One afternoon recently I spent some time canvassing in Pollokshields which, alongside neighbouring Govanhill, stands as one of Scotland’s most diverse neighbourhoods. Not far from my home, outside the local library-whose red sandstone seems to announce its public function to its blonde neighbours-a group gathered to set up a stall and speak with fellow locals about independence, address any concerns, and ask if there was anything people would like more information on.
The breadth of politics present was remarkable. My partner for the afternoon- Malik- is a former SNP councillor. Others are SWP activists, Yes volunteers, some have been involved for years in their causes, others are recently energised. We set about knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and engaging in conversation, with a mix of Urdu, English, Punjabi and Russian. One woman asked about the prospects for a currency union and the difficulties of managing interest rates, and a discussion ensued as to whether or not autonomy over political or economic matters has more impact on some economic decisions. She obviously enjoyed talking to someone about her concerns but to be honest I suspect I enjoyed being put on the spot even more-I’ve spent time since trying to understand more about the mechanisms behind interest rates. While I’m still for independence I’ll probably end up with a different, or at least a deeper, understanding of interest rate economics.
The Yes campaign, or rather the Yes campaigns, have involved conversations like this for many of us. Being invited into a garden in Carnwadric by a family who want to believe in independence and are sick of the lies they’re hearing from the No camp. Or the tower block in Kennishead where a Russian man offered tea on a particularly horrible night, minutes before he was due to leave to start his night shift, because he wanted to know more about what Independence could mean for him and his family. How many cases have there been over the past year where people whose political interest has found an outlet have been able to talk with people who just want to know more from a human being rather than a leaflet or a billboard?
Interactions like these are the Yes campaign’s foundation. We’re told by the No campaign that there are experts who understand things so we don’t have to individually, that we can’t make our own decisions, and that it’s all better if we just leave things to the powerful few or a party which hasn’t had an original idea in over a decade. The Yes movements don’t tell people they have all the answers, but they go to peoples’ homes and try to work on solutions with the people the problems impact on.
The weather on this afternoon just about as unpleasant as that in Kennishead in January, but the climate was very different. This time around 2/3rds of people were voting Yes. Some spoke of their joy at just making a go of it. Project Fear? It’s failing. Even if there were to be a No vote on the 18th a political consciousness has arisen across Scotland, a mind set which asks questions and demands answers, not ignorance. This won’t just dissipate and it won’t go back in its box. By having the referendum we were always going to upset the Union’s applecart but the way the Yes campaigns have gone about their business has made sure that, whether or not it’s a Yes vote, the Union in Scotland won’t have the power it did before.
The question now, win or lose, is how best to push forward the consciousness which now exists. Do we; as leftists, as liberals, as Yes voters, dedicate ourselves to gaining power in the existing structures we have? Surely having dismantled the Union’s power over Scotland we can see that Holyrood’s structures still have a significant problems. After all they form a system of government devoted to Tony Blair’s maxim that “Power devolved is power retained.” The achievement of Independence would be in spite of the Scottish Government as it exists today, an aberration in a system which was supposed to contain debate and, ultimately, stifle any drive for independence we have. After winning this can we expect representative democracy, in the form it exists in today, to be capable of delivering the changes people will have in their minds when they go to the ballot booths on the 18th of September?
Seemingly not. A more direct form of democracy is called for, at a local level-not a council level but a local level. We have spent the past year building local systems in which politics can be explored in peoples’ minds and communities. Andy Wightman, in a particularly enlivening talk at the Empire Café last week, pointed out the models of local democracy which existed in Scotland until the first half of the 20th Century, and others which exist today across Scandinavia. The payment of certain taxes on a local level by town rather than a national one, decisions taken at the most local possible level rather than a centralised power structure which dictates need from a position of bias. These are the things we should demand of the New Scotland.
The groups which have been running across Scotland, mobilising communities and empowering their participants to think for themselves, to ask questions and expect answers-these should continue but they should also be the second unit of our political structure (the first, of course, is the individual human being.) Why are we talking in some places about turning our movements into parties, or lobbying groups? As soon as we entertain these ideas, based as they are in mythologised understandings of the goodness of power, we damn ourselves to the same hegemony we have come to expect from the Union. Instead we should demand our politics find new voice at the most local level possible.
Scotland’s people have come to expect more in the past few months, not from their politics but from themselves. Now we should each ask ourselves what we can do on a personal level and how much ownership we can take of our problems and the solutions to them. If the answers are anything like as positive as the Yes campaigns have been, the problems won’t seem so significant after all.