David Jamieson looks back to the ways in which the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) anticipated and shaped the politics of recent years.
On the evening of 23 November 2012 Alex Salmond was being interviewed by the news presenter Jon Snow in the Barony Hall in Glasgow.
The audience were mostly old guard SNP supporters. The average age might have been 65 and there were blazers and silk scarves aplenty. The event was in the ‘A Night With’ format with softball questions tossed around to the easy amusement of the faithful. One could imagine that, for most, the night had started with drinks in the fashionable wine bars of Merchant City.
I was there with the mission of alerting the audience to the next days’ Radical Independence conference, and to announce that two of Salmond’s MSPs who had just resigned the whip over the party’s new policy on joining NATO would be addressing it. As I attacked Salmond for changing tack on the military alliance, I felt the air being sucked out of the room. People hadn’t come for this. I felt like I was melting under Salmond’s dark stare, and the combined irritation of the hundreds of Friday night fun-seekers.
The next day was the most successful the Scottish socialist left had seen in the long and painful years since the split in the Scottish Socialist Party. From the beginning, organisers were motivated by a desire to overcome divisions and ill-feeling on the left, and for the chance for radicals to shape the national debate again.
RIC had many enemies early on. SNP politicians spoke against its formation at its early organising meetings in 2012. Labour activists howled betrayal. Many on the harder and pro-independence left also wanted the entire socialist effort to be collapsed into an undifferentiated nationalist front, even after the official launch of Yes Scotland was a stilted and corporate affair.
But hundreds turned out to hear attacks on the British state, and critiques of the timid strategy adopted by the official Yes campaign. Independence, according to the SNP, was to be presented as continuity – merely an extension of the Scotland act to all areas of political life. But at the first RIC conference speakers argued for a radical rupture with neoliberal economics, interventionist foreign policy, and an increasingly feeble British state. Independence wasn’t just going to be about transferring a few powers north of the border – it had to be about fundamental social and political transformation. This willingness to criticise the SNP case cut against the grain. We were, after all, about to enter a gruelling campaign, with the might of the British and Scottish Unionist establishments against us.
The argument that resonated the most was that Scottish independence was a class issue. In the long tail of Blairism, this subject was exiled from ‘left’ politics. But in the years after 2012 it came back with a vengeance. The first RIC conference called for mass canvasses to be held in working class communities up and down the country, with the aim of building local groups in every deprived area. The RIC mass canvasses promulgated the slogan ‘Britain is for the rich – Scotland can be ours’ leading nationalists to dissociate themselves from the movement, and the Scottish Conservative party to brand it a “hate” campaign.
Academic chin-strokers, pondering the strange and assertive new language, chided its nationalism without noticing that this was an unchanging variable. What really troubled them was the designation of a social enemy. This was a time before people readily used the term ‘populist’.
RIC anticipated the course of politics in many ways. The campaign was unusual in those days for its opposition to austerity. This alone made it an object of ridicule for the political centre, who retired it to the margins before campaigning had even begun. It is unlikely that the Yes movement would have generated an anti-austerity mood without pressure from below. Today even the Financial Times admits that austerity was the wrong approach to the crisis and recession, and Britain is a particular focus for criticism by economists.
In 2012 many really still believed in the permanence of the political centre. Labour was still seen by most as Scotland’s natural party, with the SNP as upstarts and chancers. This was before Corbyn, Trump and Brexit.
But if RIC reached several years into the future of western politics, the mutations of wider society have since out-paced us. In 2012 the EU had yet to sustain a single serious blow as a project. Since then it has endured the worst of the Eurozone crisis, only to grossly mishandle the even larger threats posed by the pandemic. Many treated EU membership as a natural condition for a country like Scotland – being outside of it was unimaginable. Yet today Scotland is out of the EU, generating a vast galaxy of problems and contradictions for the independence movement that few feel they can honestly broach in public.
The pandemic and its concomitant economic and social crises has shredded the official prospectus of the independence movement. The SNP Growth Commission with its advocacy of austerity (long after it became popularly reviled) and opposition to a Scottish central bank or independent currency is a bad joke in an era of massive money printing, furlough schemes and state assistance. But it must be admitted that the left is yet to produce a fleshed-out alternative prospectus. Many across the spectrum cling to the contradictions of the official case with no less tenacity than an increasingly besieged Nicola Sturgeon.
By the time it was eventually wound-down more than eight years later, RIC was one of the oldest legacy organisations from the independence referendum era. It’s persistence owed in part to the good will associated with the campaign, and in part to the malaise that the socialist left re-entered after the campaign. Fundamental weaknesses had not, after all, been overcome, and the SNP asserted its ascendancy in a rapidly changing Scottish politics.
It is a well-chronicled truth that activists leading arguments in one political era tend to accumulate inertia until they become conservative in the next. The reasons are obvious: the pressure of a fight like 2012-14 means that footsoldiers learn their arguments by heart. Old ideas, thus ingrained, die very hard. Changes in the political landscape threaten ferociously defended attitudes and orientations. It is not uncommon for the most dedicated fighters for social progress to become conservative and insensitive to wider social moods in a very short period.
We might add to this tendency of inertia another, more modern phenomenon. A certain type of leftism has become an invaluable part of ruling ideology. It has become easy to announce a radical sounding politics that doesn’t challenge real injustices. Some on the left have become fluent in repeating elite talking points about poverty, inequality, ‘social inclusion’, and the environment only at a higher pitch. In this way, a comfortable but ultimately deferential political identity can be secured.
This conservative pull could very easily paralyse the pro-independence left. Were we to approach a future independence referendum (which, for various reasons, is unlikely to emerge for some time) with the arguments we deployed in 2014, our influence would be minimal at best. Worse, it would amount to painting red lipstick on the pig of the official independence platform.
The anachronisms of RIC were not its only problems. Mistakes had been made in real time. The campaign did not foreground the currency issue or the nature of the EU even in 2014. Internal structures, labouring under orthodoxies about ‘leaderless movements’ hampered its efficiency, dynamism and internal democracy. After the official campaign was over, RIC slowly became dominated by the activist milieu of the hard left, not a space that was welcoming for the hundreds and thousands it had previously organized. In short, it became precisely the type of organization it was set up to avoid. It is sad when a great campaign comes to an end, but the only thing worse would be to watch it limping on as a shadow of its former self.
RIC deserves recognition, and it is right that plans are being made to archive the movement. It smashed assumptions about the course and nature of Scottish politics, and challenged the Scottish left to move outside of its comfort zone. For these very real successes and many more, it should be recorded and studied. RIC is part of the history not just of Scottish socialists, but of this country and our times.