Hundreds of people from across the country, and internationally gathered to put the latest phase of the crisis of the British state into context, and chart a way forward.
This was not simply a rally for independence – but an arena for debate and discussion that can start to bring the Scottish left towards a coherent strategy for moving forward. Below I put ten key reflections and conclusions forward. I hope these are useful for the left and for the independence movement, and that they capture the essence of Saturday’s special conference.
Ten key points about the RIC Special Conference:
1) Britain is not the benchmark
We cannot run an independence campaign which frames Britain as the benchmark. Saturday’s conference showed that we have a wealth of ideas and talent that can articulate how Scotland can break from the worst elements of Britain. Economically, socially and politically we have to put forward a clear sighted alternative to UK Plc. All of the speeches on these issues reinvigorated the vision we so desperately need and have been lacking since 2014. But here’s the fundamental warning. A well known community activists embedded in her area for decades told me that a lot of Yes voters she knew had lost enthusiasm. They wouldn’t vote No, but it’s likely they wouldn’t vote at all. That’s a disaster. And that is why the radical left has such a vital role to play going forward.
2) We need a coalition to win
This was not designed to be a ‘get the band back together’ event as such – though that is an important element – because the political terrain has changed and RIC needs to reach out to new layers of support. That said for the first time since 2014 it really did feel that there was a genuine coalition of individuals and groups involved. Without the SNP we can’t get another referendum, but we cannot win a referendum with one party alone. Additionally it certainly cannot win a referendum with it on the shoulders of one person. We need to rebuild, deepen and broaden the range of forces in favour of independence, and the left is going to play a crucial role in that process. On Saturday people left with a sense of rejuvenation. How desperately we have needed that since the energy of 2014 dissipated.
3) We are part of an international movement
We were lucky to hear from Catalonia, France, Ireland and England. We have links with many more in Quebec, Portugal, Germany, India and the United States. As British power in the world goes through an existential crisis and through a period of radical decline it is likely we will see the establishment lash out in various ways. That means we have a crucial opportunity to promote a totally different international relations framework based on peace, mutual cooperation and solidarity. This is not abstract. Movements feed off the energy of others, they learn from each other’s victories and errors. We need an international movement for radical transformation, and
RIC is very much a part of that process.
4) Embrace debate in the movement
Disagreements within the movement can often manifest themselves on social media in unproductive ways. On Saturday we tried to have sessions based on real debates in the movement. On Brexit and be EU, on Corbyn and class. These only scratched the surface – but the format showed the best way we can handle tensions is to take them to real forums of discussions and debate. It is an important step forward that the radical left can provide such an arena. Let’s talk about how we can take that forward. And let’s stop the cries of treachery every time someone raises a new idea, or indeed a disagreement. That only puts off potential supporters, and weakens the intellectual rigour of the movement in general.
5) People want to campaign now
Without a referendum in place it is not possible to mobilise a mass campaign. But there are things people want to do right now, and that we should be doing right now on a strategic basis. RIC supporters discussed building anti-racism, and developing community and workplace roots and campaigns. These will get underway soon. We need to build campaigning capacity and the networks which spring from mobilising around issues in the here and now to ensure there is a strong framework in place for a future referendum that is based on localities and in progressive politics.
6) We cannot dismiss Corbyn. Unite the movement, divide the state
It is not good enough just to say ‘Corbyn doesn’t care about Scotland.’ It might make you feel good and the people you talk to feel good. But it is not an analysis and it dismisses a profound change in the political situation that has a real impact on the national question. Many Labour supporters in Scotland have waited their entire lives for this moment of a genuine left-wing breakthrough. There is a real movement in England – driven by similar impulses to the Yes movement in Scotland in 2014. Both advocate transformation based on wealth redistribution and anti-Toryism. Both are manifestations of a grassroots surge looking for an alternative to neoliberalism. Critically, both have come under attack from the same press barons and elite interests. You cannot ignore this development, indeed, we have to support it, but at the same time as holding our pro-independence position steadfastly. As the Momentum speaker at RIC said: ‘There is a voice for independence within Momentum’. We need to make that voice stronger from below. RIC and Momentum making links is an exciting development full of potential, especially as Dugdale continues to build a Chinese wall between her party and those who support Corbyn. Unite the movement, divide the state.
7) Making a workplace strategy
In 2014 RIC made real inroads into areas of low voter turnout and built a campaign of mass canvassing in communities that stole the initiative from Better Together. We reframed the debate from under Labour and won without doubt the idea that working class Scotland was voting Yes for social change. But we did not develop a campaign based on work and the workplace. Next time we can develop a strategy for workplace intervention, with policies and ideas that relate to people’s experience of work in the 21st century, which has seen increasing precarity in hours, conditions and pay RIC includes a lot of trade unionists, who represent a lot of experience of raising political arguments in a workplace setting. These experiences and abilities could be utilised in a future independence referendum.
8) Towards a youth movement
The conference was diverse in its demographic make up. Lots of people attended as their first event since the referendum, indeed for some it was there first ever political event. During the lunch break we held a strategic discussion about building a radical youth movement. This is something we need to bring energy and radicalism into a new referendum campaign. A RIC youth movement could also start to widen the gap in the polls further when it comes to young people voting Yes. We need to turn the sections of society that already support Yes into regiments of Yes support. Amongst the youth, Yes should be overwhelming in its dominance.
9) Indyref2: Timing and Theresa May
RIC is focussed on building vision and campaign organisation rather than on advocating a precise date for a referendum. That said, at the conference there were questions raised about the timing of a second referendum and many people felt that the balance of forces means that a referendum in this parliament is ideal given we have a pro-independence majority, Brexit, Scottish Labour in terminal declaimed and a weak Tory government. What we are resolute about is that if Theresa May tries to block a second referendum, we will unleash a campaign in communities, workplaces and on the streets that will demand on basic democratic grounds that a second referendum be granted.
10) Navigating Brexit
Lastly, we have to think very carefully about the EU in relation to the next referendum. While it is likely that Brexit is the trigger for the referendum, we need to ensure we have a broad and radical policy platform that can appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Yes voters that also voted to leave the EU. The question on the ballot paper should be word for word the same as 2014 and should not be tied to the EU. Our movement should not be afraid to debate and discuss openly a prospectus that is radical and offers a real alternative to the stagnation of the failed neoliberal experiment, and that includes the role of the EU in this process. RIC can play that role, and will develop a strategy to ensure we reach out to every section of Scotland that wants to see a rejection of the status quo and an economic system rigged for the rich.