So this caused a wee bit of a tizzy on Twitter last night. A fair amount of folk were taken aback by it, and you can see why: independence campaigners are no more or less harder-working by their class or upbringing, and might well resent the implication that only those “less posh” do all the hard work. It could also rub those independence supporters who think of themselves as working class the wrong way, if they don’t actively support or work for RIC. I thought I’d wait until I had a read of it before commenting on the piece itself – pull quotes can often read very differently out of context.
The “posher nationalists” quote itself didn’t bother me, mostly because I’ve been accused of being posh for most of my life. But the piece does talk a lot about class politics.
THIS year’s annual Radical Independence Conference was, in my opinion, the best yet. It wasn’t the biggest, but compared to earlier years the ideas were sharper, and it really reinvigorated the increasingly tired debate about how to square “internationalism” with “nationalism”.
My perspective might sound glib, but it’s simple: you can’t have internationalism without nationalism. That doesn’t mean the extreme, twisted ideologies which use national pride as an excuse for chauvinism and isolationism, but the mere idea that a nation and its government should be coterminous. It’s a view that’s fairly uncontroversial for the other 200 odd countries throughout the world. Indeed, it’s only one party which seems to view nationalism and internationalism as mutually exclusive.
To me, though, there’s still an unanswered question about the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). Since we formed the alliance in 2012, we’ve gone from rank outsiders on the fringes to a recognised part of Scottish politics. My fear is that we’ll become a little too domesticated by accepting our role in the official narrative.
I’m not a member or activist of the Radical Independence Campaign, though I happily and enthusiastically worked alongside them during the indyref: if the activists I know are anything to go by, I don’t think “domestication” is anything to worry about!
People often praise RIC for leading the call for campaigning in working-class housing estates in 2014. Since that’s eventually where the bulk of people moved from “No” to “Yes”, we gained significant credit for helping shift the result. Some of that credit is undeserved. RIC led the radical left intellectual argument for this campaigning method, and RIC activists certainly took a lead. But, ultimately, Yes Scotland eventually came to see the sense in mobilising political “outsiders” to the cause, having failed miserably to win the voters they wanted, the professional middle class. Credit where credit is due, we couldn’t have campaigned on such a huge scale across all of Scotland without these official resources.
I’ve had my issues with Yes Scotland in the past, particularly in regards to its strategy – but I tend to think of the independence movement as a whole of many parts. It wasn’t that Yes Scotland “failed miserably” to win the voters they wanted – it’s that we all failed to win the voters we wanted. Even if different groups within the independence campaign are envisioning a different vision for Scotland – be it a constitutional monarchy, a socialist republic, or one of the many different varieties of nation state – all of us are campaigning for a sovereign Scotland. From that point of view, winning voters is a victory we all share: not winning voters is a failure on all of us.
Both SNP and Scottish Labour governments had framed the “real” political battle around winning businesspeople and middle-class support, taking working-class voters for granted or, frankly, patronising them (“monkey in a red rosette”). We campaigned in working-class areas because the battle for swing voters had drained the morality from Scottish politics. We didn’t want the referendum to become another boring election campaign where politicians mouthed wooden words about combining a “competitive economy” and a “fair society”, combining “sustainability” with “growth”, and so on. We wanted an insurgency against the tired politics of devolution.
Being an SNP member, campaigner & activist, it would be remiss of me to say that even before I officially joined up, I voted for and supported the party prior to and during the indyref – and I sure as heck didn’t think that was the SNP’s framing. If it was, I might not have voted for them. The SNP are pro-independence, where the Other Party, Coalition Party, and UK Government Party do not; the SNP opposed the Afghan & Iraq wars, where the three other largest parties supported at least one; the SNP reject nuclear weapons, which the other three largest parties accept with varying degrees of reluctance. The SNP continue to support free education and prescriptions and care for the elderly. These do not strike me as uniquely relevant to businesspeople or the middle-class, and I certainly don’t think the SNP took me or my working single mother for granted.
Back when my mammy was first involved in the SNP, they were the “insurgency”: they were the threat to the status quo which all the other major UK parties united against to quash. I appreciate that the SNP aren’t nearly as left-wing as RIC, but neither do I think there’s any sort of equivalence between the SNP’s treatment of voters to that of any of those other parties. For those other parties, Scottish votes are supplementary to UK votes, which are what really matter: for the SNP, Scottish votes are the only votes that matter. That, in and of itself, makes a huge difference to how the SNP treat their voters.
Meanwhile, the economic case for independence hasn’t advanced, leaving aside the contested matter of the European Union. In many areas, like oil and currency, the case has weakened. There are solutions, but they aren’t solutions of the political centre. The campaign must move right – embracing a smaller state, as Mike Russell and others have suggested – or move left by arguing for progressive taxes.
I think of it another way: the economic case for independence has not advanced because it can never be advanced, or retracted, any further from the fundamental constitutional point – “should Scotland’s economy be controlled by the people of Scotland, or the people of Britain?” (The people of Britain being, functionally, the people of England, by virtue of their vastly greater population) You quote one of RIC’s most potent messages in this article – “Britain is for the Rich. Scotland can be ours.” Right now, Scotland’s economy is for the rich. The rich control it, dole it out, funnel it away from the interests and desires of the Scottish people into the Treasury’s groaning war chest. Likewise, the cases of the European Union, oil, and currency, have not ultimately changed – it’s still “should Scotland’s EU membership/oil/currency be controlled by the people of Scotland, or the people of Britain?”
RIC, for me, isn’t just a convenient mobilising tool designed to do hard work that posher nationalists don’t want to touch. It’s about radical democracy, by which I mean democracy that threatens people with too much wealth and power. RIC isn’t about winning independence at all costs. It’s about making sure that independence improves the lives of the people who fought for democracy in the first place.
On “posher nationalists” (whoever they may be)…
Back when I was a wee guy, I had various problems growing up. One of them was certain difficulties in social situations: to improve this, my mother enrolled me in drama & elocution classes. This was never an issue in pre- or Primary School, as children tended to be more understanding in their earliest years – but High School was insufferable. Children who wore all the top brands with parents driving them around in new cars were ridiculing me for being “posh,” because I spoke clearly, had a “posh haircut” (whatever that means), and always wore a shirt & tie. AKA, the school uniform.
Most of these children were demonstrably more wealthy than I was. The other children at school who actually were in my “wealth” bracket didn’t hold my “posh” nature against me – even if they had no idea of my family’s financial position. This hasn’t stopped. Even now, people enquire about my background, because I “sound” academic, or learned, or educated (apparently): they think I must be some hi-falutin’ scholar based on my diction, vocabulary, and general manner of speaking. I just think back to my single mammy holding several jobs, a wee family doing without a television for several years, and the fact I never got past my second year of High School education. I never felt particularly annoyed that people thought I was posh in and of itself – but I did rankle a bit that people made assumptions about who I was in this way.
This is why I don’t get into personal discussions on class often on the blog – my financial status and background isn’t part of my identity, and I thus, it isn’t something I like to discuss in a personal manner. I know some people do prize their class as part of their identity, and that’s entirely up to the individual: but to me, it always felt like just another trap – that working class pride was another tool to keep people placated and embedded in the hierarchy of rich consumers owning the middle managers owning the poor producers. I don’t feel it challenges the social structure so much as perpetuates it, albeit one that advocates a fairer system that brings the producers’ gains to a more equitable level.
But that’s just me. In any case, changing class politics in Scotland meaningfully is something that I feel is something only independence can deliver. As long as we are part of the United Kingdom, we can only shape – and be shaped by – British politics. The most we can do is mitigate it, or struggle to make our voice heard in the cacophony of opposition.
That’s why I partly regret RIC’s reputation for spirited hard work. Because it’s so easy to get the wrong message. We never intended to be tireless workers for Alex Salmond’s economic programme. We certainly didn’t want to be Animal Farm’s Boxer, the cart horse who is working at all hours while the pigs feast. We intended to put forward the principle that Scotland’s new democracy would allow us to vote for any economic programme we wanted, including ideas that fundamentally contradict the Scottish Government’s Laffer Curve economics.
I’m reasonable sure anyone who actually encountered RIC during the campaign would be under no such illusions. Those opposed to independence, on the other hand, had a vested interest in demonising and personalising the independence movement as the siren call of a demagogue, a Pied Piper of Linlithgow who couldn’t be trusted. Independence supporters were fully aware that there was more to independence than the SNP’s vision – the SNP themselves were fully aware of that too. The only people who would even consider RIC to be the Boxers to the SNP’s “pigs” – or independence as “Alex Salmond’s _____” – are the same people who called Lawyers for Yes, Labour for Independence, Women for Independence, and Business for Scotland “SNP fronts” – i.e. our political opponents.
I’m not naive. I know we need mainstream parties like the SNP and the Greens to win. But let’s not take our own supporters for granted. According to John Curtice, 38 per cent of Yes supporters in 2014 voted to leave the European Union. In other words, our main supporters are just as “Eurosceptic” as the rest of Scotland, even though about 100 per cent of our elected politicians are near uncritically pro-EU. Simply running a pro-business, pro-EU independence campaign risks alienating our new constituency of voters. That’s why we need the critical, independent voices in the Yes campaign who made our referendum experience so different from the Unionist experience.
I’d like to think Ms Boyd and I are singing from the same hymn sheet, at least in principle. Absolutely, present alternative ideas of independence: it shows that there is more to it than party policy. And absolutely, acknowledge that a significant minority of Yes voters do not share most of the pro-independence political parties’ or elected representatives’ EU affiliations. A campaign that can have the likes of RIC, the SNP, Business for Scotland, and Wealthy Nation sharing a panel extolling the possibilities of independence is a great one.
Yet just as there’s a danger of compromise or, in Ms Boy’s words, “domestication” diluting those distinct voices, so to is there a danger of criticism going beyond disagreement. Having different ideas of individual policies, campaign strategies, and voter engagement, is welcome and constructive; references to “posh nationalists” who won’t touch the “hard work” RIC does, comparing your allies to the pigs of Animal Farm, and highlighting the capitalist aspects of the SNP without acknowledging of its many left-wing credentials, is something I think people are entitled to take issue with.
Nonetheless, I look forward to continuing the campaign for independence with all the voices I became close friends with in the five years which seem almost a lifetime ago. Elections are elections: we’re bound to disagree, spar, even fight. I will be fighting to see as many SNP councillors elected next year as possible, while hoping that our Green, Socialist, and Independent friends also do well. But the referendum is about who Scotland should belong to – the people of Britain, or the people of Scotland? On that, I’m sure all independence supporters can agree.
Let’s raise the flag and head out on the good ship Independence, wherever our destination may be. Port out, starboard home.