The ‘Yes’ campaign comprises many different groups beyond the Scottish National Party (SNP). Neil Davidson is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow and a campaigner for the Radical Independence Campaign (@Radical_Indy). In this piece he chats with Joel Suss, editor of the British Politics and Policy blog, about the radical case for Scottish independence, the promises made by Westminster for more devolution, and the incredible levels of political engagement seen in Scotland.
What is the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC)? Where did it come from?
The Radical Independence Campaign began from a conference which was held in Glasgow in November 2012. The idea was to set-up a forum for people who wanted independence but a slightly more radical version than the SNP’s offer. 800 people came to that – a very large conference by Scottish standards – from a range of parties. There was also a group of people who had never been to anything like this before. A year after we held a second conference, which had over 1,000 people attend, and it became a fully-fledged campaign for radical independence. Rather than the slightly more vague social democratic message of the SNP, that meant talking about social conditions, cuts to disability benefit, the bedroom tax, Trident and so on.
We’ve been going into working class housing estates, going around knocking on doors, and doing something quite unusual in British politics – a voter registration drive, which is modelled in some ways on the experiences of the civil rights movements in American cities. This means that loads of people who have never thought about voting for a political party have signed up to vote in this referendum. This has had a galvanising effect on the campaign, pushing the ‘Yes’ camp into a more Left-wing position.
What’s the radical case for Scottish independence?
I have my own version of this, but probably things that everyone would agree with would be the removal of Trident nuclear weapons (also an SNP policy) and the withdrawal from NATO. We think it’s terrible being part of a nuclear alliance, and simply give up the weapons is not enough. There’s a strong anti-war element in RIC.
More centrally to what’s going on in Scotland itself, there’s a strong feeling in RIC that it’s possible reverse 35 years of neoliberalism – to which the economic arm of the SNP is still committed, if not as ferociously as the Tory and Labour party. Ours is a much more comprehensive and deep reversal. We’re not just saying that we should go back to the golden days of the 1960s and the welfare state, but we want to radically democratise current society – to open it up. The privatisations, the limit on trade union rights, the various taxes on people on benefits and with disabilities, and so on, will all have to be rolled back first of all.
In general, our campaign straddles different versions of the Left; left-wing reformists, revolutionaries, people who are more concerned with the environment, feminists, and so on. Clearly there are differing opinions on things, but the basic programme is to roll back neoliberalism as far as we can within one country and to get higher levels of democracy into Scotland.
If there is a ‘Yes’ vote like you want, do you think it possible that RIC’s vision will be implemented in Scotland? Alex Salmond has declared he would cut corporation tax and is non-committal on raising the top rate of income tax to pay for higher social spending, leading some commentators to argue that an independent Scotland would exhibit a ‘tartanised’ neoliberalism.
I think there’s two elements to this. One is that, in some respects Scotland already has retained some of the elements that suit democracy that England hasn’t; for example, the NHS is far less privatised, tuition is free for Scottish students, prescriptions are free, care for the elderly is free, and so on. These are not earth-shattering but certainly better than in other parts of the UK. So there’s an element of that just being preserved. And I think the SNP, for reasons of political survival, would have to commit to maintaining those kinds of things initially.
But the important thing is that a ‘Yes’ vote opens up a field of opportunity for the Left. We’ve involved people in a political conversation that simply isn’t happening elsewhere in the UK, which means it’s possible to work with these people to push things in a leftward direction. It could be quite a lie for me to say it’s all in the bag and everything will be fine in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote – I don’t believe that. I think we’re in for a long struggle no matter what happens. If it’s ‘Yes’, we will try and move things in a more democratic and more equal direction. If we do things correctly and rightly we should be able to get results. I don’t think it’s a guarantee at all, and I don’t think anybody’s saying that – the general tenor of the campaign is not: ‘vote for independence and everything’s going to be marvellous’. Rather, it’s: ‘vote for independence to open up the possibility of us being able to change our world for the better’.
What is RIC’s stance on the currency issue, Scotland’s relationship with the EU, and on keeping the Queen?
These are the areas of the biggest disagreement with the SNP, and why we are very keen to emphasise that we are not a nationalist campaign. A lot of the people that are voting ‘Yes’ are not nationalists, in the sense that they’re filled with a sort of Scottishness. Instead, they are voting for political reasons that they see independence bringing. There are probably some differences, but almost everyone would like to be Scotland to be a Republic and remove the monarchy – that’s pretty much a majority position.
There are some issues with the EU. Some of the people on the harder left, to which I belong, have huge problems with the EU, seeing it essentially as a machine for neoliberalism. The fact that UKIP are opposed to it for very different reasons underlines the insanity of a lot of their politics. Most British big businessman want to stay in the EU which indicates the reason why we’re opposed to it. There’s a tactical question here. If there was a referendum on the EU called by UKIP and the right-wing of the Tory party, would we immediately say we’re for withdrawal if the general drift of the campaign was a racist, xenophobic one? There are tactical questions about that, but certainly there’s a great deal of suspicion about the EU.
The general feeling in RIC is we should have our own currency and that there’s no point in being enthralled by the Bank of England, which you would be if you retained a currency union as Salmond wants. I understand the calculations Salmond is making here, he’s trying to make the least threatening proposal possible, but it’s just illogical and inviolable. What’s the point of independence if you’re interest rates and everything else concerned with financial policy is set by the Bank of England? We’d be tied into a neoliberal structure. How would that be independent? Joining the Euro means being dominated by the German-French axis which has brought such pain to Greece and Spain. Our own currency and own central bank has to be the starting point, and I think that’s certainly, of the full options, what most people in RIC would go for.
What are your thoughts on the last-ditch promises by the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems for increased devolution in the event of a ‘No’ vote. Would further devolution satisfy RIC and allow the opportunity you’ve talked about to be seized?
No, and it’s not meant to. Even with the maximum of the things they offer, the Scottish government still wouldn’t control anything. It wouldn’t control income tax, it wouldn’t control VAT. People are very sceptical about this because the opportunity to put ‘Devo Max’ on the ballot paper was there two years ago but was rejected by David Cameron. Alex Salmond would’ve preferred it to be on the ballot paper but didn’t get the chance. With thousands of people having already voted by post, they are now saying, ‘by the way, here is another option’. There’s not even any agreement among the three parties about further devolution, and there’s no guarantee that a Tory government will introduce a Labour set of proposals. They’re saying, ‘vote for this and we’ll do that’, but they’ve lied in the past. Why we should believe them this time is a real interesting question.
Couldn’t the members that make up RIC just as well pursue their political objectives within the the Union in UK-wide General Election?
If the views of the people are actually represented by the main parties, and people were able to choose between them in a generalised manner with some validity, but the fact is they’re all clustering around a kind of neoliberal consensus, on which there is some variation on what you can call the social aspects of neoliberalism. What people are asking for is something different than this. While the level of voting has been falling in general elections, in this event we expect over 80 per cent participation. When I talk to people they usually say something about how they don’t vote because all the parties are the same or they’re all liars or whatever, but that they’re voting for this.
The Left needs to get their act together and actually present people with a party to vote that actually does embody the issues that we want to talk about. The assumptions they make need to be broken, and people presented with something – that’s an urgent task. It can’t happen now with the current range of political parties that are standing because none of them are offering anything significantly different. It’s only been in the course of this campaign that it’s been possible to talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons, for example. Nobody contemplates that in Westminster.
Can you talk about the surge in political engagement and activity in Scotland that you’ve been seeing during the campaign, and how this might carry over into the future?
When visiting working class areas people say, ‘I haven’t seen a politician in a good ten years coming around this bit, or even someone from a party coming to speak with us’. These people are quite glad to see you and discuss what their future might involve. It’s astonishing in Scotland how people are actually talking about politics, in meetings, townhalls and so on, indicating that there’s a real engagement here. It’s not just the chattering middle classes that are speaking to each other – something’s actually penetrated quite deeply into the where the majority of the population actually live.
Even if it’s ‘No’, the fact that people have started to talk about politics is obviously a good thing. The task for the Left is to go back to people and say, ‘we haven’t forgotten about you, we haven’t just gone around to get the vote out of you, we actually want to talk to you in an ongoing way about how we change politics’. These conversations, about how to go forward after the vote, are already beginning to happen.
Some people are worried that if Scotland separates the Labour party will lose a big chunk of its support and the rest of the UK will be consigned to a perpetual Tory majority. Does that possibility concern you?
There are two things here. There’s the question of the Labour party, and then there’s the questions of the Left and the working class movement. The Labour party only has itself to blame for what has befallen. If they don’t win at the next general election it’s because of their own capitulation to neoliberalism and their own failure to offer anything to working class people, not because Scots have somehow betrayed them. This is really just a problem of the Left getting its act together, rather than Scotland leaving England in the lurch.
In terms of the Labour movement, a lot of this is just scaremongering. People will be able to belong to the same trade unions – people in Canada belong to the same trade union as in America, people in Ireland with those in Britain. The real question is not about structures of the state or the constitution of the union, but whether or not trade union leaders can take action to fight for their members. That’s the issue, not whether the border exists.
There’s also a way in which this referendum may have a galvanising effect on the English Left. If the Scots can have these incredible high-level political discussions amongst working-class and ordinary people, why can’t the rest of the UK be as inspired, have that kind of in-depth penetration into working class-communities? I think a ‘Yes’ vote might do that, it might focus minds considerably.
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Neil Davidson is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. He is author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) and Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003), and co-editor of Neoliberal Scotland (2010). He can be reached at: Neil.Davidson@glasgow.ac.uk