Alister Black, a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and editor of Frontline thinks Scottish politics are getting very interesting.
Over the past few decades we have been told that politics is a turn off that for most people. Voting turnout has gone down, cynicism regarding politicians has reached new heights. Corruption scandals and MP’s expenses certainly played their part. But the main reason for this disillusionment is that for the main part it really has not mattered who you vote for.
The ‘centre’ has been redefined as free market and neoliberal. The politicians may be slightly to the right or the left of that but the end result has been much the same, privatisation, inequality and war. There have been moments of resistance and even a few victories but challenging the status quo in a meaningful way has not been easy.
The most surprising outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence has been the rebirth of an engaged, critical democratic spirit throughout Scotland. In the course of the campaign tens of thousands came in to political activity, some veterans of past struggles and movements but most probably becoming active for the first time. Added to that were those who might not have been delivering leaflets or attending meetings but were talking about the issues of the campaign to their family, neighbours and workmates.
As the campaign reached its height, discussion was unavoidable. Strangers would suddenly start asking your opinion about fiscal policy on the bus, my neighbour, a No voter made a handmade poster about NHS reform and placed it in their window.
For those campaigning for Yes the debate took on a radical turn. In the face of the establishment onslaught, many began to ask questions about the nature of the state, the media and the corporations. Why were the banks and big business telling us how to vote? Why was the media broadcasting their message? Why was the civil service leaking information to the media?
Against that we saw thousands imagining a better society. People were talking about how to tackle poverty, how an independent Scotland could use resources in a fairer way. They were talking about foreign policy and defence, they were taking a critical look at institutions such as the monarchy and considering a new constitution, they were imagining a fairer, greener Scotland.
This movement had an official face, in the shape of the ‘Yes’ campaign. But this campaign was not very centrally led, often to the dismay of the SNP who at points stepped in to try to direct the campaign. Rather it became led primarily from the grassroots. Local Yes campaigns sprang up in every constituency, holding meetings, canvassing and leafleting. This activity went on every day, sometimes several times a day and some activists threw themselves into it in a way they had never done before. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands put their lives on hold in order to engage in politics, not for a career, not to promote a candidate but for a better society.
But there were many other parts of the campaign and it soon became apparent that this diversity was a great source of strength. The main pro-indy parties were the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) by far the biggest organised party alongside the smaller Greens and Scottish Socialists (SSP).
Another important group was the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) which was a broad based campaign formed a couple of years earlier. RIC had hosted a couple of very successful conferences with turnouts of up to 1000. It had organised branches throughout Scotland which had discussed and debated politics but had also turned to community organising.
RIC organised mass canvasses of working class areas and also played a key role in signing people up for the voting register. RIC had stalls outside of benefits offices and in local communities which signed up thousands. Housing schemes became heartlands of Yes support as posters went up in windows and sometimes flags and home-made banners were displayed.
Other key groups included Women for Independence which included the involvement of former SSP MSP’s Carolyn Leckie, Frances Curran and Rosie Kane. They ran an inspiring campaign and grew more influential as each day passed. National Collective was a group of artists who organised tirelessly and brilliantly putting on tours and events on the streets across Scotland.
Social media played an important role in countering the effect of the unionist press. One incident sticks in the mind. At a press conference Alex Salmond was challenged by BBC journalist and ex-Tory Nick Robinson about the threats by Royal Bank of Scotland to relocate in the event of an independence vote. Thousands watched the full ten minute exchange on YouTube, spread through twitter and Facebook. Salmond comprehensively demolished Robinson’s case. Yet when the BBC covered it they skipped Salmond’s response and instead featured Robinson who claimed Salmond had failed to answer the question. The bias of the BBC was stunning and they were clearly another arm of the establishment. Campaigners spontaneously demonstrated at the BBC.
Apathy and alienation shaken off
The campaign failed and the union was preserved. But in the course thousands have been radicalised and have shaken off apathy and alienation. They have felt their power for the first time. Since the referendum membership of political parties has soared – the SNP by 70% and the SSP probably more than trebling in size. RIC has seen 7000 sign up for the next conference in November and has moved to the biggest available venue in Glasgow, Women for Independence saw 1000 women travel to Perth for their conference. New initiatives such as the Scottish Left Project aim to build a unified response.
Scottish politics promises to be very interesting over the next few years.