activity, thought and message the left has combined a premium of both unity of activity within the broader Yes movement with independence of position.
This is all a remarkable turn-around. When I moved to Glasgow in 2007 the left was in meltdown. The crisis and split of the SSP in 2006 had exploded the most promising and dynamic left of Labour outfit Britain had seen since the peak of the Communist Party at the end of the Second World War. Its bitter and feuding fragments appeared to me nothing more than the dead-leaf echo of the rooted and effective party I had been expecting to encounter.
At the height of the election campaign of that year I was able to stroll from the steps of the concert hall at the top of Buchanan Street, the location of an SSP stall and activists, to Borders bookshop the site of a ‘Solidarity’ equivalent. Walk another equal distance and find a second SSP presence at St. Enoch’s Square, take a left down Argyll Street and find each faction represented again in the same alternating formation. I dare say if I’d had the heart to witness it, which I didn’t, I could have found the same spectacle heading west along Sauchiehall Street and god knows where else.
In the event neither side of the split managed to hold onto their seats – now the spoils of what was once a proud achievement for the socialist movement and a registered advance for the Scottish working class. After the election wipe-out the left slipped into obscurity. As recently as October 2011 Gerry Hassan could characterise the dismal state of a left whose decline seemed terminal:
“The new Parliament is far removed from the ‘rainbow Parliament’ of 2003 when the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists significantly broke through in votes and parliamentary representation…After the 2003 elections, the state of the Scottish hard left and Trotskyism attracted international attention, whereas today they have descended to a level of minuscule support making them irrelevant.”
Less than three years ago who would have disagreed with this statement? The Scottish left isn’t irrelevant anymore.
What remains of the SSP has rallied to add a degree of steer, rigour and energy to the official Yes Scotland campaign. RIC is a runaway success, proving that socialist politics, of the most flagrant kind, remain a substantial part of the Scottish political vernacular.
Of course the success of the explicitly socialist left has been reflected in a much wider eco-system of left of centre campaigning. The Greens, whose lineage has survived in official political life, are at the forefront of the campaign and initiatives like the Common Weal have re-introduced the language of modern Social Democracy into the circles of that officialdom. But these developments were at least conceivable and foreseeable. The resurgence of the radical left was predicted by no-one.
It would be easy to surmise that the independence referendum saved the socialist left at the moment of its greatest nadir. But movements don’t organise themselves, and if we have only so far succeeded in saving the honour of the socialist movement, at this great moment of change and prospect for Scotland, then we have done so ourselves.
The basic blue-print for the practice of socialist politics established by the SSP is now, I believe, thoroughly ingrained. The public imagination is prepared to receive a socialist challenge at the ballot box and the SSP’s mode of pro-independence, pluralistic and radical party is in the blood of the left. Such a formation will constantly re-appear, constantly strive to re-materialise itself no matter how often delayed.
I cannot bring myself to believe that there are some who would choose not to move forward with this process of developing a new left. Could anyone honestly hope, after the referendum, for a return to those days less than three years ago? A return to irrelevance?
There can be no turning back for the Scottish radical left. We’ve proved too much to ourselves to remain fractured and impotent. Of course our primary goal remains securing the Yes vote in September. But whatever the result, the post September Scotland needs and deserves a unified, fighting socialist force.