The Pro-Independence Scots Who Want to Turn Their Country into a Socialist Utopia
Sep 20 2013
A year from today, a computer in a office cubicle somewhere will have just finished tallying the votes for and against Scottish independence. One possibility is that England's northern neighbor will remain a part of the UK, keeping the Queen, the pound, and its key to the NATO clubhouse. Another is that it will wave goodbye to its companion and ruler of 300 years and leap off into independence—possibly with the same Queen, the same pound, and the same set of keys to the NATO clubhouse.
Hardly anything noticeable—on a day-to-day basis, at least—is set to change even if Scots vote for independence. (The Union Jack might lose its blue; everyone north of the border might end up with slightly different passports.) But there are signs that the independence movement is getting a little more serious and a little less like the vanity project of Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond, who is on a quest to be remembered as his generation's lavishly-browed William Wallace, only presumably wihtout the beheading part.
In August, the SNP's councilors—low-level elected politicians—endorsed an economic manifesto called Common Weal. It's an old Scots term meaning "shared wealth," and it aim is to "abolish poverty" in Scotland through higher pay, higher taxes, and a beefed-up welfare state based on the policies of Scandanavian countries.
Salmond, the man who actually has the power to decide whether the manifesto becomes the party’s policy, made no comment on the matter. But he did recently praise "our neighbors and friends in Scandinavia, who have managed to build more prosperous and more equal societies," indicating that he's at least not hostile to the Common Weal.
Were the SNP to adopt the manifesto post-independence, that would obviously have a marked effect on daily life in Scotland. But even that might not be enough to quiet the qualms of a growing number of pro-independence campaigners and activists who are disillusioned with "independence-lite." They want an independent Scotland to be tangibly different to the one they currently inhabit, and they don't feel that the SNP's current post-independence policy proposals will provide the upheaval they want.
Enter the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), a loose coalition of Scottish lefties, eco-warriors, socialists, militant trade unionists, republicans, veterans of the anti-nuclear movement and those dudes from the Proclaimers. The RIC is essentially a coalition of Scots who are furious that thanks to the conservative-leaning voters of rural England, they're destined to live approximately half of their lives under a Tory government.
"We have to posit something that is radically different to what we have with Westminster," Jonathon Shafi, the co-founder and organizational workhorse of the RIC, told me. "This isn't just about waving Scottish flags, it’s about a modern democracy that doesn't have a queen or king as head of state. We demand a social alternative to austerity—a break with neoliberalism."
Last year, Shafi's party's campaign began in earnest with an 800-strong conference in Glasgow, a city recently awarded the unenviable title of being the unemployment capital of the UK. Locating their first major gathering there was no accident on the RIC's part—it's people like Glasgow's unemployed who the RIC believe should benefit the most from independence.
Kat Boyd, a trade unionist, is aiming to get the radical independence message into disadvantaged communities and workplaces. Well known for her firebrand politics, Boyd says she was wrongly accused of organizing the ambush of Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti–European Union UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Edinburgh last spring. But while she rejects the "rent-a-mob Kat" tag she's been given since, she says she supported the action because it showed the independence movement had "nothing to do with" nationalism as the libertarian-leaning UKIP knows it.
"Scottish nationalism is different," she told me. "It's actually about internationalism." The next RIC conference, scheduled for November 23, aims to convince Scotland's immigrant population that belonging to a renewed civic Scottish identity would be far better than living under the shadow of a Tory government—which has been accused of demonizing the immigrant community with aggressive tweets and billboard campaigns.
The RIC are essentially relying on the belief that Scotland is more left-wing than England, and they may be right in their assumption. In 2010, the Scots voted in just one Tory member of Parliament; since then, local councils controlled by the SNP have been flexing their muscles, using what powers they has to slow the tide of austerity and privatization programs implemented by a coalition they didn't vote for.
But though the population is anti-Tory, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be receptive to the RIC's fiery leftist message. Gerry Hassan, co-editor of the book Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, told me, "Yes, Scotland is more left-wing than England. But that doesn't make Scotland a culture where a socialist agenda can win a large part of the public."
Gerry sees the RIC as in danger of advancing an "unreflective socialist nostalgia," but nevertheless applauds them for challenging Scotland's usual routine of tribal politics and deference to the establishment. He has identified what he calls "Third Scotland," which exists outside the standoff between old Labour and the "bright, shiny SNP establishment." He predicts this new force will grow and engage the young and previously apolitical as the independence referendum approaches and that it will represent a "generational and gender shift."
On September 2, a Panelbase poll found that Scots favored independence by a percentage point, while another survey found that the campaign to stay with the UK was ahead by 30 points. But the referendem isn't for another year, and a lot can happen in 365 days as the respective campaigns whirr into action.
Whatever the results of the referendum, the efforts of the RIC and the SNP to promote Scottish nationalism will likely get a chunk of Scotland's population more engaged with politics than they have ever been before. As Hassan alluded, rallying against a common enemy is always an effective way of bringing people together and Salmond, the dudes from the Proclaimers, and the others involved in the broad, sometimes divided movement toward independence are united against one big common enemy: not the English people, but the British state.
Follow Niki on Twitter @NikiSethSmith
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