Radical Independence

Peter Geoghegan

‘This is the day the Scottish left came out of its ghetto,’ Robin McAlpine, the director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said towards the end of last month’s Radical Independence Conference (RIC) in Glasgow. Around 800 people had paid £10 a head (£4 unwaged) to listen to speeches from socialist and green politicians, trade unionists and disability activists in the rather incongruous setting of the Radisson Blu hotel near Central Station.

In the morning, Dennis Canavan, the former Labour MP for Falkirk West, said that ‘independence is a great opportunity for radical politics.’ Canavan, who was rejected as a candidate for the inaugural Holyrood elections by New Labour and subsequently won a seat as an independent, characterised himself as ‘not a nationalist’ but ‘an internationalist’. It was a distinction that recurred throughout the day: at one workshop I attended, a young Socialist Workers Party cadre called for an ‘internationalist Scotland’ and ‘workers’ unity’.

In the fissiparous world of Scotland’s radical left, independence is an issue most can agree on. Many are retracing a journey made by Jimmy Reid himself; the leader of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In, who died in 2010, went from the Communist Party to the SNP via two decades in the Labour Party. (A notable absence from the RIC was that of another former Labour dissenter, Tommy Sheridan.)

For decades, Scots voters have been at odds with their English counterparts, consistently returning a majority of Labour MPs and ever fewer Conservatives: there is now only one, David Mundell, the MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (as one slogan that came out of the RIC put it, ‘David Cameron is a one nation Tory; we’re a one Tory nation’). Having shrugged off the ‘Tartan Tory’ moniker, the SNP has carved out an ostensibly social democratic agenda at Holyrood that, it claims, would be strengthened under independence. At the same time, as one Glasgow activist put it, revolutionaries have come to ‘think we have a chance of overthrowing Edinburgh more easily than London’. (Though it’s also possible that an independent Scotland would turn out to be a low-tax free-market economy.)

The RIC came just over a month after an unusually restive SNP annual conference, which saw the party, by a slim majority, overturn its historic opposition to Nato membership. Two MSPs resigned from the party in the wake of that decision. A number of SNP members and elected representatives were at the RIC. Alex Salmond, once suspended from the SNP for belonging to the leftwing 79 Group, issued a rather circumspect press release, welcoming ‘voices to the left of the SNP’s social democratic position’ as well as ‘support for independence from the entrepreneurial and more free-market perspective’.

The SNP has been accused of being over-cautious, of presenting independence not as a radical change but as a form of continuity: Scotland will keep the queen, the pound and the welfare state. ‘How can you achieve independence without articulating a radical vision?’ Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Scottish Greens, asked at the RIC. He went on to outline policies on banking reform, decentralisation and setting up a state-led energy company to meet Scotland’s ambitious green energy targets The loudest cheers of the day were reserved for anti-nuclear and anti-Nato declarations.

A broad Left-Green pro-independence platform appears to be coalescing. None of the parties represented at the RIC have a significant electoral voice (the largest of them, the Greens, has just two MSPs), but their vision of an independent Scotland based on social justice and green economics could deliver crucial votes in the referendum. How the movement will fit into the SNP-dominated architecture of the Yes Scotland campaign remains unclear: despite repeated protestations to the contrary, the SNP appears reluctant to accommodate such independently-minded groups. This will have to change. It is hard to see how the success of the 1997 devolution campaign could be repeated in 2014 without a similarly loose, big-tent approach.

To win, McAlpine said, the Yes campaign must convince three (overlapping) groups: women, public sector workers and Labour voters. Labour remains firmly opposed to independence, but the recently formed Labour for Independence appears to be attracting support. Last week, the Labour-dominated Scottish Trade Unions Congress refused to back Better Together, the official No campaign.


  • 6 December 2012 at 1:09pm
    Stephen says:
    Trade Unions have (wisely) kept their distance from the Better Together campaign. They have also failed to endorse either the SNPs Corporation Tax cutting, pro Murdoch Independence and the fantasy nationalism of the Radical Independence Convention.

    Rather TU's have concentrated on challenging all sides to substantiate their claims and deal in specifics rather than generalities.(A particular challenge for the advocates of radical independence)

    Senior Scottish TU figures also dominate the Red Paper Collective ( which examines the referendum issue from the perspective of class, rather than Unionism v Nationalism. It's fair to say that having done this (and examined some economic and political realities and likelihoods) their scepticism about the radical potential of Independence is fairly pronounced.

    having attanded their only public meeting so far my impression of Labour for Scotland was that it is more of a Potemkin Village than a campaign.

  • 11 December 2012 at 4:57pm
    AlexS says:
    Would be intriguing to learn whether Peter Geoghegan thinks the SNP's "ostensibly social democratic agenda" is more than just ostensible.

    Is leftwing unionist George Galloway correct in his bravely articulated view that the SNP government has in fact delivered popular social democratic policies?

    It depends what you think "social democratic" means or can mean in the Europe of 2012. If our yardstick is contemporary West European politics, it would seem strange to deny that the SNP has done some good and broadly "social democratic" stuff (free uni education, saving hospitals earmarked for closure by the last Labour-Lib Dem government in Scotland, very welcome reform of prisons, reaching out to minorities by emphasizing a civic rather than ethnic nationalism, and more besides).

    But I'd prefer more radicalism from the SNP. If Scotland does attain independence then one of the more interesting questions will be: Whither Labour in Scotland? Could it regain its thirst for social justice after the ravages of New Labourism?

    A coalition between a hopefully larger Green Party plus either a revitalized Labour in Scotland or the SNP might at least begin to implement some radical proposals.

    Whatever the role of neo-Thatcherite economics in an independent Scotland, other West European countries have shown that this need not mean the absence of major social gains as long as "pro-business" policies (we can critique them later) are counterbalanced by strong welfarist measures. The Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia are all grappling with how to maintain and advance welfare states amid challenging global conditions.

    Apparently there's virtually no pensioner poverty in the Netherlands, for example, and if that's true then it's something an independent Scotland seems more likely to emulate than a Scotland that remains shackled to the horrible Osbornist hegemony likely to dominate the UK for some time to come (and which will be replaced at best by UK Labour's watered-down variant).

  • 14 December 2012 at 10:27am
    Stephen says:
    The SNP is more populist than social democratic. The big (and welcome)headline stuff is being paid for in other, often socially regressive ways.

    University tuition is free - Further education is being cut to the bone.

    The NHS, run by the Scottish Government has been, more or less protected. Prescriptions are free but the nursing workforce is down (the numerical fall compounded by a new more labour intensive shift system).

    Meanwhile council services become ever more threadbare. Local Government, prevented from raising more money by a centrally imposed Council Tax freeze either cuts services - or introduces direct charges on users - impacting most on the poorest.

    SNP finance minister John Swinney welcomes Osbornes Autumn Statement Corporation Tax cut, just as he welcomed the previous Corporation Tax cut in the budget.

    At the national economic forum this week the Local Government Minister was, reportedly, enthusiastic about the opportunities for the private sector to design and run public services.

    Alex Salmond visits California and promises US corporations that they will pay a lower rate of Corporation Tax in an independent Scotland than they will in in the remains of the UK. The SNP social security spokesperson when asked if child benefit will be universal in an independent Scotland fall back on the the old evasion of "that will be a matter for the people of Scotland".

    All in all a rather curious form of social democracy.

    As Rupert Murdoch (the plutocrat Alex Salmond was prepared to breach the ministerial code for) put it on Twitter "Let Scotland go and compete everyone will win". Some people(plutocrats named Rupert for example) certainly, but perhaps not everyone.